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.