As I arrived at this year’s Friday session of the Capital Audiofest (CAF), I immediately noticed something was different. It wasn’t the newly renovated digs of the show’s Hilton Hotel venue (which I had been expecting) or the sweltering heat delivered by the D.C. area’s outdoor nature oven (which I've been hoping would hold-off until August). It was, in fact, the parking garage.
Yes folks, if you didn't Uber or take Metro to the event, then you had to park before you could enjoy the specticle. It’s like putting on your pants before leaving the home. It just can’t wait until later.
Parking at the 2015 version of CAF was a snap. This year, however, I found myself engaged in a five-vehicle battle to find an open space. My handicap, mind you, was my foolish decision to drive my beloved Chevy Suburban. After roughly 15 minutes of circling and cursing the parking gods, a spot opened on a dead-end gated ramp. I pounced quickly, only to find the space was abnormally narrow and sandwiched between a decent sized car and a giant concrete support. Believe me when I say that at least two other drivers sat drooling in anticipation of my failure as I repeatedly tried to maneuver my beast-of-a-truck into the spot.
It was not a pretty scene.
But, somehow – someway – I eventually pulled-off the unthinkable, leaving other show-bound drivers zooming-off to look for the next battleground space and propelling me into a world of audio nirvana.
This year’s show report is going to be limited to four of my ears’ favorite finds, but before we dive-in, I'd like to take a moment to comment on the show in general. The Capital Audiofest has established itself as a great Mid Atlantic-regional event. Plain and simply stated: the show brings a lot to the table. This year featured roughly 58 different exhibit rooms packed with loads of high-end gear. Show staff told me that attendance was expected to hit around 2,000 attendees over three days (several hours into the Friday session over 400 attendees were present – not bad for an early Friday crowd). Here’s to hoping that more locals take advantage of what CAF has to offer in the years to come.
Once again, staging, signage, and the overall environment were all excellent, and the onsite staff was cheerful and friendly; all major pluses that provided a pleasurable polish to the experience. The venue’s physical infrastructure is also perfect for an event like CAF, featuring loads of large rooms and easy to navigate hallways.
On the gear side of the equation, 2016 was a solid installment of the annual event. Perhaps my memory of last year’s crop of gear is a bit fuzzy, but this year seemed to feature more tantalizing jewels. Some of my favorites, such as Classic Audio and its Hartsfield speakers, were back…and there were some cool newcomers. The event is a Two-Channel audio paradise loaded with high-end sources and ridiculously awesome speakers. Then there are the owners and manufacturer reps, which are more than willing to talk the physics of sound if that’s your kind of thing. So much is right about CAF, that it's hard to think of ways to grow the show. Although, I would love to see future shows add a home theater and mid-range audio/video presence. It would be a great add-on that could possibly attract a larger audience.
Well, enough of that...let's dive into my favorite picks of the show.
An Old Friend: GT Audio Works
Last year I stumbled upon New Jersey’s GT Audio Works and its fabulous large panel GTA 2.5 speaker. It was one of my “Best of Show” picks, noting that the speaker’s sound was “…delicious to the ears.” The speaker was such a delight that I pegged GT Audio Works as my first official room-stop of CAF 2016. There I found the company’s enthusiastic owner (and speaker builder) Greg Takesh and his new GTA3R full-range planar magnetic / ribbon tweeter speakers. Normally priced at $9,000 per pair ($7,200 show special), this new iteration of the GTA speaker has a new straight panel design without the GTA 2.5’s built-in 10-inch woofer drivers. Instead, GT Audio Works is pairing the GTA3R with Sound Insight’s dual 12-inch driver SI-200 open-baffle powered subwoofers (which retail in the realm of $6,000 per pair).
From the front, the GTA3R looks very similar to the GTA 2.5, sporting a handsome wood framed finish and sleek black grill cloth. But the addition of separate subs (not to mention the SI-200’s room friendly table look) arguably adds a new dimension of tweak-ability for even better bass performance.
The room’s equipment included Paradox Pulse class A/B solid state monoblocks paired with a Paradox modified CD player, a Hollis Audio Labs MS-3 Music Server, and a Hollis Audo Labs dspMusik DAC. The GTA3R sounded simply fantastic to my ears. Greg and his crew played several tracks including Yello’s Electric Frame and Bernadette Peters’ Blackbird to showoff the speaker’s versatility and range. Imaging and depth of soundstage was infinitely superb. And, once again, I was completely floored by the soundstage’s height and breadth. Highs were super crisp and bass was tight and solidly deep; off-axis listening was excellent to boot.
This is a speaker that, for the price, is a total steal. I can’t say enough about the sound (after all, that’s what this is really about, correct?). If you’re not shy about purchasing gear from a small independent builder, then GT Audio Works should be on your demo shortlist. I can guarantee with absolute certainty that you’ll love what you hear.
Fun Find: Audioism’s Line Array Speaker
Audioism is a small Maryland-based speaker startup headed by Head Audiost “Punchy,” an infectiously passionate advocate of straight line array speaker designs. For those of you unfamiliar with this technology, line array speakers are simply speaker systems that feature identical speaker drivers tightly stacked in a line – go to just about any large concert venue and you’re bound to see line arrays on full display. However, as Punchy pointed-out, line array is relatively rare in the home environment. The benefits, he said, include minimized ceiling/floor reflections and minimal decibel gain or loss as you move closer to and further away from the speakers (which he explained by citing the inverse-square law; join the club if you aren’t intimately familiar with that one).
Audioism's demo speakers consisted of identical top and bottom speaker units (sold for $5K single and $10K per pair, respectively) featuring six Philippine made 6.5-in divers and six ribbon tweeters. More succinctly explained, each full speaker has 12 drivers and 12 ribbon tweeters (and stands a stately 6-feet tall). I was relatively lukewarm to the speaker’s high frequency performance (it sounded a tad too laid-back for my liking), but bass extension was solid and depth of field was simply off the charts. I heard several demo tracks (including Adele and Pink Floyd) and each one expressed vastly different imaging depth; Pink Floyd was considerably back while Adele was noticeably forward. I was also amazed by the speaker’s consistent volume level, which didn’t appear to change when moving fore and aft in the room.
There’s certainly something to be said for Audioism’s unique spin on the audio experience, and I believe hardcore audiophiles will find this company worth checking out.
The New Comer: Martin Logan’s ESL 13A
One of Capital Audiofest’s more interesting debuts was the first public showing of Martin Logan’s brand-new ESL 13A speaker ($15,000 per pair). The speaker features a 44-inch tall x 13-in wide electrostatic panel with dual 10-inch aluminum cone subwoofers sealed in separate chambers at the base of the speaker. Onboard dedicated 300 Watt Class D amps power the subwoofer show. Each speaker also carries onboard Anthem Room Correction software that manages everything below the speaker’s rather high (200- 250 Hz) crossover point.
The ESL 13A is the middle model of Martin Logan’s new ESL line, and, not surprisingly, it’s a speaker that delivers phenomenal sound. According to onsite Martin Logan reps, the new design has a blade-like frame that’s more robust and sturdy than past iterations and an advanced MicroPerf stator. To the eye, the ESL 13A is extraordinarily polished and oozes superior craftsmanship (it’s Martin Logan after all... would you expect anything less?). And to the ear… well…I’m sure you have a pretty good idea what I have to say about the sound.
The ESL 13A offered a neutral, controlled, sound quality that rang effortlessly from low to high frequencies. The sound stage, to my ear, wasn’t as focused as I’ve experienced from Martin Logan’s in the past, but I'll blame that on a set-up attempting to accommodate a large audience situation. Definitely give these speakers a fair shake... they're great.
Total Unobtanium (But Pure Wantium): KEF’s Muon
If a T-1000 Terminator android assassin and a speaker had a bizarre lovechild, what would it look like?
None other than KEF’s Muon.
KEF’s official unveiling of the Mark II version of the Muon at CAF was most certainly the event’s biggest splash moment. After all, how often are speakers worth $225,000 (per pair) unveiled to the public? If you’ve never seen the speaker, then you owe your eyes a chance to closely inspect its gorgeous exterior. Definitely hit the Internet and look at a detailed photos, because this speaker is killer in every sense of the word. The curves of its shiny aluminum-form exterior are absolutely delicious, and its six front-facing drivers are flat-out bold. It also has unapologetic height (standing over 6-feet tall) with sizable girth and visual weight (real-world weight tops 250-lbs).
If you’re wondering if this is a reverse “don’t judge a book by its cover…” nonsense scenario, then let me stop that thought right here and right now. The sound generated by Muon is absolutely exquisite. During my time in the VPI/KEF demo room, the fine folks at VPI fed the speakers with vinyl sounds ranging from the Game of Thrones sound track to Lou Reed and Doug Macleod. The speakers stripped each track to complete nakedness, leaving nothing left to be revealed. Bass confidently hammered away, midrange was perfectly rounded, and highs were smoother than butter.
This speaker is the real deal, folks. Near perfection. Unfortunately, its price tag puts it in that unobtanium category that makes its mere existence difficult to reconcile. If only I had the space and the budget for these puppies...I can guarantee they'd be coming home.
Image Credits: Todd Anderson / Home Theater Shack