High-end audio shows are a fun way to spend a day. Such shows offer an excellent opportunity to sample some of the most expensive and esoteric stereo systems out there, many more than you’ll find at a typical audio dealer’s showroom. Yesterday, I woke up at 5:00 AM and hitched a ride from Philly to DC with AVS Forum member jwhip (Joe Whip). We arrived just before the show started and met up with Allan Stock, a friend of Joe’s, and we resolved to visit every room at the show before the day concluded.
The Sheraton in Silver Spring, where the Capital Audiofest took place.
As soon as the doors opened, we hit the demo rooms as a group. The Capital Audio Fest isn’t too large for a one-day visit—as long as you bail on the rooms that don’t grab your attention right away. Since it was Friday morning as opposed to a Saturday, it wasn’t too busy, so we found it was easy to get prime seats in each room we visited. Here’s what I saw and heard, starting with the larger ballrooms at the Sheraton hotel in Silver Springs, MD:
The Linden Room
The first room of the day married a Bricasti M1 DAC and a pair of Bricasti M28 mono amps with a pair of Tidal Audio Piano Speakers from Germany. The source was a Windows laptop feeding the M1 DAC via USB, a setup that was very popular at the show, which I was glad to see.
Bricasti Design components and Tidal speakers sound great together in this system.
The overall sound was smooth and eminently listenable. When I thought about what the sound reminded me of, I came up with butter and silk. Instruments rendered faithful to scale, and although I did not experience goose bumps, I found it quite easy to enjoy the overall sound. We listened to a bit of Tchaikovsky that was from a raw track, an unprocessed DSD 64 recording in a symphony hall. It definitely sounded like a faithful reproduction. Other demo tracks included Toni Braxton singing “Unbreak My Heart” as well as “The Town Burns” by John Williams. My main complaint is that the soundstage didn’t have that much depth to it, regardless of which track was playing. Overall, though, it was a nice start to the show.
The Bricasti Design M1 DAC.
The Cedar Room
This room featured reel-to-reel source material playing on a United Home Audio tape deck reproduced through MBL 116F Radialstrahler speakers, which feature novel omnidirectional mid- and high-frequency drivers incorporated into a 4-way design. Power for the inefficient MBLs (83 dB) came from four Jolida Luxor series monoblock tube amplifiers.
A reel-to-reel with attitude: the United Home Audio tape deck.
The demo featured the track “Duo for Violin and Cello” from the album Duo Virtuoso by Elaris Duo. The reel-to-reel recording sounded great, but not tangibly better than well-mastered digital tracks I have heard. Even so, it was cool to hear top-notch tape-based analog audio. It was a very expensive rig for a very particular sort of well-heeled audiophile with a taste for novelty. My main complaint was the lack of goose bumps, which to me is the best sign of exposure to rarified audio fidelity.
MBL 116F Radialstrahler speakers have a futuristic look to them.
I don’t know if they help the system sound better, but these tubes are gorgeous.
The Hickory Room
This was the first “uh-oh” moment of the show. I usually enjoy the sound of innovative horn-loaded speakers, and the Sadurni Acoustics Staccato horn speakers sure fit the bill—they looked a bit like jet engines. They are a 4-way design with 110 dB efficiency, and I figured they would make for a fun demo. However, as I started taking pictures I noticed loose wires near the topmost tweeters—they were not connected to anything! When I pointed this out to Joe and Allan, they asked about it—apparently, the tweeters blew up earlier that morning. Given that revelation, we decided not to stay in that room because we did not want to demo malfunctioning speakers, even though other attendees were doing just that.
I happened to notice that this tweeter was not connected.
I really wanted to hear the Sadurni Acoustics Staccato horn speakers, but the tweeters were not working.
The Persimmon Room
My first thought upon entering the Surreal Sound/Live Sound Designs room was “welcome to the wonderful world of speakers based on a single full-range dynamic driver.” The Surreal Speaker includes one full-range driver plus six 10-inchbass drivers. Power for the full-range driver came from a 30-watt-per-channel (into 8 ohms) Atma-Sphere S-30 tube amp, featuring a frequency response of 1 Hz – 200 kHz within 3 dB. The bass drivers got their power from a Crown XTi-4002, astereo amplifier that outputs 650 watts/channel into 8 ohms and 1200 watts/channel into 4 ohms. I use a Crown XTi-2002 to power my subs at home, so it made me smile to see an amp from the same series used in a high-end rig.
