Capital Audiofest 2017 Show Report
The event has traditionally offered a smaller (more intimate) feel as compared to some of the larger more well-known expos that take place in the U.S. And that’s not necessarily a negative. Manageable crowds and interesting lesser known speaker brands have always been a guarantee, making for easy access to and exploration of gear that you’re unlikely to hear elsewhere. Of course, none of this is surprising – it’s part of establishing and growing a movement. Let’s not forget, CAF was founded a mere seven years ago, kicking-off its existence at a historic home called the Rockville Mansion. It has since continued to grow, now inhabiting the beautifully renovated halls of the Hilton Hotel in Rockville, Maryland.
Last month, CAF announced it was officially sold-out, boasting a record 60 audio rooms occupying three levels of its Hilton venue. Add to that a host of seminars, a new marketplace in the hotel’s spacious atrium, CanMania! (the headphone portion of CAF), food, whisky tastings, and live music, and CAF appeared to be ready to take a giant leap forward. But it wasn’t until I arrived on Friday (November 2) for the first of two days of coverage, that I truly felt the change. Its small roots were no longer so small.
First and foremost, CAF has massively upgraded its exhibitor status, with quite a few big-name high-dollar systems anchoring a huge allotment of audio gear to demo. But, the show has also retained quite a few lesser known favorites, and I hope that continues to be the case going forward (it’s great to see smaller-scale makes given an opportunity to shine). Much like years past, Friday was sparsely attended, making for lots of elbow room and quite a few private demo sessions. Saturday, however, was more crowded, and I was happy to find that I equally enjoyed some of the excitement and interaction more bodies brought to the equation.
Overall, the event’s environment was – once again – polished and inviting. It was friendly. It wasn’t overwhelming. Demo rooms were easy to find. And the hotel’s Atrium and entryway areas provided welcoming havens of escape in the form of cushy couches and relatively private resting areas. Of course, this all goes without mentioning the show’s impressive number of large listening rooms that truly allowed featured systems to open-up and sound great.
For those of you that have read my articles over the years, you’ve probably recognized that I’m much more of a multi-channel home theater enthusiast than a two-channel aficionado. That isn’t to say I underappreciate amazing high-end two-channel sound, but there are times that garden hose sized speaker cables, $40,000 turntables, and a general dislike of the digital world are lost on me. Add to that a bit of gear unfamiliarity, and true high-end audio can be somewhat intimidating. Oddly, I find those same factors to be wickedly magnetic, and once I start experiencing massively expensive stereo systems, my mind quickly falls into to total AV NIRVANA (see what I did there?). We’re talking full-on mesmerizing nirvana, the kind that makes you shake your head in disbelief and daydream about dropping 50-large on an unnecessary (yet very necessary) two-channel system. And that’s exactly where I found myself as I wandered the halls of Capital Audiofest 2017. Blissful audio heaven.
Rather than running through a room-by-room report, I offer you a few highlights that my eyes and ears enjoyed experiencing. And, for the record, if you live in the larger Mid-Atlantic region, mark your calendars now and hit CAF 2018 (November 2 – 4, 2018). It’s a great time of year to visit the Nation’s Capital and I have a sneaking suspicion that next year’s show is going to be a good one.
Best of Show: GT Audio Works
I’m feeling a tad impatient today, so I’m flipping the standard script and kicking things off with my favorite find at CAF 2017. Mind you, the word “best” is loaded with subjectivism and caveats, especially when it comes to sound. But for my money, GT Audio Works and its magnificent GTA3R Planar/Ribbon Speakers ($12,000/pair), which were matched with Sound Insight’s dual SI 600 Open Baffle Subwoofers ($17,000), graciously slid into home for the win.
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing GT Audio Works’ Greg Takesh for several years, first meeting him as he demoed his GTA2.5 speakers at CAF several moons ago. Take one look into the man’s eyes and you can see both audio passion and total sincerity. And take one listen to his handmade large-panel creations, and you’ll be left stunned with amazement.
