When I flew to Tampa to attend Florida Audio Expo 2020, held February 7-9 at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Tampa Airport Westshore, I had it in my head to do something I hadn’t done at an audio show in a while: listen as critically as possible to as many systems as I could. (See SoundStage! Global for our team’s coverage of the show.)
Listening critically at an audio show runs counter to what I said in December in my “The Best of Warsaw’s Audio Video Show 2019”: “John [Darko] and I agree on why we believe audio writers shouldn’t get too serious about what they hear at shows, though we admitted to each other that each of us took years to come to these conclusions.” What Darko and I feel is that, for various reasons I outlined in that article, hi-fi shows aren’t the best places to make meaningful assessments of sound, as reviewers at some other publications try to do. Plus, if we listen too long in each room, we leave too much else at that show uncovered.
Why the change of heart? One factor was the size of the Florida Audio Expo itself. Based on the pre-show exhibitor list, I knew that 2020 would be bigger than 2019, the FAE’s inaugural year, but I was confident it wouldn’t be so big that I’d have to rush from room to room. Besides, editor-in-chief Jeff Fritz would also be covering FAE, which would free up more time for me to listen.
Did having more time to listen change my mind about the value of listening critically at an audio show and trying to relay what I heard to readers? Mostly, no -- FAE 2020 presented the same setup problems as all audio shows do. In the end, I still don’t feel there’s much point in “reviewing” the sounds of audio gear at shows and presenting that to readers as anything definitive.
Still, there was some benefit for me to take more time to listen in each room. Two loudspeakers I heard at FAE 2020 were based on radical technologies that, had I not listened to them at length, I might not have wanted to pursue further. Those two speakers are among the six products that Jeff and I agreed are the Best of Florida Audio Expo 2020. (All prices in USD.)
MC Audiotech Forty-10 loudspeaker
MC Audiotech’s Forty-10 ($35,000/pair) is one of the two loudspeakers boasting unique tech that we saw at FAE 2020. As I mentioned in my report, the speaker’s name represents designer Paul Paddock’s 40 years of experience and the ten Wide Band Line Source (WBLS) drivers each cabinet contains. According to the press release, the WBLS is a greatly advanced version of Paddock’s Linaeum tweeter, which I first heard decades ago, and which, in the 1980s and 1990s, Paddock’s Linaeum Corporation licensed to other speaker makers, including RadioShack. Paddock describes it as “a twin cylindrical diaphragm driven at its junction by a vertical wire loop located between a twin magnetic gap ‘voice coil’ system.”
Unfortunately, we couldn’t see the ten WBLS drivers in the speaker’s upper half, and which handle all frequencies from 100Hz up -- they were covered by a grille that reminded me of a big ol’ cathode-ray TV tube set on end. Nor could we see the two 18” woofers shut up inside the bass cabinet the WBLSes sit atop, their outputs venting to front and rear. But we could sure hear that total of 24 drivers -- the sound was extremely spacious, regardless of where we stood or sat. We also heard very smooth middle and high frequencies, and powerful, robust bass that may have overpowered the room a bit but nonetheless served notice that this speaker is no lightweight, even when driven by lower-powered amplifiers.
Upstream of the Forty-10s were two stereo amps from Linear Tube Audio: a ZOTL Ultralinear stereo amp (20Wpc into 8 ohms) for the WBLS panels, and a ZOTL40 Reference (46Wpc into 8 ohms) for the woofer bins. We were so impressed by the Forty-10’s sound and cool retro looks that, immediately after the show, we asked writer Howard Kneller to visit MC Audiotech, which is based just outside Philadelphia, to learn more about the company and the Forty-10. We’ll soon publish his article about that visit on SoundStage! Global -- and maybe a photo of that WBLS driver.
AudioSolutions Virtuoso S loudspeaker
When we visited the room of distributor High End by Oz, I realized I’d messed up last November in Warsaw, at the Audio Video Show, when I took a picture of Gediminas Gaidelis, founder of AudioSolutions, and a speaker he was exhibiting. I’d mistaken that speaker for his Virtuoso M, which he’d shown six months earlier, at High End in Munich, and which we’d included in our coverage on SoundStage! Global. It was actually the brand-new Virtuoso S, which, because of my error, ended up not being covered at all.
I have a good excuse for the mixup: The Virtuoso S looks almost exactly like the M. It’s just a bit smaller, but it costs a lot less: $22,500/pair vs. the M’s $32,000/pair. The three-way Virtuoso S has a 5.2” pulp-cone midrange, below that a 1.18” soft-dome tweeter, and below that are two 6.5” pulp-cone woofers. As on the M, the S’s rear panel has a large knob whose three settings -- Balanced, Moderate, Enhanced -- can be used to alter the frequency response to accommodate for the room’s acoustic and the listener’s taste.
I listened to the Virtuous Ses for a spell and was glad I did. They were driven by a Vitus Audio SIA-030 integrated amp and SCD-25 Mk.II CD player, and an Aurender W20SE music server, with Synergistic Research Galileo interconnects, speaker cables, and power cords. Throughout the audioband, the sound was exceptionally detailed yet silky smooth -- the best I’ve heard any AudioSolutions speaker sound at any show. It was good enough for me to give the room a thumbs up, and for Jeff Fritz’s eyebrows to rise in what looked to me like pleased surprise. “You should get these in for review,” I said. Jeff nodded -- as did Ozan Turan, owner of High End by Oz, who was standing close by. Hopefully, Jeff’s listening room will host a pair of Virtuoso Ses by this summer.
Legacy Audio i-V7 multichannel power amplifier
Jeff and I generally don’t get too excited about multichannel amplifiers -- that’s the turf of Roger Kanno, who has a full surround system -- but, based on its specs and price, we agreed that Legacy Audio’s i-V7 ($7950) appears to be a winner. The 31-pound, seven-channel i-V7 uses ICEedge class-D amplifiers to generate up to 610Wpc into 8 ohms or 660Wpc into 4 ohms with less than 0.005% distortion, all channels driven. That’s a lot of clean juice. The i-V7’s specified damping factor is “750 average, 20Hz to 1kHz,” which should mean excellent control of speaker drivers, and its spec of 127dB dynamic range indicates that it should have a very low noise floor. Last but not least, the i-V7 looks good -- Jeff and I both liked its black case accented with the copper-colored front trim, top vents, and logo at top center. The i-V7 begs to be shown off -- something that can’t be said about all multichannel amps, which can look pretty industrial.
We listened, and everything sounded good -- but, of course, the room, speakers, electronics, interconnects, and cables were all unfamiliar to us. How much the i-V7 contributed to that sound we can’t say, which is why show “reviewing” typically isn’t very helpful. Nonetheless, Jeff and I both feel the Legacy i-V7 is an amp worth looking into by multichannel enthusiasts. A stereo version is now in the works; I suspect it will also boast high power into 8 ohms, and likely much higher power into 4 ohms, as the power supply will have to feed only two channels, not seven.
Zesto Audio Leto Ultra preamplifier
Jeff didn’t get to hear Zesto Audio’s new Leto Ultra preamplifier, but when I told him about its sound, features, and price ($9950), he agreed that it might have been one of the highlights of Florida Audio Expo 2020.
The Leto Ultra has three pairs each of balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) inputs, as well as pairs of JJ ECC82/12AU7 and JJ ECC832/12DW7 tubes in its signal path. I really liked two things about the Leto Ultra: its adjustable gain of 3, 6, or 9dB, handy for amplifier matching, to keep noise down; and its Presence control. The latter is a little like a Treble control, with a twist. Set the Presence knob to 0 and its circuitry is completely bypassed -- but set it to -1, -2, -3, -4, or -5 and, for those recordings that need it, it slightly shelves down the high frequencies above, respectively, 13, 8, 4, 2, or 1kHz. Zesto’s president, George Counnas, cycled through the Presence settings for me, and I could hear a very small difference with each setting. That’s a very good thing -- fine increments of adjustment give a better chance of dialing in precisely the sound you want. Nice job, Zesto!