The Surreal Speaker has a rather unusual design, in this image you can clearly see the bass drivers.
Atma-Sphere’s S-30 tube amp is a cool-looking piece of gear.
The system was a bit bright—as always that could be an attributed with the source, the room, or the content—but it had quite good resolution overall. I did not hear it strain or distort while playing “Cotton Tail” by the Duke Ellington Quartet from the album Duke’s Big Four. There was an aura of immediacy to the system reminiscent of electrostatic and planar-magnetic speakers. Imaging was precise. While it’s not a system I would pay for, I wouldn’t mind listening to it a bit more.
I smiled when I saw a Crown XTi-series amp taking care of bass duties.
The Willow Room
In Classic Audio Loudspeaker’s demo room, there was no avoiding the presence of the $32,000/pair T-3.4, a reproduction of JBL’s legendary Hartfield speaker system. They are huge, gorgeous horn-loaded speakers. Sadly, they were positioned too far apart in the relatively long and narrow Willow room.
This JBL Hartfield reproduction, the Classic Audio T-3.4, is one serious-looking loudspeaker.
I listened to a dynamic, full-range reproduction of Willie Nelson and Sinead O’Connor singing “Don’t Give Up”; overall, it sounded natural except for the lack of proper stereo imaging that was the result of the unusual room layout. It’s a system I’d like to revisit with some of my own music, under more ideal conditions. That goes for the other speakers in ClassicAudio‘s repertoire, including the also-gorgeous T-1.4 Reference. All of Classic Audio Loudspeakers’ drivers use field-coil electromagnets that take the place of the permanent magnet found in most drivers. Power for the T-3.4 came from a pair of Atma-Sphere Novacron tube amps, 60-watt monoblocks with a frequency response of 1 Hz – 200 kHz within 0.5 dB.
Some hardcore tube amplification for the T-3.4 speakers.
The T-3.4’s tweeter features a very distinctive acoustic lens.
The Walnut Room
This was a no-holds-barred attempt at best-in-show sound by Philadelphia-based high-end audio dealer The Voice That Is. The center of attention was a pair of Tidal Audio Agoria loudspeakers, which go for about $100,000/pair. The rest of the audio chain included a Bricasti M1 DAC, an Aurender Reference music server, and a Tidal Audio Impulse amplifier that costs $32 grand and outputs 190 watts/channel into an 8-ohm load, 360 watts/channel into 4 ohms, and 680 watts/channel into 2 ohms.
Jwhip stands in front of the Tidal Audio Agoria, to give a sense of scale.
During the demo, I heard “Brand New ’64 Dodge” by folk singer Greg Brown off the album The Poet Game. It’s a rich-sounding recording that shows off the potential of the system, although I found the track also flattered my own system when I got home. Nevertheless, it was a great-sounding stereo—as well it should be, given its $150,000+ retail value. In addition, I’ve started to wonder if large plastic trees help a hotel room’s acoustics. Could it really be mere coincidence that such trees surrounded one of the best-sounding systems? Well, the room also included sound-absorption panels described as WAF-friendly, since they included custom photographic printing, making them look like hanging art or photo enlargements. Perhaps the combination of panels and trees did the trick.
These acoustical panels feature custom printing, which reportedly increases the WAF factor.
Do plastic trees help stereo systems sound good in hotel rooms?
The Magnolia Ballroom
The next stop was the show’s pop-up music shop with the requisite crates full of records. I also saw Mark Waldrep from AIX records, who was there as a vendor with his collection of exquisitely recorded high-resolution and multichannel audio offerings on Blu-ray, DVD-Audio, and via download. Mark had a listening station with dual Oppo PM-1 planar-magneticheadphones, which made his recordings shine. It was my first time listening to the Oppo cans, and I am very enamored of the sound as well as the fit and finish.
Mark Waldrep of AIX records and his collection of hi-res music.
I loved the sound quality produced by Oppo’s PM-1 headphones.
The Magnolia Ballroom also featured a pop-up record shop.
The Elm Room
This was my first exposure to Zu Audio and the Utah-based company’s Definition loudspeaker, which runs $12,750/pair. The setup included a Rega RP-6 turntable and a nifty-looking Rupert Neve Design 5060 mixer. Power for the high-efficiency Definitions came from a pair of First Watt Sit 1 monoblock amps, a 200-watt class-A design.
This was the only room with a proper DJ setup.