Takesh’s six-foot tall GTA3R utilizes a full range planar driver (72-in x 10-in) and an accompanying ribbon tweeter (72-in x ½-in) to deliver playback from 40Hz – 30kHz with amazing efficiency (92 dB). And when paired with dual Sound Insight SI 600 open baffle subwoofers (six 12” drivers each, performance to 16Hz), the system’s articulate punch and depth is downright ridiculous.
This entire system (speakers and subs) can be purchased for $29K, making it a relative bargain when compared to its high-end competition. By my math, the speakers' supporting cast of Pass Labs pre-amps and monoblocks (not to mention Triode Wire Labs power cords, cables, and interconnects, an Esoteric K01x SACD player, an Acoustic Signature Triple X Turntable, and a Vu Jade Audio tubed DAC ) pushed the room’s total system value just south of $200K. But I wouldn’t be surprised to find that more budget oriented buyers could purchase the GTA3Rs separately and usher wickedly beautiful sound into their homes for significantly less.
The GTA3R is built to order, which means the speaker’s wood and finish are all customizable. Considering that it essentially looks like a wood framed cloth panel (high quality craftsmanship, mind you), the speaker is somewhat unremarkable in its appearance. But its sound (oh that AMAZING sound) is what you’re paying for. And let me tell you, they sound stunningly beautiful, presenting a massive and highly detailed soundstage that’s punctuated by serious depth.
And clarity? It’s all there, folks.
Clarity, balance, and natural tonality.
This speaker is, bar none, the best speaker you’ve never heard, and I challenge anyone to find another $12,000 speaker that can touch its class.
Bold words? Yes.
But my ears have fallen in love with GT Audio Work’s creations and this year’s showing at CAF was simply spectacular. Do yourself a favor: visit Greg Takesh (or his Long Island, NY dealer: Sound Insight High End Audio) for a private demo. And if you live outside the New York area, read his website’s offer for guests that need to fly to his location (it takes the notion of rolling out the red carpet to an entirely new level).
Stunning Build Quality: Daedalus Audio
Colorado’s Daedalus Audio arrived at CAF with a speaker making its world debut: the Apollo 11. If you’re not familiar with Daedalus, then hit the web and let your eyes feast on the company’s gorgeous designs. Lou Hinkley (owner) is a seriously talented man that takes tremendous pride in his speakers, and it shows. His solid hardwood cabinet creations are pure works of art, loaded with fine details that catch the eye. And the amount of labor required to make them is endlessly extensive (about 100 hours according to Hinkley)
The new Apollo 11 ($22,800/pair) looks strikingly similar to Daedalus’ Poseidon model, with dual offset tweeters stacked between 5-in midrange drivers. The low end, however, is handled by a new single 10-in woofer that delivers seductively tight and fast bass. The cabinet is full of asymmetry to combat standing waves (in fact, the entirety of the cabinet only has one right angle, which can be found on the speaker’s rear top right corner). And, internally, Daedalus has developed a sealed chamber to house the Apollo 11’s crossover network, eliminating contamination from air movement and EMI.
As I spent time drooling over the 110-pound cabinet’s gorgeous inlays and dovetail corners, Hinkley gushed about its performance capabilities. And the resulting listening session was a ton of fun. Detail. Detail. Detail. That’s where the Apollo 11’s sonically excelled, from the top-end right down through regions of bass, the speaker was incredibly articulate and smooth. And, as promised, it possessed bass capabilities that brought out the gentlest of sounds.
The Apollo 11 is a statement piece of equipment that literally wows your eyes as much as it wows your ears. I can certainly imagine proudly displaying them in my home. Hats off to Daedalus for another stunning audio creation.
The Cool Room: Zu Audio
Most rooms at high-end audio events tend to lean toward a more traditional appeal, matching stately looking equipment on specialized racks with plants and music that can (at times) lack in the fun department. Then there’s Zu Audio, a brand that’s not afraid to make a mod – if not somewhat eerily dark – statement that screams individuality.