Bryston BDA-3.14 DAC
Bryston’s BDA-3 digital-to-analog converter has long been praised by audio reviewers for offering state-of-the-art sound quality and a host of features for a very reasonable price ($3795). Those features include a plethora of digital inputs -- four HDMI, two USB, one AES/EBU (XLR), one S/PDIF (RCA), one S/PDIF (BNC), and one S/PDIF (TosLink) -- as well as user-adjustable upsampling for some inputs, and resolutions of up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD512 (both via USB).
Now, for just $400 more, the new BDA-3.14 ($4195), which Bryston demonstrated at FAE 2020, adds to the BDA-3 an Ethernet port, built-in streaming (Qobuz and Tidal are supported), and a digital volume control that lets you bypass a preamplifier altogether and connect the BDA-3.14 directly to a power amp -- something Jeff now does in his home system. For me, what most matters is the BDA-3.14’s built-in streamer. As I listened, I began mentioning obscure albums to Bryston’s Gary Dayton, who immediately turned to the computer screen behind him and cued them up to play via the BDA-3.14’s browser-based interface. That convenience of streaming is a handy thing to have built right into a DAC -- good job, Bryston, for taking the BDA-3 to a new level for not much more retail cost.
Endow Audio T35 loudspeaker
Now for my favorite product of Florida Audio Expo 2020. Endow Audio’s T35 floorstanding loudspeaker ($19,900/pair) was the product I listened to longest and had the most questions about. I directed those questions to the speaker’s designer, David Strunk, who patiently answered them all. But first I have to describe the T35’s looks -- the biggest hurdle this speaker will have to jump before being accepted by prospective buyers.
Designer David Strunk
Wearing its full-length, generously curved grille, the T35 looks like nothing out of the ordinary -- a more or less traditional floorstander with a curved front grille. But remove the grille and what you see is so alien in appearance that most won’t even notice the 10” woofer at the bottom -- which, as in MC Audiotech’s Forty-10, handles all frequencies from 100Hz down. Instead, everyone will be drawn to the bulging, black half-sphere that protrudes tumor-like from near the top of the front baffle. It’s studded with the nine 3” drivers that reproduce all frequencies from 100Hz up: five firing outward, four firing inwards. What you can’t see is the speaker’s eleventh driver -- an 8” cone directly behind the half-sphere bearing all nine 3” drivers, and essentially mounted on the front baffle itself, which “actively loads” those nine drivers. Strunk told me that the nine 3” drivers and one 8” driver are all driven by the connected amplifier, but their phase relationships differ. He also told me that it took years to get it all to “work properly.” “No kidding,” I replied.
What does “work properly” mean? Well, “sound right,” of course -- which Strunk seems to have pulled off. I listened to track after track, hearing a very rich yet detailed midrange that ideally blended with powerful, well-controlled bass. I wasn’t convinced that the T35’s highest highs had the same kind of energy as the its lower frequencies -- the former seemed slightly reticent. But, again, this was under show conditions -- I knew nothing of the room or the other gear. Still, I came away convinced that the Endow T35, like the MC Forty-10, could disperse sound evenly throughout the room by unconventional means -- whether I moved to the left or the right, stood up or sat down, the Endows’ tonal balance didn’t change, nor did their imaging waver much.
Impressed by what I’d heard, I tracked down Jeff and dragged him back to Endow’s room to listen. Jeff’s taste in speakers is pretty much plain vanilla: If it’s not a traditional floorstander with typical dynamic drivers -- tweeter and midrange toward the top of the baffle, woofers below -- he’s not excited. He seemed surprised that the Endow T35s sounded as good as they did, which I heard as an endorsement.
I hope audiophiles will approach Endow Audio’s T35 with an open mind. Many might dismiss it for its looks alone -- it does look weird as hell with its grille off. But I believe there’s something to it. If a pair of review samples shakes loose, I’ll be the first with my hand out to learn more about what David Strunk & Co. have created.
Montreal, Chicago, Munich, more . . .
Florida Audio Expo 2020 kicked off what looks to be our busiest show year yet. This month we cover the Montréal Audiofest, always one of our favorite events; next month we’ll be making our first visit to Axpona, in Chicago; then, in May, we’ll fly to Munich, Germany, for the world’s largest hi-fi show, High End -- and that’s only the first half of the year. Watch SoundStage! Global for coverage of each of these events as it unfolds.
. . . Doug Schneider