Capital Audiofest—Day Two Late Afternoon

As you can see from the massive 1930s cinema-style horn system that graced the Crowne Plaza’s Salon I, there was a significant retro vibe to the 2012 Capital Audiofest, something that became clear as I started my sweep of the second-floor rooms.

I had already come across a couple of examples of the vibe on other floors, including this classic combination of a vintage Jensen supertweeter, a horn-loaded Western Electric compression driver, and a Western Electric/Jensen 15” woofer in a custom cabinet ($44,000/pair) in the Deja Vu room. Driven by a Deja Vu Vintage Collection 349 stereo amplifier ($27,000) and a Vintage Collection 127C preamplifier (both using Western Electric transformers and tubes), with Snake River cables and a Technics RS-1800 open-reel deck, these speakers did make Ella Fitzgerald sound like Ella, at least.

I had been impressed by the quality of Cathedral Speakers’ retro-style models at the 2011 CAF. At the 2012 Show, they were exhibiting the Model 3113 ($6995/pair with Altec 811-B horn), which uses Eminence Pro Audio drive-units and offers a claimed sensitivity of 100dB/W/m. The system included a vintage Scott Stereomaster 233, fitted with Russian tubes and caps, with a Bel Canto DAC2.5 source. Cables were all WyWires Blue Series. No Ella in this room but a Duke Ellington LP had natural tonal qualities and great vitality.

One of the Silnote Cables rooms on the second floor featured a pair of floorstanding two-way Tyler loudspeakers, the DP15, which weighs 125 lbs, combines a huge 15” woofer with horn-loaded highs, offers a claimed 98dB sensitivity, and costs $4000/pair or $3000/pair from the manufacturer’s website. This combination of drivers in a two-way design is perverse, the 15” woofer becoming so directional at the top of its passband that it is hard to see how its output could be optimally integrated with the tweeter’s at the bottom of its passband. The sound? Only so-so, I’m afraid.

Across the corridor from the Tyler room, another Silnote Cables room featured the even more perverse Oasis speakers. These feature a single full-range drive-unit mounted in an enclosure formed either from a calabash gourd or in the case of the model in my photograph, a blown glass sphere. A sphere is possibly the worst shape for a speaker enclosure, as all the internal standing waves occur at the same frequency. I couldn’t judge the sound of these speakers as the display was silent. I decided not to ask for some music to be played.

The system in the room shared by Myemia, Lowther America, Hifi Heroin, Azurahorn, and Analog Instruments, was not silent. Far from silent, in fact. What appeared to be a field-coil–energized Lowther drive-unit was mounted in an enormous horn and supported at low frequencies by two 15” woofers.

It was a relief to enter the final room on the second floor that I managed to visit before I had to be down in the hotel’s ground-floor atrium for the raffle at 6pm. After the outrageous Lowthers, the Volti Audio Vittora speakers ($12,600/pair) seemed almost normal. A three-way design, combining a 15” woofer in a folded W-horn with 2” outlet midrange compression driver loaded with a wooden tractrix stepped horn, and a 1” ring-radiator compression tweeter in a Baltic Birch plywood enclosure, these speakers are hand-made by Volti’s Greg Roberts. Apparently it takes 240 man-hours of labor to build each pair. Either Greg Roberts’ own SET amp with 2A3 output tubes or a Border Patrol 300B amplifier provided the power for this 104dB-sensitive speaker via Mojo Audio cables; source was an EMM Labs CDSD transport and DCC2 SE Digital Control Center, the latter used as the system preamp. There was also a Volti Vittora 18” subwoofer ($2400) in the room, driven by a Marchand MB42 300W amplifier ($1200), to handle frequencies below 50Hz.

Finally, a retro speaker that attempted to sound modern while preserving the benefits of high sensitivity. The title track on the SACD of Steely Dan’s Gaucho was reproduced with a full-range balance, extended highs and lows, natural tonal quality in midrange, and excellent dynamics.

Down in the atrium while waiting for the raffle to start, I saw a pair of speakers using the classic Altec-Lansing Voice of the Theater 604 coaxial drive-unit, which mounts a multi-cellular treble horn in the throat of a 15” paper-cone woofer. I know this drive-unit has acquired almost religious status, but back in the day, when I was working as a bass guitarist in studios, a speaker like this, with the 604 driver mounted in a small enclosure, was my least favorite monitor, due to its lack of lows.

