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.
- Second third-floor system