To Be Determined

    The Florida Audio Expo 2022 – A Bold Step Towards a Return to Audio Normalcy

    Issue 158

    My second trip to the Florida Audio Expo (FAE) in Tampa was one that was marked with a certain amount of uncertainty and anxiety on my part. Initially, I was all gung-ho about getting to Tampa; then the Omicron variant reared its ugly head in early December. I had already made arrangements to cover the show for Positive Feedback in mid-November, but pulled out a couple of weeks later with the pandemic seemingly raging out of control again. Anyway, the possibility that FAE 2022 would even go on seemed tenuous at best, especially with the unexpected rise of the highly contagious Omicron COVID-19 variant. It seemed at that point to be perhaps more of a risk than I was prepared to take.

    Things got less worrisome as January went along, and when David Robinson of Positive Feedback called to see if I’d had a change of heart, I was suddenly pumped to get out and see audio people and some new equipment. Only a half-dozen exhibitors ended up pulling out of the show; there were definitely fewer than in 2020, but there was a surprising amount of traffic through the twelve floors of show rooms at the Westshore Hilton Embassy Suites hotel. The attendance was a bit lighter than the 2020 show, but exhibitors and attendees alike were enthusiastic, so I crossed myself, masked up, and plunged into the thicket with the audiophile masses. When I left home, it was 40 degrees (F), but upon arrival in Tampa, it was 90 degrees(!), which meant shorts and flip-flops for the entire weekend!

    The elevators weren’t working in tip-top order, or were often excessively crowded, so I mostly took the stairs throughout the show. When I arrived home on the following Monday, my weekly Fitbit report showed that I’d done almost seventy flights of stairs! Here’s a recap of some of the highlights of what I saw and heard over the four days I was there. I apologize for the highly variable photo quality – I use a point-and-shoot camera, and you typically get either great shots, or shots that are blurry or grainy because the lighting conditions fluctuate so wildly from room to room. All equipment prices shown are in US dollars. Each day will include links to my full coverage over on Positive Feedback; those articles feature more detailed coverage of the systems on display.

    Arrival at Florida Audio Expo

    The drive to Tampa was uneventful, with the lone exception of the dramatic rise in temperature as I got progressively further south. Upon arrival, I sherpa’d all my gear up to my room and immediately noticed that one of the exhibitors, Geshelli Labs, was located directly across the hall. Unfamiliar with the company name, I only hoped they wouldn’t be cranking out the jam at all hours of the night. I then went downstairs to the evening social, and was sitting drinking a beer, still wearing the Pink Floyd t-shirt I’d worn on the drive down to Tampa from Atlanta. This hipster guy walked by, looked straight at me and proclaimed, “Nice shirt, dude!” I sat and enjoyed the live jazz band a bit longer, chatted with some of the audio folks, finished my drink, and headed back upstairs for the evening.

     

    Geshelli Labs' equipment is available in a shocking variety of woods, metals, and color choices!

    Geshelli Labs’ equipment is available in a shocking variety of woods, metals, and color choices!

     

    Day One

    The following morning, I opened my door to head downstairs, and low and behold the “nice shirt” guy was standing in the room directly across the hall. It was Geno Bisceglia, and he and his wife Sherri form the core of Geshelli Labs, which is a family-run business; everyone in the Bisceglia family contributes in one way or another to the success of the Geshelli brand. Which includes a highly customizable DAC and several headphone amps, with everything available in a dazzling variety of wood and metal case finishes and color choices. Geno’s dad does all the woodworking (beautiful dovetail joints on the wooden cases!) and Sherri does the powder coating of all the metal cases. All the wood and metal cases have translucent glass front panels that are available in a multitude of colors, and the illumination of the interior circuitry gives all the equipment a funky, rock and roll glow. And that perfectly matches the Geshelli aesthetic: it’s all about bringing more of a rock and roll sensibility to the high-end. Everything is hand-built in the USA, in Rockledge, Florida, and nothing in their line retails for more than $300.

     

    The scale of the sound coming from the Von Schweikert Ultra 7s was hyper-impressive.

    The scale of the sound coming from the Von Schweikert Ultra 7s was hyper-impressive.

