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The 2023 Capitol Audio Fest: Jacob Heilbrunn on Show Highlights

Now Listen Here Room

As I sauntered through the 2023 Capital Audio Festival, Brad O’Toole, the representative for Vandersteen Audio loudspeakers, tapped me from behind on the shoulder. My assignment, should I choose to accept it, was to accompany him to Suite 319 to listen to the new $19,200 Vandersteen Quatro CT speakers. I accepted. It was a wise decision. The Quatro CT loudspeakers, which features an active bass section that comes in at 100Hz, sounded very nifty, indeed. On an LP featuring Melody Gardot on the new Rega Naia $12,995 turntable with the $4000 Rega Aphelion 2 cartridge, the bass was rock solid and the highs clear and dynamic. The $10,500 m500 Meitner MA3 DAC and $6299 Innuous Zenith server delivered premium digital sound, as well. The system was rounded by Transparent Ultra interconnects, which run $3200 each in XLR for 1 meter and Transparent Premium power cords for $650 a pop.

Next, I headed over to United Home Audio’s demo, where Greg Beron was showcasing his SuperDeck tape recorder and a passel of MBL equipment, including the $91,000 per pair 101 E MKII loudspeakers, the $64,100 9011 mono amplifiers, the $32,400 6010 D preamplifier, the $34,000 1621 A CD transport, and the $34,200 1611 F D/A converter. The mighty monoblocks drove the 81dB-sensitive, four-ohm MBL 101 loudspeakers with ease. As it happens, with the company’s representative Antoine Furbar as my cicerone, I recently visited both the MBL showroom in Berlin and the factory in Eberswalde which gave me a good sense of the extreme efforts that the company puts into manufacturing its loudspeakers and electronics. With Beron’s superlative tapes as the source material, the sound in his room was utterly beguiling.

None of this came as a real surprise given my familiarity with MBL’s products. What was surprising, however, was the Magnepan room. For slightly over a decade, I used Magnepans, addicted to their transparency and large soundstage. But I also rebuilt the Maggies, as they are known. Back then, the parts quality could at best be described as iffy. No longer. The company seems to have emerged from the dark ages. It now features an “X” upgrade program that includes better wiring, capacitors, coils, connections, and inputs. The improvements were immediately audible on the $10,000 MG2.7x. Its rendition of Thomas Dolby’s song “I Scare Myself” was exemplary—big scale plus real dynamic punch, something that has always been the weakness of the dipole Magnepans.

Perhaps an even more audacious approach to panel speakers was represented by the $9995 Quad 2812X electrostatic loudspeakers. Who other than the redoubtable Robyn Wyatt to demo them? Wyatt always offers an intriguing mix of venerable and new technology. He brought along the $1425 Miyajima Labs Spirit Mono Pure Diamond cartridge, the $4000 Michell Gyrodec SE turntable, and the $8995 Kava HiFi Single Shot integrated amp/pre/DAC/phono, which drove the Quads to sound pressure levels that I would hardly have believed possible had I not been in attendance to witness them.

Arion Audio and Audio Research
Arion Audio and Audio Research

Believe it or not, the Arion room featured yet another ribbon loudspeaker—the $59,200 Apollo 12 loudspeakers. They may not have blasted off into orbit, but they were formidably impressive. They were featured with a dual-pack woofer package that retails for $9600 and driven by a $36,000 VPI Avenger Direct turntable. Contributing to the excellent sound were a $18,000 Audio Research Reference 6SE linestage and $18,000 Reference 3SE phonostage, not to mention the superb $38,000 Reference 160M monoblock amplifiers.

Jeff Fox with the J.Sikora turntable
Jeff Fox with the J.Sikora turntable

Then there was local hero Jeff Fox, the proprietor of Command Performance AV, which is in northern Virginia. Fox was featuring the $23,000 (sans tonearm) J. Sikora Standard MAX Special Edition in a gleaming Ferrari red. Personally, I loved the color. It set off the black platter beautifully. It was feeding the new $45,000 Magico 2023 S3, a potent 3-way loudspeaker whose combination of dynamics, clarity, and finesse made it a winner.

Not quite as much to my taste was the VPI room, which I thought sounded excellent the previous year, when I first heard the Audio Technica MC2022 cartridge. Longtime VPI head honcho Harry Weisfeld leaned pretty heavily on the volume knob as he played the new $25,000 MC Audio Tech TL-12 loudspeaker. Lots of slam and wow factor, but where was the refinement? Outside the room were a variety of butcher-block isolation slabs that VPI is selling. A knuckle-rap test suggested that they were suitably inert.

Angie Lissi with Rethm speakers
Angie Lissi with Rethm speakers

Like Weisfeld, Angie Lisi, who heads American Sound of Canada, is an old audio pro. She was playing the $9990 Rethm Trishna semi-active (the bass is run by an internal switching amplifier) loudspeaker, which sounded monstrously powerful when coupled to a $14,999 Western Electric 91E integrated amplifier. If you know Angie, she likes to play it loud and proud, and the Western Electric was more than up to the challenge.

Avantgarde Duo GT driven by DarTZeel
Avantgarde Duo GT driven by DarTZeel

Another loudspeaker that is easy to drive is the Avantgarde Duo GT, which runs around $80,000, depending on how you trick it out. John Stone of darTZeel America was displaying the Avantgardes together with a darTZeel NHB-108, Mk. 2, which will run you a cool $60,000 or so. Stone, an ardent music lover, produced an elegant sound with this heavenly musical combination, though the room, it must be said, was a tad small for the mighty Avantgardes.

After sampling such a wide range of systems, my next mission, as I saw it, was to acquire a few LPs, which I did. Vinyl dealer Chris Armbruster was conducting something of a fire sale on Blue Note LPs and I couldn’t resist picking up a first pressing of Donald Byrd’s album Fuego, which was first released in 1960. Like the album, whose title means fire in Spanish, the Capital Audio Fest proved to be a colorful and exciting event.


Jacob Heilbrunn

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.

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