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May 9, 2018

The Best of Florida Audio Expo 2019

As I talked with exhibitors and other audio writers at the inaugural Florida Audio Expo (February 8-10), I got the impression that almost every one of us had arrived in Tampa asking ourselves this question: Will this be a complete waste of time?

It’s a good question. A new hi-fi show put on by new organizers, in a place that’s never hosted such an event, has the odds against it. What most of us had figured — it was why so many of us had come at all — was that if the FAE turned out to be a dud, Florida’s great weather in February would ease the tedium for those of us from colder climes. I live in Ottawa, Canada, which, during the show, was experiencing a particularly nasty cold spell and near-record snowfalls. In Tampa, the highs were 79-82°F each day of the show.

Florida Audio Expo

But none of us got to enjoy the weather, because the Florida Audio Expo was not only not a flop, it was much better than any of us thought it might be. More attendees crowded the rooms than most exhibitors had expected, and it seemed to me that we all left Tampa already looking forward to FAE 2020. I was so impressed that, halfway through the show, I predicted, in my show report on SoundStage! Global, that based on how well this year’s show was going, the FAE’s exhibitors would increase by 50% in 2020, from some 40 exhibit rooms to 60. By the show’s third and last day I’d revised that prediction, proclaiming on Facebook that the number might easily double.

Something else I didn’t know when I arrived in Tampa: Would there be enough interesting products for me to write the sort of “Best of Show” report that I produce for each of the many long-established audio shows we regularly attend?

Best of Florida Audio Expo 2019

There were easily enough. Here are my five top picks (all prices USD).

Tsakiridis Devices Theseus integrated amplifier-DAC

US distributor Antal Audio Group was showing a brand of tubed electronics I’d never heard of: Tsakiridis Devices, of Greece, which apparently has been in business since 1987. The several components displayed in Antal’s room was only a sampling — I picked up Tsakiridis’s price list and was astonished to count 20 models currently available, all with prices so low that I blurted out: “Are these made in China?” No, I was told — they’re all manufactured in Greece.

Theseus

Of the Tsakiridis components I saw in Tampa, it was the beefy-looking Theseus integrated amplifier-DAC that grabbed my attention — partly for its striking build and appearance, but also for its rock-bottom base price of $1995. For that price, it comes outfitted with two EL34 output tubes, with which it produces up to 9Wpc. However, the EL34s can be replaced with KT88/6550, KT120, or KT150 tubes, with power outputs depending on the tube type used, maxing out at 25Wpc with KT150s. (I’ve just checked TheTubeStore.com, which sells KT150s for just $99.95 apiece.) That’s not all — the Theseus has switches to toggle it between triode and pentode (ultralinear) modes, and to select the amount of negative feedback applied. It also has a tubed moving-magnet phono stage; a headphone output, with another switch for silencing the speakers when ’phones are plugged in; and even a USB DAC (though I was unable to learn much about that). But even if the Theseus were only an integrated amplifier with no DAC or other add-ons, I’d be thrilled — the rest is icing on the cake. I’ve got to get a Theseus for one of our SoundStage! Access writers to review.

Merrill Audio Element 116 mono amplifiers

A company located a little closer to home — in Bernardsville, New Jersey — but also unknown to me before the FAE was Merrill Audio, founded in 2010, who showed their Element 116 mono amplifiers ($22,000/pair).

Merrill Audio

The Element 116 isn’t Merrill’s most powerful or most expensive mono amp — that would be the Element 118 ($36,000/pair) — but with claimed power outputs of 300W into 8 ohms, 600W into 4 ohms, or 1200W into 2 ohms, it should provide enough juice for most speakers. What intrigued me wasn’t the Element 116’s high power or attractive casework — a combination of black nickel with accents of rose-gold-colored plating. Instead, I was smitten by the exceptionally refined, detailed sound that emerged from the Muraudio SP1 speakers the amps were driving. (I reviewed the SP1s on this site last June.) According to owner-designer Merrill Wettasinghe, the Element 116’s output stage is unique in relying on gallium-nitride transistors, which operate at much higher speed than typical transistors, and thus allowed Wettasinghe to build a class-D circuit devoid of the typical problems with such amps, and that uses no feedback whatsoever.

Merrill Audio

When I told Wettasinghe that I was impressed by the detail coming from the speakers, he told me that what I heard had a lot to do with the Element 116s’ lack of feedback. Whether or not that’s true, I don’t know — after all, I was hearing the sound of an unfamiliar system in an unfamiliar room. But I’m very familiar with the sound of the Muraudio SP1 speakers, and the sound of them driven by the Merrills was so good that I was intrigued. Wettasinghe got some of our other writers interested, too — minutes after my show report went live, they commented specifically on this amp. We want to get a pair of these in for a full review.

Luxman America PD-151 turntable

Luxman America, a wholly owned subsidiary of Japan’s Luxman Corporation, used the Florida Audio Expo for the North American rollout of their PD-151 turntable ($3895 without cartridge). It’s described as a more affordable alternative to Luxman’s PD-171A ($6995 without cartridge).

