Covering audio shows has always been a favorite part of doing Part-Time Audiophile. In a way, it’s kinda how we got our start. Way back in the day, most “audio destinations” largely ignored shows, and references in the venerable mags like Stereophile and TAS limited the coverage to a single page. As a “young” audiophile, and nothing even resembling an industry insider, audio shows were a mystery, an in-the-news line item, and outside the larger audiophile experience. Sure, folks went — to CES particularly — but the entire media response was, apparently, a big, empty, blah.
Words and Photos by Scot Hull
My first show was a lark. I probably wouldn’t have considered going if it hadn’t been just down the road, but happenstance had it that the first Capital Audiofest was being held at a mansion outside DC — so, a really big house, not a hotel or convention center — which, in retrospect, was a radical (and completely delightful) departure from the many experiences that came later. It was awesome — intimate, entertaining, and formative. I heard stuff at that show that I fell in love with — gear that I spent the better part of a decade desperately attempting to afford!
The “show bug” had bitten me pretty hard, and I promptly arranged a trip to my very first Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. I was in for a shock — unlike the modern CAF, RMAF was “fully engaged” at that point, hugely popular, and thoroughly mobbed. I remember my eyes rolling back in my head in a dead faint, just looking at the throng in the hotel lobby. Where on earth did all those folks come from? It was at that show when it “clicked”, for me. “The Hobby” isn’t me, alone in my “man-cave”, wrapped in the silk, satin, and cotton cloud of fine sound; it was here, in places like this, moving from room to room with a horde of others, all of us gorging on some massive sonic buffet before retiring to the lounge/restaurant/bar to talk with/hang out with/connect with all the other audiophile gremlins who were just like me. Being an audiophile could be — should be — a shared experience. It was a revelation.
But I went home and picked up my Stereophile and my TAS in the months that followed … I saw nothing about the zoo that I was so thrilled to have played in. It was like my experience didn’t happen. Like none of it ever happened.
And that’s why we started “doing shows” different. We would go room-to-room. Show everything we could. Try to bring the experience back home. To share it, if we could. That was the plan. I still think it is an excellent plan!
It’s been 13 years since that first couple of shows. I don’t do write ups of every single rooms anymore — at least, not all by myself. I remember the first show I got to that had over 200 rooms, and thinking to myself, “well, if I spend only 3 minutes per room, and give myself 1 minute to walk to the next room, maybe I can get them all” … yeah, ha ha, no.
Over the years, we switched things up. PTA went from “The All-Scot Show” to a team of folks that “do the show.” More folks took notice. At some point, show reports suddenly became a thing at Stereophile and TAS. [Cough]. Whatever — we kept doing our thing — and some years, something like 90% of our annual content was audio show room reports! Good times were had by all.
These days, we’re quite a bit more diverse — I thank folks like Brian Hunter, John Stancavage, Rafe Arnott, and Marc Phillips for bringing balance to the Force. But audio shows are still interesting. To me. To the industry. To PTA.
I stepped into a background role (a return to grad school, then a new career, and then a new town, yadda yadda yadda), my efforts here at PTA an attempt to staff the wall between editorial and advertising. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta blah blah blah. That shift has meant stepping off the audio show circuit to make space for a new crew to fill in the pages. And for years, that worked out brilliantly (by and large).
But things changed, as things tend to do, when our resident show-goer Eric abruptly departed this past fall to pursue his personal aspirations through INDULGR. We faced a choice. And while talking with the crew, we decided that audio shows are still our thing, so I dusted off my camera, grabbed a bag, and signed back up.
And here we are. I’ll confess this though: heading off to Tampa during a Chicago winter didn’t really take a lot of arm-twisting.
I have been thinking a lot about where we came from, how we got here, and what it is that we did different and special from the now seemingly vast numbers of online sites looking into audio’s high-end. I think it’s time to resurrect some nostalgia here at PTA. Once upon a time, we were one befuddled dude’s journey into system creation. The stories that were part of that journey gave way to a lot of different things, but of all the things we do, I still like “the story” as a vehicle for explaining complicated things. So, the story I’m exploring this year is “desktop experiences.” Think headphones and nearfield monitors — and everything you might want or need to make them sing. And that was what I was looking for at FLAX this year.
