New Show! Capital Audio Fest 2010

Through an odd series of coincidences (mainly, my wife going out of town), I was able to attend all 3 days of the Capital Audio Fest back in June. Here’s the link:

The venue, as you can see, was pretty small, so there was only about a dozen rooms in all that you could visit. YG, mbl, Nola, Joseph Audio, Aspara, Sonist, Salk, Polk, and Living Voice were all set up for listening (there were a couple of others, but more on that later).

Best part of the show was that a couple of vinyl dealers had a ton of $3 records on hand I could paw through. LOL. Okay, so maybe that was just me.

The YG room had a pair of their new Carmel’s on display. These guys looked like they were sporting all-metal enclosures and I was told they cost about $18k. Room was dark and all-wood. Acoustics were lively, to say the least — and in the end, this may well be what did this display in. It sounded terrible. The speakers were “lumpy” — best way I could describe it. Bass was thumping, top end was bright — to me, at least, it screamed “I need room treatments, dammit!”. That said, the fault can’t all be laid at the feet of a lively room. Disappointing and unexpected, given how high Stereophile is on this company.

The mbl room was hilarious. The only room with a “booth babe”, the room was very wide, and therefore the dealer set up three systems in there, an mbl on one side, Nola on the other, and an inexpensive nearfield rig by the door. Admittedly, there was a bit of glass in this room, and the mbls were not symmetric to the room, but I thought it was pretty neat. Imaging, as you’d expect, was really great and it was a lot of fun moving around and actively trying to mess with the acoustics while DSOM was playing off of tape. Yeah, tape! I think I mentioned in another forum that these were the guys trying to convince some poor slob that recording your CDs onto tape for playback would actually improve the sound quality. Sheesh. Anyway, these were the middle of the row mbl’s (111s?), but with their higher-end electronics — all in all, they claimed it was a $100k system. And it was good, I’ll admit. Aside from the bass, which rolled off at about 100Hz or so — it just fell off a cliff.

In that same room, the Nola Viper Ref’s were another huge let down. I’d called these guys 6 months ago when I was shopping for speakers and these were the very speakers they were going to get me a great deal on, which would just smoke my Merlins. Ahem. Being kind, these speakers were bright as hell and utterly discontinuous in sound. Wow that was bad. Caveat emptor.

Despite the attentions of the booth babe, I didn’t bother to stick around for the nearfield demo. These guys had no clue how to set up a room.

Moving on to the Aspara HLR setup. I wanted to like these speakers, I really did. First, the room they were in was actually pretty living-room-esque. The speaker positioning was regular, with no odd wall or room boundaries. Well apart, well away from all the walls, &c. And the sound? Well … flat. High efficiency speakers are kind of a crap shoot, at least to me, and more often than not you give up more than you get. In this case, coherence. There is a “horn thing” which happens when the bass drivers don’t quite mesh, and it was here in plenty. These are very pricey speakers that would probably benefit best from being terrifically persnickety with setup, and only then if you leave your head in the vise they create. In other words, the polar opposite of the mbls. The highlight of this room was the TW Acustic Raven Two turntable. This thing was smokin’ and is probably going to be my next table! Assuming that the sound of the Aspara’s wasn’t due entirely to the table, arm and cart sitting on that big Eden Sound Terrastone plinth. But that’s what RMAF is all about! Anyway, I had a chance to have a really long chat with TW (himself!) about his table and came away quite impressed. Shame about the audio quality up to this point, but the info I was able to pick up over that weekend. Talk about a vinyl brain dump! This by itself made the trip worthwhile.

I dipped into the Salk room each day, and I don’t think I ever did get to hear the big boys playing (if I did, color me nonplussed). Something about a busted driver the first time through, and the second time, I couldn’t get the guys to drive them for me. Sigh. Oh well. Their little speakers were unimpressive.

