It’s getting more and more difficult picking the Best Sound winners at high-end audio shows. First of all, I’ve heard a number of loudspeakers this year that are competing feverishly to reach new heights of musical reproduction. Sure, they cost as much as a house in most parts of the country, but that’s not the point. The point is that we’re pushing the envelope of technology in most cases, and that means we’ll all benefit down the road when the R&D is paid for and prices come down. The Best Sound in Seattle, in other words, is some of the best sound I’ve heard anywhere, at any price, despite the fact that it was a relatively small show.
Words and Photos by Marc Phillips
Look at Børresen, for example. In April they introduced the M3 speakers at $280K/pair, and I thought these were the most amazing speakers I’ve heard. Then, in May, I go to Munich and hear the TIDAL for Bugatti system, $450,000 for the system, and once again I feel like the stakes have been raised. Now, in June, I’ve heard the Børresen M6s for $550,000, and again I’m astounded.
Then, I listen to the Børresen X3s, at just $11,000/pair, and I can hear so much of the M3s and the M6s in them. The Best Sound of Seattle is going to be tough to discern. Let’s see how this goes.
Here are the Best Sound in Seattle exhibit room nominees, listed in no particular order:
As I mentioned, I knew that this would be a complex room to evaluate considering this is the year I listened to TIDAL Audio, Von Schweikert, the big Acora VRC-1 flagships and even the lesser but still extraordinary Børresen M3s. When I visited the Audio Group Denmark factory last summer, I was able to compare every product in the numerous lines, and hear consistent and noticeable improvements as we moved toward the flagship models.
At the conclusion of each A/B comparison, Lars Kristensen would ask “Can we do better?” And the others in the room would reply, “Yes, we can.” That certainly encapsulates my experience this year with the M3 and the M6–just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, it does. The M6 was every bit as special as M3, but the soundstage was simply bigger in every parameter. Best Sound in Seattle? We’ll see.
What can I say about Von Schweikert Audio and Valve Amplification Company that I haven’t already said at least a dozen times? Apparently, I haven’t said enough. We just received an email from a reader who wanted to know why we don’t talk about these two brands anymore. To me, that’s crazy–we’ve published two VAC reviews and two VSA reviews in the last year alone, plus all the usual show coverage during a very busy year.
When we’re talking about the Best Sound in Seattle, however, it’s time to give Kevin Hayes of VAC some well-deserved glory. PAF 2023 was definitely Kevin’s turn to shine, since he had plenty of VAC amps in other rooms that also sounded magnificent and his new Essence amplifier line was the talk of the show. But let’s also discuss the fact that the $180K/pair Von Schweikert Audio Ultra 7s, which are smaller than the Ultra 9s and Ultra 11s we usually see at audio shows, might be my favorite VSA speaker of all time.
This room combines two of my favorite companies at high-end audio shows–Innuos, the digital company that always assemble great systems while offering truly revealing A/B comparisons, and Acora, which has really impressed the high-end audio community with the awesome new flagship VRC-1s, priced at $218K/pr. Of course this room is a contender for Best Sound in Seattle.
There was a newsworthy subtext to this room, considering that Acora recently bought Audio Research Corporation and kept this legendary marque alive. The first time I heard and admired Acora Acoustics loudspeakers, they were matched with ARC and made an impression on me that I still clearly remember. Plus, the VRC-1s are still superb at “Chocolate Chip Trip.” Acora and ARC are clearly a great match, and we’re going to hear a lot from these two at future shows.
Maybe it’s because the Genesis Advanced Technologies new Prime+ loudspeaker system is so large and formidable in size, but no one seemed to notice that they were also the most expensive loudspeakers at the show at $680K/pr USD. (In other words, the price tag seemed quite reasonable considering the massive size and complexity of these transducers and no one complained.) They also presented a large and formidable sound and were definitely discussed as a potential Best Sound in Seattle.
But my heart was stolen by the smaller system at the other end of the room that featured the new Genesis G7 line, with the One starting at just $8,000/pr USD. This system also included some of my favorite brands, made and/or represented by some of my favorite peeps in the industry: The Wand, Heed Audio and more. The fact that I was equally impressed by the Prime + and the G7 Ones just proves that Gary Koh is a masterful speaker designer with a strong and singular vision.
Yes, I’ve fallen for JMF amplification from France–the bespoke nature of these solid-state amplifiers is nothing less than intoxicating when it comes to the sonic results. But I forgot that many years ago, I once fell for GamuT speakers. My first GamuT exhibit at CES (around 2007 or 2008) was one of those audio experiences where you realize that you’ve just jumped up to the next level of audio reproduction for the first time.