     

    The Audio Company (a high end dealer in Marietta, Georgia) in collaboration with Von Schweikert Audio and VAC, had the largest and most impressive-sounding room at the entire show. The highlight was Von Schweikert’s new Ultra 7 loudspeaker, which retails for $180,000 per pair. I hung out to hear several different tracks from both digital and analog sources, and the music was played with a level of scale and realism that simply defied belief. Never at any point did the sound seem to be coming from the Ultra 7’s – it was as though whichever performer we listened to was actually live and in the room. A very impressive system, to say the least! I talked with a principal at The Audio Company about getting a tour of their Marietta facility for an upcoming article – no dice; they have custom installs scheduled for about the next month or longer. Think the ultra high-end isn’t selling in the current economy? You’d better think again!

     

    Ofra and Eli Gershman along with George Klissarov (of exaSound) had one of the best sounding rooms at the show.

    Ofra and Eli Gershman along with George Klissarov (of exaSound) had one of the best sounding rooms at the show.

     

    The Gershman Acoustics loudspeakers were one of my show highlights back in 2020; this year, they featured a pair of their Grand Avant Garde loudspeakers ($16,000/pair), which had a beautiful blue gloss finish that simply gleamed. The first thing that really impressed me during my listening session was that such a relatively diminutive looking loudspeaker could produce a stereo image of such width and scale that simply defied their smallish dimensions. They were exceptionally musical; the sound was quite intoxicating, and I lingered in the room talking to Eli and Ofra Gershman and George Klissarov (of exaSound) much longer than I’d intended to. The musicality of the Grand Avant Garde was due in no small part to exaSound’s s82 Stereo Streaming DAC ($6,500), which is built around state-of-the-art ESS Sabre 9038 DAC chips. I was really blown away by the musicality of this Gershman/exaSound/Krell/Cardas setup, whether playing music from Patricia Barber or Metallica.

     

    Greg Roberts of Volti Audio and "Triode" Pete Gryzbowski of Triode Wire Labs had an impressively good sounding room.

    Greg Roberts of Volti Audio and “Triode” Pete Gryzbowski of Triode Wire Labs had an impressively good sounding room.

     

    I ventured over to the Volti Audio room to see what Greg Roberts and his frequent sidekick, “Triode” Pete Gryzbowski of Triode Wire Labs had on display. And was somewhat surprised to find that the room featured the ultra-affordable Volti Razz loudspeakers — the same speakers I reviewed for Stereophile in 2020 (you can read that review here) — being driven as usual by Border Patrol tube electronics. True to my recollection of the Razz, they were dazzlingly great-sounding loudspeakers, and Greg told me that he’d made several crossover modifications to the design, and was considering replacing the tweeter with an improved version. They sounded just as good to me as they did during my time with them from a couple of years ago, and at a base MSRP of $6,000 per pair, are one of the runaway best buys in high-end audio. They’ll play any kind of music with a scale of realism that simply must be heard to be believed, and are so very efficient, only a few tube watts are needed to get maximum performance from them.

     

    The solid aluminum Thrax equipment in High End by Oz's upstairs room was impressively overbuilt.

    The solid aluminum Thrax equipment in High End by Oz’s upstairs room was impressively overbuilt.

     

    Connecticut dealer High End by Oz had two rooms at the show; the main level Kennedy Room focused on dual pairs of Borresen Acoustics loudspeakers, amplification from Thrax Audio, and digital playback from Aavik Acoustics. The ninth floor room featured the premiere of a new loudspeaker pair from Thrax, a new Thrax integrated amplifier, a Thrax turntable, and a Vitus Audio player for spinning digital discs. The Borresen 05 Silver loudspeakers ($214,000/pair) were playing in the Kennedy room and are some of the finest loudspeakers I’ve ever heard at any price point. The upstairs room featured Bulgarian manufacturer Thrax, including the Lyra bookshelf cabinets paired with the Maxima side-firing woofer cabinets. Both the Lyra and Maxima were made from CNC-machined blocks of solid aluminum and retail for $41,000/pair. I generally wouldn’t think of a loudspeaker in a metal enclosure as having any kind of superior acoustic properties, but after hearing this combo, I’ve definitely re-thunk that conclusion. The resulting sound was dynamic, but also had great tonal warmth, but you’ll need a wrecking crew to help bring them into your home – each side weighs 210 lbs.

     

    I found the MBL room to be musically uninspiring.

    I found the MBL room to be musically uninspiring.

