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Florida Audio Expo - Part 2

02-20-2022 | By Tom Gibbs | Issue 119

The Q Acoustics Concept 50 floorstanding loudspeakers made quite an impression!

Tenacious Sound featuring Q Acoustics, Perlisten Audio, Cyrus, and Unison Research

Audio dealer Tenacious Sound operates multiple locations; one in Augusta, Georgia, a second in Syracuse, New York, and a third in Nashville, Tennessee. They represent a wide range of audio manufacturers, and at FAE were showcasing loudspeakers by Q Acoustics and Perlisten Audio, amplifiers and control amplifiers from Unison Research, Cyrus, and English Acoustics. And also cables and AC conditioning from Titan Audio and Straightwire, and they're re-introducing the Michell line of turntables and analog accessories back into the US market. Tenacious Sound had two rooms at FAE; one that focused on more affordable products, and a second that featured equipment that reached a tad more towards the high end.

All electronics in this system were sourced from UK manufacturer Cyrus.

The more modestly-priced room featured loudspeakers from Q Acoustics; the floorstanding Concept 50 were playing during my visit. They were powered by electronics from Cyrus, which included a power and control amplifier, along with a DAC and streamer. Shayne Tenace told me that the Cyrus line of products is still manufactured in the UK, with the exception of their digital equipment which is designed in the UK but manufactured in China for parts and logistics reasons. The Q Acoustics loudspeakers are also designed in the UK but manufactured in China. The entire system shown at FAE, which included loudspeakers, electronics, and cables retails for just under $5k. I have to admit that I was fairly shocked that a system could sound so very good with such a diverse variety of music and not cost a king's ransom! 

The Perlisten loudspeakers had a similar appearance, but sounded quite different.

Tenacious Sound's second room featured two sets of floorstanding loudspeakers from Perlisten (pronounced "per-lissen"), the flagship S7T (S stands for Signature), priced at $20k/pair, and the R7T (R stands for Reference), priced at $10K/pair. Both loudspeaker designs share much of the same technology that features what Perlisten calls a DPC-Array that controls mid-and-high frequencies. The big difference comes in materials; the S7T uses beryllium drivers in it's variation of the DPC-Array, whereas the R7T uses silk dome drivers in its variation. Both loudspeakers were being driven by a Unison Research tube integrated amplifier, with an Innuos Phoenix DAC/transport/streamer providing the digital source and Michell Gyrodec table serving as the analog source. 

Up close, it's easy to see the differences between the driver complements of the S7T and the R7T.

The $20k S7T were playing when I walked into the room, and I was immediately gripped by the incredible goodness of the sound. These loudspeakers can crank it with the very best, and love lots of power, but also feature a very liquid midrange and treble response, which is probably due in no small part to the beryllium drivers—you could definitely color me impressed! Shayne Tenace soon appeared in the room, and switched from the S7T to the much less expensive R7T, and it was immediately as though all the life had been sucked out of the music. At least that was my first impression, but as I continued to listen, I soon adapted to the change, and I felt the R7T had a lot of good things going on, as well. They're actually very good loudspeakers on their own, it's just that the S7T are exceptional loudspeakers, and easily merit the big difference in price. 

The Classic Audio Loudspeakers have massive enclosures!

Classic Audio Loudspeakers featuring MacIntosh, Atma Sphere, and Purist Audio Designs

I first heard John Wolff's Classic Audio Loudspeakers in Chicago at Axpona in 2013. To say my mind was blown was a complete understatement—I'd never heard reproduced music replayed with such realism and impressive scale. The room in Chicago was huge, but I don't believe it was as big as the Cypress Pavilion Room at FAE is, which appears to me to be among the largest room in the complex at the Tampa Westshore Hilton Embassy Hotel. At the very least, it has the tallest ceiling, which I'd guess is at least 12 feet high—it definitely has among the largest cubic volume of any of the large meeting rooms at the hotel. And that volume of space allows his T-1.5 ($80k/pair) and Hartsfield ($73k/pair) Field Coil Powered loudspeakers to really sing out in a way that few other rooms at the show can approach. 

The classic MacIntosh MC3500 amps provide perfect power to the field coil speaker designs.

