CAF2016: Art's Saturday, Continued

Every good show has a vibe, and the vibe at Capital Audiofest owes a lot to the region's very spirited DIY community. Put it this way: If Capital Audiofest were a music club, open-mic night would draw some of its biggest crowds.

So it was at CAF2016, where the DC-DIY room (visit was perpetually crowded—and perpetually energized by some of the most remarkable gear I've seen and heard. During one visit, a pair of GM70-powered, 20W single-ended monoblocks designed and built by David McGown drove speakers built by Stuart Polanski using GR Research mid-woofers and Fountek tweeters, with subwoofers by McGown. The source was a Garrard 301 turntable—owned by Joe Roberts, whose writings in Sound Practices influenced literally everyone in attendance, myself included—with a Thomas Schick tonearm, an Ortofon G-style SPU pickup head, and Hashimoto step-up transformers, driving a DIY (what else!) phono stage. The sound, while playing Charlie Byrd's untitled 45rpm album on Crystal Clear Records, was exceptionally good: clear, colorful, and large as life, with excellent musical drive.

Also seen in the DC-DIY room, also supplied by Joe Roberts: a pair of Western Electric 756A full-range drivers in purpose-built cabinets. (These are larger-diameter drivers from the same product line that gave us the more famous 755A driver.) Sadly, these weren't in use during my visit.

Originality and scarcity also characterized the playback gear in the room sponsored by Emia Audio, some of whose work exists, for now, as unique products that aren't yet commercially available. One such work-in-progress is Dave Slagle's system of stacked, silver-wired electrostatic loudspeakers, based on Quad ESL panels from Electrostatic Solutions. Built into spalted maple enclosures, these speakers incorporate their own push-pull 300B amplifiers, whereby the amp's output transformers and the speaker's input transformers are one and the same.

Anyone who says that Quad ESLs can't do drive, scale, and impact has clearly never heard Slagle's loudspeakers. More to the point, this was the rare system that transcended such technology-to-technology comparisons and rendered them silly: these idea-rich components played music in a way that was, at moments, genuinely thrilling. I can't ask for anything more.

While we'll have to wait for these speakers to be produced in commercial form, Emia's ingenious inductive—as opposed to resistive—audio attenuators are available now, including the Emia Silver Autoformer Volume Control ($5400), which comes with a remote handset for the sedentary.

The CAF2016 show guide listed no fewer than four rooms—each next to the other, in the same corridor—featuring loudspeakers from Alta Audio. I visited three of those four rooms—one of them was crowded and a little too loud: I skipped over it with the intention of coming back, which I failed to do—and noted, in the process, that all three sounded different to one another. If these speakers have a "house sound," I didn't detect it!

In my first of the three, Alta Lelantos speakers ($9000/pair) were driven by the newish VPI 299D tubed integrated amplifier ($4000), the source alternating between a VPI Classic Signature turntable ($6000 w/tonearm) and Cayin CS-550D CD player ($1100), and with all cabling by Luminous audio. Luminous owner/designer Tim Stinson, who ran the dem and fielded all of my questions with good grace, played the Weavers' live version of "Good Night, Irene," which sounded a bit overbearing, at first. Realizing I was sitting straight on-axis with one of the Altas, I moved to a seat nearer the center of the listening area, from which all was well: balanced and very, very detailed, but not unpleasantly so.

My Second Alta experience came at the hands of the company's IO two-way speaker ($3000/pair), driven by the Clones Audio 25iR integrated amplifier ($1200), Aqua DAC ($2700), Antipodes DS server ($2800), and cables by Anticables (which I at first heard as Auntie Cables, which gave me very much the wrong idea). In this context, the small Altas had reasonable bass extension, but no bass clarity to speak of. In fact, everything below, say, 1000Hz sounded muffled and overly resonant, so much so that I surreptitiously walked behind the speakers to see if perhaps their cables had been mis-installed. They hadn't.