On to FLAX.
Did I mention that, compared to Chicago weather here in February is really quite awesome? Yeah. It is. Mmm, hmm, just what the Doctor ordered.
After the pre-show fun and games, I was ready for the main event. First stop was the MoFi Distribution floor — I really wanted to hear the Falcon LS3/5a loudspeakers. If you’re reading this, chances are good that you know more about why this speaker is iconic than I do (and I’m okay with that, so settle down). I found a pair in the doorway — the limited-run 50th Anniversary “Gold Badge” version. The burled veneer on these little guys is pretty sweet, just so you know. The Falcon guys were not showing these speakers (they were demoing the new and more affordable M10 — check that out here), but I did manage to twist their arms, and got to hear them at the end of the show. I suppose you could say that I liked what I heard — because a pair is now sitting on my desk as I type this. Heh heh. More on that soon.
Another caught-me-off-guard experience happened in the CAD demo room, which had been showing with the much-bigger Egglestonworks loudspeakers. As you know, CAD makes fantastic digital servers, and systems using them makes beautiful music. But on my trip through, the CAD-backed demo was fronted by the little W5 loudspeakers from Boenicke. These speakers are — I think — intended for desktop use, but in an absolutely delightful and hilariously genre-busting demo, I got to hear these little dudes completely fill up a full-size room and fronting a full-size system. The experience was, in short, bananas — one of those “shouldn’t work but totally does” experiences — and I hope to have a pair of these speakers in pronto. CAD was a high point of my time at FLAX.
Speaking of tiny: did you see the SuperMon Mini from MON Acoustic? These guys are metal as hell — and come with a delightful variety of cheerily anodized fascia. Young Byun, the US importer, very kindly dropped his pair into his much-larger demo, and I got to hear yet another physics-defying mini-monitor. If Apple had any idea this kind of sound was possible, I seriously doubt the Homepod would have happened. Astonishing what your $2k gets you here — and yes, I’m trying to get a pair into the studio.
One of my favorite experiences at FLAX this year was completely unexpected and it happened in the Audeze room. I had no idea what I was listening to, actually — I was just there taking photos, and while distracted, I happened to sit down in front of a rather nifty amp from Linear Tube Audio, the z10e. I picked up the cans, turned up the tunes, and said to no one in particular (and rather disappointingly, I said it out loud), “wait wait wait — Audeze headphones don’t sound like this!” Heh heh. Oops.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m a fan of Audeze. What caught me off guard was that, apparently, at some point in the last few years, someone had turned the Audeze sound up to bewildering levels of outstanding. And, it turns out, here I was jamming to Audeze’s new CRBN electrostatic headphone.
Step away from headphones for FIVE MINUTES and the entire segment goes to the moon and back. Sheesh.
For the record, I also spent time with the LCD-5 flagship that we reviewed here last fall, but to my ears, the CRBN might be the one to grab. Perhaps that’s because I’m a fan of estat ‘phones, but perhaps that’s because of the brilliant pairing with the LTA ZOTL amp. Dunno! But I aim to find out.
Okay, so moving on from the personalized world of small spaces, I have to give a shoutout to the absurdity the SVSound crew brought to FLAX. What the actual hell, guys. I’m still grinning about what these yahoos did to the unsuspecting showgoers. Clips from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mission Impossible were enough to completely blow out all my circuit breakers and also shake the fixtures off the hotel room walls. This was LOUD in a way that your wide-screen TV only wishes it could reach and left me reconsidering several life choices, all of which to-date had apparently ended with, “I don’t really need a subwoofer”. Yeah, apparently, that conclusion was wildly incorrect. I do. I do need a subwoofer. Preferably at least two. Yeah. That’s the ticket. At least two. Fantastic demo and easily one of the best show experiences on offer at FLAX this year.
I don’t know anything about Tobian loudspeakers — but looks like I’m going to need to fix that, because these easy-to-drive horn-based loudspeakers look and sound great. But while that is undoubtedly true, what brought me to the room was Lampizator North America showing off the top-of-the-line Horizon DAC. Folks, this room’s sound had a beauty and elegance that rivaled the very best anywhere. I was very impressed. I was more impressed at how quickly they stopped me from leaving the room with the DAC tucked under my arm. And I thought I was being so slick.
