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.
Top Ten “Inspirational” Systems
Eikon is the brainchild of Martin-Logan’s Gayle Sanders. The concept is: You plunk down $25k for the Image1 and you get a virtually-complete system, including speakers, DAC, power amp, DSP room correction—even cables. The simplest way to get started is to add a Bluetooth streamer (Bluesound makes some excellent units), and you’re set. The more I listened to this system, the more I appreciated its balanced mix of attributes, especially its ability to illuminate separate musical lines.
I walked into this room and saw nothing but a pair of speakers. Where was the equipment-laden rack? But David Janszen was holding a smartphone, and wonderful-sounding music was coming out of his Valentina A8’s. Turns out the active speakers were being driven by a $100 Bluetooth receiver and David’s phone. So, the speakers cost $12,750, and the entire system cost $12,850. On streaming Tidal, the sound was amazingly full and easy-going. Needless to say, with the A8’s ’stat panel handling everything above the bass, transients were exemplary. But so was the bass. This is the future for Millennial systems: powered speakers with analog and digital inputs, driven by a smartphone. With the A8 Janszen proved just how well it can work.
Speaker-maker Ocean Way teamed up with electronics manufacturer AGD to create some of the most beautiful sound I heard at the show. The Eureka speakers ($12,000 or $14,800 with stands) were extremely coherent, and the AGD Vivace monoblock amps ($7500 each) featured the company’s Gallium Nitrade MOSFET power stage mounted within a glass tube. The design means you can repair or change the amp’s power stage as easily as swapping out a tube.
Pure Audio Project/Pass Labs
At the top end of my price category was this nicely conceived system featuring a Pass stack for much less than you’d expect: the XP12 preamp and XA25 power amp together go for $10k. In Tampa, they were fed by a VPI ’table and drove Pure Audio Project’s customizable Quintet 10 open-baffle speakers ($10k as configured). Digital was courtesy of a Roland Super UA pro DAC ($680) and cables were from Luminous Audio. As its name suggests, the Quintet 10 speaker features four 10″ woofers, which mate with a horn mid/tweeter. The sound was assured, smooth, and relaxed, with the horn integrating surprisingly well.
This system was Exhibit A in Linn’s maxim that for best results you should spend most of your budget on the source. In this case, the front end—the AMG Giro with 9WT tonearm and outboard power supply mounted with a DS Audio E1 optical phono cartridge—cost $17k, while the Rogue Audio Cronus Magnum III integrated tube amp sells for under $3k and the Magnepan .7 speakers are a mere $1400. Together with WireWorld cable, the system had a level of naturalness that was hard to beat. Bass extension? Not so much. For that, you’ll need bigger Maggies.
Sumiko was showcasing its Pro-Ject and Sonus Faber brands. The ’table was Pro-Ject’s penultimate model, the Signature 10 with (of course) the top Sumiko cartridge ($10k total). A full stack of Pro-Ject electronics was another $10k, and the likewise-priced Sonus Faber Olympica Nova 2 speakers brought the system to my $30k limit. The sound would please any Sonus Faber fan, given its characteristic sweetness and low-end extension.
If there were a prize for most speaker bulk per dollar, Legacy would win handily. You don’t usually see speakers as large as the Aeris for just under $20k. Paired with the company’s new IV-7 multichannel ICEdge Class D amp ($7350) and Wavelet DAC/Pre ($4950), the sound was exceedingly relaxed—or punchy when the music so required. Not only was transparency high, but imaging was excellent from many points in the room. Even Legacy’s “smaller” Focus XE speaker ($12,915), which was also shown, proved to be a lot of speaker—size- and sound-wise—for the money.
A la Carte Productions
This Central and Northeast Florida dealer’s room boasted a new $9500 Vienna Acoustics Beethoven speaker (see New Products below), the VPI Super Prime Scout ($3400) and Voyager phono/preamp ($2500), Ortofon’s Cadenza Black cartridge ($2729) and Chord’s Qutest DAC ($1695), all feeding the Aethetix Mimas integrated amp ($7k). The sound was light, airy, and dynamic in the extreme.
