Capital Audio Fest | Jacob Heilbrunn
- by Jacob Heilbrunn
- Nov 22nd, 2021
This was the year that the Capital Audio Fest became more festive than ever. The show may have taken place in Rockville, Maryland, but the old Virginia Slims slogan applied to it: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Indeed, good vibrations could be discerned not only in the listening rooms, but in the friendliness of the attendees, all of whom seemed to be on their best behavior, as no one, as near as I could tell, balked at wearing a mask. N ow, if earplugs had been prescribed, it might have been a different story!
Two years of COVID-19 translated into a lot of pent-up demand, as everything from demo rooms to the vinyl booths in the atrium were pullulating with audiophiles. There was a lot to see and procure. Yours truly picked up some nifty Blue Note Liberty label pressings from dealer Chris Armbruster of Cashformusic.com, mingled with show attendees and dealers, and greeted old friends, which is another way of saying that I had a whale of a good time.
What stuck out? Well, there was the redoubtable Charles Kirmuss, decked out in his white lab coat, in the atrium ministering to vinyl records with his intensive, to say the least, cleaning process, based on ultrasonic restoration. Next to him was the affably intense J.R. Boisclair, who has taken over the design and production of Wally Tools. Boisclair, who flew in from Northern California for the show, happily explained to curious vinylphiles the ins and outs of cartridge setup, explaining that his multifarious devices can make what sometimes seems like a dark art pretty clear, once you grasp the scientific principles behind azimuth, zenith, stylus rake angle, and so on. Boisclair, incidentally, has developed some very illuminating 1000:1 scale models to show the effects of misalignment for zenith and azimuth as the cartridge travels through the record grooves. Indeed, as I type, one is sitting on my desk, looking like a mini-version of the Washington Monument. If you have trouble envisioning zenith and azimuth error, his product makes it easy to comprehend the deleterious consequences of the cartridge riding up and down the sidewalls rather than in the trough.
So much for the hard work needed to get the venerable LP spinning properly. The heart of the show, of course, was the equipment being demoed. I promptly went to hear what Dr. Vinyl (aka Jose Ramirez), who was not wearing a lab coat, had on offer. What he was offering can only be described as iridescent—a $21,750 Reed 3C turntable with a $5600 Tru Glider Pendulum tonearm that looks like it could pretty much be mounted anywhere on the surface of a turntable. The always effervescent Dr. Vinyl, who prides himself on his set-up skills, explained that it doesn’t even need anti-skate, as it has a kind of spring suspension system mounted behind the cartridge that always compensates for any skating forces as the tonearm navigates across the LP. I’m not qualified to weigh in on the merits of this approach. But I will say that the sound that this critter delivered was nothing to sneeze at. It seemed uncannily resolute and smooth. Like not a few rooms, this one also employed the CAD grounding system, which has been making waves in the audio world.
To enter the MC Audio tech room with its dipole Forty-10 loudspeaker, which retails from $40,000–$60,000 depending on finishes and options, was to venture into a very different world. The white paper provided by the company indicates that it builds on the “Gold Rush” era of the 1920s and 1930s. Designer Paul Paddock explains that it might be designated a “predictable flexible membrane” transducer. He employs a twin cylindrical diaphragm that is driven at its junction by a vertical wire loop located between a twin-magnetic-gap voice-coil system. With a VPI Reference table and Alpha 2 Music server (retailing at $9895), the sound was quite transparent, holographic, and seamless. I don’t know that you would get a ton of bass from this system in a larger room, but it sure was a captivating looking loudspeaker. Another audacious loudspeaker was the $29,000 Semrad, which weighs over 240 pounds. It’s situated fairly close to the floor. John Semrad explained that the cost of the field-coil drivers alone is $7500 a pair. The build-quality looks beautiful.
It was truly back to the future in United Home Audio and High End by Oz’s demo. There was the UHA Super Deck, which retails for a mere $89,998 plus $4900 for the spiffy stand that accompanies it. Recently reviewed by JV, it definitely is the powerhouse he described in such luminous detail. Coupled to this mighty beast was the $214,500 Børresen 05 Silver Supreme Speaker and $34,500 Thrax Audio Teres II Mono amplifiers and $23,000 Thrax Audio Dionsysos preamplifier. The sound, as you might expect, was spacious, clear, and dynamic. Greg Beron, the head honcho of United Home Audio, remarked to me, “I know it’s not your genre, but I have a tape of Thriller.” Oh, ye of little faith. I had to reprove Greg, as “Billie Jean” has actually been in frequent rotation in my own system. After he cranked it up to satisfactory volume levels, I got the drift. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Michael Jackson’s voice sound quite that relaxed and sonorous.
