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Florida Audio Expo 2020: Better the Second Time Around, Part 1

02-23-2020 | By Maurice Jeffries | Issue 108

As I suspected on the drive down to Tampa on Friday, February 7, 2020 to cover the Florida Audio Expo 2020 show for Positive Feedback, the second running of this new show proved even more delightful than its debutante "coming out" reveal. An even larger number of enthusiastic audiophiles, exhibitors, journalists, and show organizers descended on the Embassy Suites by Hilton Tampa Airport Westshore Hotel in balmy Tampa, Florida for the three-day affair (February 7-9, 2020), the entire operation boasting a more comprehensive "of-a-piece" feel than last year's opening shot across the bow.  

Initial reports suggest that overall attendance (meaning audiophiles, exhibitors, and journalists) jumped by around 40%, a sizable increase over 2019. I ran into considerably more reviewers this time around, more exhibitors, and what seemed to reflect a significant uptick in general attendees, too. The FAE also spread out over more floors, with exhibitors showing on floors from 2 through 12. I should note, however, that some floors hosted only a few exhibitors, meaning that elevators were almost always packed. Fortunately, navigating the various floors via conveniently located exit stairwells proved easy and painless, although I suspect that wheelchair-bound guests were less happy about things.         

Overall, however, FAE is fast becoming an important destination event for the close-knit audio community. This is extremely good news for Southeastern audiophiles who, prior to FAE, had to travel to the Washington, D.C. area for the Capitol Audio Fest, the Chicago area for the annual AXPONA show (the most important domestic audio show for several years running), to the Rocky Mountain Audio Show in Colorado, or to one of the smaller California shows. I met several visitors from Georgia, South Carolina, and other Southern states, each of whom voiced their strong support and enthusiasm for the return of a major high-end show to the southeast region.

An Auspicious Beginning

My first stop, to the Classic Audio suite (again located on the 2d level Pavilion Room), got things off to a rousing start. Featuring Classic's field coil powered T-3.4 horn loaded speakers ($54,950 the pair), a loom of  Purist Audio Design Cables ($35k for the exhibited loom), Ralph Karsten's stellar Atma-Sphere tubed electronics  (the Novacron Mk3.3 amps at $22,200 and  MP-1 Mark 3.3 pre with phono board at $21,200), a vintage Technics SP 10 Mk III table with a Tri-Planar Ultimate 12 arm ($9800) and Van Den Hul cartridge  (either the Colibri Crimson Signature at 13K or the Crimson Stradivarius at $5750), this system offered exhilarating dynamic scaling. Overall, I enjoyed the presentation in this room, which my show notes describe as exhibiting "lighting quick dynamic and transient response, wall-to-wall staging, and great in-room presence."

I was bothered, however, by what I thought was a hot and "tippy" top-end and a touch of mid-bass leanness, artifacts that I think may have lain at the feet of the large, and largely untreated, room. Hard to beat for sheer impact and dynamic swagger, Art Pepper's Intensity LP sounded just groovy, kick drums sounded swell, all with nary a hint of compression.

The massive Suncoast Audio room and associated massive system (located in the imposing Palmer Room) rivaled the Classic Audio suite for sheer swagger and bravado, the Magico / Luxman / Avid gear literally blowing the roof off the hotel dynamically, with massive scaling, and gut-churning impact. The Suncoast room delivered even better transient precision, imaging stability, and top-end shimmer than the Classic Audio room. The M6 speakers are undeniably great in virtually every respect. A copy of Pink Floyd's iconic Brick in the Wall LP redefined the meaning of power rock / ear drum shattering awesomeness. The Luxman mono amps handled the tough to drive M6s wonderfully, with stunning impact, rich tone, and fine truth of timbre. My notes highlighted an utter absence of LP surface noise, superb transparency on Money, with laser sharp image stability. A bit lean in the upper mid / lower treble transition region, but with taut, juicy bass, and a squeaky-clean midrange. A sheer "wall of sound presentation" my notes concluded. 