John reps for Atma Sphere tube amplifiers and control amps, MacIntosh amplifiers, and Purist Audio Design cables; he actually owns the Atma Sphere equipment and Purist Audio cables that he uses in his show setups. He employs a pair of MacIntosh MC3500 amplifiers as well, along with a host of vintage source equipment. Including an upgraded Technics SP10 Mk III turntable that has a Van Den Hul cartridge attached to its Tri-Planar tonearm, and a rebuilt Crown 800CX open reel deck that he bought on eBay. While the loudspeakers are cherry mint, the other equipment in use has the appearance of having many miles on it. 

John Wolff's vintage Technics SP10 is perfect for the LPs he prefers to spin during shows.

On the day I walked into his room at FAE, he was spinning LPs by request, playing into the T-1.5 that were being powered by the MC3500. John's demeanor and his appearance would probably lead you to believe that he'd typically be playing a Blue Note jazz title from the fifties, or perhaps some RCA LSC classical warhorse by Fritz Reiner and the CSO (not that there's anything wrong with that!) The track that was playing was from a remix maxi-single of Massive Attack's "Paradise Circus" from the 2010 Heligoland album. I was astonished that he was able to dig into his personal collection and pull out a remix maxi-single at all, much less one by Massive Attack. The remix is driving and propulsive, and the scale of the musical imagery is huge, and that's not lost on the T-1.5 at all—to my astonishment, this combination of vintage styled loudspeakers and trip hop electronica was a match made in heaven!

The T-1.5's play with a scale of realism that's matched by very few loudspeakers!

At the conclusion of "Paradise Circus" John announces that if you liked that, you'll probably like this. And proceeds to play a track from a very rare LP, Porcupine Tree's "Voyage 34," which features subterranean deep bass, Gavin Harrison's propulsive drumming, Steven Wilson's searing guitar work, and a trippy mix of effects and tape loops. The dozen or so listeners in the room were spread across several pretty clear demographics, and few (if any) of them appeared to be Porcupine Tree fans—but no one left their seat—at least until all 19 minutes of the track were over. And this was perhaps the most gripping 19 minutes of my life, and the T-1.5 simply disappeared into the background—it was as though Porcupine Tree was actually performing live in the Pavilion Room for us. The effect rivaled what I'd earlier heard earlier in The Audio Company room with the Von Schweikert Ultra 7—the realism and presence of the music was almost overwhelming. 

I was boggled to say the least, but for John Wolff, it was just another day at FAE—and he doesn't even do this for a living! He has his own company that he runs full-time, and sells container ships full of big powered field-coil horn loudspeakers to the Asian audiophile markets. Kazow!

Suncoast Audio's upstairs room didn't scream that anything special was going on with it!

Suncoast Audio (upstairs) featuring Kharma, Pass Labs, MSB Technology, and Shunyata Research

As I stumbled through the 12th floor, I came across another Suncoast Audio room, and was really surprised—as great as their main floor room was, I wouldn't have thought they'd have another room at the show. Entering the room, no music was playing, and the appearance of the equipment inside was solid, but didn't cause me to snap immediately to attention. There was a Pass Labs XP-22 dual-chassis preamp ($95k), a pair of MSB M200 monoblock amplifiers ($60k/pair), which were set to power a nice looking pair of Kharma Elegance Double Seven Signature loudspeakers ($34k/pair). Digital sources included an Aurender ACS10 streamer/server/disc ripper ($6k) and an MSB Discreet DAC ($13.5k as equipped), and analog source equipment included a Rega P8 turntable ($3.5k) that was fitted with an Aphetta 3 MC cartridge ($2.25k), playing through a Boulder 508 phono preamplifier ($5k). Cables and power conditioning were provided by Shunyata Research. The speakers were pretty nice looking, but they didn't dominate the room (like those in the Suncoast room downstairs), so I didn't expect any miracles here, even though the room was full of people.

The complement of equipment didn't scream "exotically impressive!" at me.

