Publisher Profile

3rd (2012) Capital Audio Fest

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The third annual Capital Audio Fest was held (as was last year’s) at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Rockville, MD, from July 13-15, 2012. All-in-all it was a very enjoyable show, though attendance appears to have been lower than we all would have liked (note that this is merely my impression, as I am not privy to actual numbers). The feeling was cordial, the room acoustics were surprisingly good (certainly far better than at this past Spring’s NYC show at the Waldorf), there were a number of very nice systems, and wonderful live music both Friday and Saturday nights. In contradistinction to most audio shows, the CAF has a blend of both modern and retro/vintage gear. While this may not appeal to everyone, it certainly does to me.

There were approximately 40 exhibitor rooms, spread out on three floors.

I visited every room (or at least tried to; perhaps I missed one or two), many of them multiple times. In no particular order, here are the rooms/systems that particularly caught my attention. As with prior how reports, no slight is intended to those whose rooms I don’t comment on.

Jeff Fox of Command Performance AV in Falls Church, VA, hosted two rooms (as one was a suite with two rooms, there were actually three rooms in total). The two rooms in the suite featured speakers from Joseph Audio (with Jeff Joseph ch in attendance). The larger of the two rooms had Joseph Audio Perspective speakers, a 2.5-way model with a retail price of $11,800. The analog source was a VPI turntable, amplification and digital were from Bel Canto. The power conditioner was an Audience Adept Response aR12-TSS, with the Audience 24 Power Chord. As I’ve come to expect from previous shows, the sound was excellent; the system had nice dynamics, a smooth frequency response, and plenty of detail without sounding “analytical.” The smaller system used the stand-mount Joseph Audio Pulsar speakers ($7,000), Bel Canto electronics and the new VP Traveler turntable ($1500 including arm and cartridge). For less than $15,000 this system provided a very impressive sound that could satisfy most audiophiles. I should add that though I’ve never had Joseph Audio speakers in my own listening room, I have heard them numerous times at shows -often for extended listening sessions – and I’ve come to regard them as excellent in the absolute sense, and one of the best dynamic driver speakers at their price point.

Command Performance AV’s other room teamed my friends John DeVore (of DeVore Fidelity) and Jonathan Halpern (Tone Imports, best known as the importer of Shindo gear). John was again showcasing the (relatively) new Orangutan O/96speaker (approx. $12,000) (the Gibbon 88s were not playing when I was in the room). The Orangutans are a high-efficiency, wide-baffle, two-way design. They were powered by a remote-controlled, Line Magnetic LM-210IA 300B SET integrated (8 Watts/channel). Analogue duties were via a VPI Classic 3 with a Ortofon Cadenza Bronze cartridge, Leben RS30EQ phono pre, and Auditorium 23 Hommage T2 step up transformer. Digital was via a Berkley Audio DAC and USB-to-S/PDIF converter, which was fed by and a music server designed and sold by Command Performance. Interconnects and speaker cables were from Auditorium 23.

I have always enjoyed John’s Gibbon line of speakers, and in fact owned a pair of Super 8s. That said, the Orangutan’s are more in line with my tastes, and the kind of speaker that a number of us asked (okay, hounded) John to make for years. It is dynamic and punchy, with a full-bodied tonality that is immersive and captivating. Like all DeVore Fidelity speakers, it is not at all fatiguing. While it is difficult to evaluate an amp’s performance in a system with which one is not intimately familiar, it seems apparent that the Line Magnetic amp was not doing anything bad (while this may seem like damning with faint praise it is anything but, as the ultimately goal of any audio component is to simply get out the way without mucking up the works), and was almost certainly doing many things extremely well. Ditto for the Leben phonostage and Auditorium 23 step-up, both of which have garnered superlative reviews. With a retail price of $5,000, the Line Magnetic LM-210IA strikes me as the type of gear that makes one question the “necessity” of uber-priced gear. All-in-all, this was one of my favorite rooms.