     

    I spent the least amount of time in the MBL Audio room. With the exception of the Wireworld Eclipse cables connecting the source equipment and loudspeakers, all items featured in this room were manufactured by MBL. I’m not particularly smitten with MBL’s house sound, which, while very dynamic, is perhaps a bit clinical for my tastes, even though the complement of audio equipment and loudspeakers in this room had an MSRP approaching a million dollars. YMMV.

     

    The Vivid Audio Giya G1 loudspeakers in Suncoast Audio's main level room gave everything else at the show a run for the money!

    The Vivid Audio Giya G1 loudspeakers in Suncoast Audio’s main level room gave everything else at the show a run for the money!

     

    Florida dealer and distributor Suncoast Audio occupied the main level Tampa Terrace room, and highlighted the visually impressive Vivid Audio Giya G1 Spirit loudspeakers ($85 – 93,000 per pair depending on crossover options). I hung out in this room for a really long time. The Vivid loudspeakers played music with incredible scale and impressively deep bass. At first, I didn’t think they were in the same league as some of the other “big” systems on the main level, but my impression changed when I moved to the rear of the room and the musical selections transitioned to heavier tracks. These included a 2016 live track from the current lineup of King Crimson, “The Hell Hounds of Krim,” which was about as percussively dynamic as anything I’ve heard in a very long time – it almost literally blew me away! This was followed by the track “Invincible” from Tool’s 2019 album Fear Inoculum – which really, really rocked hard – I wouldn’t have initially believed this system could crank it quite so powerfully.

     

    The MC AudioTech loudspeakers were impressive, with the correct music choices.

    The MC AudioTech Forty-10 loudspeakers were impressive with the correct music choices.

     

    The MC AudioTech room featured perhaps the most unusual loudspeaker design I heard today, the Forty-10, which is essentially a two-way design, although it incorporates a ten-element, curved panel, spaced array high-frequency driver enclosure. That’s coupled with a more conventional, 18-inch folded-cube woofer compartment. The high frequency array was driven by a Linear Tube Audio amplifier, and the woofer cabinet was driven by a Parasound amplifier. The sound was sheer perfection, and classic jazz tracks from Rudy Van Gelder and the like were rendered with a level of transparency, musicality and fidelity that almost defied belief. This type of music undoubtedly plays to the strength of the Forty-10, and allowed them to really shine.

    For more detailed Day One coverage click here.

     

    The Perlisten Audio loudspeakers were supremely musical.

     

    Day Two

    Audio dealer Tenacious Sound showcased loudspeakers by Q Acoustics and Perlisten Audio, amplifiers and control amplifiers from Unison Research, Cyrus, and English Acoustics. They 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. The more modestly-priced room featured loudspeakers from Q Acoustics; the room’s entire system including loudspeakers, electronics, and cables retails for just under $5,000. 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 an arm and a leg. Their second room featured two sets of floorstanding loudspeakers from Perlisten (pronounced “per-lissen”), including the flagship S7t ($20,000/pair), which were playing when I walked into the room. I was immediately gripped by the incredible goodness of the sound; the S7ts can crank it with the very best, and they love lots of power. They also have a very liquid midrange and treble response, which is probably due in no small part to their beryllium drivers. You could definitely color me impressed.

     

    Classic Audio's loudspeakers produced a larger-than-life illusion of reality.

    Classic Audio Loudspeaker T-1.5 field coil loudspeakers produced a larger-than-life illusion of reality.

     

    John Wolff’s Classic Audio Loudspeakers were in the Pavilion Room on the main level at FAE, which appeared to be among the largest rooms in the complex. That volume of space allowed his T-1.5 ($80,000/pair) and Hartsfield ($73,000/pair) field coil-powered loudspeakers to really sing out in a way that few other rooms at the show could approach. On the day I walked into his room, he was spinning LPs by request, playing into the T-1.5s that were being powered by McIntosh MC3500 amplifiers. John proceeded to play a track from a 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. This was perhaps the most gripping 19 minutes of the show for me, and the T-1.5s simply disappeared into the background. It was as though Porcupine Tree was actually performing live in the Pavilion Room. The effect rivaled what I’d earlier heard earlier in The Audio Company room with the Von Schweikert Ultra 7’s – the realism and presence of the music was almost overwhelming.

     

    Suncoast Audio's upstairs room featured a surprise audition of Shunyata Research's new Altaira Signal/Chassis Ground system.

