Capital Audio Fest 2022 by Bill Wells

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BillWells2018.jpgFinally, after nearly a three-year hiatus from attending high-end audio shows, specifically during the pandemic shutdown, I recently found my way back and attended the Capital Audio Fest (The East Coast’s Premier Audio Show). Once again, this annual event took place in Rockville, MD, and was hosted at the Hilton Hotel, where previous events have taken place. This year’s show started on Friday morning, November 11th, and concluded Sunday afternoon, November 13th. According to the advance promotional news releases by Show organizer Gary Gill – there were ninety active exhibit rooms with a wide range of equipment. Additionally, the open market area was again in full swing, with various products available for audio enthusiasts and beyond.

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REGISTRATION & LOBBY

First, I grabbed a cup of hot tea from the lobby Starbucks and started promptly at 10:00 a.m. My journey began on Friday morning as I strolled down one of the many different hallways leading to the exhibits. Exhibit spaces consisted of both larger meeting rooms and smaller hotel rooms. At this point, I will offer a warning, not an excuse, and that is – for whatever reason, many exhibitors did not have a listing prepared, including the various components and cables, as well as pricing, that was in their respective system. As I went from exhibit to exhibit – I tried taking notes and sometimes inadvertently forgot to get this information. Hopefully, the photos will speak for themselves and with whatever commentary I provide.

One thing I would like to point out, and for anyone who has visited any of the high-end audio shows, you may be all too well aware of what I’m about to share. In terms of quality sound in the various exhibit rooms (i.e., typically smaller hotel rooms with beds and desks removed) as well as larger spaces will little to no wall treatment, mother, most likely due to the variability of room acoustics, the sound from these exhibits can truly be a mixed bag. This is often not the fault of the exhibitor and much more regarding the size of the listening room, flexing walls, and the number of components and speakers in any given room. There seems to be no common denominator for what might make any given system achieve the desired level of performance.

For example, there were times when I went to a specific exhibit with high anticipation, only to find that the system was fighting against the room. In instances such as this, provided the exhibitor has prior experience in dealing with this type of situation, they sometimes seemed better prepared with ways and methods of successfully addressing these issues. Additionally, there were times when the full system of electronics, cables, and speakers needed some time to recondition and settle in. There were situations when listening early Friday morning didn’t do justice to the sound, but by some time mid-to-late Saturday and Sunday, the sound had improved noticeably. My point is this – as I attempted to capture the true essence of what any given high-end audio system might achieve, a bit of patience, understanding and grace were required. Kudos to the many exhibitors who diligently spent time fighting through their frustrations and finally achieved satisfactory results.

Beyond this – several exhibitors seemed to have issues with the hotel WiFi and adequately connecting to the streaming service(s) of their choice. As a result – this limited their ability to provide the type of musical selections often requested by showgoers. Again, exhibitors seemed to address as best possible by playing LPs on sophisticated turntables, reel-to-reel tape machines, CD players, or memory sticks (i.e., digital).

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BENDING WAVE – GOEBEL SPEAKERS & THRAX AUDIO ELECTRONICS 

OK, so much for this, and moving right along, my first stop was to explore some captivating sounds from the Bending Wave USA (Ft. Lauderdale) exhibit featuring the exotic Thrax Audio electronics powering a pair of big beautiful Goebel speakers. This system produced a big, bold, dynamic, and fully rhythmic sound. Jazz piano sounded quite excellent. Playback in this exhibit was strictly via digital (i.e., CDs); unfortunately, streaming issues prevented a wider selection of musical genres for listening. The speakers were augmented with a new 18” subwoofer helping out on the low end. As I scanned the exhibit room price sheet, I quickly realized that I was listening to a costly system topping off with a total system retail price of $617,000. Here’s a breakdown of the system costs:

  • Goebel Divin Marquis speakers – $89,000 pr;
  • Goebel Divin Sovereign Subsonic subwoofer – $29,500 ea;
  • Thrax Heros 100 W hybrid monoblock amps – $47,000 pr;
  • Thrax Dionysos tube preamp – $27,000;
  • Thrax Maximus Silver DAC – $ $38,500;
  • Metronome AQWO – $20,000;
  • HiFiStay Mythology equipment rack – $6,250 per shelf;
  • Goebel Lacorde Statement speaker cables (3m pr) – $27,900;
  • Goebel Lacorde Statement power cords (2m) – $9,000 ea;
  • Goebel Lacorde Statement XLR Interconnect (1.2m) – $7,900 ea;
  • Hemingway Z Core Series power cords – $13,500 ea.