My third and finest Alta audition, at the room co-sponsored by Vienna, Virginia dealer Viva Hifi, paired Alta Celesta speakers ($12,995/pair, plus $3995/pair for high-gloss matching stands) With a Zesto Bia 120 power amp ($12,500), Zesto Leto line-level preamp ($7500), and Zesto Andros 1.2 phono pre ($4700). The turntable was a VPI Avenger ($9500), and all cabling was from WyWires, as was the Power Broker Platinum AC power distributor ($2999). Viva proprietor Scott Dalzell shares my love for good bluegrass music, and selections from Alison Krauss and Union Station's Paper Airplane LP sounded excellent in every way. Notable in particular were just the right amount of metal in the sound of Jerry Douglas's Dobro, and a faithful portrayal of the limber sound of guitarist Dan Tyminski's crosspicking style. Nice!

It isn't exactly a news flash when Jeff Joseph of Joseph Audio brings great LPs to an event, but his recent trend of bringing great open-reel tapes—and the machines on which to spin them, such as this Technics RS-1500US deck—gets more interesting with each new show.

At CAF2016, Joseph Audio teamed up with Lancaster, Pennsylvania dealer Now Listen Here to demonstrate Joseph Audio Profile loudspeakers ($7000/pair); Rogue Audio's Hydra class-D power amp ($2995), Ninety-Nine Super Magnum line-level preamp $2995), and Ares phono preamp (1995); Torus RM-20 power conditioner ($3295); and Music Hall MMF 9.1 record player with Goldring Eroica LX cartridge ($2195). In true Joseph Audio style, the sound was pleasantly warm and well balanced overall, and while the system's sense of scale was moderate as opposed the huge, its other spatial characteristics, including its suggestion of depth, were exceptionally good.

Alrighty then: it was back to the Plaza ballroom for me, to check out some of the smaller exhibits—such as the one from UK manufacturer PrismSound, whose Callia DAC-headphone amp ($2595, with a show special of $2247) sounded open and crisp (good crisp, not bad crisp) through a pair of AKG K812 Reference headphones.

Arnold Martinez of the Tweak Studio was on hand with a variety of components and accessories, the latter category including the Acoustical Systems SMARTractor, which comes as close as anything to serving as a universal phono-alignment product (and which looked pleasantly psychedelic under the Plaza ballroom lights). For CAF2016, the Tweak Studio offered the SMARTractor at a show-special price of $599.

Beanstalk Audio is a new company whose premiere product, the Beanstalk JCK, is a compact loudspeaker that uses high-quality drivers, an innovative enclosure, and DSP technology to achieve omnidirectional dispersion; indeed, the asking price ($2500/pair) includes a miniDSP 2x4HD processor. (The speaker has no internal crossover, so at least four channels of audio amplification are required.) In addition to DSP, the 15"-tall JCK uses accessory baffle extensions to tailor its response. The Beanstalk Audio booth was a static display, and thus the opportunity did not exist to hear these apparently well-made speakers perform; that said, the people promoting the JCK were among the nicest I met at CAF2016, and I'm told that 5% of all sales revenues go to charity—making Beanstalk Audio a company to watch, in my book.

Finally, I caught up with the tireless David Ratcliff, maker of the popular UltraSonic V-8 record-cleaning machine ($1595). David introduced a new product at CAF2016: a self-priming Triple Turbo Filter ($195), retrofittable to any existing UltraSonic V-8, that maintains cleaning-fluid purity with the aid of a 1µ filtration pack. Also new from Ultrasonic is the availability of custom colors and graphic designs on the company's outboard Dryer Cube—for just $100 more than the standard $795 price of the Dryer Cub in black. (Yes, that would bring the price to $895.) The AC/DC graphic to Ratcliff's left (Hell? Record dryer? I get it!) is one example.

Herb Reichert's picture

May I have permission to paraphrase ?

alparls's picture

Hmmm... Those Beanstalk speakers sure do look awfully similar to the DIY Linkwitz Lxmini kit.

KLH007's picture

alparls, The Beanstalks have the designer's blessing, S Linkwitz, and they made modifications for marketability and sonics.

m.a.c.'s picture

@KLH007: I would not exactly call it a ringing endorsement.

Linkwitz Lab inspired designs: