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Micro CAF 2013

There's a lot of speculation as to the origins of the India Pale Ale. Most attribute the invention of the overly hopped (ie, bitter) beer to one George Hobson and his Hobson's India Ale, but the why of it is still clouded. The prevailing beer of the time (late 1700s) was the delectable porter, and since porter is beer perfected, the notion of a "pale ale" seems entirely superfluous and silly. I have it on good authority (told to me by an actual Englishman) that the Pale was invented in order to survive the trip to India, the heavy-handed hops being necessary to preserve the brew on it's long trip around the Cape of Good Hope. Of course, without that requirement -- longevity under dire conditions -- no right-thinking Englishman would consider this to actually be beer, but hey, beggars can't be choosers. Those poor bastards were lucky to have anything at all. I have it on equally good authority (from a website called Beer Church, so I'm taking it on faith that it must be true), that this story is total bollocks since porter was being successfully shipped to India prior to the invention of the Pale. Whatever. I prefer Gary Dews' the Englishman's story, since he's, you know, English. And IPA blows. Seriously. Yuck. This is what I was thinking as I showed up at the Micro CAF.

Gary Gill, the organizer of the Capital Audiofest, kindly opened up his house to fifty or so DC-area audiophiles yesterday. The goal of the “Micro CAF” was to bring the community together for a day of demos, music and beer. It was a marvelous idea, if I do say so myself — which is good, because I suppose I could be blamed for being one of the primary floggers to get Mr. Gill to … ah … sign up.

The day was shit — which was perfect. Misty-rainy in February — a few degrees colder and we’d have been covered in snow. A few degrees warmer and the nearby Little Italy would have swamped the parking situation. As it was, there was plenty of room, no real competition for attention, and no reason not to snuggle in with some triodes.

Entry fee? One sixpack of IPA. Apparently Mr Gill is a fan. Thank the Brewer that someone brought some porter along. I was saved!

Anyway, it was a full house. Ahem. A very full house. And yes, there was a lot of beer.

Gary had very kindly cleared three bedrooms rooms out, so at any one time there were a total of four systems on display. Walking in the door, DIY Roscoe had setup a high-current, single driver/wide baffle system. A surprising degree of finesse from this system, with good bass and the transparency that no cross-overs will bring to the table. I heard quite a bit of audiophile goodness down there, including some Dave Brubeck, but I am forced to acknowledge that Roscoe’s system was the only one to attempt Nirvana. That was fun — and outright hilarious. It’s stunning, to me at least, how many audiophiles have no idea who Kurt Cobain was or why anyone ought to listen. Tsk, tsk.

Immediately upstairs, Gary Gill had setup a pair of high-sensitivity horns loudspeakers. The bass cabinets came from Volti Audio; the giant flaring cones up top were Gary’s own, a design he makes, called Sousahorns (prices start at $600/pair). Sound quality from these speakers varied a bit throughout the day, but generally speaking, the mid-bass performance was strong through all but the lowest octaves. Mid-range and up had varying degrees of transparency, extension and dynamics, depending nearly entirely on the accompanying chain. I got a bit of horn “cuppiness” here and there, mostly when the system was being pushed — different amps exacerbated or ameliorated this. Sound quality varied throughout the room — the sweet spot was a good 10′ back and dead center, though the lateral dispersion was surprisingly acceptable across the entire room. All in all, this was a very impressive DIY set of loudspeakers.

This system was the focal point to the show and went through a series of evolutions throughout the day. Early on, the loudspeakers were fronted by a 5998 triode amp that DC audiophile Colleen Fogarty brought along to be part of the first demo — swapping in and out the external “aftermarket” power supply from BorderPatrol, showing off the advantages of a choke input filtered tube power supply. In short, this was startling — the word that came to mind was “grip”. Bass tightened, mid-range cleared, and the treble extended — this was one of those “holy crap” demos. Later, Mr Dews brought out one of his own designs, a P21 push-pull amplifier with 300b tubes, and we were treated to some of the best sound these speakers made. Full, tight, immediate, the P21 ably carted us through a panoply of audiophile twaddle — and some Morcheeba. That was awesome.

David Berning was on hand with a skunk-works amp, one he was able to tweak to run either an EL-34 or 300b. Tim Stinson of Luminous Audio paired this amp with the newest version of his Walker-Mod Axiom II passive line stage (featuring a new 40+ step attenuator), bringing some seriously transparent, delicate sound. An old Technics direct-drive turntable was pressed into service, together with a prototype phono preamp from designer Bill Hutchins of LKV Research.