    Suncoast Audio’s upstairs room featured a surprise audition of Shunyata Research’s new Altaira Signal/Chassis Ground system.

     

    As I stumbled through the 12th floor, I came across Suncoast Audio’s second room, which highlighted the Kharma Elegance Double Seven Signature loudspeakers ($34,000/pair). As I entered, the Pass Labs and MSB Technology equipment appeared substantial, but no music was playing; suddenly, a track commenced that grabbed me with its absolute realism of sound. Right in the middle of the song, the music stopped and a couple of guys got up and fiddled about with the connections in the equipment stack. The track started playing again from the beginning, but it now sounded dull, pedestrian, and shadowy, like all the life had been sucked out of the music – I was truly baffled. It turned out to be a trial run of the new Shunyata Research Altaira Signal/Chassis Ground system that was being tested at the show. When the system was reconnected, the track started again from the beginning, and all the magic had returned in full force. I was completely boggled by this – and as I was about to exit the room, the Shunyata guy glanced at my press pass, pulled me into the side room, and gave me the system info and the recommended MSRP, which, depending on how many specialized ground cables you’d need, will range from $5,000 to possibly $10,000. Definitely intriguing, though!

     

    AGD's GaNTube technology was unlike anything else at the show.

    AGD Production’s GaNTube technology was unlike anything else at the show.

     

    The AGD Productions 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 GaNTube. Now, I’ve heard a ton about how incredibly great this new technology can sound, but this was the first implementation of the technology I’d actually seen and heard. As I walked into the room and took a seat, a 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. 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 or not. 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.

     

    Mobile Fidelity's room featured great digital from HiFi Rose and outstanding loudspeakers from Piega.

    Mobile Fidelity’s room featured great digital from HiFi Rose and outstanding loudspeakers from Piega.

     

    The Mobile Fidelity 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 Piega speakers featured a coaxial ribbon tweeter/midrange unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and the mid/treble portion of the audio spectrum absolutely sparkled during playback. The digital source was the new HiFi Rose RS150, and the track selected was a live recording from Sara Bareilles’ Brave Enough: Live at the Variety Playhouse, 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.

     

    Mytek's new Flagship DAC/Streamer/Preamp was a really nice, if expensive, piece of kit.

    Mytek’s new Flagship DAC/Streamer/Preamp was a really nice, if expensive, piece of kit.

     

    The Mytek Audio room featured most of their models set up as headphone listening stations, and featured some of their models set up as essentially static displays. For 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 soon. Mytek is an American company based in Brooklyn, New York, but all their product manufacturing is done in Poland. I don’t do headphones often, so I didn’t really listen to any of the stations, but there was one new Mytek product that got my attention. It was their new flagship model, the Empire ($25,000), which is a DAC, streamer, and preamp all in one, and is about five times larger than any other Mytek product. The demo featured ProAc loudspeakers powered by a Mytek Class D amplifier, and the relatively diminutive setup was impressively dynamic.

    For more detailed Day Two coverage click here.

     

     

    Morten Thyrrestrup explains AGD's design philosophies for all their product lines.

    Morten Thyrrestrup explains AGD’s design philosophies for all their product lines.

     

    Day Three

    Next Level HiFi is a family-run high-end audio business located in Wayne, Illinois, and their room featured the three product lines of Audio Group Denmark (AGD), the manufacturer of loudspeakers for Borresen Acoustics, electronics and digital source equipment for Aavik Acoustics, and a variety of high-end cables for Ansuz Acoustics. The loudspeakers on display were the Borresen 01 Silvers ($60,000/pair), which I was very keen to hear. Morten Thyrrestrup of AGD reminded everyone that all Borresen loudspeakers employ drivers that are iron-free, which greatly lowers their inductance and which he claims imparts a greater sense of clarity to the sound. He expounded on how the Silver edition of the 01 improves upon the base model by replacing any copper used in the drivers with pure silver, which is said to improve upon the already good clarity of the base model significantly.

     

    The Blink High End room featured the outstanding Fink Team loudspeaker designs. I thought the Borgs looked like a sarcophagus!

    The Blink High End room featured the outstanding Fink Team loudspeaker designs. I thought the Borgs looked like a sarcophagus!