The newcomer’s room (see New Products below) included its two inaugural speaker models, the active WT1Ad ($3800/pair) and the larger, semi-active 1212 ($7500/pair). Both were paired with a Schitt preamp, while an NAD M51 Master Series DAC/amp powered the top end of the 1212. I must say I was mightily impressed with the sound from the smaller speakers. They lacked top- and very bottom-end extension, but such compromises are to be expected at this price. The speakers had excellent imaging, dynamics, and midrange realism. Most importantly, they were highly musical. The larger 1212 retained those virtues and solved the extension issues, with the tradeoff being a larger footprint.
Muraudio’s always-splendid SP1 omnidirectional speakers ($16k) teamed with a Simaudio Moon 240i integrated amp resulted in a system costing less than $20k. Nonetheless, the sound was smooth and well-rounded.
Andover Audio Model One ($3200 with sub). For those interested in a gorgeous, compact all-in-one system, Andover introduced the Model One. What differentiates it from virtually all other all-in-ones is that it is LP-oriented, though for just $100 you can add the Songbird streaming adapter. I highly recommend opting for the $500 subwoofer module; without it, the unit is quite bass shy.
The Bob Carver Company announced a new integrated amp, the Crimson 2180i ($4000); however, the unit itself wasn’t on display, active or otherwise. At this point, all we really know is that it’s a tubed design that puts out 180 watts/channel. More to come.
exaSound Audio Design debuted its new Delta music server ($3000-$4000 depending on storage). The product was spurred by Roon’s rapidly expanding capabilities for DSD recordings. These include EQ, room correction, headphone optimization, and other features. These things require far more processing power than most of today’s music servers can muster. Thus, the Delta, which exaSound claims is even more powerful than Roon’s own Nucleus Plus. Expect to see more high-powered servers in the near future.
The Janszen Valentina A8 ($12,750) made its world debut. The speaker is distinguished from its passive version, the P8 ($9250), by a pair of built-in 500-watt N-Core Class D amps paired to a Hypex input card. Significantly, the latter has both analog and digital ports, so add one or more sources and you’ve got a system! The sealed cabinet, which houses dual sub-enclosures, is made of thick MDF, while drivers consist of two 8″ woofers, an electrostatic panel, and a side-firing ring-radiator tweeter. There are woofer and tweeter level controls on the back panel. As described above, I was mightily impressed with this speaker’s sound, even when it was being driven by a lowly smartphone.
Margules Audio was showing a prototype of its forthcoming, as-yet-unnamed music server. The device is simplicity itself, with four USB ports into which the owner can insert any combination—and any capacity—of thumb or USB drives. Most servers have internal storage, but Margules claims its advanced USB interface eliminates the sonic advantage of built-in drives. The unit will begin shipping this summer for a mere $3000.
In the Modwright/Egglestonworks room the latter was premiering its OSO floorstanding speaker ($11,900). Its unusual configuration involves a side-firing 10″ woofer paired with a 1″ Morel silk dome tweeter and a 6” Morel midrange. The cabinet is 1.5″ MDF. Driven by the Modwright gear, the speaker proved light and airy, with plenty of bass punch as well, though coherence could have been better. Also bowing was Modwright’s KWH 225i 225-watt/channel hybrid tube/solid-state integrated amplifier ($8500 with optional phonostage).
The Børessen room played host to accessory maker Ansuz Acoustics’ introduction of an entire line of Ethernet-related products. Of course, there were cables, and the A2 (approx. $1800 for one meter) and D-TC (approx. $12,600 for one meter) delivered a much wider soundstage and more palpable vocals than generic Ethernet cable. The D-TC model added noticeably crisper transients and even more spatial expansion. But the most eye-opening demo was of a line of Ethernet switches priced from $2200 to a whopping $14,000. Generic Ethernet switches are about $100 at Best Buy, but even the entry-level PowerSwitch proved to be a huge upgrade in terms of noise reduction, and the flagship PowerSwitch Supreme ($14k) made an incredible difference in clarity and dynamics. Dang! Yet another seemingly innocuous element (like power cords) that makes a difference.
SweetVinyl premiered its new SugarCube SC-1 Mini. The $1500 box ($2000 with built-in phonostage) is an LP de-clicker/de-popper. The SC-1 Mini is similar in concept to FM Acoustics’ $50,000 phonostage, except that the former operates in the digital domain whereas the latter is pure analog. Nonetheless, the SugarCube worked amazingly well. In the demo I heard, the SC-1 transformed a virtually unplayable Steely Dan album to virgin vinyl. The only adverse effect was a very slight roll-off at the upper extreme. In all, a boon to used vinyl shoppers.
