Capital Audiofest 2016: Roundup and Best in Show
I’ve been to a lot of audio shows, it’s true. Doesn’t make me an expert, however — there are a few decades of these things that I simply don’t have access to, having only “been in the game” since 2010. But one thing I have learned — most of my audio-pals are quite happy to jump off their barstools, slam their stein down, and declaim to any and all who will listen that “everyone knows that the sound sucks”.
These negative-nancies are, of course, wrong.
I will admit, however, that there have been shows where the sound has been a catastrophic caterwauling of hate, fear, and pain. Happily, there’s only a couple of such that come to mind from recent memory. Instead, my experience tells me that the sound at most audio shows is uniformly “not bad” (faint praise, eh?), and quite often edges into the “pretty-good” (yep, faint praise indeed). But I mean that across-the-board — not “some rooms”, but all rooms, averaged if you will. At every show, there are many rooms that are much better than merely good. Sometimes there are enough good-to-great rooms that, when averaged out, the entire show comes off as a sonic thrill-ride.
Capital Audiofest is one of those.
I’m really not sure what the deal is — though everyone suspects that it is the superior leadership of Show-Runner Gary Gill — or why it seems to be the case that this Hilton was such a bang-up hotel for an audio show, or even if it’s the venue. Like a magic-socks-wearing baseball franchise, however, I’m not sure I’d be interested in changing — whatever it is, it’s working, so Powers That Be: please don’t fuck with it!
So, what I heard at CAF this year was room after room absolutely killing it. I simply cannot remember a show that sounded as good, end to end, or room by room. Oh wait. I lied. There is another one. Last year’s CAF. Boom!
The show at CAF is still not big (think 30-40 or so demo rooms), but its current size is still bigger than AXPONA was before it went back to Chicago. Which meant a whole lot more intimacy, and a whole lot more time that could be spent in each room. And that meant good times, all around.
So, while this show coverage may seem a little “light”, I did want to call out a few more in the list for special notice, and take this opportunity to thank TSA for “borrowing” the remainder of of my post-show notes.
First up, I love what Voxativ is doing these days. Their famous and fabulous single-driver “horns” are effortless and transparent, and the newest Zeth ($15k/pair), finished in a soft “Velvet-like” finish and driven by Berning electronics, was coherent and immediate. Love those wooden cones.
Dave Slagle and Ijaz Khan of EMIA were showing off their latest quad-panel Quads, here driven by some built-in 300b amplifiers. I’m always impressed by Slagle and his work, and the sheer audacious cleverness behind some of his designs. This room was like peeking into a secret audio workshop. Always a fascinating look.
Legacy Audio/Raven Audio
If you haven’t noticed, Raven Audio has been peering up with Legacy Audio for some of the most unexpected old/new combos on the current audio show circuit. Raven is making some of the sexiest tube electronics you can buy these days — and there are flavors available for just about every budget and power requirement — and Legacy is in the process of completely redefining what is possible in sonic reproduction with their new Wavelet DSP/preamplifier. No idea what I’m talking about? You need to queue up for a demo — trust me, it’s impressive as all hell.
What do you get when you cross a blacksmith with an audiophile? Fern/Roby, of course. Christopher Hildebrand was showing off a brand new turntable — not of cast-iron-and-brass this time, but instead, of Richlite, a fabricated synthetic. The Montrose, which uses Richlite for both plinth and platter, pulls the bearing and mechanism from the more upscale Tredegar, and adds a new unipivot tonearm with a carbon fiber arm wand. Pretty slick. Chris was also teasing some new phono tools, like the “Hitchhiker”, a headshell phono pickup/pre that might be radically different from current one-box phono preamplifiers (think “way shorter signal paths for critical components”).
Focal & Micromega
Jeff Fox of Command Performance was showing with some very bling-y Focal Sopra loudspeakers, which would have been enough to cause whiplash, but it was the Micromega M-One that really caught my eye and ear. I know next to nothing about this pizza box solution, except that it is suspiciously similar to Devialet — but appears to have more functionality at a lower price. Whoops. More coming on this score, for sure.
GT Audio Works
Greg Takesh of GT Audio Works has been cranking through iterations of his panel designs for several years — but this year, this design pulls the deep-bass out of the panel and puts it into a specialty push-pull sub enclosure. Result? Power without bloat. Winner, winner — and easily the best that this solution has sounded to date.
Larsen HiFi Loudpeakers
Michael Vamos of GamuT USA was showing off his other loudspeaker brand, the Larsen. Larsen is one of those odd-ball brands that actually attempts to make audio for your room, instead of demanding that you design a room for your audio. Novel, right? The main feature of this speaker is the side-angling drivers — wall-coupling lets you get them out of the way, and take advantage of the room for that last little oompfh in the low-end. End result? Very satisfying — sometimes, you have to think outside the box. Familiar vinyl playback via Pear Audio and that fabulous GamuT integrated no doubt iced that cake to a “t”.
At CAF, the vendors all banded together to give away one of the most extravagant audio door prizes I’ve ever seen — a full system, featuring speakers from Alta Audio, a VPI turntable, cables from Luminous Audio and a fabulous VPI/VAS integrated. I thought it was killer.
The winner of that system, Chin Lai, was one lucky dude.
Best in Show
As I mentioned, this show was a target-rich environment for sonic excellence. But for me, the Best Sound at CAF was an easy and no-brainer pick — there really just wasn’t anything to say or do after letting that KEF Muon-anchored system blow me away. Fronted by the new Titan from VPI, and driven by a Odyssey Audio amplifiers — and a suite of phono preamplifiers — this room was just staggering and entirely worthy of an entire bucket of exclamation points. Here are a couple more, just for good measure: !!!!!