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Capital Audio Fest 2018: Room 323 – In Through the Out Door

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Rogers High Fidelity: 34S-1 amplifier, PA-1A phono stage / Harbeth M30.2 loudspeakers / Acoustic Signature DOUBLE X turntable, Wolf Audio Systems Alpha 3 digital audio server / Accusound speaker and interconnect cables

Hi-Fi Shows are by their nature about the many and not the few, but this year’s Capital Audio Fest (CAF 2018) managed to do the unthinkable. One of its rooms managed to encapsulate the ethos of Hi-Fi as both a hobby and as an industry, and in the process managed to a shine a light, a beacon of hope for its future.

Room 323, coincidentally palindromic, featured the following brands: Rogers High Fidelity (amplifier/phono stage), Acoustic Signature (turntable), Accusound (cables), Wolf Audio Systems (digital audio server) and Harbeth (loudspeakers).

I intentionally placed the Harbeth M 30.2 loudspeakers at the end of the queue, arguably the most familiar brand of the lot, to highlight their Kafkaesque metamorphosis over the show’s weekend. As Dagogo’s international correspondent I cover foreign brands but do my fair share of global travel. Straddling the Atlantic Ocean, residing in the UK and US, it is my time spent in the former that got me accustomed to the sound of Harbeth speakers, their sonics, characteristics, and signature. That disclaimed, I am not their biggest fan and do not count myself as one of their flock. I can appreciate how they sound, perhaps a bit too reserved and polite for my taste.

Earlier this year I spent a good forty minutes with Alan Shaw, Harbeth’s Managing Director (MD) to better understand more about the speakers, their design, construction and what stands about them to foster its global loyal legion.  Without going into much detail Alan shared with me more than I could ever hope to know about Harbeth’s mid-range bass driver and how the company designs its speakers for the reproduction of the spoken word as well as music. It goes without saying that those forty minutes flew by and proved invaluable.

Meanwhile, back at Room 323, the system did not sound quite right. There was a “spanner in the works” (UK) / “wrench in the plans” (US). I would approach the situation scientifically, preparing a list of procedures. First things first: re-position the speakers, toeing them in where appropriate. The sound was still lackluster. Having reviewed Rogers High Fidelity’s 65V-1 integrated amplifier earlier this year, I knew my way around their iPad control apps and proceeded to switch their 34S-1 Class A 100 watts per channel amplifier from Triode to Ultralinear mode. Now we were cooking with gas. The system was coming to life. The difference was not subtle.

Still, it was not quite there, not yet, and the only “logical” assumption was that the M30.2’s was homesick for music from back home. So, after a little Fairport Convention, I tracked down music from one of my favorite British “white-boy” acid-jazz groups: Corduroy. Hailing from London, England their funk and beats are contagious. Half a dozen or so tracks later the speakers were right as rain, and if there’s anything Londoners are expert, it is indeed rain. And then there was that nostalgic gem for all of us who grew up on British television in the 70’s and 80’s Matt Berry’s Television Themes.

Lighthearted homesickness aside, I proceeded to select albums from closer to home:  Steve Tyrells’ Back to Bacharach, Jose James’ Lean on Me (a tribute to Bill Withers), Michel Camilo’s self-titled debut album. Feet were tapping, chairs were filled, and I spent hours in the root at one stretch. We must have listened to the entire Television Themes album all the way through. A particular track that I played titled “Convex” by the band St. Paul and The Broken Bones did not resonate with everyone, but I wanted to put the room’s system and the Harbeths through one final test, and they passed.

Harbeth loudspeakers, much like marmite, is love-hate. There is no middle ground and it is in this starkness that Hi-Fi’s subjectivity shines through. Experiencing the tweaked system is not going to dramatically change my opinion, but at least it will have improved attendees experience and exposure to the speakers, so they could come to their own informed conclusions.

The story does not end there. Something happened on Sunday, something extraordinary, fortuitous and inspiring for all of us; Hi-Fi professional and hobbyists alike. Deepak Vaidya, a hi-fi enthusiast, and more importantly a father, stepped into the room with his 14-year-old daughter, Treya. Treya is no slouch when it comes to music or hi-fi. She knows the music to which she will listen and the systems upon which it will be played. She played tenor saxophone in her school’s Jazz band and the very first track she had the rest of us listen to was “Celestial Echo” from the Convergence album (Malia feat. Boris Blank). I don’t know many, scratch that, anyone of that age not just knowing the album, but actually making/taking the time to give it a listen. I was stunned. I knew the track instantly and I immediately asked her father, and he assured me that his daughter’s taste in music runs deep and wide, spanning genres, countries, and styles.

Bill Benoit of Accusound Cables and 14-year-old Treya Vaidya

Once the pair left the room, all of us remaining stared at each other, grinning from ear to ear. Echoes of a collective “what just happened?” reverberated, leaving us not to play music but just take it all in. Treya sat there and listened to music. She neither fidgeted or talked, but rather soaked in the experience expressing to me that ‘with the systems at the show she could hear of what was going on, what was actually being recorded.’ For Treya it was a revelation of McLuhanesque proportions: the medium (gear/format) could be just as important as the message (music).

It is rare that I find myself smiling as I write an article, this is one of those times.

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