Let me get this out of the way first: Trade shows are back, baby! The long famine is over! Woohoo!
Whew. OK, on to the Capital Audio Fest. For many years, the Capital Audio Fest, held in a Maryland suburb just outside Washington, DC, was something of an audiophile Wild West. Exhibitors consisted of every tinkerer in the vicinity, with only a handful of name brands, while attendees were a smattering of tube-rollers and the just plain curious. The result, to quote founder and organizer Gary Gill, was “a flea market of used gear and DIY brands.”
Gill knew he needed a different formula if the show was to: a) grow; and b) be taken seriously by the industry. In 2018 he began the process of eradicating the DIYers and reaching out to major exhibitors. That transition attained its apotheosis at the 2019 CAF, where dealers and well-known brands populated over eighty rooms, crowds swelled, and exhibitors were overjoyed. In short, 2019 marked the year CAF became an audio show of consequence.
This year, after a COVID-compelled hiatus in 2020, two opposing forces were clearly at play. On the one hand, the industry is still recuperating from the pandemic. Sales are returning, but coffers—and the commensurate ability to fund trade shows—haven’t returned to previous levels. Unsurprisingly, then, the 2021 CAF had fewer rooms, about fifty, than its predecessor.
On the other hand, the unprecedented pent-up demand for a good audio show—after all, there hasn’t been a major one in the U.S. for two years—fueled attendance. Many of the 200-plus exhibitors, some from as far off as Chicago, marveled over how full their rooms were on the first day—a weekday. “The best Friday I’ve had at any show,” said one. On Saturday morning crowds were so plentiful the organizers ran out of printed programs. I asked Gary Gill if he was happy. “I’m dizzyingly happy,” he enthused.
So were exhibitors, and not just because of the throng. Many attendees, it turns out, were in the mood to buy. In one VPI rooms—manned by father and son Weisfelds, no less—the entire turntable lineup was on display and available at attractive, show-only prices. The bargains proved so enticing that, during my visit, the selection literally dwindled every time I blinked. Meanwhile, Kirmuss Audio, which was giving live demos of its $1000-plus record-cleaning machine, sold over a dozen units on the first day alone. Software purveyors were equally pleased, with constant crowds meticulously perusing their bins.
Sound-wise, rooms varied widely, from dead to echo chamber and everything in between. The determining factor seemed to be how much effort the exhibitor had put into acoustic treatment. Ultimately, though, attendees could easily find excellent sound. They could also see some of the industry’s most bespoke gear (e.g., those imposing Wadax DACs), meet TAS Hall of Famers, hear live music, or stay up until midnight listening to their favorite tracks in their favorite room. Indeed, despite its transition to the big leagues, one thing CAF didn’t expunge was its festive mood. Gary Gill aptly captured the event’s spirit when he told me, “It’s like a family reunion.”
Given that most of the rooms and systems were put together by dealers rather than manufacturers, and considering that there were few new product introductions, Jacob, Andy and I decided to simply divide the rooms between us. Here’s what we saw and heard.
Join me, if you please, for a walk through the halls of the Twinbrook Hilton. Our very first room is a doozy—and an unexpected one at that. Refined Audio, a Chicago-based dealer and importer, has stacked the single-driver Cube Audio Nenuphar speakers atop a pair of matching Cube Sub 12s to form the Nenuphar BASiS ($26,900/pair) and is driving them with Pass electronics and a Lampizator tubed DAC. I’m not familiar with the Cubes, but here they’re making a big impression on me precisely because they’re disappearing so thoroughly. The sound of this $76k system (including the Silversmith cables) is so sweet and natural. Also, let’s give props to Refined Audio for playing notoriously difficult choral music, which the system reproduced with aplomb.
Next up is the Bending Wave room, featuring Goebel’s newest and (by a hair) least monolithic speakers, the Divin Marquis ($80k). Like several products introduced at this show, this one was originally meant to bow at the 2019 Axpona. Then RMAF. Then the 2020 Axpona. Then RMAF. At last, the speakers make their U.S. entrance at CAF. They certainly have the build and stature of a premium product, and they’re complemented by top-shelf gear like the Wadax DAC, a CH Precision linestage and the JC-1+ monoblocks from Parasound. Unfortunately, the room has nodes and slap echo galore, so it’s hard to take the full measure of the system. But the new Goebels are a serious design and show considerable promise.
In the adjoining room, local dealer 20/20 Evolution has put together a superb system anchored by the PoTY-winning Kharma Midi Equisite speakers ($85k). Evolution is driving them with a phalanx of flagship Conrad-Johnson tubed electronics. (I must say it’s nice to see C-J back in the game after having a lower profile of late.) The combination is phenomenal. Of course, I expect the Kharmas to strut their stuff; but the C-J gear prove equally tight, dynamic and resolute. Yet the system is unfailing musical no matter what I throw at it. A best of show candidate, to be sure.
In the Essential Sound Products room, Magico’s S5 II is teaming up with CAT electronics. Between the tubes and the tall Magico’s, this system is delivering some of the most expansive and encompassing soundstages of the show. There’s another familiar speaker down the hall in the House of Stereo room, where the always-beguiling TAD Compact Reference One speaker is playing with upper-echelon T+A gear. These TADs never sound bad, and CAF is no exception.
