FLAX 2023: In the Groove
As other parts of the country struggled under the piercing bite of record low temperatures, brutal snow loads, toxic train derailments, and fractured partisan politics, the Florida International Audio Expo (February 17th through 19th), now a settled and mature occasion, enchanted by not surprising. The balmy Tampa weather delighted locals and Snowbirds alike, just as it had in years past. The Embassy Suites Westshore's sub-par Wi-Fi capacity frustrated all, but enraged none, seasoned room attendees now hip to the need to lug CD and SACD players and digital files to offset their inability the stream. Booze flowed freely, the post-pandemic vibe mandating civility over rancor, decorum over bombast.
Fortunately, current political and cultural fissures took a back seat to the sybaritic pleasures of just listening to music in rooms that, for the most part, sounded quite natural and controlled.
The status quo prevailed.
My first destination, the Scott Walker / Synergistic Research / Von Schweikert Audio exhibit in Suite 315 proved a tale of two systems. On day one of the show, sound staging seemed expansive in width but lacking in center fill, and with somewhat diffuse imaging. I did notice a difference when Mr. Synergistic himself, the always-energetic Ted Denny, turned off then on again his Galileo Active Ground Block grounding system. Still, the VSA Endeavor Special Edition loudspeakers (my current references) did not sound themselves, lacking air, bloom, and body. VSA's chief designer, Lief Swanson, asked that I return later that weekend after the team had a chance to dial in the various components.
When I returned on Sunday morning, a reel-to-reel (R2R) tape version of Hotel California tape still lacked air and bloom. A reinterpreted version of Cyndi Lauper's pop classic Time after Time (still R2R) followed and sounded much better. Still, the system didn't recreate the air and bloom that I hear every day from a far more modest system built around the same speakers. Additionally, the upper-mid / lower treble region sounded distinctly bright and - at times – "glassy", something I never hear at home (or at other showings of the ESEs). What I missed most was the sense of sensuous, enveloping immediacy, tonal expressiveness, and directness that I hear from the VSAs (and from other VSA-based / VAC-driven systems).
At my insistence, Leif Swanson altered toe-in, adjusted speaker bass output, and engaged the ambient ribbon tweeter to dial in the sound. After LS's tinkering, Johnny Cash's stellar rendition of Hurt sounded much more engaging, Cash's husky baritone tactile and present in the small room. As the accompanying guitars swelled in volume, I detected no glass and grain up top, those colorations replaced with a sound of exceptional transparency and purity.
Now the system and speakers sounded more of a piece, and more importantly, like real music. I can't believe that the team turned off the speaker's ambient tweeter system, a hallmark of the design. After Leif corrected this oversight, Her Royal Highness, the Songbird herself, Stevie Nicks enchanted on a live version of Silversprings. My notes highlighted stunning detail, loads of air, superb bass definition and extension, and stellar imaging. In short, the entire system sounded more natural and refined after Leif's timely intervention.
The VAC stack sounded phenomenal, but I'm told that the new-ish amps needed some additional run-in time. The Synergistic components - with whatever magic they employed- complemented the VSA / VAC synergy beautifully.
The massive price list would take an hour to reproduce, so I'm only going to list the highlights: VAC Master Signature Pre-amp and phono stage ($44k), VAC Master 300 mono amps ($37k each), Von Schweikert Audio Endeavor SE speakers ($31k with footers and outriggers), Berkeley Audio Alpha Design DAC Reference Series 3 ($28k), Berkeley Audio Alpha Design USB Module ($1,995), Synergistic Research Power Conditioner stack, spearheaded by the Galileo PowerCell SX ($27,995), Synergistic Research Tranquility Rack ($24,995) plus related accessories, Synergistic Research Black Box ($1,995) and related room treatment devices, Synergistic Research Galileo Active Ground Black ($7,495) and grounding devices, and a complete Synergistic Research SRX and Galileo cable loom (approx. $42k for the entire loom). Wow!
The sound in the Mon Acoustic U.S. suite (311) surprised the hell out of me. In Korean, "mon" means "more natural", a description that ably described the sound of the firm's superb little PlatiMon Virtual Coaxial One, priced at a fetching $6,500 the pair. My notes celebrated the system's great imaging, fine transparency, and overall high level of engagement. Musica Nuda's all-acoustic version of the disco-era classic I Will Survive boasted fine focus along with excellent coherence and immediacy. I did feel that the sound might benefit from a slightly higher stand, for better projection and scaling. Maybe?
A very inert and quiet aluminum cabinet seemed more in keeping with a $12k to $15k model than the PlatiMon's sub-$10k tariff. The PlatiMon offers a very enticing option for listeners short on space and lacking five-figures to drop on a pair of reference speakers. The Mon team directed me to their website for system pricing, but alas, I found nothing of the sort there.