That's when a chap sitting off to the side pressed a few buttons on a tablet, and a track started playing that featured this kind of ghostly wind-machine entry, with a church bell ringing off in the distance, and a strangely effective saxophone figure floated across the soundfield. That faded to black, then a Fender Rhodes vamp started playing in the center of the stage—the effect was simply mesmerizing, and the realism of the electric piano in front of me just about raised the hair on my skin! The only thing I could read on the MSB DAC's display was "Eden," which didn't ring any bells with me at all, when suddenly a voice emerged from the background that was unmistakable—it was Don Henley, and his voice was magically real and present in front me. He continued singing about "give me another slice of that brisket, give me another slice of that pecan pie," when this gripping, punishing electric guitar solo sears across the soundstage. Now, I'm no big Don Henley fan, but I'm familiar enough with his body of work, but I swear I've never heard this song. And it's like, maybe one of the best songs I've never heard, ever!

Right in the middle of the song, the music stops, and another chap says "Now?" to the guy with the tablet, and he nods, then they both get up, turn the lights up, and the other guy apologizes and says something like "Hopefully we won't screw everything up!" He then turns to a couple of the guys sitting in the front row and says, "This is what you want, right?" And they all chime in in agreement. The two guys then begin to screw around with the connections at the base of the equipment rack for a few minutes. At that point, the chap with the tablet hits play again, and the Don Henley "Eden" song starts from the beginning—only, this time, it's not anywhere nearly as gripping or physically present. It actually sounded rather dull, pedestrian, and shadowy, like all the life had been sucked out of the music—it didn't even sound like it was playing across the same system. I was truly baffled!

The Kharma Elegance Double Seven Signature loudspeakers weren't as massive as many I'd seen in other rooms.

Then the guy stands up, the music stops, the lights go back up and he asks "So, did that answer any of your questions? Let me get the system re-attached." There's this outpouring of comments from the guys in the front row, when the equipment guy announces that he's with Shunyata Research, and they have a new system called the Altaira Signal/Chassis Ground System that they're testing at the show. And that it will be available probably sometime in April—maybe—and he's then bombarded by more comments and questions from the front row guys. One of them kept saying, "Jesus, what the hell am I supposed to do with the Nordost QRT ground system I just spent all the money on?" The Shunyata system is reconnected, and the "Eden" track starts again from the beginning—and all the magic has returned in full force. The guy screaming about the QRT system is now moaning about all the money—and everybody else in the room is screaming at the Shunyata guy to "Take their money now! We need to guarantee delivery!" The Shunyata guy assures them that the April date is still tentative, and for them to keep in touch for updates. 

I was absolutely boggled—but nonetheless, greatly impressed by this—and as I'm about to exit the room, the Shunyata guy glances at my press pass, and pulls me into the little side room, then grabs a room system component sheet and writes down the name of the new system and the recommended MSRPs of the various elements. Which, depending on how many specialized ground cables you need for your system, will range from $5k and upwards. The system consists of two hubs; one of them is for signal ground, and is a fairly uncomplicated attachment to your system. The second hub, however, is the sticky wicket—it's a chassis ground system, and has multiple ground taps, requiring a grounding block connection to each component in your system. Or in the event that a component doesn't have a grounding block, a specialized RCA-to-ground cable is required and an available unused RCA jack on your equipment to insert it into. Virtually all RCA connectors share the ground of any particular component, which makes it convenient to connect the new Altaira system to your setup—the cost variable comes with how many of these specialty ground cables you need to make the necessary connections. And it apparently requires every piece of equipment in your system to be connected to get the maximum effect. As I was standing there having this explained to me, the Nordost QRT guy burst in with another eruption about how much money he'd spent on the Nordost grounding system, and what was he supposed to do?

By the way, the Don Henley song was the eponymous title track from the Eagles' last album that featured Glenn Frey, Long Road Out Of Eden, and I hadn't listened to anything by the Eagles since Hell Freezes Over. But I'll definitely get this one for this one track, if nothing else—it was stunningly good!

The AGD GaNTube equipment had a distinctive look.

AGD Productions

The AGD room wasn't about system synergy of all the parts involved, it was essentially about one thing—AGD's new implementation of the Gallium Nitride Mosfet technology in their new form factor, which they call the GaNTubeTM. Now, I've heard a ton about how incredibly great this new technology can sound—there's the new Peachtree Audio GaN400 power amp that's been getting lots of positive ink—but this is the first implementation of the technology I've actually seen or heard. As I walked into the room and took a seat, a very attractive woman handed me what appeared to be a vacuum tube—it was actually the new AGD GanTube. It was…most unusual, to say the very least! In the room in front of me were several different amplifier designs that employed AGD's GanTubes, and some of them were rather attractive looking, to be honest, with clear Lexan tops that allowed you to easily observe all the glowing innerworkings. 