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20/20 EVOLUTION SYSTEMS – KHARMA SPEAKERS & CONRAD JOHNSON ELECTRONICS

Continuing my stroll down this aisle, next up was the 20/20 Evolution Systems exhibit with Jay Truitt, CEO and Design Architect, in total command. Immediately this was a sound that I was quite familiar with due to my long-time use of Kharma Elegance loudspeakers. In this exhibit, the featured speakers were the three-way Kharma Elegance DB9 Signatures with WBT connectors and internal silver wiring ($47,000 pr). These were driven by Conrad-Johnson tube electronics, including ART-88 Preamp (Limited Edition, $28,500) coupled to a pair of CJ ART 300 monoblock power amps (Limited Edition, #39,000); CJ TEA1 Series 3 Phono Preamp ($20,000) and CJ ART 108A Class A monoblock amp (Limited Edition, $52,000). The remainder of the system consisted of the following components and cabling: Kuzma Stabi R Turntable, rosewood casing (price unavailable), New 4Point SiR tonearm ($25,000), CAR 50 phono cartridge ($7,500); Taiko music server ($32,000); Siltech and Truitt Physics prototypes cables (prices unavailable) and Torus Power RM20 series ($3,299).

The sound in this large room was very open, wide, detailed, fast, quick, solid, and expansive. All playback on the first day was analog, and the sound was quite good. As the day progressed, especially into the latter part of Day 2 (particularly on Day three), the sound progressed significantly, mostly due to the tubes settling down and the system acclimating.

Fortunately, streaming issues were resolved late on Day 2 and all day on Sunday, allowing listeners to check out a wide variety of artists and different musical genres. At this point, everything that was good to very good in the beginning had kicked in, and the system’s overall performance was elevated quite a bit. Very musical, dynamic, unrestrained, and with excellent impact. Additionally, the musicality of the system had become more colorful and engaging than early on. Good job, excellent exhibit.

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THE VOICE THAT IS –VINNIE ROSSIE ELECTRONICS

Once again, the exhibit for The Voice That Is (TVTI) was visually and sonically exquisite. This time, Doug White, President for TVTI, had on display the all-new and recently released Tidal Audio Piano G3 loudspeakers ($64,000), stunning high-gloss piano black, and impeccable finish. The Piano G3 is a speaker that has been a mainstay for Tidal since the company’s inception and has progressively improved over many years. Judging from the sound – this latest iteration is far more advanced than previous models and represents SOTA-level design, development, and implementation. According to White, this version of the Piano lineage is more than merely an upgrade and instead has all new drivers, including a floating diamond tweeter. Additionally, there is new internal bracing for increased rigidity. For the most part, this system did a wonderful disappearing act with excellent sonics that was full, warm, open, detailed, clear, and so very musical. Whether playing vocals, instrumental jazz, or other genres of music – the rendition was consistently superb.

These speakers were powered sweetly by the new Brama series of electronics by Vinnie Rossi, including the preamplifier ($33,995) and stereo amplifier ($33,995). The amps power rating is 200 watts into 8 Ohms or 350 into 4 Ohms. Handling the digital signals was the very impressive Tidal Audio Contros Digital Controller ($60,000). Wiring included the new Siltech Royal Crown/Double Crown cables. No pricing was available at this time. The system included the new Critical Mass Systems Ultra Q-Rack (prices vary). Interestingly – this was the first official showing, in the US, for both the Tidal speakers and the CMS equipment rack.

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CONVERGENT AUDIO TECHNOLOGIES / ESP

Next up was the Convergent Audio Technologies exhibit with Ken Steven, lead technical guru at the helm. 

Steven’s tube electronics are legendary in high-end audio, and his exhibits have a consistency of really good to great sound. This time, the system consisted of the CAT Legend Preamp with the Statement Extreme monoblock amps. Input was via Audio Aero CD player for digital and a VPI HW40 turntable for analog (i.e., vinyl). The electronics powered a pair of Magico S5 MKII loudspeakers connected via Black Cat ICs and speaker cables. Providing AC to the electronics was via Michael Griffin’s highly acclaimed ESP power cables.

