The Florida Audio Expo

Here’s the real quandary with the Florida Audio Expo: I want all of you to come to Tampa next year and hang out with us, because this is the most enjoyable show I’ve been to in years.

Seriously, how many show reports have you seen on these pages? If you want room by room coverage, head over to Soundstage Network, and peruse their coverage. No one does a more thorough job than Doug Schneider and his crew. They will tell you what was in every single room, which actually might entice you to make the journey next year.

Here’s the rub. Personally, I don’t want this show to get much bigger. That’s selfish and totally wrong of me to say, but what makes the Florida Audio Expo so much fun is the boutique nature of this event. The four presenters of the show are out in the crowd mingling, having a drink here and there, and becoming part of the vibe. That’s what makes it so unique.

Best of all, the guys producing the show are all audiophiles to the core. And the women in charge of the event’s PR, Sue Toscano and Angela Speziale, are the best in the business. There’s a level of realism here that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the industry, except the Capital Audiofest. Munich and Axpona are fantastic shows if you want to see everything the world of audio has to offer, and they are both impeccably run. But they are big shows, and that’s a different (yet equally valid) groove.

The show is spread out over 12 floors, and the three elevators never kept anyone queued up too long. As with most other HiFi shows, your best bet is to start at the top and walk two short flights of stairs from floor to floor. RMAF is an excellent workout for those of you with Crossfit memberships, but you’ve only got so much time to experience what you came to see. Again, about 60 rooms makes it easy to get a chance to see everything, hang out, ask some questions, post to your Facebook page, and so on.

Where last year’s inaugural event was supported primarily by dealers, the nearly doubling in ranks this year made for plenty of manufacturers. It would be very wrong of you to think of the Florida Audio Expo as a “dealer show.” The mix of big brands you know and love, along with some of the more boutique brands, make for a wide variety of audio experiences. The ground floor features major suites with large systems from Luxman/Magico, VAC/Von Schweikert, and MBL. All are equally stunning, offering completely different presentations.

Fans of personal listening were well represented too. Even though there was not a separate Can-Jam here, there were plenty of headphone and headphone amplifier manufacturers present, with a wide range of things to listen to. Whenever I dropped in a headphone or headphone related room, they were packed.

If I had to pick one thing I’d like to see more of at this show, it would be a few more big suites, so that the uninitiated could have a chance to hear what a world-class HiFi system sounds like. All things considered, the mix was good, and quite a few people were getting good enough sound in the smaller, upstairs rooms to pull people in. But I feel there’s nothing like hearing a great system in a big room.

I heard fewer audiophile standards being played than in many recent shows. Still, because there wasn’t enough network bandwidth to go around, most attendees were limited to what was in the rooms. The toughest part of this was Qobuz was listed as the “streaming audio partner” of the show. Hopefully, by next year, everyone will figure out how to get streaming into every room and workable. Again, if we are to at least partially be holding these events for those unfamiliar with our world, we need to meet them halfway with some of their music to audition.

With a massive mall across the street, another group of restaurants a few blocks to the right as you walk out of the hotel (think getting more steps!) and a Waffle House next door, there are plenty of options for dining beyond what is available at a self-contained (and ridiculously expensive) venue like the Denver Gaylord. No offense to my fellow show-goers, but I’m gonna guess that someone that doesn’t want to pay $15 a month for a ROON subscription is probably going to bristle at $37 for breakfast. I know I did.

Minor nits aside, this is a fantastic show, with an off the chart friendliness factor. I’ve never enjoyed a HiFi show as much as the Florida Audio Expo. This is what high-end audio needs more of,  if we are going to attract new people and do something inviting for the un-initiated. I’m putting my money where my mouth is, and we will definitely have a room at next year’s event. I hope to see you there, and I promise to pass you the iPad. You can play whatever you want.


The Luxman P-750u

Breezing through George Benson’s “This Masquerade,” via the Focal Utopia, Audeze LCD-2, and Abyss Diana Phi phones, (thanks to three headphone outlets on the front panel of the Luxman P-750u) it’s easy to make quick comparisons.

It’s even easier to get lost in the clarity that these premium phones produce via this incredible headphone amplifier. A lot of talk goes on when setting speakers up in a room, with one of the main goals being to make them disappear in the room. Achieving a VTA setting that is close to perfection with a tonearm and cartridge makes the turntable get out of the way of the reproduction chain and let the music flow. A great audio system, set up to the best of its potential goes a long way to help you concentrate on the music and forget about the gear. At least if that is the experience you are predisposed to.