So while we’re talking about all these big-dollar speakers that are marching up the field to capture that flag on top of the hill, let’s throw in the GamuT Zodiac speakers ($175k/pr). I had at least two people at PAF 2023 tell me that the Zodiacs are their favorite speakers of all time, bar none, and now I have to agree that Michael Vamos of Audio Skies achieved some of the Best Sound in Seattle.
This was my big surprise at the 2023 Pacific Audio Fest. I hadn’t heard of either brand, so I ducked into the room and was immediately confronted with one of those low-powered SET/high-efficiency speaker systems that I used to love so much just a few years ago. We’re talking 4.2wpc of 2A3 glory matched with full-range drivers and a field coil design.
I wouldn’t call this the Best Sound in Seattle. I’d call it the Most Beautiful Sound in Seattle. Maybe the Lushest. Maybe the Most Hypnotic. The Songer Audio and Whammerdyne room is the one that still haunts me two weeks after the end of the show. I can’t wait to here this combo again.
Take a pair of one of my favorite BIG speakers of the year, the Nola Baby Grand Reference Gold 3, and match them with the new Essence amp and preamplifier from Kevin Hayes of VAC, and you definitely have a Best Sound in Seattle contender. I told you that it was Kevin Hayes’ show, where his VAC amps really made a huge impression at the Pacific Audio Fest, but here’s the main reason why so many people are excited about these “little” Essence amps.
Ordinarily you might want to use one of the big VAC amp combos when you’re sharing a room with a $150k/pr speakers like the Nolas. While both Dr. Vinyl and I remarked on how different the Baby Grands sounded in his house with JMF, Bankert Labs and ampsandsound, these four-figure separates created one of the deepest soundstages I’ve heard at a show. The Nolas, which are huge, disappeared in the room like a little two-way monitor. I suspect that’s the Essence amps at play, but this system was fun, dynamic and I spent a lot of time listening to it.
Have I joined the Audio Note UK cult? After years of conjecture, where I had an intuition that I would love this brand if I could just get them into my dirty mitts, I do have to say I GET IT. For the last few months I’ve been submerged ears-first into an entire Audio Note UK system, and after PAF 2023 I have to say goodbye to this wonderful kit and move on to something else.
Seeing and hearing this Audio Note UK system, which is a little higher up the Qvortrup ladder of performance, certainly capped off a memorable review cycle. I keep thinking about that Meishu Tonmeister Phono integrated, which ticks a lot of boxes for me, so who knows where I wind up a few years from now.
Best Sound In Seattle, and in my home. Seems like a natural choice here on this list.
The Joseph Audio/Doshi Audio/Aurender/Cardas Team appears on nearly every “best of show” list as long as they show up. There’s that same old reason–this is my sound, the one I aim for in this hobby–but now I feel less obsessive about my preference since someone else gave me almost exactly the same reason.
We’re listing our Best Sound in Seattle rooms, listing various brand names, and someone mentions Joseph Audio and Doshi Audio and the whole group nods in unison, mumbling but of course, they’re always great, and then someone said it: “That’s totally my sound.” There is no one who creates such consistently excellent exhibit rooms in the industry, and PAF 2023 was no exception.
It seems like Gershman Acoustics has been around forever. I certainly remember all those old ads in Stereophile in the same way I remember Cal Worthington and his dog Spot. But why I haven’t I spent seat time with these amazing speakers until now? Eli and Ofra Gershman are known in this industry for being kind and sweet, but let’s back up for a second. Their speaker designs are incredible. The cabinets are relatively small, but the bass isn’t. These speakers are the result of passion and dedication.
At PAF 2023, the Gershman Acoustics room featured a relatively simple system in a very big room, and those Grand Avant Garde 30th Anniversary speakers owned that space like few other speakers can. Was I impressed? I drove home with a pair of Gershman Acoustics speakers in the trunk of my SUV. I can’t wait to plug them in. So there’s that.
The Winner: Audio Group Denmark
No, I’m not being wishy-washy. I’ve just had seat time with one fantastic speaker after another over the last year. Not every speaker can be heard at every show. Not every great speaker can sound great at every show. There are too many variables. I try to listen, I try to remain objective, but at the same time I will not conceal my enthusiasm for a high-end audio product that takes me to new sonic heights. Those heights have been lifted quite regularly in 2023. With the Børresen M6, they are lifted once again.
I’m not going to tell you that one six-figure loudspeaker is better than another. But I’ll tell you what I will do. I’ll encourage all of these high-end audio manufacturers to bring their systems to one place and let me compare them endlessly. Only then will I pick an all-time favorite. Until then, don’t ask. I’m not sure.
But for now, in June 2023, the Børresen M6 delivered the Best Sound in Seattle. Congrats!