Tampa Day Two Ends with Highs and Lows

Is this report's title referring to sound, substance, or more than a bit of both? As you ponder the not-exactly-hidden nuances of this decidedly less-than-metaphysical tease, you may also wish that you could have experienced both and more in the room sponsored by Audio Advisors of Palm Beach, FL, headlined by Wilson Audio's Sasha DAW loudspeaker ($37,900/pair) and Audio Research's Ref 160M monoblocks ($30,000/pair), Ref 6 stereo preamplifier ($15,000), Ref Phono 3 phono preamp ($15,000), and Ref CD9 CD player/DAC ($14,000).

This room's sound shifted between that heard on the first day, when it was gorgeously smooth, extremely natural and musical, and tight and deep in the bass, but lacking in ultimate transparency and three-dimensionality, and that heard at the end of day two, when its musicality rose to a level that transcended this mere mortal's audiophile checklist of positive attributes. Behind the transformation were three changes:

1. Wilson Audio's Peter McGrath opened the curtains on the front wall behind the speakers to expose three less-than-home-decorator-quality MDF panels that he had placed against the hotel's windows to lessen street noise and stiffen the room so that bass did not escape.

2. Ted Denney of Synergistic Research, who attended the show as an observer, stopped by and offered to place his various teeny HFT devices all over the walls—I believe there were even some on the ceiling and the TV screen. According to McGrath, Denney's line was, "I'll take them off if you don't like what they do." But when McGrath noticed how the HFT array increased focus throughout the range and expanded the soundstage beyond the room's walls to an expanse appropriate to the classical music he records, he left them on.

3. With a little help from his friends, McGrath ditched Audirvana, which he was using for file playback on his MacBook Pro, in favor of Roon. Doing so eliminated an annoying bright edge on voices and some high-pitched instruments, and resulted in even more natural sound. After the change to Roon, I noted that McGrath, who often flips phase, presumably in order to lessen such an edge, began to leave phase unchanged.

Playing the final movement of Lou Harrison's percussion-rich Violin Concerto, from my 24/48 file, the system sounded extremely lively, colorful, spacious, and dynamic. The strength and quality of bass, combined with the sense that the room had no walls, blew me away, and left me wanting to hear the same from my own system. The setup amazed me with its ability to convey all the spaciousness, color, and textures on a 24/96 file of the opening movement of Debussy's Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp.

I heard a number of other tracks, but I've said enough about my most revelatory listening experience at the Florida Audio Expo. Also in this Best of Show system: an unheard VPI HW-40 turntable ($15,000) with Kiseki Purple Heart NS MC cartridge ($3200), Transparent XL and Reference cabling and Power Isolator, Critical Mass Systems Sotto Voce wooden equipment rack ($3500 base price) and two Black Sapphire amp stands ($995/each), and a Synergistic Research array that included an HFT 10-pac ($499), HFT X 3-pac ($299), HFT 2.0 ($299), and HFT Wide Angle 3-pac ($399).

Tortuga Audio, a company heretofore unknown to me, mated its custom-made LoggerHead speakers ($12,000/pair), which require an external crossover and bi-amping, with the Tortuga LDR3.V25 passive preamp ($1195) and TPB.V1 tube preamp buffer ($1733). The company also makes kit versions of their products for DIYers.

Shortly after I entered the room, I discovered that the center seats were taken, and sat beyond the soundstage. One of the visitors in the "good seats" commented that the speakers seemed too far apart to support a solid center image. In response, the exhibitor explained that he hadn't really fussed much with speaker placement. Basically he and his associates had plopped the speakers down and, after they thought they sounded good, left them alone without bothering to toe them in or engage in fine-tuning.

Given my compromised listening position and such an apparently casual approach to set-up, I spent just enough time in the room to listening to Brian Bromberg's "Dolphin Dance." The sound was pretty nice, but the piano sounded rather clangy.

Also in the system: Triode Wire Lab cabling, a Schiit Audio Yggdrasil ladder DAC ($2399), two QSC GX3 300Wpc pro-audio amps ($700 total), MiniDSP 4x10-HD crossover/DSP ($499), and a generic PC running Windows 10 and Roon (approx. $750).

Another first timer surfaced in the room from Backert Labs and RJS acoustics. On an LP of The Great Jazz Trio Direct from LA, I really enjoyed the system's occasionally muffled low bass and the beauty of its Pass-blessed midrange through a Backert Labs Rhumba 1.3 tubed line stage ($6000) and prototype Backert Labs phono preamp ($TBD), RJS acoustics MD6 bass augmentation speaker system ($5750), Sonner Audio Allegro Unum monitors ($9900/pair), Pass Labs XA25 stereo amplifier ($4900), Roksan Xerxes X turntable with Tabriz tonearm ($4500) and Dynavector XX2 Mk.II cartridge ($1800), Sonore microRendu mini-computer ($629), and Luminous Audio cabling.

Cyrus Audio displayed their 100Wpc Cyrus One HD integrated amplifier ($1399 from Amazon). This hybrid class-D all-in-one includes a linear power supply, 32-bit DAC that decodes up to PCM 192 and DSD 128, MM phono stage, and headphone amp.

Listening not through headphones but through Q Acoustics Concept 500 loudspeakers ($6000/pair), which are sold direct, the system handled lows on a stream of soprano Simone Kermes singing "Der Holle Rache" from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, but seemed to distort on highs. I also liked the sound of the bass the most on Holly Cole's "I Can See Clearly Now." Matters improved greatly, however, when I moved to the room's back row, where voices became less edgy and the soundstage cohered. (A word to the wise to exhibitors: When the press comes—hey, when anybody comes—try to direct them to the row where things sound best.)