2014 Capital Audio Fest: Day Three, The End
Gary Gill of Sousahorn, plus Dave Slagle and Jeffrey Jackson of Emia Audio, combined to demonstrate some of that dissention and diversity in the Sousahorn room. Try to imagine a show so easy-rolling and human-scaled, that the organizer and hour-to-hour manager of the showGary Gillcan team up with his buddies and demonstrate one of his own products!
Thursday night and daytime Friday in the Sousa room were the "get all the parts singing together" time. By late Saturday, the Sousahorn (midrange) horns ($900/pair), the Emia phono stage ($5400), the Emia silver remote (autoformer) volume control ($5400), and the Emia Permally 50 monoblock amps ($15,000/pair) were all connected (with cables by Von) and singing the same sweet tunes. Dave and Gary were using a Garrard 301 turntable with a RS-A1 tonearm, a Denon DL-103R cartridge, and an Emia Silver SUT ($3600). This system looked really big, but it played very intimately. So many super-expensive and very large loudspeakers play well at only a narrow band of volumesthis system was comfortable all the way from a tiny whisper to a giant crescendo. This was also the only room that would (and could) play my Joe Bussard, "Screwdriver Slide" 78-rpm record!
Room 712: The middle range of high-end audio manufacturing is not just "Ma & Pa" storiesthere are plenty Father-Son operations (and at least a couple of Father-Daughter businesses) too. Backert Labs appears to be the quintessential Father-Son kind, with Bob Backert and his son Gary manufacturing the beautiful Rhythm 1.1 preamplifier. When I introduced myself to Bob he started right in explaining why the Rhythm 1.1 tubed, line-level preamplifier ($7500) is unique and special. He explained how he had eliminated high-value smoothing and reservoir capacitors from the power supply and how his active tube-bias circuit would allow Rhythm 1.1 owners to swap tubes as radically different as the 6DJ8/6922 for a 12AU7. Both of these concepts left me scratching my dandruff and shaking my head.
But the proof is always in the listeningright? But wait! As Bob was putting on The Great Jazz Trio Direct From LA (a LP I must buy), I noticed that his preamp had a mute switch, a mono switch, and a balance control! I congratulated him. Mikey Fremer says in his Dan D'Agostino Momentum preamplifier review that "A preamplifier is the port of entry . . . you'd better assess how it feels, how it looks, and how it operatesyou're going to be in an intimate relationship with it for a long time." When I read that I looked over at my equipment rack and frownedwhere's my mute, mono, and balance controls?
When The Great Jazz Trio . . . commenced I realized that there is more to a beautiful preamp than its knobsthe sounds emanating from the amazing (drool, sniff) TAD CR1 loudspeakers were both intricate and intimate. For me, the best thing a preamp can do is become invisiblebut while it is hiding I prefer that it doesn't take any of my detail and texture with it. The Backert Labs Rhythm 1.1 seemed to vanish and leave little but the music behind. The Jazz Trio. . . was feeding the 1.1 via a Dynavector XX-2 cartridge, an LKV Research Veros One phono preamp ($6500), and a VPI Classic 3 turntable. (Oh, I forgot to mention that the Rhythm 1.1 has this clever chrome access door in its top. You touch it and it pops openallowing very easy "tube rolling and admiring.")
Room 715: The Red Wine Audio room was directly across the hall from my hotel sleeping room. Because the people were so nice and the sound was so "just right," I kept running in, listening, and taking pictures. However, for these same reasons, the room was always crowded, I never really got to speak at length with Vinnie Rossi, and that is a shame. Vinnie was proudly demonstrating the Red Wine Signature 57, battery-powered integrated amplifier ($995). You all know I love integrateds, so it will be no surprise that I was smiling like a kid on his first date listening to the Sig 57 drive the Harbeth Super HL5-plus loudspeakers. This was a made-in-paradise combination. To imagine what I heard think opposites: Extremely smooth yet extremely textured; extremely subtle yet extremely dynamic. Mr. Vincent Rossi was also using his Red Wine Audio RWA-Z1ES-2.5 (who thinks of these names?) tube modification of the Sony HAP-Z1ES music server.
Room 510: Fern & Roby received my award for the "Best Name in Show" and their "The Beam" loudspeakers ($4500/pair) were playing for prizes too! They were driven by the Luminous Audio Axiom phono stage ($6000) and Axiom III passive preamp ($1900) and the sound was . . . now wait! Help me out here. There were over 30 rooms at this show and this newbie reporter has only so many adjectives in his neophyte arsenal. The sound was _______________________ (fill in your own synonyms for excellent and enjoyable). Thank you very much.
Room 815: Conclusions
This was my first time doing my Fake Lester Bangs imitation walking around in my Mr. Magoo disguise with my little notepad asking dumb questions. I knew upfront this was dangerous territory. I knew all the exhibitors had a lot invested in being at the show, and I knew that if I failed to do my job fully and to the best of my ability more persons than just me would be disappointed. I apologize now to all those exhibitors I failed to mention by name and to all the good-sounding music I failed to recognize. Hopefully, I will get another chance.
Meanwhile I have to tell you that I personally do not believe in notions like "best sound at show" or any similar audio writer pontification. Neither do I believe all that prattle about nobody can have good sound at shows because of the rooms, the transport, the mixed-up gear, etc. all conspire against it. Based on what I experienced at Capital Audiofest 2014 (and the dozens of other shows I have attended), I can tell you with complete assurance: Room for room I have experienced more good sounds at audio shows than I have in the private listening rooms of friends, experienced audiophiles, and reviewers! As I walked the halls of the Silver Spring Sheraton, I kept thinking, Dang! Almost every room played music better than I hear in people's homes.
Of course I wondered how this could be true, and then the answer became obvious: The people setting up these rooms, people like Doug White, Jeffery Catalano, or Robin Wyatt, are all experienced professionals. They have done this 100 times before! They are not new to thisthey are true to this. Therefore, my advice to all you whining Monday morning audiofest quarterbacks is to take the cotton out of your ears and turn off your knee-jerk critical minds. Try to imagine that Art Dudley and John Atkinson are coming over to your listening room! What are you going to play? Are you sure it sounds good? Just trust methe exhibitors at Capital Audiofest rocked the Sheraton Hotel. Best sound at show? I give it to the happy chatter I heard in the halls . . . "Did you hear such and such? Wasn't it amazing? Man-o-man I wish I had one of those LSD/3.2 Signature Doo Dads." (Who thinks of these names?)