Florida Audio Expo 2020 Show
The Bleeding Edge
My formal Florida Audio Expo 2020 Show Report recently appeared in the pages of our sister publication Positive Feedback. In my two-part show overview, I surmised that FLAX 2020, which ran from February 7th through 9th at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Tampa Airport Westshore Hotel in balmy Tampa, Florida, was well on its way to becoming an important early-in-the-year destination event for the close-knit audio community, especially for audiophiles living in the southeastern United States. Buoyed by a notable uptick in overall attendance (meaning visiting audiophiles, exhibitors, and journalists) and more robust high-end press coverage, especially when compared to FLAX 2019, FLAX 2020 felt far more of a piece, far more cohesive, and for lack of better descriptors, far more culturally relevant and "of the moment".
Sound quality-wise, I genuinely enjoyed most of what I heard from the many rooms that I visited, this despite the tendency of far too many systems to exacerbate bass resonances and truncate depth of field cues (common refrains from show attendees everywhere). But, musically, FLAX 2020 sang, with more rooms than not delivering credible, and more importantly for show purposes, entertaining presentations. All of which raises an important set question: What separates the rans from the also-rans at a show like FLAX 2020, not to mention shows like AXPONA, RMAF, and all the others? In talking to exhibitors, reviewing my show notes, and paying closer attention to things like room set-up strategies, a common theme emerged amongst the best-sounding rooms. Each of the exhibitors I enjoyed most, to a room / team, went out of their way to minimize and control, to the extent possible, the tricky speaker-room interface equation.
Some accomplished this feat through DSP acoustic analysis. Others (several actually) employed the tried-and-tried line array speaker design ploy to limit room interaction problems. Still, others used dipole driver arrays to minimize room-speaker interaction problems, often to exceptional effect. Regardless of chosen methodology (and technology), each of my favorites teased great sound from sub-optimally designed and inconveniently configured hotel rooms, leaving yours truly to marvel at the skill and care these exhibitors brought to the table.
The Audio Company Suite: Primus Inter Pares
The sheer quantity (and quality) of upper-crust goodies on display made clear that this was not your typical high-end set-up. Indeed, I would argue that the Audio Company suite (which included a selection of the best of the best from firms like VAC Amplifiers, Von Schweikert Audio, Kronos Audio, and MasterBuilt cables) represents the next level in audio reproduction, what I'll simply call the "ultra-high-end". Undeterred by cost constraints, and buoyed by impressive advances in engineering capacity (think CNC machining, CAD software and increased reliance on exotic driver materials and construction techniques), this segment of the high-end shows no signs of abating, although out-of-control trade wars and the coronavirus pandemic might dampen the proliferation of some brands to the farthest corners of the globe, at least in the short term.
In its sheer audacity, this system challenges conventional notions of cost, design complexity, product execution, scaling, and yes, achievable sonic performance. With such products and systems, design objectives define the design and engineering choices, those coarse and discreet engineering choices, in turn, defining product scale, configuration, and execution, with each of the above metrics ultimately defining system costs. The nose-bleed price structure is, in no uncertain terms, simply and purely a function of the system's intended sonic impact: the reproduction of music in a dedicated home listening space that replicates, to the extent that current engineering permits, the real thing.
The net result: a system the approaches, and likely surpasses the $1,500,000 mark. For those intent on counting, here goes: the Von Schweikert ULTRA 11 loudspeakers ($325,000 the pair), Von Schweikert V12XS Shockwave subwoofer ($11,500 each x2), the VAC Statement 452iQ mono power amplifiers (four at $75,000 per amp), VAC Statement Phono Stage ($80,000), VAC Statement Line Stage ($80,000), Esoteric Grandioso P1x Digital Transport ($50,000), Esoteric Grandioso D1x mono-block DACs ($50,000 the pair), Esoteric Grandioso G1 Master Clock ($26,000), Aurender W20SE Streamer/Renderer ($22,000), Kronos Pro Turntable with Black Beauty tonearm and Ultracap power supply ($51,000), Airtight Opus 1 cartridge ($16,000), Critical Mass Maxxum Audio Rack ($6150 utilizing 12 separate rack components here at a whopping $75,000), Critical Mass Maxxum Amp rack ($10,150/each), and a loom of gorgeous MasterBuilt cables (estimated price is ~$500,000).