Of course, all this concert level / he manly "wall of sound" glory comes at a not inconsiderable price: the Magico M6 speakers ($172,000 the pair) and earthquake inducing QSUB 18 subwoofers ($14,995 each), Luxman C-900u Control Amplifier ($14,995) and M-900u mono black amps ($14,995 each), Avid Acutus Class table ($17,999), SME 5 arm ($5500), Avid Pulsare II phono stage ($7499), and Reference Ruby MC cartridge ($8000). A complete loom of Audioquest cabling and Niagara 5000 power conditioner connected all the shiny bits and pieces together.       

One final note: I was very happy to see the return of Avid HiFi to these shores after a long hiatus.

To the amazement of almost everyone who stopped by, the Audio Company room bested, if you can believe it, both the Classic Audio and big Suncoast rooms in sheer musical presence, overall coherence, dynamic scaling, and bloom. Julie London (Cry Me a River) was "in the room" realistic on Analogue Production's wonderful Sounds of Female Vocals LP. The haunting reverb effects at the end of the Cry Me track were genuinely eerie and evocative. Ella's Black Coffee rendition offered a closer-mike perspective but with the same superb "you are there" presencing-power and marmoreal dynamic scaling.

The new VAC Statement 452iQ mono power amplifiers are a clear improvement over their distinguished predecessors, sounding both more dynamically resolute, extended, quiet, and by extension eerily realistic.  Phoebe Snow's Poetry Man illuminated the massive exhibition room as if it were a compact recording studio. In one key area the VSA / VAC gear does something almost no other top-flight systems can: they presence with a degree of resolve, believability, and composure that takes my breath away.

Roger Waters' Amused to Death dripped, wept, bled, and breathed with stunning impact and disbelief-suspending realism. Hard to believe that this recording is approaching its 30th birthday. All the things I missed at the 11's AXPONA reveal a few years back—low level detailing, air, bloom, dynamic elasticity, holography, and overall coherence—were present in spades in Tampa. In the right room, electronically reproduced music doesn't get any better than this. Melody Gardot's The Rain exhibited all the hallmark moodiness and intimacy I hear near field in my small listening room, but here with marmoreal scaling and presence. I spent more time here than any other room at the show.

Best sound at the show, without question, IMHO.

And if you need to ask, here is the pricing grid for all the great stuff on display, gear that none of us mere mortals can afford: 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 monoblock 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—here utilizing 12 separate rack components at $75,000), Critical Mass Maxxum Amp rack ($10,150/each), and a loom of gorgeous MasterBuilt cables (estimated price—around $400K). 

Just stop adding and get over the price!  This gear is designed to make a statement, not to pander to pedestrian notions of value and affordability.   

At the other end of the price spectrum, Jolida's Black Ice Audio line of affordable and beautifully built tube gear (brought to market in a winning collaboration with the legendary designer Jim Fosgate), previous generation Vienna Acoustics floor standing speakers, digital only sources, all singing in unison in a smallish space, delivered great impact and wonderful image focus. Depth cues seemed bit truncated, a problem I encountered in most rooms, but overall, I came away impressed by what the Jolida team delivered. My notes highlight ‶good overall clarity and transparency. No tube sluggishness or ripeness. A big, rich, punchy presentation, decent air and bloom.  Remarkable value. Room filling sound. I never heard 14 tube watts per channel sound so dynamically persuasive and musically resolving.″

The components on display included the Black Ice Fusion F11 Vacuum Tube Stereo Integrated Amp (20 w/p/c at $1399), the Black Ice Fusion F22 Tube Stereo Integrated Amp (40 w/p/c at $1699), the Black Ice F 360 Vacuum Tube Preamplifier ($1999), the Black Ice Audio Glass FX DAC DSD WiFi player (no price listed), and the Fusion DAC Transport (Dual mono, fully balanced with CD transport at $2499). I'd love to get one of the amps in for review.    

Still more to come in Part 2 of this report. Stay tuned!