If you are a music lover that enjoys not thinking about your gear, I hope you will agree that a great headphone system is the same way. Even the finest headphones played through a mediocre or overly colored headphone amplifier still feel like you do have cans on your head. A high quality headphone amplifier makes it easy to forget you are wearing headphones, and the Luxman P-750u is one of the best.

Sans cans (and tubes)

We’ve had the good fortune to listen to a lot of great headphone amplifiers from a number of manufacturers over the last year or two. Many high-performance audio enthusiasts are enthralled with vinyl, but the upper end of personal listening has grown as much, if not more. Five years ago we had precious few four figure (and even five figure) headphones or amplifiers – today it’s commonplace.

Luxman’s P-750u goes out the door for $4,995. By no means inexpensive, but nothing like some of the examples we’ve seen. Much like their class-A integrated amplifiers, the overall sound is slightly saturated tonally, very dynamic and extremely quiet. The P-750u is all solid-state, so in addition to being silent, you will never have to chase or roll tubes. Considering that a number of the world’s finest headphone amplifiers feature tubes, factoring never having to replace tubes makes the P-750u an even better long-term value proposition. If you listen to your headphones a lot during the day, this can get costly in a hurry.

Thanks in part to the massive power supply and resulting current reserve, the sheer dynamic ability of the P-750u not only goes a long way to make your favorite phones disappear, it does so with a wider range of phones than anything we’ve yet taken for a test drive.

If you’ve ever been at a hifi dealer or show, where they’ve used a massive power amplifier to drive relatively inexpensive speakers (with tremendous result) the P-750u performs the same miracle. Connecting my vintage Grado SR60s is a revelation through the P-750u – they sound like $1,500 phones now, and the big Grados have lost their harshness. This adds a degree of versatility to your headphone choices that few amplifiers offer.

Powerful feature set

You can get all the fine details and specs from the Luxman site here:

However, the P-750us ability to drive any headphones you can connect really makes this headphone amplifier a pleasure to use. With your choice of a standard ¼-inch output jack, a stereo balanced output, and individual L/R balanced outputs and three sensitivity settings, it’s a breeze to completely tailor the amp to your phones. Much like trying multiple output taps on a tube power amplifier, if you have the cables, give balanced a try to your standard phones, you might be surprised.

Around back, there are two sets of balanced XLR inputs and one set of RCA inputs too, so you can easily connect a DAC, phono stage and maybe a tape deck. This leads to the only complaint with the P-750u – at this price, a set of variable level outputs would be incredibly nice so that it could be used as a two-channel linestage too. That might make it easier to justify the cost to some buyers, and is becoming more and more popular in higher end headphone amplifiers.

Especially considering how much of the standard design and build features that go into Luxman’s top components are all present here, from the huge power supplies, premium individual components and the fine casework. And it begs being mentioned again to those unfamiliar with Luxman components – even the packaging is fantastic. This amplifier is built and boxed with extreme care.

Casework is typical Luxman, with the best front panel screen printing in the industry, combined with a level of machining that would be right at home on a fine wristwatch. Even the cast iron feet on the bottom of the chassis are produced with the same level of excellence, as is the inside of the chassis. This is industrial art at its finest.

More listening please

The P-750u is almost hallucinogenic in its delivery of musical information, yet not overdone. Whether sitting at a desk working, or lounging, the soundfield generated is large in all three dimensions and comes the closest to sounding like a pair of great monitors somewhat nearfield as anything I’ve yet used. A few of the top (i.e. 5-figure) headphone amplifiers have painted larger pictures, but it’s always felt unrealistic. If you’ve ever had the chance to experience a pair of the 9 foot tall Sound Labs electrostatic speakers, it’s incredible, but the sense of scale is overblown. The Luxman amp gets it just right, and the wider range of other headphone amps you’ve heard, the more you’ll appreciate this one.

A similar experience is had with vocal heavy tracks. Often, even with the finest headphone amplifiers, certain vocal tracks can sound as if the singer is performing right inside the middle of your head, instead of sounding in the middle of your speakers. This was another area that the P-750u really excelled at: preserving the sense of scale and placement of vocalists within the soundfield.

The beauty of this amplifier is in the details, the fine details to be exact. Listening to whatever your favorite bass heavy tracks are, the extension offered, combined with a level of LF texture that you won’t notice until you go back to what you were listening to, is uncannily good. And the top end presentation is detailed, refined, and controlled. The Grado P2000s and the Utopia phones both can get strident with the wrong amplifier, yet the lack of harshness through the P-750u is the best I’ve heard on these phones.

