This year’s DC Audiofest—held at the Hilton in Rockville, Maryland—provided an excellent opportunity to hear some high-end 2-channel sound systems. To beat the weekend crowds, I attended the show on its first day—Friday—and I managed to visit the vast majority of exhibits during a 10-hour marathon session.
Throughout the day, I used a Sony FDR-AX33 UHD/4K camcorder equipped with a Tascam TM-2X stereo microphone to capture brief samples of the sights and sounds in each room. Overall, I heard more great-sounding systems than mediocre ones. Indeed, aside from some DIYers engaging in light-hearted silliness—playing “Bass I Love You” through small full-range drivers—every room had something to offer the observant listener.
A few rooms sounded profound, which is always nice, since such systems provide a useful benchmark for judging sound quality in a hotel-hosted audio-show environment. For what it’s worth, most of the rooms were identical in size and shape, except for some vendors who set up in meeting or function areas, which were larger and generally sounded better than the compact guest rooms.
This year I saw a lot of vinyl records, and VPI Industries’ presence at the show was unavoidable—there were several rooms that used the new Avenger turntable ($9000 up to $30,000 depending on options) I wrote about a few months ago. Furthermore, the company brought its entire staff to the show and put on a great demo using a pair of KEF Blade 2 speakers.
VPI’s new Avenger turntable made numerous appearances at the show.
While vinyl appeared to dominate in many rooms, on the digital side of things, there were more laptops feeding bits toDACs than there were standalone CD players. I wonder how many more years it’ll take before there’s a CD renaissance?
It’s worth mentioning that the most delightful rooms were not the ones containing the priciest systems. I especially appreciated the demo presented by Audio Note, with cellist Vincent Belanger playing on his own as well as along with a recording of his. It offered a superb example of “real versus recording.” Another fascinating demo involved a pair of speakers cobbled together with antique components from the 1920s through 1950s—even the turntable was from the 1950s.
The sound quality of the vintage speaker system was splendid—it’s fascinating to hear such old gear produce high fidelity output.
In the following videos, you both see and hear the gear I experienced at the show. Enjoy!
Perhaps my favorite demo at the show. Audio Note AN-E/SPe HE Speakers ($9600/pair) reproduced a recorded solo cello performance—featuring Vincent Bélanger—while Vincent himself played the actual cello from the recording. He blended quite well with the speakers; the gap in quality was not as huge as you’d think.
These Audioism speakers with line array ribbon tweeters ($40,000/pair) featured integrated tube amplification. Four REL Acoustics Gibraltar subs helped things along. The sound was fast, tight, and enveloping—pretty great considering it was the first-ever show for the brand. Pink Floyd’s “On the Run” from The Dark Side of the Moon provided a familiar reference.
Neat Acoustics Ultimatum XL10 speakers provided a gripping listening experience, with an Audia Flight amp providing power. Definitely one of the better-sounding rooms at the show. “Bass & Drum Intro” by Nils Lofgren showed off the quality of the speakers.
Mat Weisfeld Presents the VPI Avenger. It’s a top-notch system, with VAS (Vinyl Audio Science) Citation-2 amps and KEF Blade 2 Speakers. This setup was a treat to listen to, the vinyl sounded crisp, the bass was tight and deep. Plus the Ferrari red speakers and the matching red 3D-printed VPI tonearm added a stylish touch to the whole rig. The song you hear is Doug MacLoead’s “Bring it On Home” from the album Come to Find.
Martin Logan’s new Montis Speakers sounded particularly good, despite the fact I auditioned them before the show even started. Steely Dan’s “Peg” from A Decade of Steely Dan played while I shot this clip.
This vintage speaker system—created by Aldo D’Urso— contained parts built in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Somehow, it all worked together. The big horn tweeter is a Western Electric unit from the 1930s. The small tweeters were made by Jensen in the 1950s. The woofers were also from Jensen and were made in the 1940s. It was a decent-sounding system, with surprisingly good imaging. Even the source used to play music—like this bit from Cinderella—was a 1950’s era Thorens turntable.
