Because of surgery, I was laid up in the house for five months. As time ticked by and I got better, I kept reading about audio shows and having real withdrawal. I’d already had a night of shakes getting off the pain killers, but this was worse. Audiophile withdrawal. You’ve all had the feeling. I love audio shows. Not just because of the sound and fabulous equipment, but because of the camaraderie shown by passionate audiophiles. It was about this time that I decided to attend Capital Audiofest in Washington, DC.
At Audiophilia, we set a precedent for ourselves. We publish the show report by 9:00 a.m. EST the day after the show ends, usually a Monday. Sure, it’s four 18 hour days, but don’t cry for me, Argentina. I love every minute of it — the show, the strolling (this show, a little gingerly with a cane), the equipment, the innovation, the gatherings, the sheer fun of it.
Now in its fifth year, Capital Audiofest is still the ingenue on the audio show circuit. Chief bottle washer is Gary Gill. Organization is the key and organizing, the graft. Both were handled admirably by Gill.
The show is smaller in comparison with the massive CES and the ever growing RMAF. But, smaller (not meagre) was nice. Being a little slower than usual and without the benefit of my wonderful wife and/or other Audiophilia staffers for help, I could get around the show comfortably. All rooms were accommodated on six floors, two using the larger conference-type room. I heard a few complaints from vendors about the sounds they were hearing from their kit, but to be honest, I was very impressed with the sound from the get go.
So many shows have the exhibitors still setting up hours after the show’s publicized start. All problems should be troubleshot well before opening. No worries, here. That said, listening to a delightful horn, vinyl, and reel to reel system, the turntable manufacturer was nowhere to be found, no literature, his name not on the product list and no name on the actual turntable. Some digging and I found the name: Saskia II Turntable ($53,000). 200 lbs of slate with simple lines. Mass loading, indeed.
The Staccato Horn System by Sadurni Acoustics ($40,000/pair) was very imposing. Aesthetically, I found them more intriguing than beautiful. They’ll belong to a specific, unmarried audiophile. The horns sounded very realistic playing reel to reel recordings of guitar. Vibes and bass, so difficult to record, received a virtuosi recording that sounded wonderful through the Stacattos. The macro dynamics from these horns sounded effortless.
Heading into the The Voice That Is room, I was faced with the gorgeous and large Tidal Audio Agoria Loudspeakers ($105,000/pair). Tidal Audio also makes electronics — the Preos Preamplifier ($28,990) and Impulse Amplifier ($32,290). Both were singing fabulously through the Agorias. I have never heard such specific imaging and accurate timbres from so large a box speaker. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ growls coming from backstage left made a significant impression. Scarily good, with razor sharp dynamics. The Agoria is a magnificent loudspeaker and it’s worth your time to seek out a dealer. Those Germans! Isn’t it enough to make the world’s best cars and win the World Cup?
Dan Wright from ModWright Instrumentst had a lovely setup with his electronics. They look as good as they sound with some of the best casework in the industry. Boulder standard. With a great Dead Can Dance album and Janos Starker’s fabulous Brahms Cello Sonatas on Mercury, the VPI Classic One turntable with the 3D Printed arm sounded wonderfully real and vibrant through Daedalus Audio Ulysses v.2 ($15,850/pair) loudspeakers. The speaker sound in the large room had the marque of a fine balance between driver choice and crossover design/tuning and were a prefect match to the ModWright electronics, including the new PH 150 Tube Phono Stage ($7900).
There were lots of garage-based horn manufacturers showing and the designers all seem so proud of their DIYs. They all sounded good, nothing amateurish, but the look and finish was not always my cup of tea. Lots of unfinished wood, rough hewn horns (damn fibreglass is so difficult to work with) and squeezed out glue. But, I think that’s the point. And, a DAC that looked more like a miniature from the Blade Runner set. Fabulous.
Also in attendance, the Music Technology guys from Springfield, Virginia. The company usually refurbishes guitar amps, but also turntables and Apogee Acoustics loudspeakers. Apogees were built in the early ‘80s and are legendary in the history of high end audio. They used ribbons (with new ones sourced from Australia) and were very difficult to drive. The pair on show had been refurbished beautifully and sounded divine — smooth, completely grain-free, with wonderful portrayal of dynamics. 1985 technology updated for the new century. If you want to resurrect some audiophile history, you can get a full refurb for about 8K. You have to provide the speakers, but there are lots around. Owner Doug Weisbrod told me that some guys get their Apogees free of charge — speakers that have been in the back of garages for many years! Score!
The full feature line stage preamplifier is still with us. Many rooms were using the digital volume control on their CD players or DACs, but it was refreshing to meet Bob Backert from Backert Labs showing his exquisite Rhythm 1.1 Tubed Preamplifier ($7500). Based in Pennsylvania, Backert Labs is an fairly new company from a man with a specific design and sound in mind. The look of his preamp struck me as a perfect marriage between industrial design and modern style. Switches and knobs are the highest quality and the casework is superb. Preamplifiers, in the mind of an audiophile, are difficult to design — what are they supposed to do, other than ‘a straight wire with gain’? But, they are still the heart of a well-balanced, high end system. You could do a lot worse than auditioning Backert’s beautiful piece of kit. We are working on a review sample.