And to finish my trip into world of weirdness at CAF, across the room from the Altecs was this: two arrays of organ pipes beneath which, according to 6 Moons writer Larry Borden, who drew my attention to this monstrosity, were 24 paper-cone drivers firing upward into the pipes. And to be honest, this was not the worse-sounding speaker at the 2012 Capital Audiofest. It may have aimed low, but it achieved its goal!

Staxguy's picture

This report is depressing - have I become so polyanaesque with regard to hi-fi, through glowing reviews, and a general silence of criticism that the slightest statement of truth depressses me to the entire state of the industry? :)

I admit, had I the chance to audition locally newer statement gear by the likes of Constellation, Boulder, etc. I would not be in such a predicimate, or at least if I could hear the best European (Gryphon, FM Acoustics, Solution...) and Japanese (Balabo, Technical Brain), gear, alas.

The Cabasse LaSphere would be better, with the drivers separated, or just put in a box encolsure...?

Love to see a full review of Transmission Audio, on that note. The Megatrends, the Ultimates. etc.

mauidj's picture

"glowing reviews, and a general silence of criticism"

Ah!.....a kindred spirit. Well said.

ppgr's picture

This reads like a Goodwill / garage sale event report. Still, did you have a good time?

John Atkinson's picture

Did you have a good time?

Had a great time overall - it was just happenstance that the final rooms I visited were almost all of the weird and wonderful genre. See my other 4 reports for the more conventional systems I auditioned at CAF 2012.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

mauidj's picture

I see from your welcome and enjoyable review of the show that in many instances you have called a pig a pig which is so refreshing in this age of audio craziness. I am rapidly tiring of the reviewers in both print and websites who seem to give any looney concept a thumbs up especially if the product costs are as silly as the idea. What happened to the days of simplicity and wire with gain?

Seemingly the era of single speaker demos and removal of any superfluous items in listening rooms (televisions, phones etc) have given way to stones, pipes and gongs! While there seems to be a resurgence of interest in the high end I believe this current trend of snake oil contraptions and "mid priced" (sic) audio components costing 20 to 30 thousand dollars is driving the ordinary man or women away from our hobby shaking their heads in disbelief.

I know my head is tired! Keep up the great work but please, NO MORE GONGS!

ppgr's picture


mind messed up's picture

With respect to the room shared by Myemia, Lowther America, Hifi Heroin etc would you care to relay your actual impressions of the music? Also the turntable has the shape of a Garrard but platter looks different. Did you get a chance to inspect it closely?

John Atkinson's picture

With respect to the room shared by Myemia, Lowther America, Hifi Heroin etc , would you care to relay your actual impressions of the music?

I think it fair to say that the system did some things that I don't care much about very well and many things I do care about not so well.

Also the turntable has the shape of a Garrard but platter looks different.

I am afraid I didn't look closely, but it appeared to be a Garrard 401.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

mind messed up's picture

Kind of you to respond. Sheepishly confess that I am not familiar with your personal taste. It is fair to assume that the tonality was good but the frequency extremes were poorly articulated. Not trying to put you on the spot but I guess that is what I just did. Reason I am so interested is that I have always had an interest in Lowther drivers. They do certain things, that I do care about, quite well. On the other hand there are other qualities in the reproduction of music, which I also care about, where they fail.

DetroitVinylRob's picture

Hifi madness can be good fun, thanks for covering it. Sometimes we take our little hobby all too seriously. But John, did entering the last few rooms of the second floor leave you feeling like you had stepped into Terry Gilliam's Brazil...?

Happy Listener! ;^)>

grey17's picture

I was able to attend CAF and agree with the overall review.  However my understanding is the systems in the Salon I room were vintage only (the first and last two pictures), setup by the individual owners.  I spoke a bit with the owner of the '1930s cinema-style horn system' and you really got a sense of the personal passion and enjoyment involved in sharing his system.  It also sounded pretty good keeping in mind the DIY spirit behind it.  Unfortunately, in my opinion many of the professional rooms suffered from music being played too loud.  The BorderPatrol Audio room bucked the loudness trend and just produced excellent sound.  I wish I had visited it earlier (rather then 5:30pm Sunday).