RJS Acoustics is a brand-new audio company based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Its introductory product, the MD-6 ($5750) is a powered subwoofer. However, RJS would rather you call it a Bass Augmentation System to avoid any confusion with the “slow, muddy” sound it associates with subs. To prove the MD-6’s speed, RJS boldly paired it with Maggie LRS speakers. The two systems integrated seamlessly, which was quite a testament.
Active speakers were all the rage at FLAX, but the Piega took the concept one step further with the U.S. premier of the 701 wireless active speaker ($7500). The price includes a Bluetooth receiver that also supports RCA analog and two digital wired inputs. In the demo, Piega was Chromecasting from a phone and the sound was impressive.
Tampa’s own Soundfield Audio introduced two new models. The first, the WT1Ad ($3800), is a relatively slim, fully active floorstander. Each driver gets its own Class D amp. 100 watts for the ¾” dome tweeter, 125 for the 6.5″ mid, and 250 watts for each of the two 6.5″ x 8″ down-firing subs. The second model, the 1212 ($7500), is only partially active. The 12″ coax mid/tweeter is passive and features a cardioid radiation pattern, while the dual 12″ bass drivers, also cardioid, are powered. Both models feature an active tweeter on the rear panel meant to increase spatiality. While the driver complements and radiation patterns on these speakers are somewhat novel, there’s no denying that it works (see Top Systems above). Soundfield’s Ammar Jadusingh (aka AJ) has been designing speakers for 35 years, and that experience showed brilliantly.
Vienna Acoustics never seems to run out of variants to its long-running Beethoven floorstander. The latest, shown in North America for the first time, is the Baby Grand Reference ($9500). This is a lovely, svelte speaker, and the Florida samples were finished in a luscious cherry wood. Inside, there are new “spidercone” flat drivers—one 6″ midrange and two 6″ woofers—plus a 1.1″ hand-coated silk dome tweeter. The bass-reflex cabinet is heavily braced, and the crossover is a combination of first and second order. As always seems to be the case when I hear a new Beethoven, I was very taken with the latest iteration.
Alan Taffel’s Best of Show
Best Sound, Cost No Object, System
There were a surprising number of great-sounding systems at FLAX, including the Constellation/Rockport and, of course, the big VAC/Von Schweikert rig. However, I felt the large Acora SRC 1 speakers, also driven by top-shelf VAC gear, disappeared more completely, and let the music shine more freely, than any other system at the show. Acora is a newcomer to watch.
Best Sound for the Money System
FLAX proved that you can put together a superb system for under $30k. But I was most bowled over by the Janszen Valentina A8 speaker playing Tidal via an iPhone and a hundred-buck Bluetooth receiver. For under $13k, the sound and simplicity of this system was mind-boggling.
Most Significant Product Introduction
The Ansuz PowerSwitch line of Ethernet switches, which demonstrated just how much degradation is taking place when we stream through commodity switches.
Most Coveted Product
What keeps coming back to mind is the Doshi tape head preamplifier. A “phonostage” designed specifically for the idiosyncrasies of tape decks, I found myself wanting one—along with the nearby refurbished Studer deck—very badly.
Most Notable Trend
Tape decks as sources. There were more of them—at least a half dozen—than I’ve ever seen at one show. Both the hardware and source material are getting easier to come by, and the sound is unrivaled.
Top Ten “Aspirational” Systems”
Andrew Quint (Photos by Dennis Weeks)
The Audio Company (Marietta, GA)
At show after show, Leif Swanson and Damon von Schweikert expend considerable effort to provide a listening experience that’s representative of the best high-performance audio can offer. At FLAX, Von Schweikert Audio installed its flagship Ultra 11s ($325,000) in a room of suitable size, powering them with four VAC (Valve Amplification Company) Statement 452iQ amplifiers ($75,000 each.) The system, the total value of which makes it into the low seven figures, also included Esoteric and Aurender digital source components, a Kronos turntable with Airtight cartridge, and Masterbuilt cables. Large-scale symphonic music had lifelike scale; on a solo piano recording, the instrument had palpable mass and volume. A Nils Lofgren concert recording—you know which one—possessed an uncanny sense of being there. I have no idea if Damon and Leif left Tampa with any new orders for Ultra 11s. But quite a few attendees left with a better understanding of what’s possible with the playback of recorded music at the current moment.