This phono stage, to be released this May at a target price of about $2,500, features:

  • Multiple stages of power supply noise control using resistor/capacitor filters, capacitance multipliers and modern IC regulators to create very smooth, quiet power rails.
  • Ultra low noise active components (jfets and bipolar transistors) biased into their quietest operating ranges.
  • Cascode amplification circuits and active current sources to assure low distortion in each amplification stage.
  • Differential (balanced) amplifier circuits to block incoming noise.
  • Signal path capacitors using accurate polypropylene dielectric to pass the musical signal without smearing.
  • Four-layer circuit boards to keep signal paths short and improve grounding.
  • Three grounding options to minimize noise and avoid ground loop hum in a variety of systems.

Aaron Hoffman of Kanso Audio Furniture was on hand to talk about his audio furniture designs, showing off the technology embedded (literally) in his shelving units. This is some impressive stuff — and for anyone fascinated by what Magico seems to be branching out to these days, Aaron has a much more affordable solution. Worth a chat.

The third floor was home to two more systems. To the right of the stairs was a small setup, again a flat-baffle/single-driver affair being driven by a pair of 2A3 monos (I think) with a turntable driving them. The sound here was very mid-range focused and quite romantic.

In the other room, Ralph Hellmer of Surreal Sound Audio was demoing his Fifth Row loudspeakers with a pair of commercially-available components from David Berning Audio. The Fifth Row loudspeakers, definitely not what I’d call small-room devices, had their trademark thunder scaled down to shoe-horn into the small-ish bedroom — and still had all the dynamics I recalled from the Capital Audiofest. This system, too, evolved throughout the day, starting with electronic gear brought in by a grinning John Gatski of Everything Audio Network, including a Benchmark DAC and a new Oppo BDP-105 player — playing some of John’s high-res files through the Benchmark was a high point of the day.

Later, David Berning’s skunkworks amp made its way up the stairs, along with the LKV Research 2-SB phono and that vintage Technics turntable, allowing the crowd a chance to hear many audiophile classics played back via EL34 or 300b, with no real consensus — but no shortage of opinions! Speaking of that system, an opportunity was lost in not getting that P21 push-pull from BorderPatrol up the stairs. That would have neatly split the difference, says this audiophile offering his opinion from the comfort his armchair. Another time, another show — and something to look forward to.

All told, I think this day was a complete hoot — I’d love to see this happen on at least a quarterly basis! The DC Metro region really needs a general audiophile “community” (the DIY contingent is already pretty vibrant), and this sort of event was a great way to roll that ball along.

Many thanks to organizer Gary Gill — and to his wife — for letting us invade their Baltimore home. Thanks also to Gary Dews, David Berning, Ralph Hellmer, Tim Stinson, Pierre Sprey, Bill Hutchins, and Aaron Hoffman.

BorderPatrol P21 amplifier

Pierre Sprey getting his listen on (right)

David Berning and Tim Stinson, center

Random speakers — love that real-wood look

First floor system

David Berning skunkworks amp

Second third-floor system

Ralph Hellmer of Surreal Sound Audio

Opposing drivers? Yes — though they may be hard to see

Bill Hutchins wiring up his new LKV Research phono stage.

Get your Occasional now

9 Comments on Micro CAF 2013

  1. Wish I had been able to attend. But my attendance would have been spoiled by the Sean Casper amp, which rips off the look of the original Fi 300B amp. I’m led to think that the previous existence of a Fi 421A amp is no coincidence. Don Garber has a very clear, focused, repeated visual style, reflected in his designs for amps and preamps. If he were Tom Waits, he would have buried Casper under an appropriate crushing load of litigation–and won.

    The sound of the amp? That’s no excuse for intellectual theft. No excuse.

  2. onethousandanswers // February 27, 2013 at 2:43 PM //

    Sorry I missed the event, so thanks for the review (hadn’t realized your proximity to the Capitol region). That 5998 amp looks to be the Sean Casper design and likely works with a 421a tube (which IMHO sounds better). Some might knock the similarities with the Fi 421a amp, but it still sounds wonderful.

