CAF 2015: What Happened Here?

Herb Reichert and I, just before everything went sideways

CAF2015With this year’s Capital Audiofest, there’s good news, and there’s bad news.

The good news? This show was … very possibly … the best-sounding show I’ve been to. And I’ve been to a few. Explaining the “why” of that is going to be completely beyond me. I could venture that there was something in the venue, or the layout of the vendors, or the sheer quality of the displays, but who really cares? The average attendee won’t. What that “average attendee” heard, though, was simply astonishing. The proportion of rooms that sounded not good but great was higher than at any other in recent memory. Ska-doosh.

The bad news? You missed it. It’s over. Now, there’s nothing to do but wait till next year. The Hilton where the event was held, is getting a facelift in the next year, so it’s unclear if CAF will be back and even if it is, whether or not it’ll be “the same”. Here’s to hoping. Ticket sales seemed brisk on Saturday, but Sunday was the usual audio-show ghost town; a shame, as that’s always the best day for sonics.


Meet the Writers

I got to “do” two panel discussions/events, courtesy of my host, the inimitable Ken Furst. The first was a meet-the-writers panel, hosted by Art Dudley, the Editor of Stereophile magazine. I know Art a little, ever since I maligned his taste in beef by viciously accusing him of routinely transmogrifying his steaks into shoe leather, but sitting next to him and attempting to speak extemporaneously with any level of cogency has got to be one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve done in audio. Did I mention he’s my hero? He is, and he scares me. Not a little, either. It’ll come as no surprise to you, those that are fans of his writing, that he’s wickedly funny and has absolutely no patience for fools. What you might not know is that he’s quite charming and mild in-person — you have the opportunity to underestimate his perceptiveness when you see him, smiling agreeably. That would be a mistake. The man is a lethal cocktail of coiled menace and devastating judgment. That night, at dinner, when his steak was served not only well-done but cold, I heard a ululating scream of outrage that I’m positive emanated from the very bowels of the earth. I’m pretty sure the waiter fainted on the spot. So did 12 bystanders. There are conflicting reports of glassware shattering, but Robin Wyatt, our gracious host for the evening, was actually speechless. Mat Weisfeld, President of VPI and a master in the dark arts of hand-to-hand combat (and also one of the many guests), was so startled by that, he promptly kung-fu’d everyone in the room into submission. All in all, it was terrifying moment and many shorts needed to be changed. We were kicked out asked to leave shortly thereafter.

Luckily, the panel went smoother than the unfortunate outburst later that evening, and Art was able to guide Alan Taffel of my erstwhile home, The Absolute Sound, “cub reporter” (snort) Herb Reichert of Stereophile, and myself through a great Q&A. There were questions of ethics, of product selection, of editorial process, and still room for some great storytelling.

Speaking of the “cub reporter” (Herb’s words), I have to offer my thanks to whomever it was that had the great good sense to bring Herb into the fold over at Stereophile. That magazine is immensely better with his contributions — I’m just going to say that out loud. Loud and proud. Herb’s a deeply kind and funny man, and given his long history on “the other side” of the editorial aisle (he sold — and survived selling — Audio Note equipment for years and years), his perspective is fresh, engaging, and insightful. His beat, taking over “The Entry Level” from departed Stephen Mejias, has remained one of the many highlights of that magazine.

I was going to insert some more praise here, but my laptop just made retching sounds at me. Fine. You call it “sucking up”, I call it Truth-Telling. Whatever.

Stupid laptop.

Meet Sandy Gross

Ha! That’s me sitting with Sandy Freakin’ Gross! Photo courtesy of Ken Furst.

My second “Major Event” at CAF this year was a Between-Two-Ferns interview with GoldenEar‘s Sandy Gross. For those of you still living under rocks, and lacking the benefits of The Google, Sandy co-founded Polk Audio and Definitive Technologies, and selling both of those companies, before launching his latest venture.

We spent some time talking a little about the in-between/all-around stuff, too — though I didn’t really get a chance to talk about Sandy’s love for fast cars and Native American art, we did explore his time as a national champion slot-car racer, and his time as a Hollywood movie producer. The guy is fascinating. Anyway, we entertained his fans with some answers around company-building, speaker-designing, and a brief exploration of some of his major contributions to audio history.

What a truly remarkable fellow.

The Cable Polygraph

Me (Left) shaking hands with David Salz of Wireworld (Right). Photo courtesy of Paul Elliott

I did manage to catch another “Major Event” at CAF this year, and one I wanted to call out, especially given all the joyful noise the Internet holds around the sonic contributions of audio cabling. As you probably know, having earned your PhD in metallurgy, acoustics, physics, and engineering, there is some debate around their efficacy. Actually, there’s a whole knot of debates around this, but put that aside for now. David Salz of Wireworld was on hand to talk us through what he calls the Cable Polygraph.

In this set of “experiments”, we were told that two Tascam AD/DA converters were directly wired together with a series of 1m interconnects pulled from a broad sweep of the cable industry. These were compared with “no wire” (directly attached). But first, a test.

Ostensibly, if the Total Cable Doubter are correct, none of these will sound different. That is, files generated from one, played across the gap, and captured by the other, would be identical. Failing that, the Lesser Doubters might maintain that lampcord and [insert an expensive brand here] would be identical to each other but perhaps not identical to the “no wire”.

David recreated the experiment for us in the room. Using Bel Canto Ref500 monoblock amplifiers right up on top of the speakers (I think they were from Neat Acoustics), David was able to use a 3″ piece of 14 gauge wire as the “no wire”. It wasn’t “no wire”, but as David discussed, most cable differences (assuming such exist!) will be fantastically suppressed with distances that short, so it was “close enough”. That was the control. Next, he played the same track (an old CD rip of “Fire and Rain”) with 3m of lampcord. Then, 3m of lampcord with the conductors separated. Then, he swapped in a progression of his own, Wireworld speaker cables, starting at $500 and moving up to $1200.

Sitting 8 rows back, I’m going to say that this demo wasn’t as convincing as David would have hoped. So, being the empiricist, I stood up and walked up to the sweet spot (which happened to be the open aisle in this room) and plonked my rather prodigious butt down in what was approximately one corner of an equilateral triangle.

To my ears, the “no cable” was best. It was open, lively, engaging with plenty of detail. Note that the recording was crap — and there was no attempt to hide this fact. But when he switched to lampcord, the image shrank, and no longer wrapped me in a soundstage as comprehensively huge. Interestingly, the sound also seemed to be quieter. I want to say it was 2-3dB quieter — and no, he didn’t fiddle with the volume control (it had a digital display, and it was constant), just the backward-key on the CD player in order to restart the track. When David switched to the lampcord with the conductors separate, the sound was even quieter — and now, it was “fuzzy” and diffuse. Still, everything was totally recognizable — the difference wasn’t enormous, per se, but it was obvious. When David swapped in his own cables at this point — again, the only change being speaker cables — the focus snapped back into place, the noise floor dropped and the volume came back up. And that was the “entry-level” cable. By the third Wireworld cable, the sound was very close to the control, which he then played last.

Back to the Polygraph. Apparently, this test with the Tascams, wired back-to-back using high-resolution audio files, was done in Germany; the results were published online — in German (here’s the link to the translated version). David played a progression of these over the system he’d just done his own tests with, and while subtle, the “sounds” of the interconnects from Audioquest, Wireworld and Cardas were all readily apparent.

I would love to check out this experiment — not that I read German — but more importantly, I’d love to try this out myself. Another day, another project.

The show coverage will roll out slowly over the next couple of weeks. There’s a lot of great stuff to show you, so, do stay tuned.