I found the Zus to be precise and analytic speakers, not unlike studio monitors, as I listened to the Woodie Guthrie-penned track “Careless Reckless Love,” performed by Jay Farrar and Jim James on their album New Multitudes. Twin guitars, harmonica, and vocals kept it simple and showed off the amount of detail the Zu Definitions could render. I only had one complaint—the sweet spot was very narrow, and the soundstage collapsed completely when I was just slightly off center. The Zu Definitions are speakers that work well for critical listening by one perfectly situated individual. I can respect that.
A close-up of the Rega RP-6 turntable.
One of the two First Watt Sit 1 amps that powered the Zus.
The Hawthorn Room
The main attraction in the Hawthorn room was, fittingly, the Hawthorne Rainier MKII open-baffle speaker system. The Rainier MKII is a true full-range speaker that uses an air motion transformer-style tweeter. The system featured Dirac Live room correction running on a Core Audio Technology Kryptos S1 Windows-based music server. A Datasat RS20i preamp/processor took care of active crossover duties, while Core Audio Technology Kratos fully digital amplifiers provided power. The Kratos is an interesting amp because it is all-digital, so the system itself does not utilize conventionalDACs. Instead, the amplifier directly amplifies the bitstream input and converts it to analog for output to the speakers.
A pair of Hawthorne Rainier MKII open-baffle speakers hooked up to Kratos fully digital amplifiers.
From a design standpoint, this was one of systems of greatest interest to me; open-baffle speakers, active equalization, and digital amplification are approaches that I typically associate with audio transparency. In practice, the system was almost piercing in its sharpness. The treble reminded me of the short time I had a pair of Grado SR325 headphones—the treble was so sharp, it made me think of glass shards as I listenend to “No Sanctuary Here” by Chris Jones from The Stockfisch DMM-CD/SACD. Perhaps it was the recording that was overly bright, or the room EQ was a bit off—all I know is that I wanted to like the system more than I actually did.
A Datasat RS20i preamp/processor deals with crossover duties in the digital domain.
These all-digital Core Audio Technology Kratos amps act as the system’s DACs.
I’d like to hear the Hawthorne Rainier MKIIs again; something was off in the presentation at that show. It’s the sort of system that will keep the turntable-and-tubes crowd on their side of the fence.
The Maple Room
I love an ear-opening experience, and that’s what I got with the system put together by Daedalus Audio. Elvis sounded as good I’ve ever heard, as if it was a modern recording, thanks to the system’s excellent rendition of “Fever” from Elvis is Back.
Each Daedalus Ulysses v.2 speaker looks like a pair of 1970s-era 3-ways stacked with the top one upside-down. It sounded great to me.
Check out the unusual driver arrangement on the Daedalus Ulysses v.2s.
As an aside, I spotted the somewhat silly-looking Modwright modified Oppo BDP-105, which had a pair of vacuum tubessticking out the top. I’m not sold on the benefit of tubes over solid state, so to me it’s just silly to see a great-performing player like the Oppo modified in that manner. However, considering how popular Oppo players are, I’m guessing that the tube crowd didn’t want to feel left out. I’m not sure if tubes justify the $2500 modification fee; on the other hand, it’s hardly the craziest or most expensive tweak I saw at the show.
What the heck is this blasphemy?
The rest of the rooms were hotel suites, referenced by a number instead of by name. There were 25 such rooms, and not all of them were worth writing about. Here are a few things I saw and heard in those rooms that did get my attention:
The Deja Vu Audio Vintage room featured a speaker system that used Western Electric horn tweeters with 713B compression drivers. I listened to Dinah Washington singing “Blue Gardenia”; it was a 1955 recording playing through a horn from the 1940s. It sounded clear, and even though there was a vintage tone to it, I’d describe the sound as high fidelity. The amps were vintage Western Electric Motiograph 7505 tube amps, and they absolutely looked like they were from another era. I’d like to hear that system tackle some contemporary tracks; maybe next time.
Seven decade old Western Electric horns made for a very interesting listen.
These Western Electric Motiograph 7505 tube amps are from another era.
A close-up view of the Western Electric 713B compression driver.
Music Technology put together what was perhaps my favorite room at the show, because it featured refurbished Apogee Acoustics Caliper speakers. It has been about 20 years since I’ve heard Apogees, and they did not disappoint. I’d argue that Apogee’s designs still represent a pinnacle achievement in the realm of audio reproduction, somehow rendering all the detail contained in a track without veering into analytical unpleasantry. Diana Krall’s “Garden in the Rain” provided the soundtrack, and even though her music is a bit of a high-end show cliché, it amply demonstrated the Apogee’s fidelity. Power for the notoriously hard-to-drive Apogees came from a Conrad-Johnson EV-2000 tube amp, a brutish box from 1990 that outputs 200 watts per channel into an 8-ohm load.
