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My High End Audio Trip to Sarasota, Florida – Follow the Yellow Brick Road to VAC and Suncoast Audio!

08-29-2023 | By Robert S. Youman | Issue 129

A Trip To Remember

What an adventure! Despite the stifling heat in the 90s, and the intense humidity that would never let up, my recent trip to Sarasota (Florida) was one of my most favorites ever. How could it not be with such gracious hosts like Kevin Hayes and his lovely wife Darlene Monteiro-Hayes at Valve Amplification Company (VAC), followed by Michael Bovaird and his crew of Mike Malley and Rick Miller at Suncoast Audio. My wonderful wife joined me as we sought out the very best in Florida high end audio, and both of these companies delivered big time!

Valve Amplification Company (VAC)

I reviewed the VAC Signature Mk IIa SE Line Stage (w/phono) back in 2020. I was so impressed by the superb sound quality and the visceral impact on my system that I purchased it immediately afterwards. Please see the review HERE. Kevin and I have been discussing a factory visit ever since, and I finally had an opportunity to come down to Florida to see all the magic up close and personal. Early on during our visit, Kevin mentioned the expression "Passion with a Commitment to Excellence." This was in reference to his corporate goals for virtually everything that could impact the VAC product line. This includes not only the quality of his component designs, but also the quality of his manufacturing and customer support processes. Kevin only had to mention it once, but this theme seemed to permeate everything that I encountered at the VAC factory in Sarasota. And of course, this has been my experience with his customer base too. The continual praise and loyalty to the brand is without peer!

Where did all this drive and vision come from? Kevin has a very interesting background with a PhD in Operations Research from Duke University and a MBA from North Carolina University. We have very similar educations, so I immediately felt a connection. When discussing our younger years and the genesis of our mutual interest in high end audio, I could only smile as I learned that a key influence for both of us was our fathers. Both had military backgrounds with extensive training in radar and radio technologies. Both worked at major technology companies. At home, both toted a soldering iron and a collection of circuit diagrams while building the amplifier kits of the day. And lastly but most importantly, both were very supportive of our interests in music and the electronics that made it all come to life. Along with the help of his father, Kevin turned that passion into a world class high end audio company!

We started the tour in the front lobe of the building near the main office and a listening room. I immediately noticed the classic Thiele CS 3.6 speakers, the VAC Master linestage (with phono option), and the VAC Master 300 iQ Musicbloc™ amplifier. Please see the open chassis and the beautiful internal layout of the Master linestage above. Though the Thiele's are from a different generation of high end audio, these are three of my favorite components from any era. Kevin was quick to point out that this listening room was only one of several steps to evaluate and voice his components. He also utilizes other rooms, other speakers and other electronics as part of the process. However, this was an important step for both its familiarity and its ability to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of his designs.

From our conversations, it became very clear that there are three or four simple keys to all of his design choices. Without diving into the weeds, this includes selecting and sourcing the very best for both electrical and mechanical components. These decisions are made from numerous prototypes and a continuous amount of both laboratory measurements and subjective listening. Both processes are highly valued. There is a real commitment to a handcrafted final product, which provides a very personal statement when it comes to quality and performance. It is all about consistancy and reliability. Lastly, when new design or component opportunities for improved sound present themselves, Kevin never hesitates to make these changes. I was very impressed with his stated goals and his flexibility and commitment to always move forward.

At this point we were introduced to Darlene. This was my first opportunity to meet Darlene and I quickly understood the value and impact that she has made on the company. With a remarkable resume that includes some of her early years as a talented art student, job assignments for both graphics and advertising at a major newspaper, and later in life she owned her own advertising company, Darlene obviously makes for a fantastic partner and compliment to Kevin with his technical and business skills.