 The show was fun and I was pleasantly surprised by the openness of the different manufactures.  This was my first audio show and I had this notion of uptight manufactures only allowing 'audiophile' approved music to be played on their systems (there may have been a little of that).  I couldn't have been more wrong about how open the manufacturers were to playing different music and discussing the merits and context of their designs. 

Even if the turnout was low I do hope the organizers are able to continue this next year.  They may want to consider trying to get more vinyl retailers to attend.  There was a record fair in the area a few weeks back that had really good attendance and seemed like a great crossover audience.

capitalaudiofest's picture


Dear Mr. Atkinson,


I thank you for attending the Capital Audiofest for the second year in a row and for the dead on commentary. I would like to add to your story by giving you a bit of insight about the CAF. The CAF arose from a gathering of audiophiles at a local friend’s house, Dr. Ijaz Khan, over live music, food, beverage, cigars and of course lots of audio banter. (By the way Ijaz has the best system on the planet hands down as far as I am concerned but that is another story and by the way he is the owner of the highly modified Garrard turntables). With Ijaz, Frank Schroeder of Schroeder Tonearms, Terry O’Sullivan of Loricraft, Dave Slagle, Pierre Sprey of Mapleshade and many other audiophiles standing around, we noticed how many people were in Ijaz’s house in the name of music and audio, and was mentioned that there hadn’t been an audio show in the DC area since the 1980s. We all agreed that there should be a DC show and several even agreed to help set it up. But as most conversations go with alcohol involved, very few positive things resulted from it except this time I was determined to make it happen with or without anyone’s help. So I took it upon myself to apply the “Build it and they will come” approach and put down my wallet on a five-figure venue in the City of Rockville Maryland named the Glenview Mansion for the inaugural event.


Besides the monetary aspect of putting on a show, I had other hurdles to overcome including: 1) Being an audio hobbyist with a lean towards vintage and not an audio insider. 2) No significant players in the industry know me. 3) No connections with any significant audio manufacturers or retailers. 4) No connections with any media in audio or non-audio arenas. 5) My background and experience is in land development/construction and have never done anything like this before. 6) Other challenges included how do I build a website, do I have the time, how much will it cost, what to name it, etc? I truly took on this event as a construction manager would approach a building project and even built the website on my own! After many visits, calls and emails it appeared as though I was able to attract some vendors to fill the rooms…….and sure enough the listeners came!


I have to thank those vendors who took a chance on me at the first show and are still with the CAF of which the list includes: High Water Sound, United Home Audio, Polk, Border Patrol, Philharmonic Speakers, Dynamic Sounds, Luminous Audio, Command AV, Cathedral, Sonist Speakers and of course those crazy vintage and used vinyl guys!


As you stated, the quantity of rooms has grown (Approximately 25% increase from last year) and relates to the number of quality vendors. This year the list included notables of the likes of: Legacy, VPI, Audio Note, The Voice That Is, Woo Audio, MBL, Polk, Classic Audio Loudspeakers, Daedalus with Bob Carver, MA Recordings, The Cable Co, AIX Records, Sophia Electric, The Signal Collection, Zu Audio, Audio Power Labs, Robert Lighton, Swap Meet Audio, Déjà vu Audio, Lowther America, Volti Audio, Soundfield Audio, Mojo Audio, Benchmark and several more. In addition to the retailers and manufacturers with their names on the rooms, there are many manufacturers that are directly associated with the rooms including notables like: Bel Canto, dCS, Joseph Audio, Leben, JC Verdier, MIT, Sherbourn, Thoress, T-W Acoustic, Sonist, Snake River, WyWires, Devore, Audience and many others so do not think there is a shortage of quality audio in the show no matter how you look at it.