In fact – at this show, Michael had his brand-new flagship power cords, Renaissance power cords ($4,995), in the system and to very good effect.

Overall, the sound in the CAT exhibit was musically correct, engaging, and on point. No sonic spectaculars, and Steven’s superb tube electronics easily powered the Magico speakers with ease. Music was smooth yet detailed, full, open, dynamic, and lifelike, with accurate soundstaging and much more.

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TRIANGLE ART SYSTEM (photos here)

Fascinating room with superb natural sound coming from a large pair of Metis Horn speakers ($60,000). Effortless, full, organic – primarily analog/vinyl playback on very sophisticated turntable rigs, including Anubis Turntable ($14,999) with Osiris MK2 Diamond Tonearm ($8,000) and Apollo MC cartridge ($8,000) or Maestro Turntable ($7,500) with Horus Tonearm ($4,000) and Apollo MC cartridge. The vocals and instruments were all very lifelike, smooth, detailed, and musical. Speaker interaction with the room created slight boominess, and the exhibitor did an excellent job in taming this to the best of their ability. Importantly, it didn’t interfere with enjoying the superb sound of the system.

Electronics included P200 tube phonostage ($15,000), L200 MK2 Ultimate tube linestage ($25,000), and M100 tube monoblock amplifiers ($25,000). AC power conditioning was provided by RA Ultimate power conditioner ($11,000) and RHEA Ultimate power cable ($7,000). Cables connecting the system included RHEA Reference power cords ($2,999), RHEA Reference interconnects ($2,999), and RHE Reference speaker cables ($5,999).

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RETHM SPEAKERS / AMPSandSOUND Electronics

Greeted warmly by Jacob George, speaker designer – this is a most interesting-looking speaker and one that I’ve seen photos of yet not had an opportunity to listen to previously during audio shows. Interestingly, the exhibitor was forced to resort to getting a loaner pair from a local customer for this particular show. This was due to issues with customs (India) holding up the latest version being shipped to this show. Instead, a customer in the local metro area loaned his pair of these speakers helping to avoid a significant issue for the exhibitor by possibly not having a pair of speakers for this exhibit. According to the designer, this speaker’s new updated version will be the same price as the model used for his exhibit.

Anyway – what I heard was an excellent sound from the Rethm Maarga model ($11,500), including a range of music from rhythmic R&B (i.e., Maxwell) and dynamic jazz (Ahmad Jamal) to hard-kicking heavy metal. These unique speakers have no crossover, are 97dB efficient, and include two isobaric 6×9“ powered bass woofers. The electronics driving these speakers were AMPSANDSOUND, 300B SETs ($18,000) producing 8 watts per channel. The preamp was solid state from the same company ($5,000). Digital processing was handled competently by an Auralic Altair G2.1 streamer/DAC ($6,100).

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AUDIO COMPANY – VON SCHHWEIKERT speakers / small room

A very nice surprise occurred in this exhibit with the World Debut of the newly launched Von Schweikert Endeavor Reference Edition speaker system ($19,999). These nicely finished (wood grain) were coupled with some serious electronics resulting in a sound far exceeding expectations. I also learned that these speakers could be ordered with a custom finish for an upcharge of $6,000. Considering the accessible price point of the speakers, along with their attractive appearance, I was very much encouraged. The general reaction in the room was similar. Paired up with these newly released speakers were VAC tube electronics, including their Master Preamplifier with phono ($44,000) and Signature 450s IQ amplifier ($63,000). Digital processing was via Aurender N10 streamer/renderer ($8,500) and Lampizator Golden Gate DAC ($17,250). Additionally, Masterbuilt cables and Artesania racks were used as well.

In terms of the sound – there was very deep, full high-quality bass and nothing boomy. Vocals were clear, open, and organic and had excellent tonal balance for instruments. This was a relatively small intimate room setting, and this system produced the musical goods. Listening to some favorite Miles Davis (So What), it was an excellent rendition with Coltrane’s sax sweet and authentic. I could have easily stayed in this room for an extended period. Again – very impressive speakers and an excellent exhibit overall.

