New York's Audioarts and the Return of FM Acoustics

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New York's Audioarts and the Return of FM Acoustics

While I was in New York City recently for the unveiling of B&W’s 800-Series Diamond 3 speakers, I stopped by the Audioarts showroom on 5th Avenue. I had several reasons for doing so. For one thing, the dealership, located in the Flatiron district and blessed with serene views of Madison Square Park, is simply a wonderful place to listen to music. For another, Audioarts carries my BFF CH Precision gear, as well as the Zellaton speaker line. At a recent CES, the combination of CH electronics and the Zellaton Stage speakers earned my Best Sound of Show endorsement.

But my main reason for visiting Audioarts was that Gideon Schwartz, the ever-restless importer/proprietor, had invited me to hear something new. As the story goes, this year’s Munich High End show provided Gideon an opportunity to reacquaint himself with a brand that had been an old friend: FM Acoustics (see Sidebar: “The Inspiration for Audioarts”). He found himself spending hours on end listening to two systems built entirely from components by that ultra-premium Swiss firm. So impressed was Gideon with the sound he heard—and with the man behind the company, Manuel Huber—that the next thing you know, Audioarts had become the brand’s exclusive U.S. importer and showroom.

Gideon was excited to share his discovery, and I was more than game. FM Acoustics is highly respected elsewhere in the world, but here in the States the brand has proved elusive. For that reason, I knew virtually nothing about FM Acoustics except that its name has nothing to do with radio (the “FM” stands for “For Music”). As I sat in the Audioarts main listening room, I realized that I had no idea what to expect sonically. Still, whatever I might have predicted is not what I got, which was nothing less than one of the most impressive hi-fi demonstrations I’ve experienced in my life. Considering how many audio shows I’ve attended, and the hundreds of fine systems I’ve had the privilege to audition, that’s saying a lot.

The Zellaton Stage ($79,750) was the same speaker I’d heard at CES, but now it was being driven by an FM Acoustics 255 Mk 2 linestage ($44,750) and a 411 Mk2 stereo power amplifier ($54,975). The digital source was my current reference, the superb CH Precision C1 ($32,975), which was streaming music from a server via a wired Ethernet connection. Analog came courtesy of a Sperling L3 ’table mounted with a 12" ’arm ($30,000 for both), a Fuuga MC cartridge ($8950), and an FM Acoustics 122 Mk 2 phonostage ($13,450). The wiring was all FM acoustics (not cheap, no doubt).

What struck me immediately and most powerfully was the sheer beauty of the sound—tonally the same burnished gold that graces the FM Acoustics front panels. The presentation was so gorgeous that it almost crossed the line into euphonic territory. But it stayed on the right side of that boundary. This was the beauty of true instruments heard in person.

But beauty alone has never done it for me. I love CH Precision, Soulution, and other high-speed components because their resolving power and dynamic capacity allow me to hear more of the music. That, in turn, enables me to delve more deeply—both intellectually and emotionally—into the music. Yet I’ve come to accept that while the best of these swift components are far from tonally pallid, they also tend not to be particularly lush. Meanwhile, components that are lush frequently overdo it. And along with that lushness, too often, comes slush. 

So imagine my surprise and wonder when I found myself confronted with a system delivering beauty and speed in equal, copious quantities. (Not to mention perfect imaging and an all-encompassing soundstage.) The speed was such that on track after track I heard more deeply into the music—even on material with which I am intimately familiar—than I ever have before. And the beauty eradicated any notion of an antiseptic quality. Instead, the music sounded human.

The Inspiration for Audioarts

“I created Audioarts to introduce a level of fidelity that I felt no longer existed. Part of my inspiration came from the late Mike Kay of Lyric HiFi in New York. He generously introduced me to a very different sensibility in sound reproduction. That sensibility still resonates with me today.

“Mike exposed me to stacked Quad 57s as well as an early Goldmund speaker called the Prologue, which used a Zellaton-derived driver. The impression of that driver was so strong that it compelled me, nearly 25 years later, to represent Zellaton in North America. For electronics, Mike used a firm called Swiss Physics, as well as an early FM Acoustics amplifier. To my ears, both sounded clearly superior to everything else available at the time. Amazingly, on many occasions the source we would listen to the most was a Sequerra FM 1 tuner; no turntable or CD player!

“These memories still give me goosebumps. My aim with Audioarts is to preserve that level of fidelity, magic, and passion, which I feel has been sadly lost in the industry since those days.”—Gideon Schwartz

All this talk of exquisite beauty shouldn’t be taken to mean that the FM Acoustics/Zellaton combo couldn’t rock out when called upon. One listen to the Pixies’ ear-shattering “Gouge Away” affirmed that if the music is raw, the system will be raw. On this track, I had a devil of a time restraining myself from jumping out of my seat and strutting around the room, pounding out those huge power chords on my air guitar. But that would have been embarrassing. Over the course of several hours, I also listened to solo classical piano, flamenco guitar, Willie DeVille unplugged, and much more. It’s no exaggeration to say that every track, whether analog or digital, was spellbinding.

I’m used to hearing good, even great hi-fi. What I’m not used to hearing is a system that causes me to think seriously about junking everything I own and figuring out how to afford this stuff. Sadly, there’s no danger of that happening. Still, the audition showed me, in a way I haven’t experienced since my early days as an audiophile, what is possible.

While at Audioarts I also indulged in a short session with Zellaton’s latest addition, the Legacy mini-monitors. At $24,975 the pair, these are the least expensive Zellatons. The speakers are the result of four years of R&D, and consist of a new tweeter, a 5" sandwich-core membrane mid/bass driver, and a rear-firing passive 8" woofer. The monitors are mounted on custom, impeccably-integrated stands.

Driven by Nagra electronics, which sounded better here than I’ve heard them sound in the past, the Legacy proved to be a combination of expectations met and expectations defied. In the first category, the Zellatons nicely performed the “monitors sonically disappearing” trick. Also as expected, given its petite proportions, the Legacy’s bass extension didn’t plumb the deepest depths. On the other hand, the speaker was full of surprises. For instance, when I listened to the Rutter “Pie Jesu” from his Requiem, I heard more refinement than I’m used to from monitors. Clearly Zellaton had fussed over every aspect of the design, leaving no rough sonic edges. Then, when the piece suddenly opened up spatially with the entrance of the chorus and lower organ registers, the Legacy no longer sounded like a monitor at all. The soundstage expanded like a mushroom cloud, and the lower bass was richer than it had any right to be. Even on raucous rock, with its demanding kickbass thuds, I had trouble believing I was listening to a mini-monitor.

In its immediacy, transparency, and surprising bass, the Legacy reminded me of the original Magico Mini. However, the Zellaton has a sweeter sound more akin to Magico’s more recent S-Series. In any event, the Legacy is without a doubt an excellent speaker—natural in a wholly unprepossessing way, yet musically complete. I’m learning that this is the hallmark of the brand. I predict the Legacy will sell like hotcakes—or at least as fast as $25,000 hotcakes can sell.

I would’ve loved to have spent even more time at Audioarts in the company of these wonderful systems, an enormous music library, and the ever-gracious Mr. Schwartz. However, it had gotten quite late, and my stomach was rumbling. Fortunately, Eataly was right next door. In this part of town, there’s something for many of the senses.