This was only my second visit to the Florida Audio Expo—my first was back in February of 2020 when we were still hoping that the lockdown would only last a couple of weeks—if it did happen at all. While the 2020 show was all new and shiny for its inaugural run, last year’s show was rumored to be a little wild around the edges in terms of organization. Everyone was just so happy to be there!
FLAX 2023 was very different. This was a mature, well-run show with a lot of energy and excitement. Part of that had to do with Tampa temperatures in the mid to high eighties, with most of the industry so happy not to be at home where everything was covered with ice and snow. I think this is the point of having a high-end audio show in Florida in February, just as we used to have high-end audio shows in Newport Beach in June. As for me, I feel like the last few shows were held in saunas. But that’s just sweaty ol’ moi.
Here are my choices for the five best rooms at the 2023 Florida Audio Expo. I’ll say right now that around ten rooms had to fight for the five spots—there was an embarrassment of riches when it came to good sound in Tampa.
5 – Joseph Audio/Cardas/Doshi/Aurender
No big surprise here—I love the sound of Joseph Audio speakers and Jeff Joseph’s rooms usually make my top five because the sound of his speakers is also my sound. I immediately respond to that amazing mixture of warmth, detail and excellent bass performance. I’m also a fan of his usual cohorts—Doshi Audio amplification always sounds like it’s custom-made for Jeff’s designs, and the folks at Cardas are pretty okay in my book as well. I might use a lot of their stuff at home.
But Jeff threw in an extra ingredient into his normally astounding system at FLAX 2023—video. That’s right, Jeff was playing clips from NPR’s Tiny Desk series and an amazing phenomenon occurred. A single pair of his Joseph Audio Pulsar2 Graphene speakers ($9,999/pr USD) were able to place a precise image on the TV screen that was positioned above and between the speakers. Vocals came directly out of mouths. Bass notes came directly out of basses. This relatively simple system beat just about every multi-channel system I’ve heard when it came to placing the music where it makes the most sense.
4 – Margules/Raidho
I love the folks at Margules Audio. I’ve known the Margules family for a long time. I keep promising to stop by their factory in Mexico City, and one day I will get there. I’ve even reviewed a couple of their pieces—the Margules I-240 integrated amp and the TT-10 turntable under its LSA guise. But in their room at FLAX 2023, I kept having the same thought: “Margules Audio keeps getting better and better every time I visit.”
I want to phrase this so it doesn’t imply that at one time, years ago, they weren’t as good as they are now. But I think Julian Margules’ research into neuro-acoustics and the way we humans interpret sounds is really leading him to very interesting places. This becomes obvious when you listen to his newest integrated, the Margules U-280SC 30th Anniversary LTD integrated amplifier ($12,000). This KT-88 based amplifier offers triode and ultralinear operation, with output ranging from 25 watts per channel Class A to 50 watts per channel. You can even double the power with a second amp. Mated with Margules components and a pair of Raidhos, the U-280SC LTD sounded powerful and dynamic and yet extremely pleasing and open.
3 – On a Higher Note, Graham, Moonriver, Cardas
I’ve been trying to connect with Philip O’Hanlon with On a Higher Note for the last few years. I’ve never met him, but everyone I know does and they think he’s one of the finest human beings in the industry. But I’ve been trying to get some seat time with Graham Audio speakers for even longer—mostly because of their BBC DNA and because people like Gene Rubin have been telling me I’m gonna love them. I even talked to Derek Hughes himself in Munich and told him to tell Philip O’Hanlon to send me some of his speakers!
It was worth the wait. Not only does Philip O’Hanlon provide some of the best commentary to his demos in the industry, but those Graham Audio LS8/1s ($9.700/pr USD)—with the help of a Bergmann turntable, Moonriver electronics and Cardas cables—spoke to my soul in a rare and seductive manner. So worth the wait.
2 – Audio Group Denmark
After spending the last few months utterly transfixed by this extraordinary company, you might think I’d automatically bestow a Best of Show honor on the three Borresen, Aavik and Ansuz rooms at FLAX 2023 But I know this gear pretty well right now—one of the three exhibit rooms contained practically the same equipment as my review set—U-280 integrated amplifier/DAC ($18,000), the S-280 streamer ($12,000) and the Borresen Z1 Cryo loudspeakers ($14,000). I knew this sound. It’s extraordinary. And perhaps that’s why they come in a very close second place—because first place was such a monumental surprise.
I’ve been telling everyone about this amazing equipment—especially the Borresen M1 monitors that famously retail for $100K—and now I finally had a sense that others were taking my advice and checking it out for themselves. In fact, one of my favorite high-end audio show moments of all time happened in this room. I was taking photographs when suddenly two men rushed into the room and started asking me all types of questions about the rooms and the M1s and everything else. At first I thought they recognized my name and knew I had just finished reviewing a lot of Audio Group Denmark gear. But for some reason they thought I was working the room—especially after I started answering all their questions!
So for once I’ll let everyone else express their opinions on Audio Group Denmark. I’ve said plenty.
My vote for Best Sound at FLAX 2023:
Acora Acoustics, VAC, Cardas, Oracle
A few months ago Dave McNair told me that I needed to save a spot for the new Acora Acoustics flagships, the VRC-1s, as Product of the Year for 2023. I gotta say, Dave might be right. While we all love Acora at PTA, the VCR-1 is a giant leap forward. I’ve never heard a single pair of speakers offer this kind of razor-sharp command of those massive high-end show ballrooms. Plus, the imaging was so precise and the soundstage so panoramic that I could get lost in the music for days.
Let’s just say this: The Chocolate Chip Trip test has a new champion. After hearing Tool on this Acora/VAC/Cardas/Oracle system, I feel like I actually met Danny Carey and shook his hand and got his autograph and then partied with him all night. Congratulations, Val Cora!
By Marc Phillips