Best of the best

Much as I despise that word, especially in the context of reviewing gear, the Luxman P-750u is one of the finest headphone amplifiers I’ve had the pleasure to experience. It reveals as much music as any of the five figure amplifiers we’ve auditioned here, and for most that would be more than enough. When you add the versatility and level of sheer craftsmanship to the mix, it’s easy to see why this one is such a favorite.

The JL Audio Fathom In Ceiling Subwoofer System

A well-integrated subwoofer is genuinely a thing of sonic beauty and functionality.

Because subwoofers tend to be somewhat imposing, the toughest part of having one (or more) is where to put them. To complicate the issue, a subwoofer often must fit in a less than optimal place, which can make getting excellent bass response more difficult.

JL Audio has always used subwoofers powered by massive amplifiers along with a highly effective DSP system (D.A.R.O. – Digital Automatic Room Optimization) that goes a long way at eliminating the peaks and valleys in low-frequency response. I’ve used JL subwoofers in a variety of systems over the years, all with excellent results, and often find them the magic bullet when placement options are limited.

One of my favorite JL products has been their Fathom IWS (In-wall subwoofer) because it lets you hide a high-quality subwoofer completely. Whether in the context of a two-channel or multichannel theater system, this can be the difference between having a full-range system and not.

The ICS only uses an 8-inch driver, but it is every bit a Fathom product. The spec sheet says it is down 3dB at 24.6 Hz, but for the intended audience and those listening to main speakers that will probably struggle to go to 40hz, you’ll be amazed at just how capable the ICS is.

One step beyond

Their latest product, the ICS – you guessed it, “in-ceiling subwoofer,” can now hide in your ceiling, between 2 x 6-inch ceiling joists (from 16 to 25 ½ inch centers) and with its tiny grille, hide anywhere. Just like JL Audio’s IWS, the ICS hides perfectly. Using a smaller 8-inch driver and accompanying 300-watt amplifier, you can purchase a single or double pair of ICS woofer enclosures to hide in your ceiling. Where the larger IWS is fairly expensive, the ICS has a modest price of $2,300. Remember, this is the woofer, enclosure, amplifier, crossover, and DSP.

If by chance, you are doing new construction, this couldn’t be any easier. Tell the framers where you want the enclosure(s) to go. Otherwise, you’re going to have to do a bit of surgery, so access to your listening room’s ceiling will determine how difficult this will be. I live in a small mid-century house with a plank ceiling, so for this review, I built a temporary enclosure for living room evaluation, that was fit to the ceiling, yet removable. Both bathrooms in my house have lowered, wallboard ceilings, but I got a hard “no” for installing a bathroom system. Sometimes, the best of plans, eh?

Unless your walls utilize 2 x 6 construction, you must mount the ICS in the ceiling, as the enclosure is 5.13 inches thick. Ironically the final resting place for the ICS here has been in my garage, which does have 2 x 6 wall studs, and my vintage pair of JBL L-100s powered by a stack of Nakamichi 600 components was begging for more bass. Changing a timing belt goes a lot faster when you have great sound. However, JL informs us during the fact check of this review that they also offer an In-Wall version, the IWS-108 for standard 2×4 wall construction. Great news for those of you that can’t fit the Fathom IWS into your room or budget.

Quick setup

Unlike a standard enclosure based JL subwoofer, where you spend a fair amount with static room placement and then attend to the DSP, the majority of the work is installing and finishing the ICS. Once complete, a speaker cable runs from the amplifier to the speaker enclosure, and in this case, I purchased some bulk speaker cable from Cardas Audio. It seemed a shame to use a component of this quality and connect it with lamp cord quality wire. In order to take the measurements you need to fully fine-tune the ICS to your room, you will need to purchase one of JL Audio’s calibrated mics to plug in the front panel. One of these will set you back about $100.

Getting audio to your ICS can be done via single-ended RCA line-level connections from your preamplifier, or high-level inputs from your main speakers. Both work well, and it’s nice that JL has included high-level inputs to offer more system flexibility and integration.

Once connected, running the DSP through its paces with a calibrated microphone (available separately) goes pretty quickly. Be sure to optimize for where you will do the majority of your listening, and you’re ready. It was a little tougher to pick a spot in the garage, because of the concrete floor, but the DSP came through with flying colors. I even did an optimization for hood up listening! And I wouldn’t mind a second one for listening with the garage door open…

Bring on the bass

There’s just no going back once you’ve heard a properly implemented subwoofer, and one that physically disappears along with great integration is fantastic. I never had the feeling bass was coming from a “hole in the ceiling,” so that aspect of the ICS is a major success.

In the house, the ICS was used as part of 2.1 system in our living room with a pair of Dynaudio Special 40s and the new JBL L-100 Classics as the main speakers. Giving it a go in our bedroom system in a 5.1 system with a full complement of Dali Fazon speakers also worked brilliantly.