Talking of review samples, Dave Cope, from Audio Note UK and I have something cooking. His room sounded wonderful. Even at low volume — we did a lot of talking as he’s such an interesting man — the J/D Loudspeakers ($4,000 with hemp woofer, $3,700 with paper) were detailed and retained rhythmic integrity. Many speakers lose the rhythm as the volume decreases. The musical imagery got smaller but the heart of the sound remained. Very impressive. They love the corners of the room for bass loading. You’d think that the speaker was committing bassicide, but the placing works perfectly for the J/D. Sitting aside some wonderful Audio Note UK electronics was the TT2 Deluxe turntable ($3500/without arm).
Recently, I’ve been obsessed with the suspension of the Linn LP12 Sondek. I’ve been thinking of getting one. I think a Linn should be in every vinyl fan’s rite of passage. I was told by Cope that the TT2 Deluxe’s suspension is much more manageable than the Linn. It had a beautiful spring when tapped and I was hooked. We are working on a review sample. There is a Canadian dealer, but if that doesn’t work, Cope and I will try to make it happen. Audiophilia readers should get a taste of this ‘table. I’d like the review sample the same as I heard in the room, with the Audio Note UK Arm Three ($2,000) and Audio Note UK’s own moving magnet IQ3 cartridge ($980).
CanMania, the room specifically assigned for headphones, mobile and computer audio had seventeen vendors, all staffed with young people with fresh appearances. There’s lots of buzz around headphones and the like these days. As I’m not a ‘headphone guy’, I always shied away from these happening rooms except to report on them for Audiophilia. I think I’ve been converted. I’m still not ‘that guy’, but I very much enjoyed the presentations, the exhibitors and the sounds.
The iFi iRack was so cute and beautifully manufactured. It housed the iDSD Nano ($189) and the iCAN Nano ($169). The iDSD ‘is the world’s smallest, portable (only 163g), battery-powered, serious DAC that plays all high-resolution formats: PCM/DSD/DXD natively’. The The iFi iCAN Nano is the battery-powered headphone amplifier. The sound through Sennheiser headphones was lively and dynamic. Not as refined as some of the multi thousand dollar headphone amplifiers you will read about later in the report, but damn fine for the low price. Add the iRack ($149) and you have a really good personal home system.
Still in the mobile world, our old friends from CEntrance were showing off their HiFi-M8 And Mini-M8. Interstingly, they are both ($700), the former spouting many inputs, the latter more power. I think I got that right! I know the indefatigable Michael Goodman, head guy at CEntrance will send me a correction if needed. No matter, though, when the sound is this good. More money gets you better information retrieval, a more refined sound and a semblance of an on-the-go soundstage. Heard through superb Beyer Dynamic headphones, both portable DAC/Amps boxes will get you what you want sound wise and where you want to go, musically.
Audeze headphones were everywhere. Henry Wilkenson’s recent Audiophilia review confirmed that he’s now a ‘headphone guy’, partly because of his unreasonable neighbours and largely because of the fantastic sound. Audeze is a true American success story. A perfect storm of ingenuity, market demand and superb engineering. No matter the model, they sound wonderful. All have open, airy sounds, with excellent, tuneful bass, and excellent imaging — the most difficult achievement for headphones, right next to soundstage. When the soundstage in your head is an electronic swizz, you have to get it right. Audeze do. I am a big fan, and not only for the sound. From $995 to $1995, and worth every penny!
More of CanMania when you get to Best of Show. No peeking, now.
It was refreshing to hear ‘inexpensive’ systems at the show. 6K may be a big chunk of change, but it’s audiophile chicken feed when you get loudspeakers, cables and boxes to drive them and they sound so good, with no reservations. One system I’ll save for the Best of, but the Neat Acoustics Momentum 3i ($1095/pair) had rich sounding, dynamic presentations that offered no acoustic ill will. Neat Acoustics continues to impress at shows and with different sizes of loudspeakers. The Momentums had at a sub tuned at 80 Hz, the MJ Acoustics Pro 50 Mk. III ($895), adding some warmth and very low bass. It only showed its very slight lag (after the presenter told me there was a sub in the room — blush!) with the pp bass drum in the Night on Bare Mountain intro. A killer test for any subwoofer.
A small, inexpensive speaker did not float my boat. The Vanatoo Transparent One had the most dynamic bass I’ve ever heard from a small box. I’m still not sure how they did it. And, their smiles showed pride in the nice looking speaker. But, all this bass at the expense of the mid range and treble. Not a great balance, with grain and some distortion. Quite possibly it was room interactions or they were playing the amplified speakers too loud. I heard them last year in Toronto — the bass was not as pronounced, but they sounded more coherent. Hear them for yourself and make your own judgement. At $499, if the mids and highs just had an off day, they are a steal.