Sonist! Without doubt, best bang for your buck at the show. Speakers were affordable, dynamic, fun. Oh, and very pretty to look at — great cabinets. This room was the first indication that this show wasn’t going to be a wasted trip. Oh, and “The Sonist” was on hand to chat and share cookies (my toddlers thought this was the best thing ever). He had the Concerto 3s and what looked like a prototype Concerto 2 floorstander. Drove both with a 6wpc Glo amp. WTF? And yes, it sounded really good. Great guy, and highly recommended.

The Living Voice room was, in a word, great. Driven by local amp maker Border Patrol, the parallel 300bs were just hot driving these IBX-RWs. Loved this room. If I’d heard this before I bought all that Joule-Electra stuff, I’d have gotten them. Everything sounded great here. And with absolutely no room treatments, it did make a rather convincing case for why all those other speakers just sucked. If you’re good, you can tell, and these weren’t just good. They were great. I had a marvelous time finding out exactly how far you can push 20wpc on a mid-90’s efficiency speaker. Turns out, it’s pretty far. LOL. (Oops, sorry about that!) After being reprimanded by my 3 year old twins (“Daddy, stop that!”), we had a long chat with the BP designer. My kids thought he talked funny, only partly enamored of his English accent. Good thing the wife was on a trip, or we’d have stayed even longer in this room. Definitely the twins’ favorite, aside from the Sonist room. And honestly, when you’re 3, nothing plays quite as well as cookies and a big bowl of M&Ms. Priorities, you understand.

The Polk room was fine sounding, if a bit boring, so I won’t talk much about it. They guys in there must have been sweltering, but were very friendly and we all had a marvelous time making fun of all the audiophiles. Of course, that’s kind of like shooting fish in barrel, but what are you going to do. I think one of my kids almost put a finger through a driver in that room, but happily, I was the only one watching. Moving onward ….

There were a couple of other rooms worth mentioning in passing. Cathedral was there, with their replica Voice of the Theater replicas. They were huge. I mean HUGE. And they certainly had this old-time charm. The guy was driving them with some antique integrated, and while I wasn’t blown away sonically, I have to admit to being intrigued. Fun room. Kids did slides in front of the big guys, and I even managed to keep them from ripping the speaker cables out from the back of them. There was a room entirely devoted to antique gear and one devoted to digital amps, neither of which were worth hanging out in (sorry).

Ok, last but not least, was the Joseph Audio rooms. The first featured the little Pulsars, driven by the new DAC3.5 from Bel Canto as a front end to Manley Labs Snappers & Shrimp. This was a tiny room. Which was probably why this rig was able to shake the flippin’ floors. My kids wanted nothing to do with this room as it totally freaked them out. Which was a shame, because in that little hot-box (did I mention “no a/c”?) was the best sound at the show to this point. The dynamics and range of those little standmounts with those amps wanted to make me clap and cheer. Fantastic. And annoying, because I could have been very happy with that setup instead of spending 3x the dough on the rig I ordered. Grr. Oh well. Bravo to Command Performance for that room’s sound, it was spectacular.

The second Joseph Audio room was, without doubt, the best sounding room at the show. Not even close. Of course, having the $25k Pearl 2s driven by $50k worth of Luxman gear probably didn’t hurt. LOL. Wow, that was spectacular. The Berkeley Alpha was the DAC driving the show here, coming off of a custom mini-PC with a Lynx card. For me, this was the room I kept coming back to. The sound was that compelling. Jazz, rock, acoustic, classical — all got played. And then we fired up the Feickert Blackbird with a little Natalie Merchant … and boy, I had no idea she’d had that operation. Quite a difference! Then we moved the speed up to 45rpms, and everything suddenly snapped into focus. ROTFL. More seriously, while I’m not a solid state guy, Luxman has really done some amazing work. Wish I had bank for that kind of rig. And those speakers … booyah! Did I mention that having Jeff Joseph actually in the room, and getting to watch (and listen to) him torture test his own speakers was quite a treat. Funny dude. My kids weren’t into this part of the trip — way too noisy (“too loud, Daddy, too loud!”).

Ice cream on the way home made up for many sins.