The AGD GaNTube was definitely a strange animal!

While fascinating, I couldn't really make a determination in such a relatively short exposure to the technology as to whether I was convinced it was the next big thing. Positive Feedback's Gary Lea reviewed the smaller AGD Audion monoblocks ($7.5-8.3k/pair) and was quite smitten with them. Those were on display here, but the setup playing through the large standmount loudspeakers (unidentified) were the AGD Grand Vivace SE's ($19.5k/pair). Beautiful amps, but nothing I experienced in my short time in the room offered me the level of information that a full review with them might. I'm definitely interested, but my brief exposure didn't set off any bells and whistles. By the way, it's all made in the USA... in California.

MoFi's room featured a most unusual looking loudspeaker in the Piega Coax 511.

Mobile Fidelity featuring HiFi Rose, BAT, and Piega

The MoFi room had a setup that I interpreted was intended to focus heavily on two of the brands being displayed there: the HiFi Rose line of streaming DACs and the Piega loudspeakers. The complement of gear in the room featured two units from HiFi Rose, the RS150 streaming DAC ($5k) and the RS210E, which is a network streaming DAC and integrated amplifier ($2.2k). Also present was the Balanced Audio Technology VK-80i integrated amp ($10k) that provided the necessary power to drive the Piega Coax 511 loudspeakers ($16k/pair). AC cables were from Isotek, and the system also included Isotek's Aquarius V5 power conditioner ($3k). Loudspeaker and interconnect cables were from Audience, and the very attractive rack was from Solid Steel. Other assorted items were on static display at my time in the room.

The HiFi Rose RS150 was a sterling digital performer!

The Piega loudspeakers featured a most unusual midrange/treble complement that grabbed my attention immediately: it's a coaxial ribbon tweeter/midrange unlike anything I've ever seen. There's a very small ribbon tweeter that's placed in the center of a much larger ribbon midrange, which creates a point source array, and believe me, the mid/treble portion of the audio spectrum absolutely sparkled during playback! The digital source was the HiFi Rose RS150, and the track selected was a live recording from Sara Bareilles' Brave Enough: Live at the Variety Playhouse (in Atlanta, Georgia), featuring her take of Elton John's classic "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Ben Newell of MoFi instructed us to listen to the natural decay of the sound as replayed via the HiFi Rose unit and the Piega loudspeakers, and he was correct—it was absolutely dazzling! We actually listened to it twice, because midway through the first performance, the room next door suddenly decided to play something that seemed to shake the entire hotel, so a second listen was definitely in order. Color me impressed!

We were on the verge of hearing some more music, when a journalist from one of the audiophile print magazines showed up and essentially hijacked the room. But the brief exposure was enough to tell me that the HiFi Rose gear is the real deal, and that the Piega loudspeakers are very special indeed!

Mytek Audio

The Mytek room featured most of their models set up as headphone listening stations, with some of their models set up as static displays. And with almost every model I inquired about, I was told that the display model was the "old" model, and that a newer, upgraded model was coming very soon. Mytek is an American company, and is based in Brooklyn, New York, but all their legacy product manufacturing has been done in Poland. 

Mytek's new Empire is a streamer, DAC, and preamplifier all in one, and is assembled in the USA.

I don't do headphones too often, so I didn't really listen to any of the stations, but there was one new Mytek model that got my attention. It was their new flagship model, the Empire ($25k), which is a DAC, streamer, and preamp all in one, and is about five times larger than any other Mytek product! And it's being assembled in the USA; I couldn't really ascertain from the answers to my questions if it is actually being "made in the USA" or simply "assembled" in the USA (if that sort of thing matters to you). It was set up in a system arrangement with a Mytek Brooklyn amplifier (300wpc, Class D, $2.5k) that was driving a pair of ProAC Tablette 10 bookshelf loudspeakers. And the sound quality was pretty fabulous; the Mytek guys insisted that the Brooklyn amplifier could drive just about any loudspeaker satisfactorily, and my experience with Class D amps pretty much bears that out.

More to come in the next installation!

All photographs courtesy of the author.