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A Few Afterthoughts on the 2017 Capital Audiofest

12-15-2017 | By Bruce Kinch | Issue 96

2017 Capital Audiofest

When it became apparent I would have to miss RMAF 2017 because of a schedule conflict involving a moving van, a ferry, and some fifty boxes of records (among other things), I took heart in knowing at least I had a fall-back. I cancelled my flights on Southwest and booked the American shuttle to D.C. I would go to the Capital Audiofest instead.

Not a one-for-one swap of course. I have enjoyed RMAF since well before CAF was started up by Gary Gill some seven years ago, and the Denver 'fest has more than twice the number of exhibitors of the Eastern upstart's 60 or so. However, the CAF venue (the Rockville, MD Hilton) turns out to be well suited to the task-in some ways superior to the Denver Marriott. Standard hotel room exhibits were on the first three floors surrounding a large atrium filled with vinyl and CD vendors, etc. However, in addition to the "normal" hotel rooms, there were 20 or so large meeting rooms for their "Canmania" gathering and bigger system installations, as well as an auditorium for seminars and talks. The suburban location is right at the Twinbrook Metro station and easily accessible.

I was in the area visiting family so wasn't attending full-time, and could not do a room-by-room travelogue. Although I ran into several Positive Feedback folk at the show, none seemed to be here "covering" the event, so I'll take the opportunity to elaborate on my personal notes on the show (Scott Dorsey did cover the show, you can read that HERE). I am in the process of installing a small dedicated listening room in my new digs, so I concentrated on gear appropriate to that endeavor. Which means that I mostly ignored rooms with big speakers and pricey electronics, of which the most ostentatious was the $million+ VAC/Von Schweikert extravaganza. There are plenty of 1%-ers in the D.C. swamp so why not?

As with RMAF, CAF has its roots in the local audio club communities, and both the DC HiFi Group and Audio DIY Group had demo rooms and provided volunteer support. Friday afternoon seemed a bit slow, but attendance was much better Saturday, and also decent on Sunday. The attendees were not all male, bald, and gray, either-especially on the weekend. Trends? There were turntables everywhere (and a couple ultrasonic record cleaners seen in use), with reel tape decks making a stand. Very few disc players, plenty of DACs/streamers. Dome tweeters giving way to ribbons/Heil-type tweeters and "full-range" drivers. In fact, at least three exhibitors were apparently using Mark Audio full range drivers in various configurations-boxes, horns, what have you.

Most interesting implementation was from unheralded Fyssion Audio of North Carolina, who recently obtained a US Patent on their "engine" for loading the back wave of even a 4" driver, as in a small box called the Diva 4. With the low end supported by a subwoofer, and the driver canted 30˚, the result was the best bangforbuck sound at the show. Yes, the dynamics were explosive, but I suspect the company name is more a pun on that good old boy pastime, gone fishin'. Best on a budget were the Vanatoo Transparent Zeros, bi-amped minispeakers that compete impressively in the AudioEngine market. On the other hand, several of the "big rooms" actually seemed too large for optimum demo of gear intended for domestic environments-the Zu Audio gear and the Bob Carver line-source speakers falling among the victims.

Most entertaining demos were from Rob Wyatt of Robyatt Audio (featuring Myajima cartridges, a rebuilt Lenco turntable, and rebuilt original Quad ESLs), and Klaus Bunge of Odyssey Audio (in the most exotically staged room). Most mind-messing of course was the Synergistic/Scott Walker Audio roadshow. Most contentious was a physicist challenging High Fidelity Cable's Rick Shultz during his Mr. Wizard Science Fair magic act (I don't know if he also hit the Synergistic room). The HFC demo room (above) used their own prototype speakers and electronics as well as their humungo cables, so hard to evaluate the results, but down the hall Starsound was also using High Fidelity magnetic cables to good effect (with their own Caravelle II speakers). And good to see the affordable brass footer and shelf manufacturer back on the scene, what with some boutique footers now pushing $1K per foot (yes, I know that sounds like cable pricing…)

Most persuasive real-world set-up was from D.C.'s own Dr. Vinyl, a Pear Audio turntable and electronics driving Larsen 6.2 up-against-the-wall, 30" tall speakers. No room treatment, mega-buck DACs, garden hose cables or subs needed. I've never seen an audio show demo room so…empty...of...stuff, but with a most convincing wall-to-wall soundstage, and visitors shaking their heads in disbelief. (Please note the electronics and turntable were on $20 IKEA tables, btw).

Most intriguing demo was Linear Tube Audio driving the large Tekton Double Impact floorstanders with their revised Zotl10 amp (yes, as in 10 watts per). LTA is from nearby Takoma Park, and I was fortunately able to swing by their shop the day after the show to hear the little bugger make its magic with the Spatial M4s, speakers I have on my own short list (but not at the show). Best treat was an after-hours presentation of new vinyl releases from Nate Lennox of Acoustic Sounds, courtesy of DSA electronics and Studio Electric speakers, featuring the multi-arm VPI Avenger and Ortofon and Miyajima mono and stereo cartridges. Bottom line: yes, the 45 RPM versions kill!

However, my vote for best sound has to go to the Joseph Audio/bel canto room. OK, Jeff Joseph often wins that prize (his secret sauce includes setting up on the diagonal), but in this case it was for playing a vintage live tape of the Count Basie band brought in by a show attendee. Sure, Big Band is passé, but it brought actual applause from the folks in the room. Makes one wonder what happened to popular music (and recordings) over the decades since.

There has been much speculation about the decline in bricks & mortar hifi shops and the future of high-end audio shows as an alternative. The erosion of interest in CES and the gloomy reports of the New York show (the week after CAF) have to bring concern. As in Denver, many of the demo rooms were taken by regional retailers and manufacturers; one hopes they generated new customers, and will be back. Audio shows are clearly the best option for hearing what one reads about on line and in the mags. Until someone organizes a show in New England, I'm looking forward to somehow getting to both Rocky Mountain and CAF next year. And maybe Axpona come spring…?