Let’s start with the company’s room door, which was blazoned with a haphazardly pieced together “Zu Audio,” spelled using pieces of black tape. Certainly bold, certainly fun, and definitely unusual. And upon entering the room, my inner comfort level hit Zen-like levels as I soaked up Zu’s daringly unique non-conforming vibe. The entire space was shroud in black curtaining. Two sets of speakers were on one end (framing a 2001 Space Odyssey monolith-esque image positioned above amps situated on a nondescript table), interesting seating was in the middle, and an expansive DJ station (manned by founder, Sean Casey) stretched along a far wall.
As a playfully dark tuned rhythmically pounded through Zu’s Druid Mk. VI speakers ($10,000/pair), I couldn’t help but completely embrace the setting’s confidence and radically different nature.
And the sound? Fantastic!
The Druid Mk. VI is Zu’s latest offering, sporting a 10” full range driver that’s “augmented” by a specialized tweeter assembly. Wow, the Druid really can sing, punctuated by tight and articulate bass and super smooth highs. They were easy on the ears and imaged incredibly well.
It was tough to leave this room and I look forward to my next opportunity to hear Zu’s speakers in action. Zu Audio, if you’re listening, how about a review?
Radical Design: German Physiks
One of the more eye-catching speaker designs at CAF was German Physiks’ Borderland MK IV ($36,500/pair), which was featured in the Merrill Audio room. Utilizing a cone shaped DDD diver (capable of operating from 200Hz to 24kKHz) and a single down firing 12” woofer, the Borderland is an atypical looking speaker that delivers majestic omnidirectional sound.
One of German Physiks’ claims is that the Boderland’s DDD driver delivers a stereo image well outside of a typical sweet spot, which my ears quickly confirmed to be the case. The speaker’s sound is uber clean and incredibly natural. Bass was balanced and bold.
The company also claims the Borderland can deliver exacting imaging for listeners sitting dead-center (something the demo room’s rep proudly proclaimed several times). That’s where I slightly disagree, as I felt the soundstage could have been tighter and more defined. Perhaps it was my own positioning (or the room), but that slightly minor negative comment is a small knock on an incredible sounding speaker.
Crown Jewel: VAC/Von Schweikert Audio
The biggest and boldest (not to mention the most seductively appealing) room of the show also housed the most expensive gathering of equipment. Sponsored by Georgia’s The Audio Company, an insane system featuring a luscious array of VAC amps (costing $120,000/pair) and Von Schweikert Audio’s Ultra 11 loudspeaker ($295,000/pair) sat in the hotel’s “Potomac Room” just outside the marketplace atrium. Fittingly, the Potomac room has a showroom-like entrance, complete with a giant wall of glass and glass doors. It proved to be the perfect entryway to a dazzling experience.
This was a system for the ages, only capable of being classified as total and complete unobtanium. As I tweeted upon exiting the room: “Wow, teardrops of audio goodness straight from the heavens above. Quite an experience.” And there’s really little more that needs to be said. To keep things in perspective, digest the fact that each Ultra 11 speaker weighs nearly 900 pounds and stands some 7.5-feet tall. Absolutely amazing.
As I sat in the center of the second row of seating, my ears were blanketed by the enchanting sounds of Dead Can Dance’s “Yulunga (Spirit Dance).” I’ll spare you my description, as words can’t quite adequately describe the vast beauty of sound I heard. Near perfection? Pretty much.
There were loads of mentionable rooms at Capital Audiofest. It actually pains me not to highlight another stunning system by Classic Audio Loudspeakers (a yearly favorite of mine), the smooth sounds of TAD’s well-known Evolution One, or the insane 3D imaging produced by Bob Carver’s line array masterpiece. If you have a moment, checkout the walkthrough/featured systems video below. It has video taken from some of the rooms discussed above, and (hopefully) helps to convey some of the show’s flavor.
The official CAF website is currently hosting a countdown to next year’s show. 358 days, 12 hours, 21 minutes, and 7 seconds are on the clock as I wrap this report up. Not to wish the days away, but I look forward to experiencing CAF’s new growth in 2018!