A dealer named Now Listen Here has come all the way from Harrisburg, PA, to showcase the Joseph Audio Pearl 3 Graphene, and its driving them with humongous $85k EMM Labs monoblocks, which are in turn fronted by an EMM PRE preamp ($25k), DA2 DAC ($30k), NS1 steamer ($4500) and an Innuos Zen server ($3k). Cables are all Transparent Reference Gen 6, adding over $20k to the total. At first the estimable Pearls seem a bit bright, but designer Jeff Joseph is on hand to make an on-the-fly toe-in adjustment. Voila! All is well. Plus, the bass is spectacularly deep and solid.
Look! There’s Gayle Sanders of Martin Logan fame. He’s now heading up Eikon Audio, and here he’s showing not one but two new systems. I say systems because that’s all Eikon sells—complete systems (other than the source) that include a DAC/linestage/DSP processor-based control unit, speakers, and even cabling. The DSP module handles myriad chores, such as active crossover, time alignment, and room correction. The original Eikon Image 1, which goes for $25k, made an impressive debut at the Florida Audio Expo, just before COVID struck.
That unfortunate timing dampened initial sales, but Sanders has since done well enough to fund a product line expansion. At $12k, both new systems cost less than half of the original. The Eikon FRS, Sanders explains, is meant to be a lower-cost but aesthetically similar version of the Image 1. Indeed, the two models are identical in most respects: same driver complement (one AMT tweeter, one 5″ midrange and two opposite 8″ woofers), same controller. The difference is in the speaker cabinet construction, with the Image 1 using more exotic materials for greater stability.
There’s no Image 1 available for comparison, but the FRS is delivering fantastic sound for the money. The DSP-aided bass, rated down to 18Hz, is tremendous. All in all, this is a thrilling debut. Yet the equally new and identically priced Image .5 may be even more impressive.
The idea of the .5, according to Sanders, is to retain all the attributes of the Image 1—with the sole exception of bass extension. To that end, the .5 uses the exact same materials as the 1, but the speakers are smaller and stand-mounted. Even so, DSP enables them to hit 30Hz. Here at CAF, they’re doing what I remember the Image 1 doing in Florida, boasting better image stability and midrange resolution than the FRS. Bass may not match that of the FRS, but it’s absolutely shocking for a speaker this size. Well done, Gayle.
Strolling now to the AGD/Ocean Way room, we hear two lesser-known companies that have nonetheless impressed me mightily at past shows. Looking at pics of the AGD equipment, you’d think it’s tube gear. Psych! The tubes actually house solid-state MOSFET circuitry. Through the Ocean Way Sausalito speakers, the sound is warm and tube-like, easy going but never dull.
DR Audio Works has put together a very affordable and eclectic system. The Model 1 speakers have separate bass and MTM (mid-treble-mid) cabinets, and there’s an external active crossover. The mish-mash of electronics herald from brands like Crown, Halo, and Mirror Image. Still, it’s all playing together beautifully, especially considering the $15k price tag.
Well, here’s a look you don’t see every day. With their ultra-wide solid-wood baffles and open-air backs, Treehaus Audiolab speakers are well named. They’re also not cheap, but I suspect a lot of workmanship goes into building them. The Phantom of Luxury debuting here run $24k/pair. Also new, the company’s preamplifier ($16,000) power amplifier ($16,000). If you appreciate a laid-back sound, this could be your answer.
In the Fern & Roby room we find another single-driver speaker, the Raven III ($8500/pair). The rest of the system, including a ’table and cart, are also Fern & Roby, save for the Modwright Instruments integrated amp ($8500). As you’d expect from single-driver speakers, the Ravens are smooth and coherent. Unfortunately, the system is ragged and has a serious midrange peak. Show conditions strike again.
Our next-to-last room doesn’t do much better, despite some gorgeous Audionec Evo 2 AS speakers ($49,500), the Lampizator Baltic 3 DAC ($6,500), Taiko server ($31,050) a Linear Tube Audio Ultralinear Plus amp ($6800) and a VAC Master preamp ($28k). Bespoke gear, all, but sounding thin in this room.
Finally, let’s hit Daedalus Audio. They have a couple of rooms here, and the one I’m assigned to has the towering Zeus v.3. Surprisingly, given its proportions, the speaker costs just $39k. That’s not peanuts, but it’s remarkable for a speaker of this size and build-quality. Comparables are all in the six figures. Driven by a VAC Statement 450i iQ integrated amp ($150k), Lampizator DAC ($26k) and a Taiko Audio server ($28k), the Daedalus is refreshingly free of any “in your face” qualities. Yet it delivers the orchestral scale that only a speaker this size can pull off. This rig would be a best of show contender except that the room wasn’t large enough to let bass fully develop.
Alan Taffel’s Best of Show
Best Sound (cost no object): As always, excellent sound could be had in the Acora room. But the winner this time is Evolution 20/20’s Kharma/Conrad-Johnson system. A perfect match between electronics and speakers, and between speakers and room, the system was consistently truthful and engaging.
Best Sound (for the money): The new Eikon Image .5. Figure $15k once you add in a source, and you’ve got a system that will blow you away with its power and finesse.
Most Significant New Product: See Eikon Image .5 above.
Best Demo: Acora took the old AR live vs. stereo demo one step further by staging an even more daring live with stereo demo. Remarkably, the main difference I heard between the singer and the backup musicians had to do with space—the demo room was dead, but the recording was lively. Other than that giveaway, tonality, dynamics, imaging, and other factors were impressively on par.
By Alan Taffel
I can thank my parents for introducing me to both good music and good sound at an early age. Their extensive classical music collection, played through an enviable system, continually filled our house. When I was two, my parents gave me one of those all-in-one changers, which I played to death.More articles from this editor
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