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CAF12: Wild Cards, Grab Bags, and The Everything Else


I love audio shows! It’s like getting to spend an entire weekend at every audio dealership in your corner of the country — all at once. Everyone is (usually) friendly, no one yells at you for “wasting their time” or whines about having to set up their gear for an audition. In fact, there’s very little of any fuss or muss — and the most vexing questions facing a show goer is, “where do I go next” and “I wonder if they’ll let me play real music?”.

This year, I upgraded my kit in an attempt capture some more/better pics. At the very least, I got more pics. Ahem.

So, what follows is some of those pics. I have more, but these were representative. The fact that they’re gathered here in this list in no way impugns the rooms they’re taken from, the quality of the gear, or the sound quality of the room itself.

Déjà Vu

The Déjà Vu room sounded superb. Rich tone, great image density, faultless timbre. Frequency extension was a bit challenge, but I think that’s part of the design — remember, this is all vintage stuff. Unobtanium might be a better way to describe it — so, while the various parts might all be exceptional in some historical way, the aesthetic was, well, vintage. Which explains their availability (or lack thereof) and their subsequent price.

Quoting prices and descriptions for all this stuff is pretty much pointless — suffice it to say it was “expensive”. But, more relevantly, the prices apply only to the pieces on display, and I believe all of them sold. You want to get in on this train, call Vu Hoang at Déjà Vu and he can sort you out with whatever bits are currently available.

Sophia Electric

Sophia Electric is making the best 300b tubes available today: the Royal Princess, for $1,200 a pair. Ouch. But these tubes, unlike the tubes of yesterday, are actually designed for “full bandwidth” — I’ve had the pleasure of hearing them slipped into an SET from Border Patrol and the result is now on my short list of things to acquire. Shown here at CAF with some of their own loudspeakers and some of their amps, I was impressed by the seductive, traditional quality of the sound on offer.

DIY

There were two DIY rooms here at CAF, and both of them were surprising. One, most of this gear is hand-made. When it wasn’t hand-made, it was heavily modded. That wasn’t the surprise. The surprise is how good it sounded. And by ‘good’, I mean, without the obvious visual cues, it was “indistinguishable from professionally made”. Like I said, surprising. You can go buy an amp for $5,000 and speakers for three times that — or make it all yourself for 1/10th the cost. Yikes. No wonder Atkinson and crew didn’t spend any serious time here.

Emia/Lowther America

The Emia room was a significant step up in aesthetic, if not in spirit. I got the same “you can do this too” vibe here … but with a healthy dose of “I’ve been doing this for 20 years so it’s easy for me to say that”. Is there such a thing as “aspirational DIY”? No? Well, there should be. This room really felt like the demarcation between hobbyist and semi-pro — the gear here could very easily be sold commercially, I just didn’t get the feeling that commercialization was the point, not exactly. This was about sound, and getting great sound using the right bits, and not just the cheapest, I-need-to-pad-a-margin bits.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but the bits Dave Slagle was showing off here were very obviously coming from an entirely different class and aesthetic over some of the other rooms, bringing a curious sort of blend between vintage and new, with the goal being awesome. And it was.

A Lowther Field-Coil mounted in a huge, white, Azurahorns is visually arresting — it’s the first thing you see in the room and it will be the image that stays with you when you leave. I’ve been told that, sonically, conical horns are the way to go, but the downsides are pretty obvious –they’re huge. Not a bad thing, just saying — this is a serious choice. A pair of 15″ Hawthorne Audio drivers hung below each horn, driving the low frequencies. I’ll confess — the immensity of those horns, and Kraftwerk cranked up to 95dB, distracted me from what sat snugly on the rack, arrayed like offerings at a bespoke craft show — it wasn’t until after the show and I was sorting through all the pics that I realized what I’d almost missed, tucked away in there like precious little jewels. Great gear — and some of the niftiest pieces at CAF. The gear, all electronics from the Emia venture, included a strain gauge system, several autoformer-based attenuators, and triode-based monoblock amplification based on some big, sexy 1929 Sylvania 50 tubes. A pair of Garrard turntables, one with a Panzerholz plinth and three tonearms sat on top. Sweet! Perhaps you have to see these things to appreciate the aesthetic, but it was a clean, clear, and definitive jump from “merely functional”, landing smack-dab in art.

Cathedral

Following in that no-longer-DIY vein, The Cathedral Speaker Company is a local company making some big-box speakers featuring an Altec horn. Sensitivity is high and the cabinets are pretty nice looking, if a bit conventional in shape. I suspect that the key here is to give ’em enough space for the sound field to stitch together. But here at CAF, driven by vintage electronics, I definitely got that throw-back kind of sound, and I happily spent a half hour listening to swing. The best thing? Prices are actually reasonable.

Classic Audio

Classic Audio is another curious blend of vintage looks and approach, combined with a decidedly fine level of craftsmanship. Field-coil drivers in Tractrix horns wrapped up in some of the nicest wood cabinets you can buy, these speakers are simply outstanding. They’re also priced accordingly. I can’t find any info on their sensitivity, and I don’t really know why these speakers are always shown with OTL amps from Atma-Sphere, but they’re imposing, in an attractive retro kind of way.

Soundfield Audio

AJ makes some damn fine-sounding speakers. He’s been tweaking his latest, the $7,500 1812 Overture, for the better part of a year and I think he’s probably ready to roll. Shown here with electronics from Cary Audio, these speakers produced the most thunderous and life-threatening bass at the show — those dual 18″ subs might have had something to do with it. Nice work! I was blown away by the $1,300 Soundfield Audio Monitor One — and I’d still love to bring in one of these 3-way/integral sub stand-mounts — but the 1812 is a superior speaker on every meaningful dimension.