The selections I heard over the weekend redefined for me what reproduced sound at an audio show can deliver. Whether it was Ella Fitzgerald's intimately up-close and achingly personal rendition of Black Coffee, or Julie London's "in the room" believable take on Cry Me a River, both from Analogue Production′s delightful Sounds of Female Vocals LP, the Audio Company team delivered the musical goods like nobody's business.
VAC's new Statement 452iQ mono power amplifiers represent a demonstrable improvement over their class-leading predecessors, sounding more dynamically expressive, hauntingly quiet, dimensionally holographic, and shockingly realistic regardless of chosen musical genre. When driving the ULTRA 11 towers, the VAC Statement 452iQs deliver the most satisfying natural and musically engaging sounds that I have ever heard. Classical works project with an impact and degree of dynamic composure that rivals the best horn systems, but with no cupped-hands colorations, while more intimate fare scales to rival the immediacy, focus, and clarity that one typically associates with the best compact speaker designs, along with a small speaker's superb overall coherence.
How do the 11s, 7-foot tall monoliths that I liked but didn't love when I heard them at their AXPONA reveal a few years back, deliver such superb low-level detailing, air, bloom, dynamic expressiveness, and class-defining (re-defining?) coherence? For one, the Audio Company team and their show partners are now old hands at setting this system up in less than ideal exhibition spaces. Von Schweikert Audio's Leif Swanson confided that the team spent two days setting up the room, not to mention spending a small fortune to ship all the goodies and bodies necessary to pull off this musical sleight of hand.
Second, the 11's line-array design minimizes the extent to which quirky room interactions plague overall sonics. All things being equal, line arrays propagate sound into a given listening space largely free of sound-degrading environmental factors such as room reflections or temperature refractions. While no line array neutralizes the listening room perfectly or completely, the ULTRA 11s do so as well as any modern representative of the breed that I have heard, and with far greater dynamic elasticity, transparency, and inter-driver sonic coherence than I have observed from any other high-end speaker system.
Third, as I have made clear, all the other supporting cast members, the cabling, the DACs (dual-mono masterpieces), the racks, the sources, all the over-the-top accessories, each about as far from equal sonically compared to just about every other rival on the market, make sonic comparisons with lesser gear an almost total apples to oranges exercise, if not plain unfair.
As I said above, primus inter pares
hands down, with nothing else that I heard at the show sounding quite as equal
or quite as convincingly musical.
The Wynn Audio Room: Getting More from Less
Wynn Audio's "less is more" system (still a pretty pricey proposition) saw the U.S. debut of the Metronome DSS Streamer ($4300). Wynn mated the streamer to Metronome's Le DAC at $7000 (the firm's entry-level model) for a digital "heavy lifting" combo that sang. Analogue magic fell to the stunning Thales Slim II Turntable ($6750), the matching Thales Simplicity II Tonearm ($9450), an EMT HSD 006 Cartridge ($1760), and the remarkable EMT STX 5/10 step-up transformer (this marking the SUT's U.S. debut and priced at a stiff $9,280). The gorgeous EMT STX 5/10 features silver transformers and offers user-selectable 14 or 20dB gain options.
Speakers were the shoebox-sized Kiso Acoustic HB-N1 monitor speakers (from Japan), these hand-made marvels priced at a pricey but not entirely out-of-reach $9,500 the pair (sans matching stands). Normally, one would expect the exhibitor to pair a suite of comparably small-scaled front-end electronics with the tiny HB-N1s, typically an exotic 20-watt tube amp / preamp combo of rare and limited provenance. Instead, Mr. Wong fast-balled attendees by mating the Kiso midgets with massive solid-state front-end gear, here the musical and beautifully built (and sounding) KAL MK3 Preamp ($10,800), a Karan Acoustics PH1 Phonostage ($14,000), and the robust and the truly massive Karan Acoustics KAS 400 Stereo Power Amp ($16,900), these massive boxes ably supported by Crystal Cable Future Dream wires and Entreq Olympus Infinity Ground Boxes ($3600).