Hooray for Apogee, one of my all-time favorite speaker brands.
This Conrad-Johnson EV-200 tube amp was one of the few amps of its era with enough gusto to drive Apogee speakers.
Another gratifying vintage experience involved two adjoining rooms put together by Robyatt Audio. Each suite featured a pair of legendary Quad Electrostatic Loudspeakers. Hearing a pair of Quad ESLs for the first time did more to help me understand—more than all the words I’ve ever read on the topic—what all the hype was about. Introduced in 1957 and manufactured for almost 30 years, the Quad ESL is a truly transparent high-fidelity speaker system. It was the world’s first electrostatic loudspeaker. While I understand Quads have limitations in terms of maximum output, the sound produced by the two pairs I demoed was about as good as anything else I heard at the show.
Quads! Need I say more?
The most vexing room in the whole show featured TAD Compact Reference speakers, which I thought were the best-sounding speakers at the Capital Audiofest. We listened to “Cotton Tail” by the Duke Ellington Quartet and everything in the recording came through perfectly. The only problem was the system connected to the TADs, which was channeling a radio station as well as some static. The speakers obliged and reproduced both the source music and the underlying radio station with great clarity. I hope they get that issue worked out; the TADs deserved better.
This system featuring TAD speakers would have been the winner for best sound were it not for radio interference.
I enjoyed the Capital Audiofest a great deal. However, it did not change my mind about the obsolete nature of high-end audio in general. Notice that I did not discuss cables, because much of the cabling at these shows is obscenely expensive. I also stayed away from esoteric tweaks, like little black boxes that energize a room or little doodads you stick on walls. Finally, I did not ask about the often-expensive equipment racks that purport to improve audio fidelity. I view all of these items as little more than expensive gimmicks, and the rooms stuffed with all these goodies do not tend to sound better than the rooms that forgo them, so I just took note of how often they appeared, and otherwise ignored them. In my opinion, any decent stereo system should sound good on its own without the need for overpriced tweaks of dubious value.
Only the very best high-end systems at the show reached the level of fidelity that I’ve come to take for granted with a properly calibrated modern AV system—and that includes my own. In addition, I never experienced any goose bumps at the Audiofest, which is disappointing since I usually get goose bumps when I hear truly exceptional audio, whether it’s at shows, in a showroom, or at home.
One of the most notable trends at the show was the dominance of laptops feeding data to asynchronous USB DACs. PC/DAC combos and vinyl made up the vast majority of the sources we listened to—it seems that few people spin actual CDs anymore. We did play jwhip’s CD, Duke’s Big Four, a 1974 album that contains the track “Cotton Tail,” which made several appearances during the demos, and it’s a great choice for a reference track thanks to some exceptional drumming. Too bad the CD itself costs $330 new, or between $40 and $90 used on Amazon!
Although much of the vinyl at the show sounded decent, my overall impression was that the digital sources tended to sound a little bit better than the LPs. To each their own, I suppose. However, because of this show, I am no longer contemplating buying a turntable. I had recently considered getting one due to the general resurgence of vinyl as a format. At the show, I was reminded that vinyl is a step backward from the level of fidelity that’s achieved by today’s digital gear. I know there are a number of high-end analog audio fans who will beg to differ, but vinyl just didn’t do it for me.
The funny thing about audio shows is that the sound you hear is far from universally excellent. Even when considering subjective preferences, there is a hierarchy of quality—one that resembles a classic bell curve, with very little that stands out as exceptional and very little that’s truly abysmal. In the middle ground, you find quite a variety of approaches to audio reproduction. The tricky question is whether those systems offer a compelling value proposition compared to mainstream AV electronics from companies like Pioneer, Denon, Klipsch, HK/JBL, Yamaha, Sony, Onkyo, etc. In 2014, it seems that is a tougher task than ever.
Despite that, I appreciate the broad spectrum of technologies on display at the Capital Audiofest, some old and some new. I especially enjoyed the demonstrations of vintage gear, some of which sounds just as good as modern high-end gear. Overall, it was worth the trip, and I look forward to the next major show in my region, the New York Audio Show 2014, which takes place September 26-28, 2014. I’m still waiting for those goose bumps.