The Sarasota Sound: A Visit to VAC and Suncoast Audio

Ahead of the Florida Audio Expo, I was wondering if readers realized just how much life there is in Tampa Bay audio.  I grew up in Longboat Key, which sits just a bit below Tampa Bay and right off the east side of Bradenton and Sarasota.  For many years, I have kept in touch with friends and family on the island by staying on Anna Maria Island.  Usually, I only take breaks from beach reading to grab a new LP or two from Daddy O’s Record Rack in Sarasota.  But I’ve always known that Kevin Hayes and Valve Amplification Company were nearby, very recently joined by Suncoast Audio, which is owned by Mike Bovaird, who also runs the AudioShark forums.  Finally, last summer I visited both and was very impressed with what I found. Both these firms are doing very well and there turns out to be quite a large market for high-end audio in Florida with a vibrant community in the Suncoast Audio Society.  I simply want to share what I learned on this visit with you.

Suncoast Audio

Mike’s retail store on the east side of Sarasota near I-75 is full of the very best high-end gear: Avantgarde, Magico, VPI, Gryphon, Audio Research, Chord Electronics, Harbeth, Luxman, T+A, Pass Labs, MBL … a virtual toy store for audiophiles.  Mike’s done extremely well by cultivating customers in the area. I think Mike summed it up particularly well when he said, “you spend just as much time selling the less expensive stuff, why not spend the same time selling the very best?”

I asked Mike a few questions about his store and the show after I wandered the store, looking at all the shiny objects and having a listen in his three showrooms.

Lee: “How do you view today’s high-end market?”

Mike:  “I’m just really busy. The market is good. Look, Florida is the 4th largest state. What we see a lot of are folks retiring from New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. They come down to Florida and, due to the real estate cost differential, have some money to invest in a great system if they are audiophiles.  We have brands that appeal to someone who wants a great system, even by normal high-end standards.”

Lee: “These are professional people at these prices, how do you maintain the level of customer service they are accustomed to?”

Mike: “It’s not a 9-5 job.  If something happens on the weekend, no one wants to wait until Monday morning.  I sometimes get calls at 10pm on a Saturday.  It may take a minute to solve the problem or an hour.  One thing I like to do is check-in with my customer after they have had a week with a new system.  How is the system performing?  It’s a casual conversation but it may lead to talking about phase 2.  Maybe they have an older power conditioner that needs to be replaced.  It’s a long-term relationship and keeping that dialogue and customer touchpoint gets away from the traditional transactional feel that most don’t like.”

Lee:  “How did you come up with the idea for a Florida show?”

Mike: “One year, I left RMAF and was sitting with Bart and John at the Denver airport and we got to talking about how we have nothing in the Southeast.  I love the Southeast and I’m proud of it.  We have a lot of good companies here: MBL, Scaena, VAC, etc.  We have a great story to tell.  We need a show.  We just decided, let’s try a show!  We may succeed, we may fail but we are going to do it.  Florida in February is great weather and CES doesn’t care about two-channel audio anymore.  Our purpose is two-fold: one. be a great super-regional show (Virginia on down), and two, become the new product launch show.  We are launching the Lumin P2 in the Magico room.  We are launching the Viva Classico 300B integrated.  We are off to a great start.  We had to turn away 20+ manufacturers once the exhibit rooms were sold out.  We may have to look at a larger venue for next year.”

Mike and I are sympatico in that our “day jobs” are in the IT fields selling to large enterprises. I think Mike has taken his customer relationship skills from IT and translated them directly to audio.  If you winter in Florida and you love music, Suncoast is a must-visit.

Valve Amplification Company

How is it that I’m spending vacations on Anna Maria and I’m not visiting Kevin’s factory in Sarasota?  Crazy.  Last summer, I decided to get off my duff and correct this.  I spoke to Kevin Hayes at one of the shows and he was very welcome to the idea for a visit.  He’s doing well and very busy as a result, but he generously spent the morning with me on one of my vacation days.

