Review: Capital Audiofest 2013 (revised)

Last week I had a few hours to attend the Capital Audiofest (CAF) 2013 in Silver Spring, MD.  The website for this audio show is: http://www.capitalaudiofest.com/.  My time was limited, and there is a lot I didn’t see/hear, but I thought I would share some impressions.

Just as a quick background, I did attend a mainstream audio show in 2012, the Munich High End Show, and what impressed me there were the Cabasse L’Océan loudspeakers (most realistic sounding reproduced piano I have heard), and TAD loudspeakers, I forget which ones, and a relatively modest pair of Lindemann “Birdland” floorstanding speakers.  I guess I’m trying to say not everything sounded great to me, but those systems made an impression.

CAF is not a mainstream audio show, a significant number of exhibitors were showing off things like high efficiency speakers, tube amplifiers, and so on.  Stereophile, and The Absolute Sound, as well as some other bloggers have some show reports, so check those out for photos and more “professional” reviews.

For the most part I find the sound at these audio shows disappointing.  And it’s not necessarily the fault of the exhibitors, but if the exhibit room is small, then the setup is sort of like using speakers as headphones – nearfield listening – the speakers are severely toed in, the seating is close to the speakers, and the sound is probably best only for a few seats right in the center.   I much prefer far-field listening, I don’t want to be forced to sit in some “sweet spot,” or worse, a few seats over from a “sweet spot.”

To continue griping a bit, the volume of demos is almost always too loud for my taste.Audiophiles supposedly prefer natural sounding music, yet the volume of replay at these shows is often way above natural.  In a few rooms at CAF, though, the exhibitors were happy to turn the sound up or down, that was appreciated by me.

I had been reading about Daedalus Audio speakers, I expected? hoped? to really like them.  The speakers themselves are beautiful, built from solid wood, and the compact Pan speakers would fit nicely into a lot of rooms and seem reasonably priced if you regard them as handcrafted solid wood furniture that makes music.  It is hard to judge fairly the sound at a show though, and while I might like them more in a different environment, I was disappointed at the show.  I first went to a room with a largish pair of floorstanding speakers from Daedalus, and a gentleman in the audience supplied a CD of a female jazz singer, the host played it, the gentleman was thrilled, and I thought it sounded bad.  The playback volume was way above the natural volume of the human voice, and the clarity/naturalness of the voice was not as superior as I would expect from a $10K plus pair of speakers powered by expensive equipment.  Frankly, my relatively modest home system with my old Spendor SP2/3 speakers sounds more natural to my ears.

I did hear the Daedalus Pan loudspeakers in another room demoed by Scott Dalzell, proprietor of Viva HiFi. He was super nice and I would have liked more time in his room, but something just wasn’t right about the sound to get me excited – maybe the music selections, maybe the room acoustics, maybe sitting too close?  I heard some percussion sounds that were especially clear, so I wouldn’t rule out my liking the Pan speakers more under other different circumstances.  Scott was using a ModWright modified Oppo player as a DAC and a ModWright integrated amp, hard to isolate what I was hearing, but it piqued my interest especially to hear the ModWright modified Oppo more.

I went to a room featuring GT Audio Works GTA 1, a “ribbon planar hybrid loudspeaker” for $2,700.  That room also featured some interesting sub-woofers that are meant to be installed in-wall.  I had a brief listen, but I thought the sound was clear and natural.  I haven’t read a lot about these speakers, but I believe they are kind of like electrostatic speakers (Martin Logan, Quads).  Something different anyway, and based on a quick listen, very pleasant.

I heard a pair of Salk floorstanding loudspeakers powered by a Van Alstine tube amplifier.  The Salks were playing a recording of a tenor saxophone, I didn’t think the lower midrange sounded natural, maybe it was the recording, dunno for sure, but trying to guess the amplifier versus the speakers I had a good impression of the Van Alstine Ultravalve amplifier.  This is a modestly priced tube amp, spec’d at 35 watts per channel, and it seemed like plenty of power for the not-super-efficient Salk speakers (88 db).  If I were looking for a tube amplifier, I would give the Van Alstine a more serious audition.

On the other hand, some things did impress me, so let me mention.  A huge pair of Tidal Sunray speakers, with an outrageous price of like $150K, were impressive, perhaps the best reproduced sound I have heard: http://www.tidal-audio.de/.  Tidal makes more modest speakers, I would be interested to hear them sometime.

The Fidelis AV room was playing Harbeth 30.1 speakers with battery powered amplifiers from Red Wine Audio, and that system sounded great to me.

I liked the Volti Audio speakers.  Yes, the demo was too loud.  Yes, I had to sit too close to the speakers.  But still, I had the feeling I would really like these speakers (I heard both the Vittora and the Alura briefly) in my great room – I won’t analyze the sound too much, but the music was “alive” and I just sat back and smiled as I listened, and that’s the whole idea, right?  I also liked the look of these speakers as well – gorgeous veneers, curvy cabinets, wow!  The price in the $14K+ range is too high for my serious consideration, but at least they sounded and looked good.

I was impressed with the sound from Woo Audio’s amplifiers, I listened to a couple of their headphone amplifiers with different headphones, and even used their Fireflies amplifier with sexy glass top with my modest Bowers and Wilkins C5 in-ear headphones, that was nice!  Yes I have a certain amount of American chauvinism, and with an Asian sounding name and a bunch of Asian men staffing the room, I thought at first, oh, another made-in China manufacturer.  But no, Woo Audio is an American company, with the amplifiers made in Queens NY, and I thought that was really cool.  If I were looking for a headphone amplifier, I would give Woo Audio serious consideration, the staff was very friendly, the amplifiers seemed reasonably priced, and the sound was great!

In summary, I came away impressed with Tidal Speakers, Volti Audio speakers, Harbeth speakers, and Woo Audio headphone amplifiers, and would like to hear more from Red Wine Audio, Van Alstine and ModWright electronics.

Thanks for reading!

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