Capital Audio Fest: Day Two Continued

Walking from room to room at CAF, it occurred to me, that these shows are the best place—probably better than any audio dealer's showroom—for audiophiles to observe how the science and art of audio design infect each other. Every manufacturer creates his own art & engineering admixture—one that reflects his values and worldview. Moving directly from the really big VPI traveling show to the significantly more modest, artful, architectural feeling "fern & roby hard wares" emporium was a stirring example.

Fern & Roby make artful-looking, and (to me) an impressive sounding turntable with a 70 lb cast-iron plinth and 35lb bronze platter. I have always believed that most audio gear sounds like what it is made of, how it is made, and what it looks like. I saw their beautiful plinth and I saw their elegant thick paper literature, and I thought, maybe this will be all show and no go. I thought this might be a lifestyle product. Then I saw the Syrinx PU-3 tonearm and remembered how all my Japanese friends admired the PU-3's lively, natural sound.

And then I sat and listened. F&R's "The Turntable" ($4500) combined smooth and lively and rock steady to perfection. It demonstrated some of the best forward momentum in my memory. Maybe I am just silly and susceptible but I thought it played music—just like it looked. Their "The Beam" reclaimed-pine tower loudspeakers ($4500/pair) seemed a little less refined and controlled as their 8" woofers strained and struggled to fill the large room. The F&R system was anchored by their cast-iron and bronze (and plexiglass) chassis "The Integrated Amplifier," which is line-level only at $2850 and with phono at $2350. (The line-only version has a bigger power supply, hence the higher price.)

And me being "me," I swear I could listen through the system to study and admire the contribution of the excellent Arion phono preamplifier by Luminous Audio ($6395). It seemed like such a spot-on trusty servant that delivered up healthy scoops of musical art, texture and audio science. (There is a reason Harry Weisfeld was using an Arion to show off his and Mat's new creations for VPI.)

The room featuring Vinni Rossi and Harbeth was packed. I had to push and shove my way to the front—no way was I leaving without another chance to experience the magic of the Harbeth HL5s ($6695) driven by the Vinnie Rossi LIO modular integrated amplifier that I review in the September issue ($2495 and up, depending on modules chosen; base price as a remote-control line preamplifier, fitted with Input Select, Resistor Volume Control (RVC), Line output module and Tubestage is $3980). Vinnie was playing a Fleet Foxes LP and I almost fell into a dream.

This combo makes me relax, forget about hifi and slip into whatever music is playing. Rossi and Harbeth are perennial contenders for best sound at every audio show.

Robin Wyatt is a culture maven and an importer of some of the finest audio exotica from Europe and Asia. He is a student of what constitutes the best in both ancient and modern audio gear. He is tall. He has a big beaming smile, and killer shirts! Today he was wearing a stunning and eccentric pattern by Robert Graham ($275). Besides his powerful charm and old world manners, the most important thing you need to recognize about Robin is: he is a man of taste and he imports the amazing and venerable Miyajima cartridges and amplifiers. He also showcases the new state of the state of the electrostatic art: Quad Electrostatic speaker upgrades (for the ESL-57, ESL-63, ESL-988/9 and ESL-2805) by Kent McCollum of Electrostatic Solutions.

As usual, Kent's Quads were playing with vivid weighty authority. The Miyajima Madake and Mono Zero were doing their, 'Aren't you glad it's the 21st Century?" thing. But there was one problem. A dead quiet, conspicuously chunky-sounding, Made in Russia, cartridge called the "Tzar DST" ($10,000) was stealing some of the Miyajima Madake's $5895 thunder. I only heard the Tzar DST, mounted on a VPI Classic 4, play a few songs, but this tired easily impressionable cub reporter thought, could this be the best cartridge ever? I inquired about the cartridge step-up transformer and Robin said, "Bob's Devices" (which cost only $1200 and based on what I experienced—must be quite excellent.) The Electrostatic Solutions Quads ($5995/pair) were driven by the Miyajima 2010 OTL Mono ($18,500) amplifiers and Miyajima Wo-1 full-function preamp ($18,500). Signal flowed through Tel Wire wires. And by the way; Kent McCollum drives a Yugo!

Aldo lives! I never quite believed there really was an "Aldo" but today I shook his hand and experienced his wild possessed-by-electricity gaze. Aldo D'Urso is the mysterious Italian polymath behind Vu Hong's modern sounding (and high vintage beautiful) Western Electric and Altec restorations. Just seeing this gear is like spying forbidden flesh. Listening to music via quality Western Electric hardware is like smashing through several time-space continuums at once. It is fantastic and often completely disorienting. This WE/Aldo stuff sounds smooth and vital and completely alive. Voices are tangible and uniquely distinct. Vintage audio does not get more exotic than it does in Vu Hoang's Déjà Vu rooms.