Up to 84% in savings when you subscribe to The Absolute Sound
Logo Close Icon

Begin typing your search above and press return to search. Press Esc to cancel.

The 2022 Florida Audio Expo: Alan Taffel

The 2022 Florida Audio Expo: Alan Taffel

Returning to the Florida Audio Expo, often referred to as FLAX, provided a much-needed sense of relief. The February 2020 edition was the last major audio show to be held before the pandemic shut down, so much of the planet’s commerce and congregation. Now, walking the crowded halls, one could be forgiven for thinking nothing had happened in the intervening two years.

The venue, an Embassy Suites hotel near Tampa airport, was the same. As in past years, the hotel spread out exhibitors—this year, 140 manufacturers occupying 40 rooms—across 12 floors, dramatically reducing sonic bleed-through. Only a handful of would-be exhibitors got cold feet and didn’t make the trip.

The crowd of audiophiles who gleefully thronged the show—so many they broke the elevators early on Day One—seemed unfazed by Covid. Masks? That’s so 2021. Vaccination requirements? Oh, please. This is Florida we’re talking about. In fact, the stray mask-wearer was the only reminder that something significant had happened since the last FLAX.

With one exception, the rooms themselves were also unchanged. That meant reasonably good sun, though in some cases manufacturers resorted to creative solutions (e.g., pillows in chandeliers) to overcome acoustical challenges. The exception to this comfortable familiarity was that since 2020 the hotel had foregone the Ethernet ports that previously graced every room. Accordingly, exhibitors (who weren’t given advance notice of the change) had to rely on a suddenly overwhelmed Wi-Fi network to connect to streaming services. Exhibitors made up for the iffy streaming by leaning heavily on NAS drives, LPs, and open-reel tapes.

Because FLAX is primarily a dealer-oriented event designed to show off systems rather than product introductions, we divided the rooms geographically instead of parsing them by component type. We then took a system-oriented approach to reporting on what we heard, since it’s difficult, if not impossible, to identify which component is responsible for a rig’s sonic/musical success or failure. Without fixing a dollar-amount dividing line, each of us picked five “Aspirational” systems (defined as those that cost an arm and a leg) and five “Inspirational” setups (defined as those that leave an audiophile with three limbs intact).

Finally, as is traditional, we each named “Best in Show” systems, components, and experiences, with candidates chosen from either writer’s territory.

Throughout the show, an outfit reassuringly named Barbaric Nightmare Productions was filming a documentary called “The New Audiophiles.” We look forward to seeing it on large and small screens everywhere. In the meantime, join us for a whirlwind tour of FLAX 2022.

New and Noteworthy

Two years ago, Andy and I were surprised at the number of products introduced during FLAX. This year, thanks to pent-up demand for shows at which to launch new gear, the trend accelerated.

The 2022 Florida Audio Expo: Alan Taffel

Surely the splashiest intro of the show was MBL’s worldwide debut of its new flagship, the 101 X-Treme Mk II. Readers are likely familiar with the Mk I version of this omnidirectional speaker, owing to its status as JV’s longtime reference. The new model is significantly more expensive—$317,500 per pair compared to the previous model’s $263,000. Both prices include dual active subwoofer towers, which I suppose is some consolation. (Despite the stratospheric prices, MBL says the new speaker is already backordered for two-and-a-half years.) While the Mk I and Mk II look identical, MBL made myriad changes, particular to those sub towers. They now feature all new cabinets, drivers, crossovers, amps, and a revised analog equalizer. At FLAX, the new flagship proved capable of shockingly powerful bass.

The 2022 Florida Audio Expo: Alan Taffel

Another speaker introduction took place in the DSG room. DSG is a Swiss company of that I was unaware of until FLAX, probably because it is only six years old. The company builds horn speakers, and the pair that had their U.S. debut in Tampa, the $32,500/pr. Tobian FH12, was very impressive. I first mistook the FH12 as a hybrid unit with a horn tweeter and a dynamic woofer. In fact, the woofer is a folded horn, which makes it much more cone-like in size. DSG says the driver extends down to a true 20Hz, and the speaker’s overall sensitivity is a very horn-like 98dB. The sound was excellent.

In a world premiere, Borresen and Next Level HiFi unveiled the new 01 Silver Supreme speaker. A pair of these two-way stand mounts, endowed with a ribbon tweeter and a 5.5** carbon-fiber-sandwich mid/woofer, goes for $60k, including stands. Compared to the standard 01 model, the Silver Supreme features all cryogenically treated components, a “zero inductance” driver, and a half-kilometer of pure silver wound into the woofer’s ring. At FLAX, the tonal balance was too rich for my taste, but that could easily have been the fault of the room.

The 2022 Florida Audio Expo: Alan Taffel

Now we turn to my favorite new product of the show: the RJS MD2 Bass Augmentation Speakers. RJS abhors the term subwoofer because most of them utilize large woofers that are, RJS feels, unacceptably slow-sounding. In contrast, RJS “subs” use multiple small drivers to move a similar amount of air but with greater alacrity. I loved the MD6 introduced at FLAX 2020, and I love the smaller, less expensive MD2 ($2750/pr.) even more. At FLAX, RJS boldly exhibited the MD2’s flanking a pair of Magnepan LRS, one of the world’s fastest speakers. The two blended seamless in a combination that sounded like Maggies with more bass. I predict hotcake-like sales.

