Capital Audio Fest: the Final Day from Herb

It was quiet when I entered the Resolution Acoustics room and sat down restfully in the chair between the giant Sonus Faber Stradivari speakers. I sat admiring the Meitner MA-2 and the Pass Labs XA100.5s; both of which are some mighty good audio hardware. But suddenly, without any warning: I was being soundboarded by the opening guitar work of the Eagles' "Hotel California." I cringed the first time I heard that song and I screamed silently every one of the 1000 times I heard it at Sound by Singer. And now—just because I am an audiophile—everybody in stereoland thinks I want to hear it. It is not so bad if you don't follow it with a medley of vacuous audio salon chestnuts. But that is exactly what the Resolution Acoustics people did. (Father forgive them 'cause they know not what they do.)

When I told them I was covering the room for Stereophile and asked if they had a list of the equipment that was playing and its prices, the man who's card I forgot to get, said, "That equipment was not for sale." Puzzled, and feeling sarcastic, I asked, "So what are you selling?"

The man smiled (he really was a nice man) and said they were making a two-room demonstration of the effectiveness of their acoustic listening room treatments. He asked me what I thought of the sound—that has been happening to me a lot since I started at Stereophile—and I said, "It's pretty okay." Then he led me into the room next door where the exact same music was playing and asked, "What do you think of this sound." Ever the diplomat, I replied, "This seems pretty nice too." Then he invited me to sit in the exact spot I was sitting in the last room.

I could not believe it but "Hotel California" came on again! (I started cursing in Latin.) Suddenly I am fidgeting and planning my exit. He entreated me to walk back and forth between rooms and even suggested I stand in the doorway so I could hear both rooms at once!

The man was right. The second room "sounded" a lot better. I told him I was impressed. (But it didn't change my opinion of the Eagles one bit.) My conspiracy-minded brain kept wondering; did they sabotage the sound in the first room? But alas! It was the Resolution Acoustics room treatments that accounted for the differences I heard. (That's what they were selling!)

He showed me a photo of his home listening room (with the same treatments) and it was beautiful! It was tens of thousands of times more user-friendly and attractive than my Bed Stuy bunker. I complimented him on his fine taste in furnishings and asked for a list (with prices) of the handsome products employed in making the Eagles sound so much smoother, better articulated, less muffled, etc. and he wrote this: Front wall diffusers $2625 each x 4 + $10,5000, 3 Corner towers $18,000 total, side-wall absorption, $2000, rear diffusers $1299/each x 4 = $5196. Total cost: $35,196. As I was leaving I remembered why I enjoyed Iggy Pop so much.

Backert Labs promotes itself as, "the tube preamp specialist" and I like that. I think way too many audio companies are trying to become like General Morters and expand into General Fantastics; and join up with the whole audio-industrial complex. I think Backert Labs president Andy Tebbe recognizes the value of keeping it simple, humble and doing it well. The look and sound in his room suggests he has good taste and is on to something interesting.

My first thought, when I walked in, was not about preamps. I liked what I was hearing and I was staring at those beautiful backlit Martin Logan Montises and thinking, Hmmmmm these speakers sound really natural and open, I wonder how much they cost [$9995/pair], and, I wonder who else has reviewed them already [RD reviewed them in September 2012]. Then I noticed the Odyssey Kismet monoblocks ($5000/pair) and wondered, Do those lights dim? Why do amp designers feel entitled to advertise in the darkness of my listening room? (They would surely be too bright for my candlelit soirées.) There was also a Chord Hugo DAC ($2500) and a VPI Classic turntable ($3000) wearing a 3D arm ($1200).

And then I met the amiable Andy Tebbe. I told him the sound in his room was exceptionally inviting and I asked him (bluntly), "Why is that?" Of course he blamed the preamp.

Andy went on to explain how the Backert Labs Rhythm 1.1 ($7500) had been his main product but that this system was anchored by his new (and as yet un-named) line-level preamp, which he was offering at an introductory price of $2995. He said the new preamp was being sold direct and would offer a big chunk of the Rhythm 1.1 at a lower price.

Mr. Tebbe continued excitedly, "We are having a contest to name the new preamp. Anyone interested, can go to our website and submit two, even three, names. The person who submits the name we choose will receive a free preamp!!"

Ok, I can't resist. Since the flagship preamp is called the Rhythm 1.1" I am thinking maybe "Dancer," "Rhyme," or "Painter". . . what say you?

The only way these Madison Fielding Piermont outdoor, winter and summer weather-proof garden speakers ($6,495) could look better is if they were filled with living, breathing Saffron Crocuses or Juliet Roses. But this is an audio show—not a horticultural exposition. Not to mention, the only way these things could sound better is if they were filled with living, breathing Saffron Crocuses and there was some Château Lafite Rothschild buried in their dirt. Every time I experience the Piermounts they sound better and I love them more.

This is my third show review experience of the typically capacious, open-reel–sourced, United Home Audio rooms. Previous times I suffered from geriatric indifference, fatigue, and lack of due diligence. On all three occasions, the beautiful UHA Phase 12-PB-OPS, 15ips, half-track, reel-to-reel decks ($25,000) played "master tapes" as they should; with grace and liquid authority. So why my indifference? The totally excellent Jolida Luxor Monoblock VTSP preamp ($8500) and Luxor Monoblock amplifiers ($9000 each) were probably not broken. Right? So what was my problem? My best guess is I never fully grasped or appreciated how the MBL loudspeakers were projecting energy into the large rooms that United Home Audio selects for these shows.