I have to say that I am extremely pleased with the vendors that have been with me for the last three years, added several new vendors this year, and am betting that I will continue to attract more each following year. Are some of them ‘Ma and Pa’ operations, maybe, but how else does one get started? I think that if you look back at the history of many brands, including many reviewed and advertising in Stereophile, you will see similar pathways although not all. These dealers, designers and manufacturers come to the CAF to get feedback and exposure for a cost effective rate, no union fees, no moving charges and all less than most other shows I am told. Some tell me that they even sell product at the CAF and do not at the other shows. At larger shows smaller companies may get overlooked but at a modest sized show like the CAF you are guaranteed that almost every attendee will visit every room. Note that the DC metro area has some of the strongest demographics in the US and yet it is under or unrepresented by many audio brands. I am proud to have newcomers come to the CAF including innovative Oasis Speakers, hybrid/planer speaker designer GT Speakers, local speaker and amp builder Paolo Audio (Who by the way once was an engineer at the Svetlana plant in Russia), and upstart Virginia retailer Appalachian Audio Royale. The CAF may be a modest audio show, but it has plenty of potential to grow and truly feel a kinship with all of these vendors.


The attendance was not as high as last year but have determined it to be around 750-800. We are not sure why this is the case and yet have received accolades from many vendors and attendees. We advertised in all the right places including Stereophile both on-line and paper format. We also advertised with other on-line audio and social media sites and furthermore placed a season long advertisement in the nationally known Strathmore local concert venue publication. Do we know why the traffic was less than last year? No, but can assume it was likely due to several factors including the economy and most importantly the horrible storms in our local area the week before that knocked out power for millions all over the DC and Baltimore region. I received several emails from vendors and registrants concerned about this issue and note that a few vendors mentioned that several of the folks that contacted them didn’t come because of storm related issues. Who knows? What I do know is that I am going to do it again next year and promise you that I will take your comments to heart and will work hard to make the show better! Thanks again for attending the CAF and will surely see you next year!



Gary Gill

Capital Audiofest

Horn Fanatic's picture

An anecdote about those 604 monitors.

   A couple of years ago I'm surfing Ebay, and I find an auction for some speakers that looked very familiar. The seller went to the trouble to remove the speakers from the boxes to show the construction inside and out.
   As I looked at the boxes I thought, who ever built the cabinets did a good job, and did some things that I would have done. As I looked closer I noticed the rear panels were recessed so as to protect the mounting screws from getting scratched in the event the cabinets were slid on their backs, and I thought, that's exactly what I used to do. At the time I was building a lot of musical instrument cabinets along with P.A. systems. Carpet was the covering de'jour.
   Then I looked closer at the front panel and noticed the control knob and I thought, I used to use knobs like that. And then I noticed the crossover networks and thought, those look exactly like the devices I used to have made for me.
   My next thought, was that some clown had copied my cabinet construction style until I realized I had built those cabinets for a young chap and his band to use in their recording studio, in 1983. The studio was a bit industrial looking, and the monitors were hung with chains that were covered with large diameter flexible aluminum dryer exhaust tubing.
   I contacted the seller, and indeed he was one of the chaps I built the speakers for, and he had been using them all these years including a P.A. system I built he is still using to this day.
   So tonight I was web surfing again and found a link to the Capital Audio Fest, and what do I see? My speakers again!

A bit of history. The cabinets are the ALTEC 930. I got the plans when I worked at ALTEC in the late 70's. I made the grilles and fashioned them after the JBL  L150 grilles, with half inch or so CRS flat stock bent in my vice and held together with pan phillip screws and keps nuts. The knob for the L-Pad was a knob QCS Audio used to use back in the day, and it's on the cabinet because I used to work at QSC. The Grille fabric was originally grey double knit, but the seller told me one of his kids stained it with something, so he painted them black. I purchased the dividing networks and reconed speakers from a friend by the name of James Harmon, ( later of the James Harmon Blues Band ), who at the time was working for Sharon Sunda at Orange County Speraker reconing speakers, formally Sunda Service. When Sharon took over the business it was renamed, and her husband Gary went to work for Don Randall.

I still have the original photographs I took of the monitors in my back yard in southern California!

Thirty years later, and I'm still being followed around by those things.

BTW- I sold the pair of 604's and networks alone for $300.00, exactly what I payed for them. I made my money off the boxes. $300.00 for a pair was about all those things were worth back then.