The 2022 Florida Audio Expo: Alan Taffel

Moving on to electronics, in the Unique Home Audio room I found myself searching in vain for the big monoblocks that I assumed were responsible for the effortless sound emanating from the gorgeous Italian Gold Note speakers. (Other electronics were also Gold Note.) Failing to locate the amps, I asked where they were and was directed to a pair of tiny boxes squatting on the floor. These, I learned, were the new $5400/pr. Atma-Sphere Class D amplifiers. That’s right: a brand known for tube amplifiers has built a Class D unit. I must say, true to the manufacturer’s word, the amps had tube-like warmth and sweetness. But their 100-watt GaNFET output stage and 800:1 damping factor also produced thunderous bass and high-jumping dynamics. Highs were clean, extended, and never exaggerated.

The 2022 Florida Audio Expo: Alan Taffel

Hometown dealer Suncoast Audio had not one but two impressive rooms at the show. The first was enlisted to give MSB’s latest power amp, the monoblock M205, its first U.S. showing. The unit is based on the company’s successful S202 stereo amp, but with an upgraded input stage and double the number of power-supply transformers and caps. At $60k/pr. and producing 220 watts into 8 ohms, it is MSB’s least expensive monoblock offering. Driving Kharma Elegance dB7-S speakers, they produced a sound that was… well, see “Aspirational” systems below.

The 2022 Florida Audio Expo: Alan Taffel

In the other Suncoast Audio room, the Vivid Audio Giya G1 Spirit speakers ($93k/pr.)—you know, the ones that look like the Diva in The Fifth Element movie—were used to showcase (for the first time in the U.S.) the new Block Audio Monoblock SE power amps ($60k/pr.). Built in the Czech Republic, the SE operates in Class A all the way up to 200 watts, then it’s Class AB up to the 500-watt maximum output. Also new: the SE Preamplifier ($45k, including built-in phonostage). This interesting model is battery powered but pulls from the wall to recharge itself in the background. The two-chassis unit is fully balanced and available in silver, black, and red. At the show the bass overpowered the room, but the midrange was sweet as could be.

Another company new to me, Margules of Mexico City, introduced its U-300, a Class A, zero-negative-feedback, tubed power amp. Priced at $10k, the amp can be converted from stereo to mono with the flip of a switch. It can also switch between triode (25Wpc) and ultralinear (50Wpc) modes. Double those figures if the amp is set to mono. The U-300 was just three days old when I saw it and will be generally available in April.

The 2022 Florida Audio Expo: Alan Taffel

On the accessories front, Acora introduced its new Acora SRR-V and SRR-H equipment racks. Made, naturally, of solid granite, the racks allow users to adjust the distance between shelves—a useful feature. Acora’s Val Cora says the 300-pound racks will make anything you put on them sound better, and from the way they’re designed to couple components to the foundation, I believe him. There are two initial versions: a four-shelf vertical configuration and a two-shelf horizontal setup. Both will cost $5500 when they become available this summer—which struck me as very reasonable, considering their construction and the price of competitive units.

Five “Inspirational” Systems (in no particular order)

The 2022 Florida Audio Expo: Alan Taffel

  1. The On a Higher Note Room. Philip O’Hanlon knows his audio gear (and his Irish whiskey) and is unswayed by fads. Case in point: his room at FLAX featured a speaker, the Graham 8/1 ($9k) that according to modern wisdom is built completely wrong, along with a Moon River 404 Reference integrated amp ($5k) that no one has heard of. Yet the sound was phenomenal—extended and naturally rich, with flawless spatial performance and resolution. This from a speaker with a thin wood enclosure, wide baffle, old-tech drivers, no time alignment, and lots of parallel surfaces. Go figure.
  2. The Black Ice/B&W Black Ice Audio mated its tubed electronics to a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 805 D3s. The result was a refreshingly unassuming system perfect for small rooms and less extravagant budgets—in this case under $21k, all in. I could wax about its resolution without edge and excellent imaging, but even more impressive was this system’s musical involvement. Annie Lenox’s “Why” gave me chills, and I couldn’t stop myself from singing along with Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street.”
  3. The Margules Although expensive in combination, none of the components in this room cost crazy amounts. The Margules Orpheus speakers run $28k, while the U-300 stereo amp described above is $10k. Both were being driven by a sweet little Bluetooth receiver, also made by Margules, that runs just $950. Despite the speakers being on the low-sensitivity side, the U-300 in triode mode handled them with ease, with plenty of grunt and delicacy.
  4. The Volti/Triode Wire/BorderPatrol The hybrid horn/bass reflex Volti Razz speakers in this system may not have had the deepest bass or the most precise imaging, but their sound was utterly realistic thanks to the all-important midrange being just right. With $7k speakers and a $21k Border Patrol S20EXD 16Wpc, 300B SET amp, plus modestly priced Triode Wire cables, this $30k system fits comfortably into what passed for “Inspirational” at FLAX. (Wait till you see how much the show’s “Aspirational” systems cost!)
  5. The RJS/Magnepan/PS Audio/Dayton The least expensive system I encountered at FLAX was also one of the best-sounding. In fact, I seriously considered this room for Best in Show. I’ve already described RJS MD2 subs (oops…Bass Augmentation Speakers) that so perfectly complemented the Magnepan LRS speakers. PS Audio electronics (circa $3500) powered the Maggies, which were run wide open, while a $500 Dayton Audio amp with built-in low-pass filter drove the MD2s. That sums up to around $10k, yet I didn’t hear instruments sound more realistic anywhere else in the show. I also heard superb dynamics and plenty of low-end power. From a value standpoint, this was clearly the most inspirational system at the show.