Still bathing in the sound, I traipsed over to listen to the system assembled by Jeff Fox of Command Performance AV in Fairfax, VA. My goodness, Jeff went to town with a $16,900 Gryphon Diablo 300 integrated amplifier and $21,995 Dosh Audio V3.0 Evo phonostage, not to mention $20,000 QLN Prestige 5 loudspeakers and a $12,995 J. Sikora Initial MAX turntable. The lucidity and punch of the system was impressive, some of which can be attributed to the mighty Gryphon. The eponymous Sikora ’table, which hails from Warsaw, punches above its weight in pretty much every parameter. It would be hard to think of a turntable that displays better machining and overall fit ’n’ finish than the Sikora. Another local demo came from Déjà Vu Audio, which specializes in horn systems. I was much taken with its demo—the drums sounded effortless and dynamic, delivering the kind of crunch that horn systems deliver so well. Standouts in this room were the Audio Note TT-3 turntable and Audio Note AN-E SPe HE loudspeaker. My sense was that you could listen to these speakers for a lot of hours.
Speaking of punch, Harry Weisfeld of VPI was going nuts with his $75,000 BL Project Everest DD67000 horn-loaded speakers and DS Audio’s $15,000 Grand Master cartridge, which he ran into the $12,500 EMM Labs DS-EQ1 Optical Equalizer. Cables were the superlatively speedy Nordost Odin 2 (though cognoscenti will already have heard that Nordost has—gulp—devised a new reference above Odin). Good golly! On the drummer Ed Graham’s album Hot Stix, the sound pressure levels were off the charts (incidentally, the late David Wilson of Wilson Audio also loved to play this as a demo to create some shock and awe). Less potent but more beguiling was “Come Together” by the Beatles. Unlike Harry, I’m not sure I could live with the Everest speakers, but coupling the $20,000 VPI 40th Anniversary HW-40 with them definitely captured everyone’s attention. I’m sure the DS Audio Grandmaster, which I use in my own system, wasn’t hurting, either. I would be most curious to hear the Meitner optical equalizer pitted against the proprietary DS power supply and equalizer in my own rig. Its designer Ed Meitner knows his stuff. Big time.
After two days of ambling around the show, I did come up with some rooms that tugged at the heartstrings. One was Doug White’s Tidal system. Yes, there was a slight trace of sibilance in the treble on a few cuts. But I tend not to be too censorious about these matters. We’re talking about show conditions. The amazing thing is that these systems sound as good as they do. And White’s $69,900 Tidal Contriva made a darned good impression on me—smooth, luxurious, opulent. It was, to borrow from Shakespeare, “like softest music to attending ears!” The speakers also displayed excellent soundstaging on symphonic material, including Shostakovich. To lower the noise floor, White deployed the Computer Audio Design ground control. His front-end consisted of a $40,000 Tidal preamplifier and $33,000 Tidal Intra amplifiers. Then, for sheer horsepower there was Ken Stevens of Convergent Audio Technology, who demoed his $50,000 JL7SE amplifiers mated to the $41,800 Magico S5 Mk. II loudspeakers. He likes it big and vivid and omnipotent. The mids and highs sounded ravishing, but there was some bass boom, which I ascribed to room nodes.
Overall, I’m hesitant to single out any one room as having the very “best” sound. Here we enter treacherous territory. What struck me most was the overall improvement that has taken place in systems both large and small. But what the heck, at the risk of drawing what the lawyers like to call invidious distinctions, I’ll go for it. For small-scale systems, the most gobsmacking was the $8999 Joseph Audio Pulsar2 Graphene speakers that captured my attention. The amount of sound that these diminutive loudspeakers put out was truly staggering. When it comes to the big boys, I’ll have to give the nod to United Home Audio and High End by Oz. For sheer scale and lucidity, it was hard to beat their spacious setup. Let’s see if anyone else can top it next year, after what was an auspicious return for the Capital Audio Fest.
By Jacob Heilbrunn
The trumpet has influenced my approach to high-end audio. Like not a few audiophiles, I want it all—coherence, definition, transparency, dynamics, and fine detail.More articles from this editor
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