[Editor’s Note: While brainstorming how to best tell the story of our road trip to The Audio Company, Dave and I (Eric Franklin Shook) considered drilling down into the specific sound of each room, but instead have decided to depart from our new-normal as large caliber reviewers, and give the reader a sense of the people, the store, and the vibe of being there. We’ve included links to products reviewed that make an appearance in this article. Alas, we were not there to review the in-store gear and pronounce judgments, we were there to celebrate the in-store experience and have a good time. If at the end of this article, you are not inspired by our words and photography to visit The Audio Company for yourself, we’ve not done our jobs.]
“I’ll roll up to your place at 7:00 A.M.,” Eric said. Okay, I thought. What’s worse, he’s always on time. Thus began our drive to Atlanta in search of audiophile paradise in the form of one of the finest high-end dealers in all the good ole USA, The Audio Company (website).
Scott Sefton of Acora Acoustics had invited the two of us down to join him as he set up some Acora SRC-2 granite speakers that had been recently delivered to the shop. The newly arrived SRC-2s rounded out some SRC-1s and SRB monitors and SRS stands that were already available to audition. I (and I’ll assume everybody else) had grown weary of secluded pandemic life, so being vaccinated and hungry for a shared audio geek-fest, I immediately thought hell yes.
Words by Dave McNair
I had been to a few of the rooms at audio shows that are hosted by The Audio Company, V.A.C., Von Schweikert Audio, with some Esoteric digital gear thrown in for good measure. Those rooms are always out-of-this-world impressive, with Mount Everest level performance and a price tag to match. And if I’m being honest, a bit intimidating. What would the guys who assemble and sell those systems be like? I don’t think Eric or I had any idea just how much fun we were going to have. Okay, maybe Eric did.
Day One – Acora Acoustics, The Audio Company
The address on my GPS took us to a storefront on the corner of a group of charming, early 20th-century buildings on the perimeter of a green space square in downtown Marietta, Georgia. The storefront display said Sweet Melissa Records and it looked like an old antique store from the outside. Eric went in to get the scoop while I waited outside. He soon re-appeared with a young woman who informed us The Audio Company was located at the other end of the building, and she then proceeded to walk us down.
I thought she was being extra kind to strangers in that Southern way until we found out Sweet Melissa is also owned by The Audio Company. As we later found out first hand, not only is Sweet Melissa’s record selection amazing but there are several entry-level systems set up for listening and a dedicated audition room with more systems. Nice!
Walking into The Audio Company, I was instantly taken with what I consider a very tasteful sense of aesthetics. The high ceilings of the old building had been preserved but painted black so as to disappear behind the cool light fixtures. Old hardwood floors were refinished and complemented by large and gorgeous Persian rugs in each of the four sound rooms. A bit of fine art here and there but not so much as to seem stuffy, nor distract from the main attraction: some of the finest sound reproduction systems available today.
We were greeted by two of the three owners, Keith and Gordon, soon to be joined by Jim who mostly handles things at Sweet Melissa. As we were to find out, their three distinctly different personalities are considered by the group to be an asset to the business. All three guys bring unique and valuable attributes to running a successful audio business and, let’s face it, running a brick and mortar retail store is challenging even in the best of times.
The entry room is the smallest of the four exhibit rooms. While we were there, Scott fine tuned placement and attachment to the granite stands on a pair of Acora SRB speakers powered by an Esoteric integrated amp. I did a quick listen to a Buddy Guy record that sounded phenomenal. Never having heard SRB outside of an audio show, I was quite impressed by their overall tonality including a hefty low end that got even better after placement adjustments. I thought the midrange was especially seductive.
Room Two has a big couch and a variety of components at the ready. It’s spacious and feels like the living room in a truly fine home. Magico, Focal, Tannoy, VAC and a few other familiar brands populated this room. I noticed a flat-screen and center channel speaker so I assume home theater setups can also be checked out here. I didn’t get a chance to listen in this room but later wished I had returned. I really want to hear the VAC Signature 200 iQ, and I spotted one in Room Two. There’s always a next visit.
Room Three was large but not cavernous and housed the Acora SRC-2 powered by a pair of VAC Statement 450 iQ amps and a VAC Master Preamplifier. Sources were via a Transrotor Rondino turntable and Esoteric DAC.
Scott and Gordon had already done some placement fine-tuning. I listened to a couple of things via digital that Scott had brought and thought it sounded amazing. Later, I dialed up some things via Qobuz that I had worked on and knew well.