GT Audio

GT Audio Works created quite a buzz at NYAV — the price, now $3,495, is still rather modest by comparison to much of what you’ll find in audio’s high-end. And what you get is tremendous — big, hand-made 3-way panels with a pair of separate subs. Like I said, it’s a compelling package. Attendees were enthusiastic and the crowd moving through the room was robust and seemed steady throughout the weekend.

Paolo Audio

Paolo Audio wins my award for “best remote” — it’s a wooden puck that you pick up, point at the amp, and turn while pretending that it’s connected to the front panel. Turn left, volume goes down. Turn right, volume goes up. Put it back down on the table, and you have something you can fondle while you’re sipping Scotch. The cabinet work here was remarkable, with the whole no-parallel-side-wall thing on the little single-driver speakers and some pretty polished brass on the amp, both made in-house. The little desktop system was a neatly scaled-down version of the big (okay, bigger) system in the adjoining room. The nesting tables were extraordinarily well put-together, too, done by the same cabinet-maker that worked the Paolo speakers. I’d love to see that kind of work done on a speaker cabinet!

Sonist

I’m not sure where to put Sonist, though the general theme in this post does seem to apply. Not mainstream by any means, the Sonist speakers are nonetheless an audio-show staple, and with the newest offering, the $5,895 Concerto 4, I think Mr Sonist, Randy Bankert, has hit it out of the park. This is an outstanding speaker — and one I really need to not overlook when I start thinking about high-sensitivity speakers. The Concerto 4 97dB with a reach down into the mid-20Hz region, the sound is fast, detailed, rich and robust. Cabinets are attractive and all-wood. Shown here with some spectacularly well dressed cables from Jonny Wilson’s Snake River Audio (shown below, running the demo), and with some bits from Glow Audio, DeHavilland and Cary Audio. This is the room where Jonny introduced me to The Bass Gang and my new-favorite YouTube obsession, The Piano Guys.

Triode Wire Labs

I got to meet Triode Pete at CAF this year, an extremely affable audiophile who’s very obviously having a great time — and making some truly remarkable power cords that are beefy enough to pummel evil, rampaging crocodiles.

Now there’s a quotable for you. “Part-Time Audiophile says that he relies on the Seven Plus American in his constant battle against the evil crocodile invasion plaguing the DC Metro Area!” I’m hoping Pete’s gonna send me some, soon, because I’ve been receiving reports of a large crocodile concentration amassing all across the Eastern Frontier, and I need to be ready. Yes, “Destiny’s powerful hand has made the bed of my future, and it’s up to me to lie in it. I am destined to be a superhero. To right wrongs, and to pound two-fisted justice into the hearts of evildoers everywhere. And you don’t fight destiny. No sir. And, you don’t eat crackers in the bed of your future, or you get all… scratchy.”

Ahem.

Well, aside from all that, Pete has a proprietary metallurgical blend in his power cords, and I’m looking forward to trying them out in the various rigs. 7 gauge is big, but I have an amp or three that can handle it!

Philharmonic

Philharmonic Audio is another local venture that’s moved up my stacks. The basic design was developed by Paul Kittinger, who also did a lot of design work for Salk Sound. The crossover work comes from Dennis Murphy, who also worked on Salk Sound speakers. The cabinet work comes courtesy of Delmond Won. The Philharmonic 3 retails for$3,500 and may be the best deal in high-end audio today. Shown with the affordable and over-performing Van Alstine line of electronics, the sound stage was huge, dynamic and detailed — just wish we’d have been able to shut off the drone of the air conditioning unit, but then, we’d all have died of heat stroke. Not because of the room, DC is just hot in July. But I digress. The loudspeaker features a RAAL tweeter, a planar magnetic mid range, and a big transmission-line bass cabinet. If you’re looking for a dynamic speaker and don’t mind running big amps (the sensitivity is only 85dB), take a good look at Philharmonic.

Oasis Speakers

“Whimsical” is a good word for the designs in the O.A.S.I.S. room. Leveraging natural materials for their enclosures — gourds, usually — the loudspeakers were very definitely a conversation piece. Trust me when I say that none of your friends have speakers that look anything like this — and I’ll also bet that many of those friends have speakers that sound way worse. Unlike some commentators, I actually got to hear the sound in this room — and I was pleasantly surprised. Put a screen up, and you’d never have guessed what was making the sounds in here. Being honest, I enjoyed the room. It was fun! I get the feeling that this project is still bootstrapping (the website is a bit under-nourished), but perhaps we’ll see more from them at future shows.

This wraps up CAF for me. Great show! I really loved the variety on offer here, and the heavy dose of DIY and near-DIY offerings made this an especial treat. It’s pretty easy to be jaded about audio shows, I guess, but it’s this kind of thing, a window into the skunk works behind audio’s high-end, that shows the life behind the sound. That’s how I read it, anyway, and every time I’m exposed, I learn more — and find that I want to learn more. Way back in the day, I left my EE degree program for something far more useful — philosophy — but had I known then that I could be building shit like this with that degree (instead of computer circuit boards), I might have stayed in. Okay, probably not — too much math homework — but maybe.

Anyway, hats off to Gary Gill and the Capital Audiofest gang. Looking forward to 2013!

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