Deja Vu Audio of McLean, Virginia had two rooms. The smaller (system-wise) comprised speakers and electronics from the Italian Company Synthesis; amplification was via the a KT66-based integrated that includes a DAC (though the system in use used their stand-alone DAC). With 50W/channel, it retails for $7,500. Speakers were the Synthesis Debut’s, a modestly-sized MTM speaker with an MSRP of $3,000. The system had a wide and immersive soundstage and while it was not the most resolving system I’ve heard, it provided a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience for approximately $10,000. Nice.

However, the real treat (at least for me) was Deja Vu’s other room, which featured vintage (or vintage-based) gear. The speakers are hand-built, and based on a circa 1940’s Jensen Imperial Cabinet. They use a WE722 compression driver in a WE KS 12025 horn, a Jensen super tweeter crossed over at approximately 10KHz, and a WE 15” woofer in a folded horn. Each speaker weighs about 600 pounds, and the pair retail for $44,000. For the electronics, Deja Vu acquires as many original WE parts as they can find, and re-build the circuits based on the original designs. The preamp ($30,000) is based on a WE 1930’s design, with original WE output transformers; the tubes are 310 A/B, 311A/B, and 348A. It is available with an optional phone stage. The amplifier ($27,000) is a push-pull design using 349A tubes and original WE transformers, putting out 4.5 W/channel. The sound was sublime: big, bold, dynamic as could be, with a lovely tonality. Bass was not very deep – flat down to only about 60 Hz I would guess – but it was tight and tuneful, despite the modest room dimensions. All-in-all, my kind of system!

I first met Greg Roberts of Volti Audio at last year’s CAF. We stayed in touch during the ensuing year, and I recently interviewed him for these pages. (http://www.dagogo.com/View-Article.asp?hArticle=1051) This year Greg had two rooms. In the first was the same speaker (perhaps with some small upgrades) as at last year’s show, the fully horn-loaded Vittora. The Vittora is loosely modeled after a Klipsh La Scala, comprising a top portion with a midrange horn and a tweeter horn, which sits atop a bass horn (with 15” woofer). Greg had the optional subwoofer, powered by an external amplifier. Greg’s woodworking is exquisite. For amplification, this year Greg alternated between his own modified A23 amplifier, and a 300B amp from Gary Dews of Border Patrol. Analogue duties were via a Verdier Platine turntable kindly provided by Goto-importer Ming Su; digital was by Greg’s own EMM transport and DAC. The room could have benefitted from some room treatments but despite that, the sound was most impressive, with all the traits that horn lovers lust after. The horn-loaded bass has a distinctive character, wherein the bass seems to have more of a billowy nature than front-firing woofers, which seem to have more of the sock-you-in-the-chest sort of presentation. The Vittoras are $12,600 for the pair, and the matching subwoofer is $2,400.00. A fully horn-loaded speaker with such excellent workmanship, at this price, is an amazing deal, all the moreso as there are very few competitors in this niche. Well done, Greg!

CAF was the inauguration for a brand new speaker from Volti Audio, the single driver Veretta. The Veretta uses a 5” Feastrex wide-band driver (such drivers are commonly, though incorrectly, referred to as “full-range”) in beautiful cabinet made from laminated Baltic Birch, with a beautiful and functional base plinth. The Veretta also allows one to change the port, thus tailoring the sound to one’s room and/or taste. At 94 dB sensitivity, the Verettta is easy to drive with SET amps. Greg partnered with Ben Zwickel of Mojo Audio, who provided interconnects and power cords, his Mac Mini music server with external power supply, and his new prototype DAC. (Stay tuned to dagogo for more about Mojo Audio’s product.) The preamp and amp were from Deja Vu audio, who designs and builds them.

Though obviously somewhat frequency-limited, the system did all the things one expects from a single driver speaker/SET amp combination, and did so quite beautifully. While not the best speaker for rock or symphonic music, it was lovely with acoustic music, be it a string quartet or folk-style music. A very enjoyable room, and another likely success for Volti Audio.