Sweet Home Audio (Clearwater, FL)
In a system that included the Vimberg Mino loudspeakers in a striking white finish ($31,000) and Cardas Clear Beyond cables throughout, Zesto Audio‘s George Counnas oversaw the East Coast premiere of his Leto Ultra preamplifier ($9950). Counnas explains that the use of a 12DW7—a hybrid tube that’s half AX7 and half AU7—”allows for the smoothest transition from the input section to the outputs.” The new preamp also has a six-position “presence control” that allows one to tame overly bright and aggressive recordings. I tried this feature out with a beloved Mercury, Hi-Fi a la Española. Those sleigh bells on Side One/Track One can get pretty annoying after about 15 seconds; now there’s something you can do about it. Other components of this superb analog-only rig included a Merrill Williams Audio REAL 101.3 turntable ($8900), Tri-Planar U2 tonearm ($6200), and Benz Micro Gullwing SLR MC cartridge ($3600). Also from Zesto was an Andros 1.2 phonostage, Allasso step-up transformer, and Bia 120 stereo power amp.
Jeff Joseph, sharing a room with Nick Doshi, brought the Joseph Audio Perspective2 Graphene loudspeakers ($15,000), compact floorstanders that employ a 1″ Sonatex dome tweeter and a pair of 5.5″ graphene-coated magnesium woofers. They definitely “play big.” Electronics included Doshi Audio’s V3 Line Preamplifier ($18000), Evolution Series tape stage ($18,000), and the 25Wpc V3 stereo amplifier ($20,000). The digital source was an Aurender W20SE network streamer ($22,000) feeding a Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 3 ($22,000) via the latter company’s Alpha USB interface. All cables were from Cardas Audio, Clear Beyond balanced interconnects and SE loudspeaker cables. Acoustic guitar was reproduced with remarkable speed and Gary Karr, performing Kol Nidrei at the top of his instrument’s range, was clearly playing a double bass and not a cello.
The Audio Company (Marietta, GA)
Acora Acoustics, fabricating its loudspeaker enclosures from African black granite, brought two models to FLAX, the 2-way SRC-1 floorstander ($28,000) and the 2-way stand-mounted SRB ($15,000). It was the latter that performed especially well in a smallish hotel room, driven by a VAC Sigma 170iQ integrated amplifier with phono ($11,500). An Esoteric K-01Xs CD/SACD player saw service and LPs were spun on a Transrotor Fat Bob S turntable outfitted with an SME 5009 tonearm ($11,000) and Airtight PC-7 cartridge ($2500). AudioQuest cabling, beginning to end. With the Shostakovich Symphony No. 15 recording I brought (Haitink/Concertgebouw, an RCO Live SACD) spatial delineation was as good as I’ve ever heard and orchestral climaxes crested gracefully. The speakers maintained their poise when challenged with full-bore big band material.
Raven Audio does it all—electronics, speakers, cables. Well, almost all: the DAC was a Myrtek Brooklyn ($2195). With the Corvus Tower loudspeaker system ($12,995 at the show and online; the usual price is $14,995), a Corvus Reference Monitor sits atop a Corvus Bass Module to comprise the complete system. The former is a 2-way employing a 1″ ring radiator and a pair of 7″ poly cone woofers. The subwoofer is active, to the tune of more than 750 watts of DSP-managed power. The passive monitor was driven by Raven Audio Silhouette Mk2 monoblocks ($25,995). All the Raven Soniquil wires—RCA and XLR interconnects, speaker cables, and power cords—were under $200 each. On the Shostakovich Fifteenth, bass drum hits were reproduced without overhang and the open low B string of a 5-string electric bass sounded with authority on Kevyn Lettau’s Songs of the Police.
Suncoast Audio (Sarasota, FL)
A less-than-astronomically-priced but nonetheless no-holds-barred system was encountered in the Suncoast Audio room, starring the Swiss-made Stenheim Alumine 3 loudspeakers ($29,950), a model available for less than a year. The cabinet for this 3-way, four-driver design is solid aluminum, with three discrete internal chambers. Suncoast employed VAC electronics—a lot of VAC electronics were at the Tampa show; designer Kevin Hayes lives just an hour away—a Master Line Stage ($28,000) and a Signature 200 iQ stereo amplifier ($14,500). Digital files were handled by an Aurender A30 ($18,000) and vinyl playback was courtesy of an Acoustic Signature ’table ($5000), equipped with a TA-2000 tonearm ($2995) and a Dynavector XX2 moving coil cartridge ($2000). Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, from the RCA Ansermet/Royal Ballet set, registered with a true sense of occasion.