Having a pair of SRC-2s at home, I am very familiar with their attributes. My room is quite different and recently I have put in a lot of acoustic treatment. At The Audio Company, it was a real joy to hear these beauties effortlessly fill a much larger and relatively untreated space compared to my living room. Everything I love about the SRC-2 was in full evidence. I did feel there was a slight bump in the upper bass. This was gone by day two when Scott did more setup tweaks.
As we spent more time chatting, I enjoyed getting to know the guys. Also, I got a strong sense of their genuine love for all things music and audio related.
Keith has been passionate about hi-fi for many years and knew Gordon from when they worked at different stores that were located across the street from each other! I sensed a deep knowledge and familiarity with hi-fi brands and products going back to the beginning of the modern high end era. Gordon, being the tech head of the bunch, occasionally does things like rebuild vintage components and speakers. He also co-owns a side business that does sound reinforcement for live shows and events.
Keith struck me as the business guy with a heart. The type who graduated from a military academy, had a successful startup and later went to work for an NGO or something. Gordon is the tech head who (like me) lives and breathes audio. Jim is like the guy who was captain of the Ultimate Frisbee team and played in a rock band before shifting his passion to audio and music. These are my unfair and fictional categorizations but hopefully serve to give the reader a sense of the depth these three guys bring to their biz.
We stayed at the store talking and listening until dinner time, then Eric, Scott, and I made a quick pit stop at our hotel before meeting up with the gang at one of Keith’s favorite restaurants, conveniently located on the other side of the square.
It had been a long day so I was a bit catatonic at the restaurant but the food and company was superb. We were also joined by Gordon’s partner in the sound reinforcement business. I enjoyed talking to him and shared his perspective and enthusiasm on several audio related topics.
I can’t fail to mention that Eric (in his typical manner) dialed up his stealthy prank attacks on me and anyone else that would fall for it, including Jim and Scott. That’s fine but see if next time I am so eager to bail him out of jail for drunk dancing on the hood of that McLaren parked in front of the restaurant.
Day Two – Sweet Melissa Records, The Audio Company
After a check in and more listening at The Audio Company, Eric and I walked down the street to get the tour from Jim and buy some records.
The modest system Jim played for us was genuinely superb: a pair of Focal Kantas powered by a Rogue Audio tube integrated fed by a Pro-Ject turntable with a MM cart. I picked Beck’s Sea Change out of the stack. Wow. Huge and fun in every way.
Now I see what’s going on here. Take some unsuspecting record buyers and give them a taste of the gateway drug in the form of relatively affordable but high class two channels. Boom. Make a customer for life and when they are ready, can you guess where they’ll go to upgrade? Yep.
As Eric snapped pics and made witty comments, I perused the bins (and accumulated a hefty stack) while chatting with Jim and Keith. Those guys certainly know music and records. Egged on by Eric, I unconsciously slid into a random stream of anecdotes and stories about records I came across.
It’s only when I’m around a few close friends like EFS and Grover Neville that my inner music nerd comes out in full force. And the stories usually include my first hand account of what happened on various recording sessions. I won’t lie, it was fun to slip into that mode after being cooped up in my pandemic fortress of solitude for what seems like an eternity.
I didn’t take the time to closely survey the antique merchandise that the store sells but it seemed like it was only the cool stuff. Vintage cameras and lenses. Music collectables of all kinds. Stuff like that.
Back at The Audio Company for one more round of listening, we brought Briar with us, an employee at the record store. She listened to the SRC-2s and gave ‘em the thumbs up. I wanted to do one more thing before hitting the road; rock some tunes in The Big Boy Room.
The largest room at The Audio Company is loaded with the top end of their lines including four VAC Statement 452 iQ power amps, Statement Line Stage, Statement Phono Stage, and several pieces from Esoteric including their newest DAC/ streamer. This system also had a Transrotor Tourbillon FMD with a gorgeous Reed tonearm. A pair of Von Schweikert Audio VR-55 speakers completed the picture.
So basically, something very akin to what I’ve heard in the big rooms at Capital Audiofest (CAF) and the Tampa Audio Expo (TAMPAX) shows.
I found the sound to be impressive especially in the midrange but didn’t get the size and depth of low end I heard in the smaller SRC-2 room. Gordon informed me the VR-55’s were less than a day out of the box and in fact had not had any placement and low end tuning which is one the coolest things about the powered series of VSA speakers.
Gordon assured me they would be at mission critical performance after a proper setup. While enjoyable sounding, having heard this componentry before and needing a drool bucket, I took Gordon at his word and gave it a full pass. I’m still hoping to review this speaker in the future because I have mad respect for VSA based on other listening experiences.
We said our goodbyes to the wonderful, warm-hearted crew at The Audio Company and Sweet Melissa, thanking them for their time and hospitality. It’s nice to make new friends in this little club of folks we call audiophiles.