The High Water Sound room is a perennial favorite, and this year was no exception. Jeff Catalano brought the new Horning Hybrid Eufrodite Zigma Ultimate speakers ($24,000), which were powered by Tron Seven Line GT linestage ($18,000), Tron Seven Phono GT ($18,000), and Tron Telestar 211 SE amp ($40,000). The front end was the TW-Acustic Raven GT turntable ($10,000) with two TW 10.5 arms ($5,500. each), and the Miyajima Labs Shilabe ($2,600) and Premium BE Mono ($1,250) cartridges. “Peripherals” were Silent Running Audio Ohio XL Bases, Silver Circle Audio: Pure Power One 5.0 se ($7,500), Zen Sati Seraphim Speaker Cables High Fidelity Cables Interconnects, and Silver Circle Audio, Stealth, WSS Power Cables. Jeff is a bit of a magician, as he manages to combine a dynamic presentation with one that is simultaneously tonally rich, warm and inviting. And of course, he (along with Jonathan Halpern and John DeVore), always have the best music in the show. Well done!

At last year’s CAF I walked into a ballroom, eager to hear Ming Su’s Goto horns. To my (initial) disappointment, the horns were not playing; instead, the speakers playing were from Surreal Sound, a company I had never heard of. The speakers were dipoles; the bottom cabinet contained three slot-loaded metal woofers (powered by an external solid state amplifier/x-over), while on top was a cabinet with dipole metal wide-band driver, and a Heil tweeter. The system was quite impressive, and I soon met and became friends with its designer, Ralph Hellmer. I was also quite impressed with the linestage and phonostage, both from Dynamic Sound Associates (“DSA”). Doug Hurlburt, the man behind DSA, and I stayed in contact after the show, and I had the pleasure to hear the Phono ONE in my own system; regular dagogo readers may recall that I recently interviewed Doug (http://www.dagogo.com/View-Article.asp?hArticle=987). Last but not least, cabling was from Tim Stinson, of Luminous Audio Technology. At this year’s show, Ralph, Doug and Tim were again exhibiting together, but they also brought with them David Berning (who provided his Pre One linestage and ZH-230 amplifier, both with David’s patented ZOTL Technology), and Harry Weisfeld (and son Mat) of VPI (who brought both their Classic 3 and brand new Traveler turntables).

As I soon learned, Ralph and Doug have been quite busy the past year. The Phono ONE is now the Phono II; the BASIC circuitry is pretty as much as in the predecessor, but it now accommodates three (!) cartridges, separate adjustments for which are all easily accessible from a series of dipswitches on the front panel. Its sonics continue to be extraordinary.

Ralph’s speaker, now termed the Fifth Row, has changed considerably. Whereas the prototype looked like a DIY speaker, the new model has exquisite cabinetry; it not only looks good, but is extremely inert. It now sports six woofers in a dipole array (still with an external amp/x-over); the head portion is no longer a dipole and now sports just a single wide-bander Tangband driver. In combination with the VPI ‘table, Doug’s phonostage, David’s linestage and amp, and Tim’s cables, this was to my ears, clearly one of if not the best sound in the show. It had horn-like dynamics, extended yet well-controlled bass, plenty of midrange texture, high-frequencies that were well-extended yet smooth (albeit with a tiny bit of harshness when pushed hard), and superb cohesiveness. I (literally) take off my hat to these guys.

I now must digress for a moment. I of course have known of Harry Weisfeld of VPI for many years, but never had the opportunity to meet him, until this show. It is easy to be somewhat in awe of someone who has achieved so much, and it is easy to envision that success could spill over into the individual’s personality, and his interaction with others. It was in the truest sense, an honor and pleasure to meet Harry, and to find out how humble, kind, and decent a man he is. It was similarly a pleasure to meet Harry’s son Mat (yes, that is Mat with one “t”), who recently decided to join the family business. My sense is that Mat inherited the best from both his parents (sadly, Mat’s mother -Harry’s wife of 40 years – passed away six months ago). Mat has an incredible legacy behind him and big shoes to fill, but I have every confidence he is up to the task.