I started off in the office area where Kevin and his wife Darlene work and we talked about VAC and his approach to high-end audio.  He also teased a really cool new product he was about to introduce which we would see later.  To say that Kevin is an interesting guy would be an understatement.  He is a circuit designer with an MBA.  His approach to creating audio gear seems to me to be that of a scientist.  He is all about experimenting with new approaches and finding what works in terms of both objective and subjective evaluation.  He evaluates every single part is his designs and he is always looking for better parts.  Kevin even tries designs that he may not ultimately use, just so he can further his learning.  He also takes a long-term view on product longevity. He feels that the value proposition for the customer must be “meaningful” for a new version to be introduced.  Did the sound take a big step forward?  Frequent and incremental improvements are not quite enough.  Let’s spend more time in development and do something major seems to be Kevin’s ethos.  I find this very customer-friendly.  It’s probably quite good for resale value to boot.

So what makes the VAC gear sound so sumptuous on those big Von Schweikerts we keep seeing them on?

I think it comes down to three key elements based on several conversations I have had with Kevin:

  1. The scientific approach to experimentation and prototypes.
  2. A thoroughly hand-made process.
  3. The best-possible parts.

Let’s go in reverse order with parts.  VAC is fanatical about parts and has no respect for established audio orthodoxy if they hear something different.  Ceramic tube sockets?  Nope.  Micanol sockets sound better according to Kevin.  The big, new KT-150 tubes? No; Kevin prefers the sound of others in the KT family.  The latest capacitors?  Not necessarily — some of the best sounding ones come from many years in the past.  Need to manage that point to point wire?  Sure, but let’s use brass turrets that are coated in silver.  Expensive? Yes.  $0.50 to $0.60 per turret even at VAC quantity.  VAC boards may have over a hundred of these turrets.  So this single part alone costs Kevin’s company $50-100 per board.  Potentiometers?  Custom four-deck pieces weighing 2-3 lbs each.  Brass shielding enclosure.  Capacitors are chosen by what Kevin calls “context”, in other words, what type of product and how will they be used.  Chassis?  Kevin says they have found that weight is correlated with sound.

Every part is tested subjectively.  Every part.  Kevin’s been doing that over 30 years so he has a base of experience of what parts are reliable, sound good, and what parts play well together.

A hand-made process?  Oh yes.  Point to point wiring.  Potted transformers in molds to combat any mechanical resonance.  The VAC team uses a chemical process that “cures” the transformers in the factory molds and lasts decades.  Faceplates?  Oh my.  VAC is not messing around here.  Machined 6061 aluminum, beveled, chamfered, 3/8 to 3/4 inch thick with 6 or 7 stages to achieve the right look, then silk-screened in-house, and finally an automotive clear coat is applied.  Periodically pull a component to audit for quality?  Nope.  Every single unit is listened to by Kevin in the on-premise reference playback room.  Kevin uses a pair of Thiel 3.6s that he knows intimately that he feels provide a microscope-like view into performance along several key parameters.

Finally, we return to the overall approach.  Kevin’s analogy is that it’s like a recipe.  You can have the very best ingredients (and he does) but without a quality recipe, the food won’t taste good.  Kevin has the recipes from working with a wide variety of circuit designs and correlating those with sound characteristics.  He feels like he can predict 80-90% of how electronics will sound based on a look inside because of this experience.  And he will even do R&D with circuit designs he doesn’t like to gain the experience and either confirm or disprove his hypotheses.  In his own words, “it’s a complex world out there in audio” and he wants to make sure their theories have not blinded them to what’s out there.  Kevin’s goal is to make electronics that work with and allow all speakers to sound their best.

The special treat Kevin mentioned earlier on the visit was the ability to take the first photos of the $150,000 Statement Integrated.  This has garnered a LOT of attention at shows and, according to Kevin, VAC’s best customers.  As heard with Von Schweikert Ultra 9s, this pairing from The Audio Company has a gorgeous midrange, wow-them dynamics, and a spacious soundstage.  Kevin says something interesting occurred with the Statement Integrated.  The combination of the parts making up individual components (it is a preamp-phono stage-amplifier after all) actually outperformed the individual parts.  Was it the shorter signal paths and lack of cables?  Vertical heat dissipation from horizontal vacuum tubes?  Don’t know.  All I know is the sound is mesmerizing and the build quality is Tiffany-like. And the appearance is such that I look like a better photographer than I am.

One thing’s for sure: Florida is ripe for its time in the spotlight.  Good people like Mike and Kevin are about to deliver an experience.  I cannot wait to board the Delta plane tomorrow.  It’s going to be a great weekend!