My experiences with Lampizator are long and lovely, so I’ll not digress too much here other than to say — this DAC was in two of my favorite rooms at the show. And both experiences I had were with this DAC in the mix. And both experiences had me swooning. Coincidence? Not on your life.
One day, maybe, my horizons will broaden enough to have my own Horizon to play with — but until then, a man can dream.
Another runner-up in the Best-In-Show category was my perennial favorite — the BorderPatrol, Triode Wire Labs, and Volti collaboration (with Innuos!). I love the sound this gear makes — and while I am partial to the collective effort, I know that each are excellent in their own regard. Here at FLAX, the sound was punchy, precise, and on-point. One of their best demos to date — and all the more remarkable due, yet again, to the completely expected room constraints. How do they shoehorn such great sound into such crap rooms? Mystery notwithstanding, for what most of us will face with our “real world conditions”, this gear, in this combo, has proven again and again that us normal folks are absolutely capable of absolutely world-class performance. Just brilliant.
Once again, I am tickled and intrigued by the truly impressive (and imposing) presence of Avant-garde. Angie Lisi, one of my favorite hi-fi people and also the North American importer/distributor, was on hand to champion these tour-de-force “systems”. I say “system” because what has become obvious (at least to me) is that the Duo GT (like the Zero before it) is clearly the culmination of countless hours of R&D — and the new iTRON upgrades are “must explore” options for anyone seriously considering the brand. The performance of the combined system was exhilarating. Past and future combined in the present — just gorgeous, in both look and sound. Sign me up! If only they’d fit in my living room … sigh. Let’s just say that, the next time I’m shopping for a new home, I have a whole new set of criteria for room dimensions.
Which brings me to my FLAX 2023 Best-in-Show winner: Acora Acoustics, with VAC, LampizatOr, Aurender, Cardas, Oracle, and Lyra.
The new monoliths from Acora are monsters — both in sheer physical presence and in sheer sonic presence. And backed up by world-class tubes from VAC, by a stack of top-shelf digital sources from Lampi and Aurender (including the brand-new Aurender Master Clock), and miles of that big blue cabling from Cardas, and all the pretty boxes decked out on top of the gorgeous, yes, Acora racks, the digital side of this system just humbled me (I sadly didn’t get to hear the analog side — another time, I hope).
I know I’ll never afford this system, or anything close to it — but who cares. The fact that it existed, if only for this show, is a delight that I will get to keep revisiting. But here’s the thing I wanted to share about my time there — this demo pulled off the neatest trick possible at an audio show, a trick I’ve really only heard from one other room, one other time. In short, it’s this: this was the best headphone experience ever.
Let me explain: the demo room was enormous — and if you know anything about audio show “room conditions”, you’ll know that the room is Enemy #1. Most big-room demos fail to tame it. But I will say this with all due respect — what room? There is no room — just me, the music, and the flood of memories that come with whatever it was Val Cora was playing. I was transfixed. I was gobsmacked. I was grinning like an ape suddenly given all the bananas. Swoon.
A quick aside: there has, apparently, been some debate amongst the audio intelligentsia about whether or not “the granite brand” is worthy of all the accolades being heaped upon them. To which I must declare — don’t be an idiot. Seriously, if you have doubts, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating, and this demo was just outstanding. Backed with world-class electronics from VAC and Lampi, this was the demo to end all demos. It was very clearly the most astonishing thing on display in Florida this year — and set the bar for not only this show, but every show to follow. Truly exceptional in every respect.
And that’s the show, folks.
To Bart, Sue, and Denise — and everyone else responsible for the look, feel, and warmth on offer from the Florida Audio Expo 2023 — you have our thanks and our gratitude. What a great show — can’t wait for 2024!
If you would like to hear even more coverage from FLAX 2023, check out our recap report and highlights from our audiophile-oriented show The Occasional Podcast. You can stream the episode direct from the embed below, or from your favorite podcast platform including iTunes, Android, Google, Deezer, Spotify, iHeartRadio and more.
At the Capital Audio Fest I heard two digital front ends that were miles above any other. Both were Lampizators.