Okay, let’s return to audio gear.

It is said that the best predictor of the future is the past. For the past few audio shows I have consistently enjoyed the rooms hosted by Doug White of The Voice That Is, and this year was every bit as enjoyable as in years past. Doug carries a number of very high-end lines, but the centerpiece are speakers and electronics from the German manufacturer TIDAL Audio. Doug had two rooms this year; let’s begin with the room with the magnificent Tidal Contriva Diacera SE speakers ($58,190) (for those wondering, Diacera reflects the Diamond tweeter and Ceramic midrange and woofers); these are as beautiful to look at as they are to listen to. Electronics were the TIDAL Audio Preos preamp ($28,900: line and phono; PreosD ($32,990: line, phono, and DAC), and the new TIDAL Audio Impulse amplifier ($32,990). Digital was via an Aurender S10 music server, feeding a dCS Debussy DAC, or a dCS Puccini SACD/CD player with U-clock. Cables were Argento FLOW and FLOW Master Reference. The system had a wide soundstage, believably-sized images, very good dynamics, captivating tonality, and an overall “rightness” that pulls one into the music. For anyone with sufficiently deep pockets, this is a system well worth checking out, as it was one of the best sounds in the show. I hope to pay a visit to Doug’s studio outside of Philadelphia in the near future.

The second room used the TIDAL Audio Piano Diacera speakers; amplification was via Audio Power Labs (a co-sponsor of the room) 50TNT amplifiers, Purity Audio Design Silver Statement Pre amp and side and on the digital side were the Bricasti Design M1 DAC, Aurender S10 music server, dCS Puccini SACD/CD player with dCS Puccini U-clock, and dCS Debussy DAC. Cables were from Purist Audio Design. The 50TNT uses 2x572B, 2×5881, 2x12BH7 tubes, produces 50 W/channel, and costs a mere $47,500. This system had many of the same features as the one with the Contriva Diacera SE, but on smaller scale. It is difficult to say what the 50TNT sounds like but it almost doesn’t matter, as its cool factor is off the charts. (The larger – and even cooler – 200 W/channel 833TNT, at $175,000 for the pair, was sitting idly in a corner.)

Switching now to a system that mere mortals could afford, was the Philharmonic Audio 3 speakers ($3,500) driven by Audio by Van Alstine electronics. In attendance was Dennis Murphy who designed the cross-overs for Philharmonic speaker line, as well as for speakers from Salk Audio, amongst others. The Philharmonic 3 speakers are two parts; the bottom houses an 8” Scan Speak Revelator woofer; the top contains a RAAL 10D ribbon tweeter and BG Neo 8 planar magnetic driver. While hardly the last word in resolution or texture, the system produced a very decent sound, at a very fair price. Truth be told, out hobby needs more systems like this, rather than additional megabuck systems.

Dave Slagle of EMIA (a joint venture between Jeffrey Jackson’s Experience Music and Dave’s Intact Audio) is well known for his autoformer-based attenuators, as well as all sorts of other assorted audio goodies. Dave had in his room a two-way speaker that was certainly not like most other speakers at the show. On top was a Lowther field coil driver in a large (approx. 38” wide) made-in-Australia Azura horn, which uses a Le Cléac’h expansion. Below the horn was an open baffle with 2 x 15” Hawthorne Audio woofers, these powered by an external 500 W amp and cross-over. The electronics were mostly DIY, and far too complicated for me to comprehend, let alone explain. The front end were two Garrard 301 ‘tables, each in a different plinth. The system had a bit of Lowther shout (alas, nothing is perfect) but also had balls-to-the-wall dynamics that make most other speakers sound like they’re asleep. Most of what Dave and Jeffrey do goes way over my head, but I’m delighted that they do it cause it’s cool as all get-out, and with amazing sonic properties. Not to mention that they are two of the nicest guys in audio.