     

    Matterhorn Audio Group and Blink High End are a distributor and dealer partnership based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I first checked out the Blink High End room where they showcased a pair of excellent models from Germany’s Fink Team, who’ve recently been getting a lot of praise in audio circles. Including the floorstanding Borg loudspeakers ($33,500/pair) and the smaller standmount Kims ($12,000/pair). The Fink Team Borgs were playing as I entered the room, and I found their sound to be gripping and powerful, and loved the clarity afforded the mids and high-end by their AMT (air motion tweeter) drivers. Across the hall, the Matterhorn Audio Group’s room featured loudspeakers from Kroma Audio in Spain, the flagship Elektras ($120,000/pair), and the visually striking stand-mounted Julietas ($43,000/pair). I didn’t hang around long enough to hear the Julietas, but the Elektras were impressively dynamic.

     

    Muraudio's SP1's are outstanding electrostatic loudspeakers with excellent dispersion and imaging.

    Muraudio’s SP1s are outstanding electrostatic loudspeakers with excellent dispersion and imaging.

     

    Muraudio’s SP1 Point Source electrostatics ($20,000/pair) are one of the most exotic-looking electrostatic loudspeakers ever. They cast a seductive stereo image, have exceptional dispersion qualities, and literally disappear in the soundfield. Muraudio’s room featured tube amplification from Germany’s Westend Audio Systems, the 100-watt per channel Monaco integrated amplifier ($26,000), as well as digital streaming from the Weiss Engineering DAC501 ($10,000). I arrived at the Muraudio room about 15 minutes before the show opened on Sunday and found both Murray Harman and Roland Schebor available for a demonstration. We were able to talk and listen leisurely to the SP1s for about an hour, and Harman discussed Muraudio’s goals for the future, which revolve around getting their electrostatics into more homes in settings where they’ll be heard by everyone, and not just locked away in a basement room enjoyed by a single-minded audiophile. That’s one of the reasons they’ve worked so hard to get such a wide dispersion pattern with the SP1, to increase the size of the sweet spot for more listeners to easily enjoy the music. They’ve definitely accomplished that with the SP1, which are a must-hear.

     

    Alex Tkachov of Orlando distributor Alex Sound Technology controls the Sforzato digital system components.

    Alex Tkachov of Orlando distributor Alex Sound Technology controls the Sforzato digital system components.

     

    I also visited the room of a new distributor making their first-ever appearance at an audio trade show, Alex Sound Technology, a group of Ukrainian expats from outside the greater Orlando area. The company is the distributor for select lines of very-high-end audio equipment, and their product offerings include horn loudspeakers from German manufacturer Blumenhofer; digital streaming network players, DACs, and master clocks from Japanese firm Sforzato; and tube amplifiers and high-end vacuum tubes from Japanese company Takatsuki. Alex Sound Technology also reps cables and high-end connectors for three high-end brands, IeGo (pronounced “eye-yee-go”), True Power Lab, and ATL Power. I devoted special coverage to the Alex Sound Technology room (click here), and for more detailed coverage of Day Three, click here.

     

    I give the Von Schweikert Audio Endeavor SE loudspeakers my overall best of show.

    I give the Von Schweikert Audio Endeavor SE loudspeakers my overall best of show.

     

    Best of Show

    I give my overall Best of Show to another new model Von Schweikert Audio was showing, the Endeavor SE loudspeakers ($25,000/pair), which I felt offered a shocking level of realism in their big room that came darn close to matching that of the Ultra 7s at one-eighth the price. The first track I heard played over the Endeavor SEs was a blues number from Stevie Ray Vaughan; I stood in the back of the room behind the last row of chairs, and nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to hear. I know how old and cliched it is to use the “like he was live in the room” expression, but I swear, Stevie Ray Vaughan was freaking live and in the room! And the Endeavor SEs weren’t at all embarrassed by the Ultra 7s in terms of scale of sound. Granted, I heard the Ultra 7s multiple times over the weekend, and the SEs only once for about 30 minutes, but to steal John Atkinson’s catchphrase, “I was gobsmacked.” You can read more about that here.

    Overall, the Florida Audio Expo was a cracking success. I seriously enjoyed the show, and witnessed some extraordinary equipment. And spent quality time with old friends, while making the acquaintance of many new ones. Here’s to the end of the pandemic, and to the audiophile world moving back into a phase that’s waaaaay closer to normal for everyone.

    All images courtesy of the author.

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