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AUDIO HUNTERS & VINYL REVIVERS 

This exhibit had some challenges due to shipping issues and the late arrival of system components. 

This exhibit room could have been more comfortable in its overall configuration and dimension. Despite this – the exhibitor managed to pull things together for what I considered an excellent-sounding system. The room was relatively large and with literally no wall treatment. Overall the sound produced was very musical and featured a pair of KEF Blade 2 speakers ($25,000), powered by a Rega Elicit integrated amp, Hegel V10 phonostage ($1,650), Rega Planar 6 turntable with Anaia Pro cartridge ($2,895)for analog playback (vinyl) or Rega Appollo CD player ($1,325). Considering the very reasonable costs of this particular system, including very reasonable pricing levels of the various components, this produced high value in terms of price-to-performance ratio. The KEF speakers had a classic warm, smooth, detailed sound that is fairly recognizable.

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YG ACOUSTICS – GTT AUDIO 

Display of the new and long-awaited Peak series loudspeakers from YG Acoustics in the GTT Audio exhibit room, featuring the new 2-way Tor monitor speaker ($10,500 retail). Speakers have a machined front baffle and plinth with the crossover located in the plinth. Cabinets are constructed of high-density resin. After many emails between me Dick Diamond – YG sales leader, and Gary Mulder, North America Sales Manager for YG, I was most anxious to check out these new speakers. As I entered the room almost immediately, I was greeted by a pristine, clear, and very open sound.

Additionally, I noticed that the system was very quiet between passages, and the sound seemed to emerge from a completely black background. Not a bad start, and there was more to come. In typical fashion, Bill Parrish, GTT Audio President, shifted to music quite familiar to me, including the fabulous male jazz vocalists Kurt Elling and Tony Bennett. Both singers have a warm, fully textured, pure, and expressive tonal character to their voices and are accompanied by a superb piano background and various other acoustic instruments. The sound from the speakers was captivating in the very sense of the word. Also, even though not yet available, the YG Descent active subwoofer ($7,800) currently under development is an ideal mate for these superb speakers and provides an additional foundation to the lower frequencies.

In terms of the associated audio components helping to make these speakers sound so good included the Audionet Watt integrated ($18,800), Nola Nola Tambaqui DAC ($13,500), Aurilic Streamer ($5,700), and Kubala Sosna Elations cables (pricing not available). During my somewhat brief conversation with Mulder – I learned that part of the success of YG is the company’s use of computer modeling for the purpose of sound analysis to address different room acoustics. Bottom line – lots of sound from this newly released speaker, and looking forward to the other models in the Peak series being released over the following months and throughout 2023.

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ALMA MUSIC & AUDIO

Featured in this exhibit were the Qln Signature speakers in a beautiful Piano Burl Walnut finish ($24,000 plus $2,000 stands). Excellent sound, good organic texture/body. Very natural musical sound with excellent tonality. Played Miles Davis (4 X DSD) with Coltrane – absolutely wonderful sonics with superb hall ambiance and got my juices flowing! Associated equipment included the following components:

  • Nagra Classic Amp (Stereo/Mono, $19,500 each);
  • Nagra Classic Preamp (tune, $19,500);
  • Nagra Class power supply ($16,900);
  • Nagra VFS speaker stands ($2,750 each);
  • MSB Premier streaming DAC ($29,500);
  • Innuos Statement Next-Gen music server ($21,700, 1 terra bite)
  • Gigawatt PC-4 power conditioner ($14,500);
  • Kubala Sosna cables (prices vary);
  • Nemesis acoustic panels ($600 ea).

Somewhat as a wrap-up to my visit at this year’s CAF, and in consideration of so many different exhibits, there will be a few exhibits in this Part 2 report that I could only check out very briefly. I would have enjoyed spending more time in each, and with the Saturday attendance creating a number of crowded exhibit rooms, I opted to capture a few photos and, apologetically, not much in the way of in-depth reporting on my part. So dear readers – bear with me this final coverage of a few rooms that I found interesting and worthy of mentioning. 

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HIGH END BY OZ – UNITED HOME AUDIO 

Indeed a large system in every sense of the word and one that produced a big sound—loaded with impressive clarity and ambiance retrieval, with choral vocals rendered superbly, including an excellent open sound. Along with this was an impressive pipe organ that was effortless, clear, distinct, and beautiful. Powered by the mighty Thrax tube electronics – this system delivered the sonic goods.