In a similar vein are the DIYers from the DC area who rent a room just so other audiophiles can see, hear and enjoy the fruits of their labor (nothing is technically for sale but I suppose if the price were right…). Kudos to all of them.

Lou Hinkley of Daedulus Audio showed his Athena speakers ($9950), along with Purity Audio Statement preamp in a custom wood cabinet by Lou ($16,500), and the new Bob Carver Black Beauty 305 monoblocks (12,900). The digital source was an AMR 77 DAC, and an AMR 777 CD player ($4995 each). All cables were from WyWires. Though I didn’t spend as much time listening as I would have liked, my impressions were of a system that was well balanced throughout, and very easy to listen to. Nice!

My buddy Robert Lighton was showing his brand new Robert Lighton Audio speakers, with Audio Note U.K. electronics (Conquest Silver monoblocks, 300B, $15,000/pair; M3 phono/line; CDT1 transport; DAC3 balanced DAC, and S8 step up). Robert’s speakers fall to the romantic side of neutral, but they are in no way slow or syrupy. In fact, they are fast, articulate, and beautifully textured. As is the case for Robert’s line of furniture, the woodworking is gorgeous, and of the highest quality. All-in-all, the system had a wonderful sound that one could listen to for hours. I’ll soon be visiting Robert’s new audio salon in NYC.

A system that was both unusual and very good was that from Soundfield Audio, in Tampa FL. A.J. is the designer, proprietor, and chief cook ‘n bottle washer and has been an amateur speaker builder for over 30 years. His speakers consist of a top portion on the front face of which is a coaxial driver, and on the rear face a full-range (more accurately, wide-bander) driver. Below is a dipole 18” woofer in a dipole, open cabinet. The woofer is powered by its own fully-adjustable plate amp. The top portion was powered by a Cary tube amp. AJ is a firm believer that a critical parameter for speakers is an even power spectrum. He also likes a lively room and indeed, his room lacked any sort of room treatments. I am often amazed at the number of audiophiles who will spend tens of thousands of dollars on audio gear, but not a single penny on room treatments – often not even simple absorbers for the first reflection points. (This is true for both their home systems, and the ones they set up at shows.). To my ear these rooms usually sound like echo chambers, concealing much of what their systems are capable of. Much to my amazement, to a large extent this was not true of AJ’s room. It seems that the problem is not reflections per se but rather, that the off-axis reflections of most speakers have a very different tonal characteristic from the direct sound. The speakers, including the woofer plate amp, cost $7,500. Based on what I heard, they will easily compete with speaker costing far more. Kudos to AJ for his excellent grasp of psychoacoustics (about which most designers are woefully ignorant), and for incorporating them into his design. The proof of his approach is in the listening.

Alex Rivera of Cathedral Speakers showed his horn speakers. They comprise an Eminence compression driver in a rectangular metal horn, sitting atop a large (and tall) cabinet with a 15” rear-horn loaded Eminence woofer. The speakers are a bit rough around the edges but unlike far too many modern speakers, they are alive and energetic. If you want a speaker for background music, look elsewhere; the Cathedral speaker is for those who appreciate the sheer energy of music.

A sad reality for horn lovers is that you either have to pony up big bucks, or build your own. But a third choice is provided by Tyler Acoustics. They offer for approx. $3,000 (I may be off a bit on the price) a large cabinet with a front-firing 15” woofer, above which is a compression driver in a small horn/wave guide. The dispersion characteristics of the two drivers are undoubtedly very different, and the speaker’s frequency response is probably far from flat. That said, the speakers are easy to drive, are alive with energy, and fill an important niche in the speaker market place.