On paper, the Wynn Audio room had nothing, and I mean nothing, in common with the Audio Company room, save for one element: Wong's decision to configure the system to take the listening space out of the musical equation as much as possible. He accomplished this feat by toeing the speakers in toward the listening position so severely that the speaker cabinet sides vanished from view. Near-field fans will recognize this as an old trick to limit the degree to which reflected sound alters the listening experience. The severe toe-in means that the listener hears more of the speaker's direct output versus the direct-reflected combination that we typically get. In the Wynn suite, this translated to heightened image focus, quite exceptional depth recreation, realistic stage height projection, and a seamless upper-mid / lower treble transition point.
A string quartet recording of unknown origin (on LP) sounded just swell, so swell in fact that the listener seated next to me kept bobbing her head up and down to the music, in perfect time I should note. Another magazine writer heard every bit as much as I did. My listening notes sum up my feelings about this room to a tee: "Mr. Wong knows how to set up a system and has superb taste in gear to boot (and music)."
Oh, just in case this section of my report / overview peaks
your musical and gear-head curiosity, I think that the Thales Slim II
Turntable / Thales Simplicity II Tonearm / EMT HSD 006 Cartridge / EMT STX 5/10 SUT
ranked, alongside the equally idiosyncratic and "out of the box" Rega P10
turntable, and the stellar Kronos Pro as perhaps the three finest sounding
analogue sources at the show.
I have asked for a turntable review sample and Mr. Wong has
graciously agreed. Stay tuned!!!!
Dipole Magic Within The Muraudio Room
Of all the speakers at the show, the SP-1 proved to be one
of the few capable of reproducing piano transients in an uninhibited fashion,
and again with no audible signs of compression. In the medium-sized exhibition
room, the middleweight SP1s also proved utterly invisible, disappearing
gracefully into the music.
The Muraudio room joins the Audio Company and Wynn Audio
rooms, those also Best of Show winners, because the SP-1's dipole
electrostatic driver, like a line array, but for different reasons, usefully
minimizes undesirable speaker-room induced artifacts from the sound. How you may ask? Here's
the long and short of things. The dipole electrostatic driver used here
functions as a quasi-line source of sorts (here supplemented by four 6"
mid-bass drivers per speaker, making these babies hybrids), meaning that the
speaker's initial soundwave consists primarily of direct sound with little in
the way of direct-to-reflected sound artifacts. This initial wave is followed
a scant millisecond later by the speaker's out-of-phase rear-wave component.
In practical terms, sound waves emanating toward the speaker's edge tend to
cancel in this arrangement. This "edge effect" cancellation phenomenon, when
combined with the relatively large electrostatic panel radiating surface,
minimizes side output artifacts relative to the performance of conventional
dynamic drivers. This side output cancellation feature reduces side-wall
reflections that can smear musical details, blur musical transients, and
compromise important sound-staging cues.
Muraudio tweaks the tried-and-true electrostatic dipole driver formula in some novel ways, ways that to my ears, transcend many of the limitations of the breed. The SP1 incorporates the firm's Mylar Diaphragm Technology for enhanced dynamics through the improved distribution of acoustic energy across the uniquely and continuously curved ESL panel. A Mylar membrane a scant 3.8 microns thick (0.0038 mm) has the same mass as a 5 mm cushion of air. This translates to a driver with roughly 250 times less moving mass than a conventional midrange speaker cone / tweeter dome array. The result is a speaker of near matchless transient speed, stunning neutrality, and class-leading transparency. A BOS contender by any measure, this system, driven by a $5600 Simaudio Moon 340 iX integrated amp with DAC (the amp fed the incoming digital signal via a USB cable), delivered what I considered the best-recorded piano sound at FLAX 2020.
On balance then, a great show, and a brilliant portent of
things to come from this impressively well-executed high-end expo upstart.