Darlene is in charge of all things marketing at VAC, and we discussed some of her newest strategies and deliverables. Please see the advertisement for The Capital Audiofest above as just one excellent example. I found it to be extremely effective in terms of making an emotional connection with the viewer while still providing several critical points of communication. My wife, who is a retired executive and officer from one of the most prestigious market driven corperations in the Midwest, was mighty impressed by everything that was presented. I too was dazzled by Darlene's current and future plans to get the message out for VAC! This company is in good hands from virtually every perspective and is clearly on a roll! 

We continued the visit with a tour of various test bed and manufacturing areas. As an Industrial Engineer, my past experiences at AT&T Bell Labs and our associated factory locations might seem inappropriate as a comparison, as the scale and investment are considerably different. However, I was still inspired by what I experienced at VAC. Of course there were electronic components everywhere, but everything was nicely organized and stored in bins within row after row of shelving systems. Work stations were also nicely organized and efficiently laid out when considering production flow. This was just a more intimate and personal environment with employees obviously very content and energized—very much a hands on process and assembly. There were plenty of welcoming gestures and smiles. I felt very much at home! Again, the commitment to excellence could be felt at every turn!

The picture of Kevin just above highlights one of the more intriguing work stations, which was a center for silk screening production for such things like faceplates and rear panels. I was amazed at the number of templates stored above the station—it included every application ever utilized throughout the history of VAC. The number of applications seemed endless. Not necessarily a very sexy variable in the manufacturing process, but one that presented an important challenge to manage properly.

Lets not forget one of they key building blocks of this product line. Tubes! The above picture displays a work station for tube testing. And not just any tube testers! These are quite valuable and critical to the evaluation and manufacturing processes. Clockwise from the left we have a Modern Maxi-Matcher 2 which is a key detector for tube noise. At the top we have a RCA WT100A Electron Tube Micromhometer, which is a very detailed and flexible classic tube tester. And lastly to the right we have a Hickok 6000a "Suitcase" which is great general purpose tube tester. If my father could have seen these three, he would have been very excited. I remember his endless pursuit of trouble shooting and tube matching strategies for his Heathkit assemblies back in the day!

I was also tempted to include pictures of several legacy products in the racks ready for repair or maintenance. One that really got my attention was the VAC Renaissance 30/70 monoblock amplifier. Please see the picture above. This model was originally manufactured from 1994 to 2003. Such a classic look and design! I also noticed a few older non VAC products waiting their turn in line. When time allows, Kevin will sometimes agree to support close friends and long term customers who reach out for help when there is no where else to turn. There was a fascinating array of classics that brought back some wonderful memories and had my taste buds salivating.

As we said goodbye to Kevin and Darlene, we covered up, dabbed a little sun tan lotion here and there and repositioned our wide brim hats. We then quickly preceded to our next stop at Suncoast Audio. Thanks to everyone at Team VAC! It was a great start to an exciting and extremely enlightening day in southern Florida!

Suncoast Audio

Michael Bovaird is quite the gentleman! We met Mike long ago at one of the major trade shows and he always makes it a point to say hello and get the latest update on the Youman clan whenever and wherever we see him. We do appreciate that! We also love dropping by Suncoast when in town as they carry some of the most elite brands across the globe and its always fun to see and hear some of the latest and greatest in one store.

This includes VAC, Boulder, Pass Labs, Magico, B&W, Kharma, MSB, MLB, Aurender, Nordost, and dozens more. You don't get the opportunity to represent these premier high end lines without significant success and trust from both customers and manufacturers. Mike and his team have seen and heard it all after many years in the business. There aren't many high end stores still hanging in there, but Suncoast is one of the best if not an industry leader. In addition, Suncoast is one of the key drivers of the annual Florida International Audio Expo each February. This show has now evolved into one of the most important in the Industry. In the picture above, from left to right, we have Michael Bovaird, Mike Malley, and Rick Miller.