Daedalus Audio loudspeakers are always among the most exquisitely crafted products at an audio show (four-quarters hardwood, flawless dovetail joints, ¼” marquetry) but the Apollo loudspeakers ($18,500) were also among the best sounding at FLAX 2020. The Polish manufacturer LampizatOr provided the digital source, a Super Komputer server (starts at $8000) and the Pacific DAC in balanced configuration ($27,850). More VAC—the awesome
Statement 450i iQ integrated amplifier ($150,000). Cabling included WyWires‘s pricey Diamond Series interconnects, speaker cables, and power cords and the componentry was plugged into a WyWires/Daedalus Power Broker AC distributor. The system easily parsed the differences in character between a vintage Mercury recording (Dorati’s Nutcracker) and a Living Stereo “Shaded Dog” from the same era (Reiner’s Scheherazade.)
Salon 1 Audio (Ormond Beach, FL)
The only Wilson Audio loudspeakers at FLAX 2020 were the Sasha DAWs ($37,000), demoed by their east-central Florida retailer with associated components that the brand is often heard with, including VTL—the TL-7.5 Series III Reference linestage ($30,000), TP-2.5i Performance phonostage ($5000) and MB-185 Series III Signature monoblock amplifiers—and Transparent Reference Series cables. Digital sources were an Aurender A10 server/streamer/DAC ($5500) and a vintage Sony SCD-XA777ES CD/SACD player ($3000 new, nla) that the dealer seemed vaguely embarrassed to be using. Vinyl was played with a Sumiko Palo Santos Presentation mc cartridge ($4500) mounted on a Pro-Ject Xtension 12 turntable ($4500). Nothing new or outrageously expensive yet the sound was consistently engaging, with an excellent rendering of space and lifelike dynamics (as with Cécile McLorin Salvant, on LP.)
Magico M2 loudspeakers ($56,000 plus $7600 for the MPod support system), with MSB Technology products upstream, were making beautiful sounds on the tenth floor of the Embassy Suites. MSB’s S500 stereo power amplifier ($58,500), a zero-feedback design with 138dB of dynamic range, was introduced last year at High End Munich. The power supply of this 135-pound CNC-machined aluminum beauty has capacitance of a million microfarads (= 1.0 farad, but that sounds a lot less impressive) and power output is rated as 500Wpc continuously into 8 ohms, 900 into 4 ohms. The MSB digital components in the system, the Reference DAC ($39,500) and the Reference Transport ($18000) are justly celebrated. In a less-than-palatial environment, orchestral climaxes crested majestically. Initial transients were crisp and organically connected to what followed; vocal and instrumental timbres were 100% true.
High End by Oz (Los Angeles, CA)
Ozan Turan, the Los Angeles-based importer for AudioSolutions loudspeakers, presided over the U.S. debut of the Virtuoso S ($22,500), the smallest member of the Lithuanian manufacturer’s next-to-the-top product range. A 3-way design (1″ silk dome tweeter, 5″ hard pulp paper cone midrange, and two 6.5″ paper cone woofers), the Virtuoso S features box-in-a-box construction and a user-adjustable crossover. Driven by the massive Vitus SIA-030 integrated amplifier ($40,000) and with disc, analog tape, and file sources—a Vitus SCD Mk II CD player/DAC ($25,200), United Home Audio Ultima 4 tape deck ($32,000) and Aurender W20SE music server ($22,000)—orchestral recordings manifested good front-to-back layering and an excellent sense of the performance venue.
AudioSolutions Virtuoso S loudspeaker ($22,500) [see “High End by Oz” room description above]
Dynamic Sounds Associates Phono III phono preamplifier ($19,000). The latest iteration of the DSA phonostage has the capability to adjust cartridge loading with a remote control while you’re listening: 256 loading options for moving coil cartridges and 128 for moving magnets. In addition to the usual RIAA equalization curve, four other curves suitable for older discs are selectable. Both balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) connectivity is provided on the new version of the product.
