My attendance at CAF this year was the result of the unfolding of a completely serendipitous set of events! It all started with the October 26th press release from Kevin Hayes, the President and resident tube guru at Valve Amplification Company (VAC). Here is the relevant snippet from that release. Kevin Hayes, President of VAC, stated, "In 27 years, this will be the largest, finest, highest performance music system we have ever displayed, and we are so pleased to be in the largest room at the CAF's Hilton venue.
"We will be using four of our flagship Statement 450 iQ mono power amplifiers to biamp the incredible Von Schweikert Audio Ultra 11 loudspeakers. Our displays at AXPONA, HIGH END Munich, LAAS 2017, and San Francisco, dubbed 'the million dollar system,' won accolades with these speakers, but were not biamplified. The results in DC will be unprecedented!"
As utterly superb as the previous iterations of this system had been, both the absolute benchmark setting showing at AXPONA in April, and the slightly lesser, but still stellar performance in Munich in May (I did not attend the LA or San Francisco shows), I'll admit to being more than just a little intrigued. But the deal was sealed with a phone call Thursday evening, November 2nd, the night before the show opened, when several familiar voices insisted that I simply must hear this system. That was enough taunting for me. I checked with the missus to see if I could attend on such short notice (thank you, sweetie!), and I bought my plane tickets.
Because of commitments Friday evening, an early flight on Saturday the 4th was called for. So, I rolled out of bed at 3:00 AM to make my 6:30 AM flight out of South Bend. Of course, there are no direct flights from South Bend to Ronald Reagan, so after a 30-minute hop to Detroit, an hour and a half layover, and the final hour and a half connecting flight into Reagan, I was wheels down in DC at 10:20 AM. With only carry-on luggage, (which included some very special, select LPs), I was able to clear the terminal, hail a cab, and arrive at the Rockville Hilton right at the stroke of 11:00 AM.
It is worth mentioning that the first Capital Audiofest was held just seven years ago in the Glenview Mansion, some two miles from this year's location, the recently remodeled and beautifully appointed Rockville Hilton. If the decidedly different locations may be viewed as any indication, these two shows wouldn't seem even remotely related.
The 2001 "fest" featured some 15 exhibitors (if memory serves), and was, dare I say, a rather ho-hum event by all accounts. This year, with over 90 exhibitors listed in the guide, it had all the appearances of a premier event, rather than purely the regional show of its unassuming heritage.
What's more, CAF had traditionally been held coincident with July 4th holiday, a time slot which many felt to be a poor choice. Gary Gill, the shows primary organizer, seems to have listened to his critics, moving the dates to this first weekend in November. In fact, next year's CAF will be held November 2nd through 4th. Shrewd!
After registration, I wandered into the Potomac Room, an enormous showcased presentation on the grand mezzanine of the hotel's atrium, to touch base with Kevin Hayes of VAC, Damon Von Schweikert and Leif Swanson of Von Schweikert Audio, and met Keith Sequeira, owner of "The Audio Company" (Marietta, GA), who was sponsoring the room. We formulated a simple plan. The show would close at 6:00 PM on Saturday, so shortly after that we'd go grab a meal, then head back to the room for some private listening time with my LPs.
In the meantime, I had a myriad of other exhibits to visit, and very little time to do so...my flight home was midday Sunday! With a dozen exhibit rooms on the first floor, eleven on the second, thirteen standard exhibit rooms and fifteen larger meeting rooms (including the CanJam opposite the Regency and Randolph rooms) on the third, as well as more than 20 vendor stands on the large Atrium floor, this was clearly going to be a challenge. And as if all those exhibits weren't enough, there were over a dozen lectures and seminars scheduled in the Washington Auditorium. No chance I'd be able to take in any of those...
I'd like to offer an observation to the hotel show runners and CAF planners. This was a beautiful venue, but the signage directing visitors to rooms was poorly thought out and executed. I missed so many exhibits on my first swing through that I found myself wondering if I was at the show listed in the guide! With just a little effort, I'm sure you can do better next year.
With the time constraints posed by my just over 24-hour window, I had to make some listening triage decisions about what rooms I had to visit based on what I knew about the participants, and any buzz I'd heard from the show-goers and media. Let me offer my apology now to those whom I missed, or had intended to return to visit. Too much music to hear, and too little time...
My first visit was to Room 130, featuring the Tekton Design Double Impact Loudspeakers (with upgrades - $3300), that had created a buzz at last month's RMAF in Denver. The system was comprised of the Linear Tube Audio ZOTL10 MKII Power Amplifier ($3,200), the Linear Tube Audio microZOTL MZ2 preamp ($2,050), and was sourced by the Mytek Manhattan 2 DAC ($6,000) fed from the Wolf Audio Alpha 2 Server ($4,000). Cabling was all the superlative Audience Au-24 SX series, and an Audience adeptResponse aR-6 TSSOX conditioner managed the power. This system was utterly engaging, with remarkably accurate tone, good texture, and very realistic dynamics, if slightly congested. This was the most musical system on display at CAF fronted by speakers this affordable. I really found this room to be a treat.
Next up was a stop to see Michael Vamos of GamuT audio in 301. The system, save for the Pear Audio 'table, supply, and arm and an Etsuro cart, was all GamuT. Source was the Pear Audio Blue Kid Thomas turntable ($5,990), with their optional power supply ($1,995) and Cornet 2 tonearm ($1,995), fitted with the Etsuro Urushi Blue cartridge ($5,100). The GamuT D3i Dual-mono preamp ($8,390), was fitted with their optional MM / MC phono board ($1800), handed off to their splendid D200i Dual-mono power amp ($13,990), which in turn fed the RS3i speakers, with integral stands ($19,900/pr.). Cabling was all GamuT, including Reference Series interconnects ($2,990/1M), power cables ($3,990/2M) and bi-wire speaker cables ($6,190/3M).
The thing about any system using GamuT gear, let alone an all-GamuT system, is that you quickly forget about the gear. The products are so utterly natural sounding, so organic in overall presentation and delivery, that you cannot help but be swept away by the music. Even their entry level RS3i loudspeaker provides near total emersion in the music. Pace and timing, especially for what would essentially have to be considered a monitor, are just extraordinary. And, if I had a nickel for every time someone has asked, "Ok, where are the subs," when just the RS3i's were playing...
I'm privileged to be auditioning the GamuT Zodiac, Benno Baun Meldgaard's statement flagship loudspeaker, in my reference system right now. GamuT listening puts you at ease; you don't hear or think about hi-fi, you just feel and hear the music... GamuT has really earned their place at the table with the big boys, and that sophistication was clearly demonstrated here in room 301.