2014 Capital Audio Fest: Day One

Stalking the halls to experience 38 rooms at Capital AudioFest in three days feels like trying to see the whole Smithsonian in one day. When I got back to my room tonight my ears were ringing from the rock-concert volume levels played in most rooms. My eyes were spinning from trying to read upside down name tags scribbled with Sharpies. But because I have been an exhibitor so many times, I remember that the most important thing I can do is recognize and respect the hope and effort (and money) all these exhibitors and organizers have invested.

Deciding to participate, making all the reservations (Can I really afford this? Should I do it? Will it really help my business?), packing the gear, packing the display materials, printing the posters and literature, packing the trucks, buying the gas and tools and food and drinks. Not to mention the stress and difficulty of smiling, tap dancing, and kissing babies all day for three days. Oh! And I forgot the biggest stress of all—trying to get all that diverse brutalized by trucking gear to play some semblance of music to a stream of eager audiophiles! Ladies and gentleman of Capital AudioFest—my hat is off in full respect. Okay, now let me start this report by telling you about two extra cool exhibitors.

Always at the top of my list of passionate audio gurus is Jeffery Catalano of High Water Sound. When he says "2 channel with attitude" he is talking about his attitude not the equipment's. His attitude is "Most of what you've read about audio is just flat out not true!" (I am sure he was talking about me.) He had two Lava lamps in his display. No human I know knows more about music or recordings than Jeff Catalano. No human I know loves music and recordings more than Mr. C. And if he didn't play great records and have great sound it would be a crime against humanity. But worry not, no crime was committed!

The High Water Sound room (pictured above) will surely be on my short list of best sound at Capital AudioFest 2014. The new Horning Hybrid Systems, Eufrodite Mark IV Ellipsee (who thinks of these names?) speakers ($30,000/pair) played Billy Preston's first record (VJ-1123) with ease grace and funk. The Hornings were driven to considerable volumes powered by the 1.5W TW-Acustic 45 SE Monos ($15,000) and the Tron-Electric Syren II GT preamplifier ($55,000) and the Seven Phono/Mono GT ($15,000). He played "Go Bo Diddley" and the "Ventures a go go" on a TW-Acustic GT SE turntable ($12,500) with two TW 10.5 tonearms ($5500 each). Cartridges were the Ortofon Windfield ($4200) and the Ortofon Cadenza Mono ($1200). Did I mention that he had two Lava lamps in his display? Did I mention that Jeffery Catalano was born to play records for people who love music?

It seems that Zu Audio's Sean Casey was also born to play records. But he can also design loudspeakers and cable and create simple unpresuming systems that showcase good tone color and effortless momentum. The Zu Audio Definition loudspeakers ($13,000/pair) are definitely the freshest most natural and most lively sounding loudspeakers I have experienced at this show. I absolutely enjoyed my experience in this room. Everything felt new and simple and straightforward with no grand statements or desperate posturing. The Definitions were connected with Zu Audio cables to First Watt SIT-1 monoblock amps ($10,000/pair).

The preamp was the beyond hip or cool (and obviously transparent) Rupert Neve Design 5060 professional mixer! I am taking sliders, EQ and pro-style. The phono stage was the K&K Audio Maxxed Out ($3000). The turntable was the good-boogie factor Rega RP-6 with my new favorite low-cost moving coil cartridge, the Zu Audio DL-103 Mk.II ($450). I fell in mad monkey love with this Zu-modified Denon cartridge when I walked in the room and heard it playing "Talk a Walk on the Wild Side" from Lou Reed's Transformer album. I bought that record when it came out and I have never heard it sound this good.