Five “Aspirational” Systems

  1. The MBL The Big Daddy of FLAX was MBL’s million-dollar extravaganza consisting of its new flagship speaker, Reference-class MBL electronics, and a United Home Audio SuperDeck. The room, actually a concatenation of two ballrooms, wasn’t ideal; but this system still did some things that no others could. Chief among them was subterranean bass that you could feel rippling along the floor. Despite their size and mass (26 drivers and 4000 pounds for the pair), these omnis disappear completely and can create an expansive soundstage. So long as you weren’t sitting too close to the speakers, the system excelled when playing big band music, but could also reproduce every timbral and dynamic nuance of a solo piano.
  2. The Acora For FLAX, Acora owner Val Cora went all out. Not only did he bring his biggest solid-granite speakers, the SRC-2 ($37k/pr.), he backed them up with support gear second to none. The system included a phalanx of VAC Statement electronics, a J. Sikora turntable fitted with two arms, a DS Audio Grand Master optical cartridge, the Ideon Audio digital stack, and a United Home Audio Ultima4 tape deck. All together the setup rang in at over $600k. How did it sound? Overall, more like the real thing than anything else I heard.
  3. The EMM/Credo/Audioshield This $290k system consisted of EMM Labs electronics, Credo Audio speakers, van den Hul cartridge and wiring, a VPI Avenger direct-drive ‘table, and the impressive Wolf Audio Systems Red Wolf 2 server. The result was the epitome of the Swiss school of sound: clean, fast, airy, and ultra-high resolution. Tame bass, no doubt a room-based anomaly, was the only thing holding this system back.
  4. The DSG/Lampizator DSG put together a $250k system built around its impressive new Tobian FH12 hybrid horn speaker. They were fronted by the big VAC Statement amps and the ubiquitous Lampizator tubed DAC and server. At this price, the sound should be exemplary, and it was. The horn was especially realistic on percussive instruments like the hi-hat, but in truth everything about the system was impressive.
  5. The Suncoast/Kharma/Pass/MSB Going into FLAX, I wondered how close the Kharma dB7-S, a member of the company’s entry-level Elegance series, could get to the magic made by the Midi Exquisite that won my Best in Show award at CAF. The answer is: awfully close. In combination with the Pass XP-22 preamplifier, MSB M205 power amps, Aurender ACS10 streamer, MSB Discreet DAC, and Shunyata Sigma and Alpha cables, the speakers displayed unerring musicality while also being sonically truthful. Dynamics were jaw-dropping. Although the room’s uneven bass spoiled this system’s chances for Best in Show, it was nonetheless one of my favorites.

The 2022 Florida Audio Expo: Alan Taffel

Best Sound of the Show: The Acora room. A compleat system that delivered unlimited spaciousness, perfect instrument and vocal placement, timbral density, and strong, well-controlled bass.

Best Sound for the Money: The RJS/Magnepan room, for all the reasons described above.

The 2022 Florida Audio Expo: Alan Taffel

Best Demo: The Ansuz Sortz. In the Ansuz/Borresen room, Ansuz first played a well-recorded live jazz performance. The sound was very good, although I noticed that the applause that opened the track was, as is often the case, an indistinct blur. With the insertion of a single Sortz—the company’s new and extremely complex RF and EMI noise reducer—into an open linestage input jack, the audience transformed into a collection of distinct, three-dimensional individuals. The musicians sounded truer, as well, but it was the audience that told me how much grunge had been swept away. Next, Ansuz swapped out the standard Sortz ($840) for the Supreme version ($1200), and ultimately the Sortz Signature ($1600). With each successive upgrade, the audience became even more three-dimensional and overall soundstage depth increased too. I’m as skeptical as the next guy about gizmos like this, but I always believe my ears. These things work.


Alan Taffel

By Alan Taffel

I can thank my parents for introducing me to both good music and good sound at an early age. Their extensive classical music collection, played through an enviable system, continually filled our house. When I was two, my parents gave me one of those all-in-one changers, which I played to death.

More articles from this editor

Read Next From Show

See all

Adblocker Detected

"Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit..."

"There is no one who loves pain itself, who seeks after it and wants to have it, simply because it is pain..."