Capital Audio Fest 2019 – The Bill Wells Report

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BillWells2018.jpgDue to various personal circumstances and/or business-related conflicts during this year, unfortunately my participation at certain high-end audio shows was essentially non-existent.  However, the Capital Audio Show was something that had piqued my interest for some time and fortunately I was able to clear my calendar and make things happen.  Also, departing on a flight from the chilly climate of Minnesota and arriving in Maryland on a mild afternoon with a light gentle rain, this definitely helped to get things started in good fashion.  Additionally, the pre-event communications and coordination with various CAF staff helped significantly.  Finally, with mild traffic along the Beltway, getting to the facility in Rockville (MD) was an uneventful, pleasant 25 minute drive from where I was staying.  Once at the hotel, it was a straight-forward, seamless process for picking up my badge (i.e., pre-registered).

With a quick scan of the Show Directory, as well as an attempt to get my bearings regarding the layout of the venue including which rooms the eighty plus different exhibits were located – I was soon off for my first visit and a very long day.  NOTE:  I should provide a caveat at this time and forewarn you that due to being on a somewhat limited schedule for two days and covering the show solo, I did my best to grab a few notes and photos and in all cases did not get the specific model numbers and/or pricing for all components on display.  So you have my apologies right upfront. By the way – I should also mention that this well planned and well organized event also provided a number of seminars on various topics related to high-end audio, a special Bourbon Tasting hosted by local distillers as well as live music events on both Friday and Saturday evenings.  Additionally there were prizes and giveaways available throughout the weekend as well.  Add to this — a very nice hotel (Hilton) where the show was being held including various locations to grab something to eat (i.e., more than satisfactory restaurant and quick eat setups).
 
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Slowly strolling down a wide hallway on the third floor, including some very nice sized exhibits spaces, I quickly spotted Ken Stevens from Convergent Audio Technologies (CAT) chatting in the doorway and just had to stop by and take a look/listen. I’ve been a long-time admirer of Ken’s work in high-end audio electronics and my visit was quickly rewarded with some excellent sounds from the system he had assembled. Ken’s system consisted of a pair of KEF Blade loudspeakers powered by his wonderful all tube electronics, including mono blocks amplifiers/preamp, and connected by ESP cables throughout.  Playing either analog or digital, the sound was dynamic, powerful, full, extended and with a large soundstage.  Clearly the analog presentation in Ken’s room brought out the best of sound and by a significant margin. 

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Moving on and literally next door, I made a quick stop in the Ginko Audio exhibit where I met the friendly proprietor Vinh Vu. This room was in stark contrast to the CAT exhibit and where the pricing in this room was considerably lower and much more attainable for a larger number of audiophiles.  Again, nice sized room and without any noticeable room treat, the system sounded pretty decent.  Some adjustments and tweaking were in progress to get the best out of the system so I wouldn’t consider what I heard to be the final outcome.  Plus this was early Friday morning and with lots of time left to get things right.

Again, there was both analog and digital for playback in this room (Photo).  Thanks to information provided, here is a listing of the various components in this exhibit: Gingko Audio Sextet Speaker System (World Premiere), $8995; Pure Audio One integrated amplifier $10,000; Lampizator Amber 3 DAC $2900; Salk Stream Player Gen. 3 $1695; VPI HW40 turntable $15,000; VPI Voyager phono preamp $2500; Van den Hul DDT II Special cartridge $1300; Danacable Ultra Summa speaker cables $7200; Danacable Diamond Reference ICs $1500; Danacable TruStream USB cable $599; Pangea Vulcan rack $139; Furman PST 8 Power Conditioner $189; Gingko Audio Mini-ARCHs (set of 12) $299; Gingko Audio Super ARCHs (set of 8) $399; Gingko Audio ARCH 1s and ARCH 2s (set of 8)
 

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Next up was a visit to the always inviting space occupied by none other than Doug White from The Voice That Is.  Again – I caught “the man” standing in the doorway chatting (as usual) so I simply moved past him and entered into a room that instantly greeted me with very pleasing visual effects.  Soft lighting with some luscious sounding music coming from the other end of the room.  Doug has a knack for room set up, both visually and sonically, and this exhibit followed in that tradition. Featuring the esteemed Tidal speakers and electronics plus playing a wide variety of music – Doug’s system quickly and easily captured the attention of all listeners seated in the room.