Gershman Acoustics Grand Studio II loudspeakers ($11,900). Two sealed-box enclosures are held in the embrace of a 93-pound, ½” stainless-steel stand. The 2½-way design incorporates two 8″ woofers with aluminum cones made in the U.S. to Eli Gershman’s specifications and a pair of Vifa double-chamber silk dome tweeters. Well-recorded orchestral music was presented with a reach-out-and-touch-it sort of immediacy, and there was a ton of musically meaningful detail on vintage jazz recordings.
Linear Tube Audio ZOTL Ultralinear integrated amplifier/headphone amplifier ($7,650). The Tacoma Park, Maryland, company has been in business for only five years but already has attracted a good deal of attention, including several loudspeaker manufacturers at the Florida show. LTA’s latest features high- and low-gain headphone outputs, 20Wpc speaker outputs, and a stepped attenuator volume control, operable with the included remote.
MC Audiotech Forty-10 loudspeaker ($35,000). Not exactly new, but new to most FLAX attendees and surely a novel design. The Wide Band Line Source (WBLS) transducer was patented by designer Paul Paddock 35 years ago and each Forty-10 incorporates ten of these “predictable flexible membranes.” Bass is handled by a separate “folded cube” low-frequency enclosure. With Linear Tube Audio electronics, the scaling of individual instruments on a favorite orchestral recording was impressive. Striking in appearance, if an acquired taste.
Métronome DSS streamer ($4500). An appealingly compact component, roughly 10″ x 10″ x 3″, that handles PCM (up to 384kHz), DSD64, and Roon, and is MQA compatible. As the front end of a system terminating in the small but mighty Kiso Acoustic HB-N1 speakers ($9500), it contributed to a dramatically spacious sonic presentation.
RBH Sound SVTRS Modular Loudspeaker System ($45,000). Honoring the occasion of the company’s 45th anniversary and limited to just 20 pairs, these hefty towers—each weighs 310 pounds—comprise an SV-831R positioned between two SV-1212NR subwoofers. The middle module sports an Aurum Cantus AMT tweeter and three 8″alumninum cone woofers, while the subs each have a pair of 12″ long-throw aluminum drivers. The package also includes a RBH six-channel amplifier and a DSP processor made by Marani, a pro-audio manufacturer. The price also includes delivery to your home and calibration of the system in situ.
Synergistic Research held forth with its #1 dealer, Scott Walker Audio of Anaheim, CA, and had numerous products deployed to optimize the performance of a system that included Constellation electronics—a Pictor preamplifier ($19,900) and Taurus stereo amplifier ($22,000)—and Rockport Atria II loudspeakers ($26,500). Synergistic had continuous demos of its new MiG SX footers, a set of three costing $995, which could be oriented facing either up or down beneath a component, what SR referred to as “Ambient” vs. “Pin-Point” configurations. This allowed for some obvious (and rapidly accomplished) tuning of the system. Mostly, “Pin-Point” provided the focus and image specificity I value, but on some overly aggressive recordings (“Keith Don’t Go”) the “Ambient” option improved listenability.
Volti Audio Rival SE loudspeaker ($19,900). The standard Volti Rival, which can be had for under $10k, is well regarded sonically, but it’s a clunky-looking thing, best relegated to man caves. The 2020 Rival SE, released on the occasion of the company’s tenth anniversary, is visually stunning—especially in the bubinga wood finish of the pair demoed at FAE— with curved sides for both the external crossovers and the speakers themselves. Clean, clear acoustic bass on a jazz recording and utterly unforced vocals.
Andrew Quint’s Best of Show
Best Sound, Cost No Object
The Audio Company/Von Schweikert/VAC exhibit (see above). A noteworthy listening experience for even the most jaded audiophiles.
Best Sound for the Money System
The most expensive component in the system, by far, was the RJS Acoustics MD6 subwoofer (OK, “bass augmentation speaker system”) but, boy, did it ever elevate the performance of the well-under-$15k Magnepan LRS/PS Audio rig it was paired with.
Most Significant Product Introduction
Gershman Acoustics Grand Studio II. A solid performer that touches all the audio bases admirably. A good value, as well.
Most Coveted Product
Triangle Arts turntables. Any of them. Left-to-right: Hathor ($3999)/Maestro ($7500)/Anubis ($14,995).
Most Notable Trend
Cécile McLorin Salvant. Female vocalists are a necessary evil at audio shows; a well-recorded specimen will demonstrate many systems in their best light. This wonderful singer showed up in multiple rooms, sparing us all at least a little Diana Krall and Shelby Lynne. A little.
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