Photography by Dennis Weeks.
Last year saw the emergence of a brand-new regional audio show, the Florida Audio Expo (or FLAX, as some have taken to calling it). By all accounts, the show’s inaugural outing was an unqualified success, so TAS sent the two of us to cover the 2020 event. The show ran from February 7th to 9th at the Embassy Suites Tampa Airport Westshore. Like last year, admission was free to consumers, although in 2021 the cost will be $10 per day or $25 for the entire show.
Both exhibitors and the show’s organizers felt that this year’s turnout handily exceeded the 2019 crowd. Indeed, after the head count passed 3000, those in charge stopped registering visitors for fear the Fire Marshall might get wind of the number!
Although all audio shows involve a collaboration between manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, the structure of FLAX reflected the growing trend away from national events, which focus on manufacturers, to regional shows that are dealer oriented. To be sure, there was a good representation of the brands that any committed audiophile would want to encounter—over 160 were listed in the show guide. But many of the rooms were administered by retailers, both Floridian and out-of-state, and those spaces were organized around systems, rather than specific products.
Thus, at most of the Tampa show’s rooms the synergy of a combination of loudspeakers, electronics, sources, cabling, and the rest wasn’t a matter of happenstance or convenience. Instead, an audio professional—a dealer—had made considered choices based on experience to put together a system that, hopefully, would show off all the products in a room to their best advantage. The hotel did its part, too, spreading the 65 rooms over eleven floors in order to avoid placing exhibitors in adjacent rooms. This greatly reduced the usual sonic bleed-through. That and solid construction no doubt accounted for the generally good sound.
Because of the systems-oriented approach, we decided to deviate from the TAS norm of splitting up show coverage based on equipment categories and, instead, divvied up rooms according to the price of their systems, choosing $30,000 as the (admittedly arbitrary) dividing line. We then decided—not entirely seriously—to call the two system categories “Inspirational” and “Aspirational.” Please understand that we are not maintaining that a system costing under $30k is a “budget” system or is necessarily compromised in any musically meaningful way; we just needed some strategy for apportioning listening responsibilities. Below you’ll find the ten best-sounding rooms each of us heard in our respective category.
Given that FLAX isn’t a national or international stage, we weren’t expecting many new product introductions. To our surprise, exhibitors used the show as more than merely an opportunity to cop a tan. There were quite a few products that, if not making a world debut, were being heard for the first time at a U.S. show. You’ll find an accounting of those we each encountered after our system choices.