There is nothing worth hating in hi-fi, other than bad editorial policy. Unfortunately, said policy was on display rather more than expected at CAF 2022. This did nothing to stop those in the know from experiencing some exceptional sound, however, with exceptional transformations from Friday to Sunday. CAF 2022 was, more than anything, a reminder of one my life mottos: Try Everything Twice. And now, Grover Neville’s Best of CAF 2022.
Words and Images by Grover Neville
Since misinformation and Rumours–not just the Fleetwood Mac album–were rife at CAF 2022, it was up to the PTA staff, Dave McNair, Eric Franklin Shook, Jameson Mourafetis and myself to root out the truth. As it turns out, this was not such a simple task, and Saturday evening we were lamenting our inability to find any compelling sounding rooms. Cue Sunday and we decided promptly on a lightning round: hit every room we could spending more than a minute only if we heard something truly excellent.
Lo and behold, it was on us to do our homework too. Several rooms had made changes that by the final day meant they were experiencing total transformations. The application of different amplifiers, such as plugging in a previously static display pair of Ampsandsound Bryce in the Heretic Audio room heralded a complete 180 from unmentionable to not only listenable, but quite enjoyable definitely qualifying as one of Grover Neville’s Best of Show.
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Likewise in the 2020Evolution room, a complete tube replacement on the conrad-johnson amplifiers led to some of the best sound the crew and I have ever heard at a show. We proceeded to spend over half an hour DJing on the exceptional sounding Kharma dB9-S, much to the delight of Jay, the proprietor.
Other highlights were Acora Acoustics, a company that always makes a good showing in challenging rooms. This time however, it was not the mighty QRC-2 that drew my ear most, but the it’s smaller sibling the QRC-1. The sound of the QRC-1 is extremely linear, but with a slight smoothness and extra warmth that retains Acora’s trademark detail and laser beam-like imaging, while demanding just a little less of its partner electronics in terms of high frequency refinement. Paired with Hegel amplification and digital via Ideon Audio, this system made the best case for solid state that I heard at the show.
Treehaus Audio made a fantastic showing, with a new design consisting of a Field-Coil midrange, compression super tweeter, and powered DSP-corrected bass woofer. Top to bottom coherency was very special on this system, and sound leapt into the room with the speed and detail of a great horn system, but with a flatter frequency response than I’m accustomed to hearing from any horn system. I love the look of these speakers, being a fan of live-edge wood, and the Rich Pinto, one of Treehaus’ proprietors and the designer of the speakers was probably the best hang of the show. This guy is hilarious, real and has an ear for sound that rises well above the average.
Jacob George of Rethm was also present, though due to some mishaps with shipping, his new generation Trishnas did not make it, and an older generation customer pair was procured. This pair I later found out was also partially damaged, though I did not hear any aberrations in the sound that would have identified this. All of this aside, the room sounded excellent.
Paired with Justin Weber of Ampsandsound’s new Black Pearl 300B stereo amplifier, the room was dynamic, surprisingly extended in the high frequencies and tonally pure. I liked the sound of this amplifier enough that I own one, and currently have the new generation Rethm Trishnas on the way to my listening room – so stay tuned for how that pairing sounds in an upcoming review.
Other rooms making good sound were Doug White of The Voice That Is, who was getting very expensive and high-end sound from new TIDAL Audio Piano G3s and Vinnie Rossi Brama electronics, and Aaron and Jessica Sherrick of Now Listen Here with a pair of Vandersteen Kentos and accompanying Vandersteen amplifiers that had superbly punchy low end and very clean and harshness free top end.
Other highlights include an impromptu demonstration by Dave McNair of his record cutting lathe and techniques for Michael Fremer, which not only dispelled several myths, but made everyone present more than a little ravenous for more McNair Mastering cuts, and a trip by the PTA crew to the headphone area.
I originally took Dave to hear the new DCA Expanse headphones, which I own and use for music production and mixing, and while we heard those sound fantastic off a Headamp GSX Mini, the real star was a pair of SRX-9000 off Justin’s new prototype Electrostatic amplifier running, if memory serves me correctly, Emission Labs 20BV4, a sort of cross between a 2a3 and a 300B from what I could tell. The sound was wide, holographic and out of your head, and visceral in a way few speaker systems, let alone headphones ever are. This amp promises to be very special. I would be remiss not to also mention the RAAL Circumaural headphones too, which sound much warmer, and punchier than the open-back variants and presented a nice alternative to those, with similar strengths while improving on the low end and smoothing out the top end.
For the full rundown in detail, check out The Occasional Podcast, where Dave, Jameson, Eric Franklin Shook and myself detail our best of show picks and experience. The theme of CAF 2022 for me, though it started with disappointment and confusion, ended not only in delight at great sound, but touched on a simultaneously fundamental yet sophisticated part of our hobby: which thing makes which sound. Was the conrad-johnson responsible for that seductive midrange in the 2020 Evolution room, or was it the Kharma? What was bringing that slight warmth and expensive sounding clarity to the TIDAL Audio and Vinnie Rossi room, electronics, speakers, or simply careful setup? What element of design made Headamps new electrostatic sound so holographic and wide?
This for me is one of the most fun elements of the hobby because it is exactly the kind of grey area diversity that challenges and fascinates me enough to keep coming back. If THD told the whole story, hi-fi would have died a long time ago, yet Phoenix-Like it continues to resurrect that sense of wonder in all of us. That moment when we hear an arresting sound and wonder, “why does it sound like that?” The truth of course, unlike misinformation, is an evolving process of discovery.
Misinformation by contrast is easy. Truly great audio reproduction must then also be a journey, rather than a destination, and like Truth, there are few things more exciting than a new discovery to fill in a small piece of the puzzle. Eric Franklin Shook is often quoted by the staff at PTA as saying we are “The fake news you can trust,” and in the joke there lies a hint of reality: we don’t know everything there is to know about hi-fi yet. And what more joyous idea is there for the audiophile than to know that there is better sound just over the horizon? As the holiday season in the United States approaches, I consider myself lucky to be surrounded by good food, great sound and even better friends who continue to hear and remind me of that [lowercase-t] truth.
That’s Grover Neville’s Best of Show.