 
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Initially digital playback was on the menu and no doubt that it was sounding quite good. At that point, Doug switched to his rather visually gorgeous and sophisticated analog rig resulting in the musicality of the system quickly moving up to a whole different level. Essentially pure musical joy for me and judging from the reaction for other listeners, I clearly wasn’t alone. And as I listened, I heard numerous soft comments made saying things like, “OMG – that sounds so much like a real piano right in front of us.” Or, “I feel like I can see and almost touch the singer.” Anyway – I’m sure you get my drift.

Clearly, with this type of system – you get what you pay for so be prepared to open your wallet (or purse) very wide and get ready to dig deep.  This system has the potential to reward you with such an authentic musical presentation that perhaps the cost is simply a matter of relativity.  Here is a listing of those precious speakers and wonderful electronics, plus cabling, for your review and consideration: TIDAL Audio Contriva 20th anniversary speaker, rosewood veneer, $68,000; TIDAL Audio Ferios Monobloc Amplifiers, $60,000; TIDAL Audio Preos Preamplifier, $30,000; Vertere Acoustics Turntable SG-1, $17,995; Acoustical Systems Aquilar 10” tonearm, $9995; Acoustical Systems Archon cartridge, $3500;

Critical Mass Systems Black Diamond amp stands, $2995 ea; Innuos Statement Server, $13,750 (1TB); Ictra Design Proto-AS Rack, $25,000; Black Cat Stargate XLR Cables $5999, Stargate speaker cables $8399, Stargate Tron digital cables,  $3299, Stargate Lupo Power Cables – $1749; Stillpoints Aperture Panels: $800 ea.
 

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Moving right along – stepped into the Now Listen Here (A Tenacious Sound Store) exhibit due to mellow sounds coming through the door and also because the speakers included were made by Jeff Joseph, Joseph Audio.  Had been hoping to catch the latest and greatest Pearl 3’s but that wasn’t to be.  Anyway – his Perspective model 2 Graphene speakers were doing their thing and sounding quite right.  In fact, I can easily say that over a good number of years and at different high-end audio shows, this particular model (even in its pre-Graphene days) have always provided excellent sound.  With the upgrade – they are even better and at their MSRP of $14,995 are very competitive in their price range and even somewhat above this price-point

Supporting the wonderful speakers included the following system:  Unison Research Unico integrated amp ($6,495) and CD Due DAC ($4,995), Balanced Audio Technology VK-P12SE phonostage ($9,995), Feickert Firebird turntable ($12,995) with Schick tonearm ($2,290) and My Sonci Lab cartridge ($8,995). All components were wired together with various Audience cables. Again another room providing both digital and analog playback and a room worth checking out.

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Spotted by lovely Paradigm Model 9H loudspeakers and took a quick look. No surprise – impressive looking speakers with big, bold, dynamic sound and solid deep bass.  Music selection didn’t really allow a critical listen for midrange magic or exploration of the upper frequencies.  Demo employed the very effective Anthem room correction that was definitely needed mainly due to small room size causing slight emphasis and bloom in the mid-bass region. Hope to get back to this room later for additional listening and once the setup becomes more dialed in with some additional tweaking.
 


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Next up was a visit and to a room with speakers that are new to me (i.e., Studio Electric).  System included ModWright electronics, SOTA turntable (African Rosewood finish) with vaccum hold down and sophisticated power supply/speed control and wired with Skogrand cables (i.e., newer entry level with air dielectric, single core copper and benefitted from trickle down design from this company’s much more expensive/sophisticated line of cables.  Big surprise for me in this room occurred when a rather tall, slender gentleman came over with a slight smile and introduced himself.  It was none other than the cable designer/manufacturer Knut Skogrand someone who I had become familiar with many years ago when I had an opportunity to review one of his then premier sets of cables.

 

Through the wonders of the internet, Knut (resident of Norway) and I previously were got to know each other when I reviewed one of his premier sets of cables.  Through the wonders of the intenet, we were able to communicate regularly and got to know one another. Knut mentioned that the cables in the demo system were his new entry level series of cables (Vivaldi) and are available only through direct sale via the manufacturer. This is due to Knut’s desire to keep the pricing as low as possible with very low margins.  His intent is to provide a solid performing cable and at the most reasonable price-point possible.  His next level up series cable (Rachmaninov) is available through his established dealer network. The sound of this system was quite good, with a noticeably natural musicality including a superb neutral tonal balance.  Good staging, nice depth including an organic, rhythmic flow to he music. Again – analog playback doing its wonders.

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