  3. For anyone who’s interested, I dug this out of a beer book.

    Britain had first colonized India in 1722 and brewers
    had been supplying the subcontinent with ale from the earliest days.
    But brown ales and porters were not the best thirst-quenchers in that
    torrid climate. They tended to arrive sour and flat after a sea journey that lasted from
    three to five months with wild fluctuations of temperature.

    George Hodgson of Abbot & Hodgson’s Bow Brewery in East London started to brew for
    the export trade because of his proximity to the East and West India Docks where great
    sailing ships set sail for the subcontinent. Rates for cargo on the outward journeys
    were low. Hodgson had heard from ship owners that soldiers and civilians in India
    were dissatisfied with the ales sent to them and he thought he could make a substantial
    profit by supplying the India market with a lighter and more refreshing beer.

    No records survive of this small brewery and nobody knows what Hodgson’s ‘India
    Ale’ was like. As an experienced brewer, Hodgson knew that the best defenses
    against spoilage on the journey to India would be alcohol and hops. It is therefore
    likely that he brewed a strong ale of at least 6 per cent alcohol and with twice the
    hops used in conventional beers. Additional hops may have been added to the casks
    when they left the brewery as a further step against infection. Priming sugar in the casks
    would have encouraged a slow second fermentation that would also have kept
    the yeast active and helped ward off spoilage.

    From ‘The Taste Of Beer’ by Roger Protz.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // February 26, 2013 at 8:37 PM //

      See? Never argue with an Englishman about beer. There’s no future in it.

  4. Thanks for covering this event, Scott and for the great photos. I am also hoping we can make this a quarterly adventure, hopefully at different houses and with all sorts of fun gear.
    The upstairs open baffle system was run by a push-pull 300B amp with vintage iron and caps and I was captivated by it. A truly beautifully-built amp driving some 755Es from Western Electric. Thanks to Sam Andersen for the setup and all the info and enthusiasm he imparts. Plus the very cool DIY plinth and an affordable vinyl setup. Made me consider vinyl again! As always, I love what a Border Patrol power supply can do and luckily I could return to my own BP SE300B amp and preamp at home which I am enjoying at this very moment. If only everyone could be so lucky…

    • Part-Time Audiophile // February 26, 2013 at 8:38 PM //

      Thanks, Colleen — much obliged for the correction (and apologies to Sam)!

  5. 1st off, THANKS GARY! for opening up your beaut of a townhouse. Loved the art through out. I had a very nice time! I may have to hit you up on your Sousaphone project. I have a pair of drivers that are in need of a “home.” It was nice to see a few folks I haven’t seen in years (Kemper) and few faces seen at other audiophile shows. For the most part all of the systems were enjoyable to listen to. The Border Control gear … very nice. Berning’s gear in the Surreal speakers room was nice too. I could have sworn that the top speaker in Ralph’s 1st iteration of his speakers was more detailed!? … and used a Lowther driver!??? Can’t fault the bass. Oh, no. The top? I’m 50/50 on that. I’ve heard much faster and detailed, more life like elsewhere. Construction can’t fault either.
    Roscoe’s system was fun/cheap (meant in a positive light!) and sounded really fine on some music. I dug it alot! Sam’s (?) 3rd floor system; was sublime! If it was snowing and cold outside the nice tunes would have been really “warming” All was missing was a warm fireplace and munchies …. lastly, it was nice to have met the instigator of this erstwhile blog site. Funny guy. (I had the green scull cap/light purple herringbone scarf on. Head gets cold easily!? & my audiophile fashion statement (sic) GREAT shots and coverage!! Thank You! Looking forward to the CAF in July!!

  6. Sweet beer collection! Cool audio collection!

  7. Kemper Holt // February 24, 2013 at 6:26 PM //

    A good time was had by all. The 2 open baffle systems sounded great on the piano led jazz I heard them play. Inexpensive and relaxing, musical. Ralph’s Surreal speakers and David’s electronics wowed the audience into rapt silence while a Flim & the BBs Tricycle SACD played. Loud, wildly dynamic, exciting, live concert sounding kind of experience. Drum kit in the room! Most times people talked during demos making it hard to get a true feel for the system, not with this demo. It was supposed to be one cut, but 4 songs later we finally came to a quieter cut and the talking resumed. Explosively dynamic and fun, best moment for me at the show. Thanks to Gary for hosting the Micro CAF, hopefully it will interest many more audiophiles and their friends to attend the CAF this summer, it will be better than ever! Thanks to Scot of PTA for covering the event and the great pictures, and the swag.

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