Luxman

When I’d heard that this turntable would be shown in Tampa, I was enthused to see it — we’ve reviewed many Luxman products in recent years, and they’ve consistently offered outstanding sound quality, build, and styling, always at prices that, while not cheap, are more than fair for what you get. At first glance, the PD-151 seems a continuation of that — it’s nicely styled, with great-quality parts. With an Ortofon Cadenza Red moving-coil cartridge ($1280) feeding the built-in phono stage of a Luxman L-509X integrated amp driving Harbeth S-HL5 speakers, the PD-151 produced consistently fine sound during each of several visits I made to Luxman’s room. Evidently, this company’s track record of quality and value continues. Don’t be surprised if you soon see a review of the PD-151 on one of our sites.

Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a loudspeaker

As I mentioned in my show report, the Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a ($2995/pair) isn’t new, having been first announced in 2015. But it wasn’t until the FAE, when I had a few extra minutes on my hands, that I could sit down, really listen to it, and closely examine why this version of the BBC’s LS3/5a minimonitor design has generated so much interest. Many speaker companies have produced LS3/5a clones over the years — but not like this one.

The LS3/5a is a legend. Designed in the mid-1970s by the British Broadcasting Corporation’s engineering department, using drivers made by KEF, it was intended for dual use: as an ideal nearfield monitor for the BBC’s recording studios, and as a commercial speaker that people could buy and use at home. The BBC licensed the design to various British manufacturers to produce, provided they adhered to its specifications. But, as in a game of Telephone, along the way things changed — sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Falcon claims that not every edition of the LS3/5a that has been made and sold in the years since the BBC designed it has adhered preciselyto the original spec.

Falcon Acoustics

Falcon Acoustics’ Malcolm Jones was one of KEF’s first employees, and was the person responsible for creating KEF’s original BBC-spec drivers for the LS3/5a — which uniquely positions him to know the ins and outs of the original design. He and his team spent two years replicating every part of the BBC’s original design, and their attention to detail shows in Falcon’s version — not only the design of the drivers, but right down to the plywood for the cabinet, the crossover components, even the fabric washers for the crossover board. This might explain why, regarding the sound of the other LS3/5a variations I’ve heard, I never saw what all the fuss was about — to me, they all sounded just OK. But in the room of MoFi Distribution, where they were playing, Falcon’s version sounded so much better than any other LS3/5a I’d heard that I toyed with the idea of calling Jones & Co. and ordering a pair for my home. I’m still thinking about it. If you’re into special speakers, this seems like a good one.

McIntosh Laboratory MTI100 turntable-integrated amplifier

In late January, McIntosh Laboratory announced the MTI100 ($6500), a turntable created in conjunction with VPI Industries, that includes a 50Wpc (8 ohms) class-D amplifier, a preamplifier section with two 12AX7 tubes and phono stage, a DAC with digital inputs (optical, coax), one pair of analog inputs, a subwoofer output, Bluetooth aptX HD compatibility, and other features. Hook up a pair of speakers and you’ve got an audio system.

The MTI100 was first publicly displayed at the Florida Audio Expo, and when I saw it in the flesh, it was obvious why there’d been such an uproar about it on social media when it was announced: The MTI100 is about as far as you can get, in today’s high end, from a purist turntable design. As I said in my show report about the brouhaha, “Some saw it as a great way to attract new customers to the McIntosh brand, while others saw it as some sort of corporate sellout and dumbing down of the brand.”

McIntosh

I can understand the concerns of the latter group, but I’m with the former: There are people who don’t want the clutter of even a simple system comprising a turntable and an integrated amplifier, but do have the desire and the money for a nearly all-in-one model to which they need add only speakers. Plus, there’s the show-off factor: with tubes sticking up, McIntosh-green lights under the tubes and behind the logo and model name, and the ability to play vinyl, the MTI100 looks flat-out cool. Don’t be surprised to soon see MTI100s in high-end condos and homes, and in the pages of luxury-goods magazines. The appeal is definitely there, and this certainly does present a way into the McIntosh brand for some that hasn’t existed before. “Fortune favors the bold” is a phrase that nicely fits the MTI100 — I think McIntosh will sell more of these than the naysayers can imagine.

Florida in February, Montreal in March . . .

The first Florida Audio Expo was a hit — and from what I can see, this year’s Montreal Audio Fest (March 22-24) will be another. When I spoke in mid-February with the MAF’s organizers, Michel Plante and Sarah Tremblay, they told me that more exhibit rooms had already been sold for 2019 than for 2018, with two more weeks’ worth of selling still to go. The 2019 MAF should be the biggest hi-fi show Montreal has seen in years. So, no surprise, we’re expanding our reporting team. Usually, only Jason Thorpe and I attend; this year we’ll be joined by Gordon Brockhouse, senior editor of SoundStage! Simplifi. Go to SoundStage! Global for our coverage of the Montreal Audio Fest as it happens.

. . . Doug Schneider
das@soundstagenetwork.com