  • Lansche 7.2 Macassar ebony speakers (plasma tweeter) – $90,000 pr;
  • Thrax Audio Libra 300B Tube Preamp – $67,500; Spartacus 300B 50 Watt Triode Class A – $97,500 pr; Maximinus Silver DAC – $38,500;
  • UHA Super Deck – $89,900;
  • Kalista Dreamplay X Transport – $68,800;
  • Metronome AQWO – $20,000;
  • HiFiStay Mythology equipment rack – $6,250 per shelf;
  • Hemingway Z Core and Creation S Series cables – $3,400 – $3,9,000

NOLA BABY GRAND REFERENCE GOLD 3 LOUDSPEAKERS 

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Situated in a massive room with speakers way out from the back wall, this system played at some very high decibels (as in loudly). The sound was also very dynamic, and with classical music (piano) – the system produced a very open, spacious soundstage with impressive depth. Unfortunately, the room also created a noticeable boom at times and with various types of music. Vinyl was the primary playback medium. Electronics powering the speakers included VAC Master Preamp and VAC Master 300 monoblock amps, and turntables were the Sikora Reference with Tru-Glider tonearm and DS Audio Grandmaster moving coil cartridge. The cables were Nordost Odin 2 series.

ODYSSEY ELECTRONICS 

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Displaying alternatingly between a darkened room with numerous candlelights spread across the exhibit floor nearest to the display system and a fully lighted room, the sound produced by this system gave a glimpse into what is possible without breaking the bank. In particular, the Silverline speakers at $5,900/pr sounded quite good and provided full range impact driven by Odyssey electronics and connected with Magnan cables. Excellent value overall.

HIGH FIDELITY SERVICES – KERR ACOUSTIC SPEAKERS 

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Interesting full-range floor-standing Kerr Acoustic, model K320 MK3 speakers finished in a very nice black piano gloss ($11,850). Speakers are a 2-driver, 2-way w/front ported proprietary transmission line bass design including 6.5” scanspeak wood-fiber midrange driver and 60mm custom natural ribbon high frequency driver; Baltic birch ply cabinet. These were driven with Trilogy Audio Systems electronics consisting of model 903 line level preamplifier ($9,950), 993 Stereo Hybrid power amplifier – 125 watts pr/ch, zero feedback hybrid circuitry, triode super tube input stages plus combination of FET/Bipolar output devices ($9,950) and 907 MM/MC phono preamp (($3,495). Handling the input chores were TW Acustic Raven LS turntable ($15,500) with Raven 10.5” tonearm ($6,000) and Stein Aventurin 6 MC phono cartridge ($6,500). Cables used included Signal Projects ICs and speaker cables ($5,450) and Vibex/Signal Projects power cables ($3,780). Power conditioning was provided by a Vibex Platinum power filter ($3,850).

The sound was very musical and smooth, with excellent detail, especially while listening to Ben Webster’s saxophone played via vinyl. Very good value for this exhibit.

PURE AUDIO PROJECT 

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Unfortunately – only able to catch a quick peek inside this interesting-looking exhibit. The room was crowded, and I had to move on. Initially, the reaction was very positive.

SYNERGISTIC RESEARCH

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Classic approach by Synergistic Research (SR) and Ted Denny, owner/lead guru at the helm, including real-time demos of various SR products to very positive effect. The small room included lots of equipment and wonderful speakers producing solid sound. The room was also well-attended. I couldn’t spend much time there. Nonetheless, it didn’t take much time for me to witness how SR can bring various products to high-end audio shows, including cables. These passive devices augment/enhance room acoustics, power conditioning, and more. Very interesting and always entertaining as well.  Job well done.   

So as I close my report for this year’s CAF – congratulations to event organizer Gary Gill for a welcome show. Again, this was my first high-end audio show since late 2019 (i.e., post-pandemic), and I thoroughly enjoyed reconnecting with various manufacturers, dealers, colleagues, and long-time friends. Judging also from the general reaction of the attendees, I would say that there was a general upbeat feeling overall and positive interaction over the show’s three days. Signing off now and will catch you later in one of my current/upcoming product reviews.

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