Room 804: Here I met Jeff Fox of Command AV in Falls Church, VA and Paul Manos of High Fidelity Services in Hingham, MA. They were playing these really solid heavy but little in size and price, Neat IOTA minimonitors ($1095/pair), driven by Audia Flight FL Three integrated amp ($4095 with DAC and phono modules) and the not-so-little in price or performance Command PC server ($9500). The sound was clean and clear and tuneful but maybe a little lightweight because these little minis were way up and way out into the room. Something tells me that in my room with the IOTAs a bit closer to the walls they could sound amazing. Jeff also played a desktop system with the Neats powered by an very hip looking TEAC AX-501 integrated amp ($949 with DAC and Bluetooth) and an Aurender X100L-6TB Music server ($3495) This setup was relaxed and detailed and played music like something that should cost a lot more. The Blind Boys of Alabama sounded very smooth and sophisticated.

Room 508: I kept having these Get Smart flashbacks but I couldn't help it—I am sitting there with Art Powers in the center seat sweet spot admiring the imaging between a pair of concrete looking, cast polyester "Flagstone Series" ($3500/pair) outdoor loudspeakers with flowers! The room looked like someone forgot to set up the stereo. These Planter Loudspeakers (with Audax tweeter and midrange plus an Eminence 10" woofer) by Madison Fielding were literally singing to me! And guess what—they were putting out high-quality, full-range sound. (I hope nobody saw me having a conversation with the flowers.)

Room 504: I have owned some crazy money hi fi in my time but what I am now all about is finding that killer $5k system that out plays the $20k systems. And you know what? That is indeed possible and the sound in Sjofn HiFi room proved it. Typically, the first thing you give up in the lower end of the price scale is bass. Not with The Clue loudspeakers ($1000) driven by the Clones Audio 25pm mono block amplifiers ($1155) and Clones Shiva DAC ($2500) Luminous Audio Axiom II passive preamp ($500) and Sword EFF–ISL cables from Supra. They played the Ventures bass and drums with more weight and realism than I imagined possible at around $6k for the complete system. The second thing you give up is midrange color and texture—again, not in the Sjofn room. Here, the guitars sounded more real than the prices!

Room 512: I was hoping to meet the legendary polymath Peter Lederman, President and Chief Engineer at Soundsmith Corp. I have been a fan of strain-gauge cartridges since the days of Win Labs and the Panasonic EPC 451C. My experiences with the Soundsmith strain-gauge have all been revelatory, but today it the Hyperion moving-iron cartridge ($7500) that was showing me that smart engineers like Mr. Lederman are still clearing new paths to audio pleasure. The Hyperion employs a cactus needle cantilever that seemed to do it all. Transparency, slam, and boogie factor were the vehicles for delectable detail and relaxed charm. The Hyperon drove the MCP2 preamp ($995), the Lederman designed electronics, and the amazing Monarch loudspeakers ($4000). I have no idea what is going on inside these little moderately priced Monarchs but the sound coming out of them was huge, strong, and glorious! Thank you Peter Lederman and thank you Tom Trippodo for reminding me that the quest for realistic music playback has only just begun!

Persimmon room: The Surreal Sound room showcased products from Atma-Sphere and Lowther America (static display) but was really all about Howard Swayne's (Live Sound Designs) "Grand Theatre System" ($79,900) which is a lovingly and painstakingly crafted re-creation of an Altec 1505 horn and an RCA's famous "Ubangi" (MI-9462) bass horn. These horns are flat-out contenders for best crafted most artisanal products at CAF. They played music with the kind of scale and verity that most audiophiles have never experienced. "Visions of Johanna" by man Zimmey sounded oh-so-corporal and present. All you horn haters with your hands cupped in front of your mouths I suggest you spend some open-minded time with Mr. Swayne's creations.

brw's picture

Speaker isolation seems to be part of the recipe for achieving great sound. What solution is High Water Sound exhibiting with the Horning Hybrid system at the show? Might Jeff Catalano comment on the difference heard? (Looks like it may be something other than the Acoustic Revive quartz under boards, which I'm considering for my Tannoy Kensington SE system.) Thanks guys!

wkhanna's picture

The isolators under Jeff's Hørning Eufrodite Mark IV Ellipse loudspeakers were from Symposium Acoustics.