Well this time was different. I let myself relax and listen (never underestimate the importance of this simple act) and now I think I finally got it. I sat, I listened, and I even walked around and got up close and listened. And what I learned was this: The beautifully constructed MBL 116F Radialstrahler loudspeakers ($32,500/pair) do indeed play elegantly. They are smooth like the finest silk. They are detailed and musical in the most un-presupposing ways. But where I sit (as in near and far from the speakers) and where they sit (as in near or far from room boundaries) seems to play a significant factor in how I respond to their strengths. Despite appearances, and based on very limited listening, I believe I might l enjoy these speakers more in a much smaller room (more weight and body) and sitting in the near field (more directly perceived transients). When I moved to just a few feet away from a single 116F, the music reached out and grabbed me! Next show, this will be the first room I visit.

They played Dead Can Dance for me—the same first DCD record that I used to play when I did audio show rooms for Audio Note. It sounded amazing. Detail was relaxed and natural and that signature Dead Can Dance space was out in full force. The tall towers were Neat Ultimatum XL-10s ($32,250/pair) powered by the Audia Flight Strumento No 1 preamplifier ($17,500), and the Audia Flight No 4 Stereo Amplifier ($27,500) and the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC and USB. They spun the Dead Dancing LP on the VPI Avenger turntable wearing the Lyra Kleos cartridge—the feeling of being alive was enjoyable in the Command Performance room.

They played Marley for me. (They must have known I am in my Studio 1/Treasure Isle/Mango period.) It worked. I felt real and I felt good. The sounds were sleeping in a hammock nice. The VPI Prime turntable ($3800) and LKV Research Veros One phono preamp were making I and I feel all rastaman and dread. The LKV Line One line level preamp ($3500) was being all clear and breaking the shackles of Babylon opacity. The Joseph Audio Prism speakers ($3699/pair) were being their well-spoken erudite selves. The Conrad-Johnson Premier Eleven power amp was making Lew Johnson proud. And I was venerating all souls and thinking of that great Ethiopian emperor—what's his name? Oh yes, I remember now: Haile Selassie!

I don't know why it happens but at every audio show I always end up in the Odyssey room last—as in the last hour of the last day and I am beyond punchy and cranky. I think it is because Klaus Bunge is big, warm, and smiling. He creates a welcoming environment that is exactly what I need. I need permission not to think and the sounds in the Odyssey room always promote that. Most importantly, I know the sound will be like Klaus: big, warm, spacious, and never stressed. It is especially not stressful because Klaus specializes in making complete high-end systems that cost less than some audiophiles power conditioners. He also has an LSD lightshow to take my eyes off the gear and put them back into my mind.

Today Mr. Bunge was playing the Odyssey Kismet Liquid Loudspeakers ($5900/pair), powered by the Candela preamplifier ($1600) and the Khartago Mono amplifiers ($1995/pair) which, when combined with the dancing lights and dreamy darkness, made me a very happy and satisfied reviewer. Total system price: $8900. (Bunge's Odyssey systems always sound like they should cost several times what he is charging via direct sale.)

Unfortunately, Head-Fi's new CanJam London 2015 was taking place the exact same weekend as CAF. Bummer. Because that meant that virtually every headphone manufacturer was dishing out tunes in Europe—not DC. But that didn't stop Gary Gill. He put together his own MinicanJam on Sunday; which filled the music media room with young'uns of all ages and descriptions. I loved it. I had a difficult time tearing myself away and getting back to my room-scouring duties. But I did meet that trio of discerning fellows pictured above and promise them they would be stars—in a big big magazine! When they weren't looking, I stole their thumb drives!

Turntables were everywhere at CAF. Oligarchs and emperors commanding "servers" from cell phones or tiny tablets were a rare sight. Therefore, I felt entitled to treat myself and buy an LP in the very groovy record, headphone, and CD room. I bought this Mango Records disc called Intensified!—Original SKA 1962-66 (Mango MLPS 9524). Being a cub reporter on the Stereophile beat, I would occasionally be asked, "Is there something you would like to hear?" If I saw a turntable I would hand them this record. They'd be smiling while they cued it up—but no more than a minute later they'd be looking around nervously and even staring me in the eye, as if to say, "I will get you—you bastard!" They looked at me like I just pissed in their shoe. Simply because I asked them to play "El Pussy Cat" by Roland Alphonso or "The Higher The Monkey Climbs" by Justin Hines they have gotta get all sour mouthed on me?

I ask you, what is up with that? Yo dudes! Didn't you say it was about the music? I personally think all those CAF attendees drove a long way to come and experience what this expensive gear has to offer. They want to know, will it play their records? I also think some of you exhibitors should smile and let go of your corporate ties, Diana Krall imperialism, and controlled demos. Surrender now. If all this expensive gear can't play my Mango Rastas then I refuse to treat it to my M•A Recordings Gypsies. Just wait until next year!

I want to close my report by saying how much I appreciate the attendance of Stereophile's Art Dudley (who was not commanded from above—but came here on his own to lend his substantial soft heart and world famous audio moxie to the proceedings), VPI's Harry Weisfeld (who likewise was not commanded from above but instead, shaken from his afternoon nap to lend his warm heart and shaman-like wisdom to this CAF cult gathering) and, Sound Practices sage Joe Roberts (above, who is never commanded from above—it is he who commands from above!). These audio-world icons contributed more than anyone could measure to this beautiful edition of Capital Audiofest. Together, they sat like Mark Twain, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, and Professor Abraham van Helsing M.D., D.Ph., D.Litt. on a mythical Maryland mountain—welcoming you and inviting you back to experience CAF 2016. Don't forget to bring your records! And have fun, like the dude below!

Anton's picture

Odyssey owes NFS Audio a visual experience royalty.