Deadelus Audio’s Athena V.2 Speakers ($12,000/pair in solid walnut) were powered by a prototype ModWright tube amp. Also spotted, a ModWright-modded Oppo BDP-105D ($2500 for the mod) and a ModWright Elyse tube DAC ($6900). “The Hawk Talks” from Duke’s Big Four (with Duke Ellington) made the system shine.
A VPI Avenger serves up the swanky tunes with the help of a ModWright PH 150 Tube Phono Stage. Daedelus Poseidon V2 Speakers were driven by a ModWright KWA 150 Signature Edition Power Amplifier. The track is “Late Date” by Ben Webster on Makin’ Whoopee.
Six-figure speakers should deliver perfection. The Tidal Loudspeakers Agoria ($110,000/pair in black gloss) did just that. Bricasti A28 monoblock amps ($30,000/pair) provided power. This was likely the best-sounding system at the show, and one of the few that stood out in its pure excellence. The music is Piano Sonata No. 18 from Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas.
Tidal Audio had it going on at the Capital Audiofest. This system—all Tidal gear—sounded almost as good as the preceding system. Considering the cost of the gear—approximately $215,000 all told—it had better be great. Tidal is not a brand I am very familiar with ( I think of the streaming music service), but its new Contriva G2 speakers ($65,000/pair) made a great first impression. In this clip, you hear “You Look Good to Me” by Oscar Peterson on We Get Requests.
Technics keeps getting better at putting on a demo. At CES 2015 I was not impressed with this $53,000 Reference Class R1 system, but in DC it sounded just about perfect. The 110 lb SE-R1 amp outputs 300 watts/channel into 4 ohms, which happens to be the impedance of the SB-R1 speaker system. Indeed, even the compact (and much more affordable at $1700/pair) SB-C700 bookshelf speakers sounded great. However, the reference system possessed bass response that resonated deeply. The demo music is “Hotel California” by the Eagles; quite familiar stuff.
Harbeth HL5 3-way speakers sounded quite dynamic and transparent. A Vinnie Rossi Lio Modular Hi-Fi system ($2500 and up) serves as the nerve center. Overall, the sound quality of the system was worthy of much praise. The music is Doug MacLeod singing “Rosa Lee” from There’s a Time.
Living Voice Avatar OBX RW Speakers combined with Border Patrol electronics. Includes an S20 EXD 300B power amplifier—make for a good-sounding but undeniably expensive setup. Check out the external crossovers that come with the speakers. You are hearing Ravel: Piano Concerto in G by Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra.
Volti Audio Vittora Speakers ($25,000/pair) with McIntosh C22 preamp and MC75 amps made for a fine-sounding room. These excellent speakers owe a lot to the Klipsch La Scala’s design but improve upon it. Imaging, dynamics, clarity… the Vittoras had it all. “The Hawk Talks” from Duke’s Big Four (a reference track) showed off the quality of this system.
Planter Speakers made out of Teak by Madison Fielding. Six grand for the pair, so they’d better sound good—they do. As a bonus, they are weatherproof. In this clip you hear Amy LaVere sing “Rabbit” from Runaway’s Diary.
Klangwerk Ella “Ella Mastering Grade Active Speakers” sounded good, especially with DSPeaker room correction applied to the source. The speakers are supposed to maintain proper imaging regardless of where you sit. The video captures that effect to some degree. “I’ll Always Love You” by Jheena Lodwick is the music you hear.
A VPI Classic 4 turntable decked out in custom leather fit right into the groovy mood of this room. A pair of ElectrostaticSolutions Quad 57s ($6000/pair) pumped out the tunes—even the bass was deep and full. Miyajima Labs OTL 2010 monobloc tube OTL amps supplied the juice. The room was dark, so this video is a bit noisy and shaky. “Do What You Wanna Do” by T-Connection on Something for the Weekend is playing.
Resolution Acoustics kindly provided a reminder that acoustical room treatment is a key component of a great system. Sonus Faber Stradivari Speakers sounded much clearer in the properly treated room, but not necessarily better—it’s still a matter of taste. That’s Keiko Matsui’s “Awakening” from her album The Road providing a tune to compare the rooms.