A couple of rooms had the volume up to 11. Soundsmith, maker of cartridges, loudspeakers and electronics, played Reiner’s Pictures through their Monarch Loudspeakers ($3999.95/pair) and the mighty VPI HRX turntable ($14,999/with arm). The 2 way ‘bookshelf’ Monarchs feature a 6″ long throw woofer, 1″ diameter modified wide bandwidth dome tweeter. Response is 47 Hz - 22KHz with an SPL of 88 dB. I love it loud, but this was too much in a very small room. Through the din, I think I heard what were pretty incredible, lifelike images from such a small loudspeaker. I’d like to revisit a Soundsmith room someday (lovely people, BTW) with real world volume and really listen at length to what looked like a fascinating cartridge lineup (6K to 10K with ten year warranty and free retipping!).
The show was fairly quiet on Friday and I got to speak at length to many exhibitors. There are some very charming folks in this industry none more charming then Norm Ginsburg of Ginko Audio. Or, as I should address him, Lieutenant Colonel Norman Ginsburg, USA, Retired. I researched the correct protocol. Colonel Ginsburg (more research) presented his company perfectly, knowledgeable, affable and engaging. I liked the sound of the ClaraVu 7 Loudspeaker System ($9995/pair) with Dana Cables. A beautiful, refined sound from one of my favourite loudspeaker topologies — powered woofer (not subwoofer) with monitor atop. Talking with Colonel Ginsburg, about audio, audiophiles, music, and his 22 years serving the USA was one of the highlights of any show I have attended. I hope to see you again at a show in the near future. Sir.
Harbeth Loudspeakers continues to produce very musical products. They showed in two rooms. In the larger room, the Super HLF plus’ ($6890/pair) were driven by Red Wine Audio Signature 57 Integrated Amplifier ($4995). No matter what’s thrown at Harbeth, they throw music right back. Each octave is in tune with the other, no frequency shifts, nothing jumping out at you. Both rooms were set up carefully to show off speakers and electronics at their very best.
Many rooms had great sound from the very beginning. All the rooms had a great vibe (save one — run by a miserable so and so that took great delight in correcting me rudely when I slipped on one consonant of his over priced amplifier’s name). The rooms felt relaxed with the exhibitors justly proud of their musical and engineering achievements.
A much more pleasant room had dynamic, detailed sound coming out of planters. You read it right. High end sound for the guy who wants his outside Kind of Blue to sound like the inside. The Flagstones ($3500/pair) are no joke. They come from Madison Fielding, designed by Art Powers, formerly of Lamm. Got the house and the right size backyard? You now have speakers your wife will love. And, you, too.
Exhibitors, if I missed your room in the show report, check back during the week for our photo updates. You may find your products there. If not, it does not mean I did not enjoy my time with you or your gear. I’m in constant admiration of you all, your commitment to our avocation and your tireless energy. Thank you.
Best Sound of Show
At 105K, the speakers chosen as Best Sound of Show should be good. And, they were. Tidal Audio’s magnificent Agoria Loudspeakers have dynamics par excellence, real heft in the bass, and a wonderful soundstage, but it was the timbral accuracy and imaging that really wowed me (see photo above). Sublime. The accompanying electronics, also from Tidal (priced above and pictured below) drove the speakers easily. And, the Aurender W20 is audiophile naughty dream material. So bloody sexy. Cabling was by Purist Audio Design and DAC duties by the Bricasti Design M-1 ($8995). The room was setup expertly by charming Doug White of The Voice That Is, a store just outside of Philly.
Best Budget Sound of Show
This choice was a little more difficult. The Neat Acoustics room ran Sjöfn HiFi’s pretty close, but in the end, I was won over by the musicality of Sjöfn’s The Clue Speakers ($1000/pair) and their Supra Cables all driven by Clones Audio electronics. The prices were from the silly season. Really. A superb, no excuses, high end system for less than 6K. It passed the cool look test, too. The Clues (like the Audio Note speakers discussed above), like corner bass loading — nothing’s blurred and the bass octave loves it. Want in to high end? Check out Sjöfn HiFi. And, don’t forget Clones Audio to drive them. Clones Audio Sheva DAC ($2500), 25 Monoblock Power Amplifiers ($1155/pair). The passive preamp was a Luminous Audio Axiom II ($500).
Best Headphone/DAC/Headphone Amplifier combination Sound of Show
The Aurelic Vega DAC ($3700), Cavalli Liquid Glass Tube Headphone Amplifier ($2950) and Mr. Speakers Alpha Dog Headphones ($599 — replete with 3D printed headphone cups finished to a very high standard) combination playing a Channel Classics recording of Ivan Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra performing Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was utterly captivating. It had me at flutes and sleigh bells. I’ve never heard such beautifully clear resolution on headphones before, emphasis on the beauty. All the images had meat and substance. Look, it was still in between my head, but when Mr. Speakers Dan Clark talked of soundstage and imaging, I understood what he meant. I was involved. Big time. And, that’s a first for this musician. I’ve heard Stax, Sennheiser Orpheus and all the superb Audezes, but the electronics really made these fairly inexpensive headphones play exquisite music. With respect to the wonderful Mr. Speakers Alpha Dog Headphones, I would like to hear the Aurelic and Cavalli electronics with the Audeze LCD 3 headphones. I think that ‘almost headphone guy’ might even make the final, short step.
Tuesday photo update.
Wednesday Photo Update.