One product line that has really caught my eyes and ears lately are the Clarisys Audio speakers from Switzerland. The entry level Claryisis Audio Minuet sounded absolutely fantastic at Axpona 2023. See my show report HERE. Suncoast Audio is the USA distributor for Clarisys and Mike had several speakers on display at the store. Back in the day, I had something of an infatuation with the Apogee Divas. I heard them at several shows and in many private listening rooms, but I never pulled the trigger. There was always a concern about what amplifier was needed to drive them as they did present a difficult load. At their best, they could sweep you right off your feet with some of the most amazing sound ever!

Clarisys has taken the fundamental design of those Apogee speakers and ramped it up several notches for both performance and aesthetic appeal (in my humble opinion). All are much easier to drive and the sound is something very special! Mike Malley handed me an iPad with access to both Qobuz and Tidal and we were then off to the races! I have to say, that the Clarisys Minuet sounded better than ever. Please see the picture above. Yes, they were a highlight at Axpona, where the acoustics in most hotel rooms never really give a product a fair chance. However, in a properly setup and dedicated listening room like this, the sound quality was exceptional as the goosebumps were clearly making an appearance.

We then moved over to the flagship Clarisys Audio Auditorium speakers in a different listening room. Needless to say, I stopped jumping from track to track on my demo playlist and just let the music surround me in wave after wave of pure pleasure. I love when the sound is so good that you just get locked in and you are almost forced to stop trying to compare and critique. You just listen and take it all in. It was that good!

Mike also mentioned that a new Clarisys Audio speaker will be introduced at some point down the road. An availability date has not yet been announced. It will include four 9 foot panels in a two channel application. Two panels will house the tweeter/midrange inducers. Two panels will house the woofer inducers. A four panel or cabinet design harkens back to some of the legendary ribbon, planer and dynamic speakers systems from back in the day like Magnepan, Infinity, and Genesis. This sounds very exciting as Clarisys refuses to slow down the momentum. I have already put in my application for a review. I am confident that the line will be long. 

We then discussed what was the most favorite supporting gear for the Auditoriums in a typical sale. It seems that one popular combination was the VAC Master preamp (tube) and the Block Audio SE monoblock amplifier (Class A). Please see the picture of the Block Audio SE above. I am not all that familiar with this amplifier, but the synergy does not surprise me as I have heard several systems that utilized a VAC tube preamp with a Class A solid-state amplifier and with great success. This is also the case with my own VAC/Pass Labs home system. When done right, there is something special about this combination.

I then asked the team what were the hot new products so far in 2023. Beyond the Clarisys Audio speakers and Block Audio monoblocks, they responded that this would have to include the Magico S3 speakers, the Aurender N20 music server, and the StromTank S-2500 power conditioner. As a current owner of a four year old Aurender N10, I was particularly interested in the benefits of the newer N20. The old upgrade bug has been firmly planted. Mike said that the difference was significant as the newer N20 was akin to the original flagship W20 in performance if not better. Though I would need to verify this in my own listening room, it was fairly obvious that the N20 was a strong contender as it performed beautifully that day. I have rarely heard high resolution files streaming from Qobuz sound so detailed and yet so musical!

Lastly, I must mention the Suncoast Audio Youtube Channel. This has to be one of the most professional and entertaining channels out there for high end audio components and audiophile music. I love the studio layout and the upscale microphones. Mike has obviously spent some money on proper acoustics and aethestics to clearly differentiate this channel from the many others out there. Very classy! The show also provides some of the very best guests from some of the very best brands along with many discussions of the most important high end topics of the day. None of these guys are professionally trained interviewers, but their communication skills are top notch. All are so personable and friendly, that its easy to get quickly hooked. Check it out! Bravo Mike, Mike and Rick! Thanks for a wonderful afternoon at Suncoast Audio!

Valve Amplification Company

1911 North East Ave.

Sarasota, Florida 34234

Web:  www.vac-amps.com

Phone:  941.952.9695

Suncoast Audio

7353 International Place

Unit 309

Sarasota, Florida 34240

Web:  https://www.suncoastaudio.com/

Phone:  941.259.6000