Charlie Rollo of Swap Meet Audio, Mark Kovach of Miracle Audio, and “Triode Pete” of Triode Wire Labs (who provided AC cords used throughout all systems) shared a room. They had in essence two distinct systems, with some overlap. Charlie is a dealer for Australian-made Lenehan speaker, which were powered by Arion HS 500 class D hybrid amplifiers (500W into8 Ohm, 1000 into 4 Ohms). Upstream were the Miracle Audio Divinitive Linestage ($5000-$9000, depending on features) and Miracle Audio Phonatic phonostage ($4500-$6000, depending on features), both of which are designed, manufactured, and sold direct by Mark. The digital sources were a Plinius 101 CDP as transport, feeding an Eastern Electric DAC+. Analogue duties were via a Kuzma Stobi S ‘table with Stogi S VTA 12″ arm. Interconnects were the JPS Labs Aluminata and SC-3, and the speaker cables were Lenehan Audio Ribbon-Tek. “Tweaks” (and I use the term loosely) included the BSG QOL Signal Completion Stage, AMG Toppers, Pon-Tune footers, and Arcicci Stands. Lower frequencies were via the Miracle Audio on-wall (more on this in a moment) Rose-Ann subwoofer with external Sub-Ultima amplifier ($1500 and $2000 respectively, or $3100 for the pair). The Lenehans are delightful 2-way monitors, especially when partnered with the Miracle Audio sub and amp. But the most fascinating part of this system was the BSG QOL Signal Completion Stage. This passive device has received rave reviews, though how it works is something of a mystery. It clearly alters the sound, but I will withhold judgement until such time as I’ve had extended time with it in my own system.

As I alluded to earlier, it is difficult to assess the sound of a linestage, phonostage or amplifier in an unfamiliar system. However, for the past few months I have had the pleasure of enjoying the Miracle Audio Divinitive and Phonatic in my own system. Full reviews will be forthcoming, but at this point I will simply say that these are world-class performers, which caused me to seriously alter my views of solid state gear.

The second system in the room was Mark’s subwoofer, and his on-wall main speaker, the Di-Ane (suugested retail price $12,000). Driven by the Divinitive, Phonatic, and a Threshold Stasis 8 amp, this system (in conjunction with Mark’s sub) was for me – -and I suspect, many others – the first demonstration of true high-end sound from an on wall system. Very impressive.

In a large ballroom on the first floor were two systems, both of which are as far from mainstream as one could get. The first was an RCA Ubangi bass cabinet, on top of which was a loooong horn (Altec I think, but I wouldn’t swear to it). All around were a bunch of retro Altec amps and the like. I like horns, and am willing to sacrifice a bit of modern audiophile qualities, but even I was a bit off by the sound of this system. But I suspect that is not the point; rather, this is about nostalgia, and paying homage to the early roots of our hobby.

The second system was even more unusual, and was in fact my favorite of the show. It was a series of organ pipes, arranged in a dual mono configuration, attached at their bottoms to rectangular boxes. Within the boxes were 24 paper cone drivers which, in response to the musical signal, pushed air up the pipes. It lacked a cross-over so the owner, a terrific and off-beat individual by the name of Mike, biamped the system using two old amps with tone controls (one amp was a humongous old Bogen), and simply turned down the bass for the amp powering the smaller pipes. The source was a turntable which fed a modern phonostage from E.A.R; the phonostage had its own volume control, which allowed simple control, of the biamped system. To my utter amazement, and apparently to the amazement of just about everyone who hear it, this bizarre system actually reproduced music! And equally amazing was that the sound quality was not at all bad. But what made this system was so special was that it put a smile on the face of pretty much everyone who heard it. As I pointed out to friends and colleagues, this is sadly rare. If I could afford it (it’s actually not that expensive, but I haven’t any disposable funds these days) I would have bought it on the spot.

All in all, the third CAF was a lot of fun. There was a delightful mix of old and new gear, and best of all was the opportunity to catch up with old friends, and make new ones. I look forward to next year’s show, and thank Gary Gill and all the exhibitors for their labors.

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