Starting with the fast, plucky guitar style of Michael Hedges, from his Aerial Boundaries album, the ICS immediately impresses, with its ability to keep up with the main speakers effortlessly. On to a long playlist of hip hop, and electronica tracks confirm the audiophile pedigree that is part of every JL product. A barrage of heavy rock tracks reminds me that JL has also been a dominating force in car/boat audio as well. This sub definitely delivers the goods.

Giving it an easy run through with the recent Jakob Dylan piece on life in Laurel Canyon, the ICS performs as well with movies as it does with music and has the necessary range to capture explosions and such that permeate today’s modern action movies as well.

Quite the limit

The overall performance of the JL ICS is impressive on every level. It provides powerful bass response, great musicality, and can rock the house when necessary. And for those with smaller living quarters, that can’t make the space for a larger JL product; the ICS is the perfect solution.

With this in mind, we gave the JL ICS subwoofer system one of the Audiophile Apartment’s Product of the Year awards for 2019. It wins on multiple levels: value, sound quality, and concept. It doesn’t get any better than that.

An answer to one of audio’s ultimate questions:

Just say yes to streaming music at your favorite hifi show. Seriously.

Sitting in the airport waiting for the flight home, I’ve just spent the most fun time ever at an audio show. The Florida Audio Expo was an absolute pleasure to attend. But you can read me gush about that tomorrow or Tuesday. For now, I have an issue, I’d like to see solved – pronto.

While it’s been fantastic that the folks at Qobuz have been “the official streaming partner” of all the year’s past audio shows, it’s worthless. You can’t stream audio at an audio show – ever. How messed up is that?

Though everyone is proudly playing vinyl and even reel to reel tape at the show, with excellent result, that isn’t helping those that know nothing about our world. I love analog in every delivery method possible – but I’m obsessed with audio. It’s all intriguing. But I’m not your customer at an audio show.

After 17 years now of listening to a lot of the same people ask the same question, “how do we bring new people into our world?” We have the answer with Tidal, Qobuz and ROON. But no one fucking uses it. I’ve only been to one room in the past year that could answer yes to the “Hey, are you streaming Tidal and Qobuz here, so I can pick some music I want to hear?” question. PS Audio at last year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest was the only one doing it, and it’s no coincidence that they were packed to the gills. Everyone in that room was having a great time. Listening to their music.

I attend shows to interact with our readers and colleagues in the industry. I’m not terribly interested in sitting down to listen to gear at shows, because A: it’s probably in the review queue anyway and B: I don’t want to take the seat from the paying customers that want to get a listen and ask questions. It’s your show not mine.

Which brings us full circle. I think the most important way to bring people into the world of high end/high performance audio, whether you are selling a $2,500 system or a $250,000 system is to give the participants an “ah-ha” moment. To deliver an experience that is immersive enough to get them tapping their toes, digging the vibe, and asking questions. I think you’ll all agree with me that music is personal, so there’s no quicker way to get the “boring” light on my dashboard to illuminate, than to play music I’m not interested in. Again, forget about me, think about your potential customer. I guarantee they are thinking the same thing.

I strongly suggest ALL of my industry colleagues to consider this. People who have never really experienced great sound, who are listening to budget buds, phones, or powered speakers are going to be so blown away by streaming music on even a modest DAC that you’ll hook them. The key ingredient? Play THEIR music. I don’t care how much you don’t like hip hop, or whatever, get over it for five minutes. I’ve had to listen to “Keith Don’t Go” and all the other tracks we’ve all suffered through for years now. Wanna sell more hifi? Buck up. Play their music.

The only thing worse than waiting for someone in a demo room fumbling through their collection of 100 LPs to play a track I’m totally uninterested in, is the track I’m totally uninterested in. Again, I don’t care because I’m already drinking the Kool-Aid. It’s ok if you don’t have music to make me happy.

But your potential customers, that’s another story. I’ve been hearing the same thing exiting rooms now for 17 years:

“That guy’s music suuuuucked”
“I hate classical music”
“Jazz is boring”
“I think it sounded good, but it wasn’t music I like”

Not much has changed. I still heard way too much of that at this show, and this was the friendliest hifi show I’ve ever attended.

So, going forward, I’m begging you all to reconsider your position and make a streaming option available in your room for the uninitiated, so when you get the wide-eyed “wow, I’ve never seen/heard anything like this,” you can hand them the tablet and pick out a track or two that they know like the back of their hand.

I challenge every manufacturer and show presenter to find a way to make this happen. I guarantee this will bring more people into our world.