Capital Audiofest (CAF) 2019 Show Report
Capital Audiofest 2019
Over The Top
And while the system they set up this year was similar to that shown the past two years here and at other shows, it was not identical. As such, they raised the sonic bar rather significantly, by some industry members estimation, by as much as two full notches!
The Kronos Pro, SCPS power supply, Black Beauty Arm, and Air Tight Opus 1 cartridge.
Analog source was the Kronos Pro Turntable with its Black Beauty 12' tonearm and Super Capacitor Power Supply ($51,000), fitted with the AirTight Opus 1 MC cartridge ($16,000), feeding the VAC Statement Phono Preamplifier ($80,000).
Digital came from either the Aurender N10 music server / streamer / renderer ($8,500), the Esoteric N-01 streamer / renderer / DAC ($20,000), or the Esoteric P1x Grandioso CD transport ($50,000), feeding the Esoteric G1 Grandioso clock ($26,000) and a pair of the Esoteric Grandioso D1x monoblock DACs ($50,000/pr.).
The Kronos Pro, SCPS power supply, Black Beauty Arm, and Air Tight Opus 1 cartridge.
The VAC Statement Line Preamplifier ($80,000) feed four of the brand-new VAC Statement 452iQ Musicbloc stereo/mono power amplifiers ($75,000/each), which made their world premiere here at CAF 2019. As mentioned, four were used ($300,000 total) to bi-amplify a pair of Von Schweikert ULTRA 11 loudspeakers (325,000/pr.). Two Von Schweikert V-12XS Shockwave subwoofers ($23,000/pr.) were deployed in critical locations near the rear of the room to manage active room correction.
Everything rested on the gorgeous Critical Mass Olympus V-12 Luxury racks, in this case, using 12 spaces ($121,800), and each amp rested on a Critical Mass Olympus V-12 Luxury amp stand ($41,000/for four). Finally, the system uses something on the order of over $350,000 worth of Masterbuilt Ultra cables throughout. Do the math, and you can see we are over $1,500,000 – that is one point five million bucks!
The world-premiere of the new VAC Statement 452iQ Musicbloc amplifier.
Even though I arrived much later than expected, after 7:30PM Thursday night, after two delays out of my home airport and one out of Chicago, I still had the opportunity to have dinner with the entire Potomac Room team, Keith Sequeria and Jim Kumpe, principals of The Audio Company in Marietta GA, Keven Hayes (President) and Brent Meyer (CTO) of VAC, and Damon Von Schweikert (CEO) and Leif Swanson (Chief Designer) of VSA. Once diner was over, they were kind enough to let me spend some time in front of the system.
When I first grabbed a front and center seat, right beside Kevin Hayes, it wasn't ten seconds before the expletives started falling out of my mouth! Keep in mind, I've heard this system more than half a dozen times, in a number of variations -- and rooms, including in this room twice previously. The only major difference this year was that, rather than using four of the superb dual chassis VAC Statement 450 iQ monoblocks, they had substituted four of the brand-new, just-to-be-introduced here at CAF VAC Statement 452iQ Musicbloc amplifiers.
Owing their inspiration, design, and aesthetic to the VAC Statement 450i iQ Integrated amplifier introduced at RMAF 2018 (a product that I just reviewed for another publication), the 452iQ Musicbloc is built to allow mono operation at 450 Watts, or, with the flick of a switch, stereo operation at 225 Wpc, with no detriment to the sonics regardless of mode. The circuit is not switched to bridged mode for mono. In fact, Kevin Hayes proudly explained that the circuit design is such that either mode is exactly as it would be even if the amplifier were not switchable between mono or stereo mode.
Talk about power – a row of 4 VAC Statement 452iQ Musicbloc amplifiers sitting on Critical Mass System's Olympus V-12 Luxury amp stands.
What I hope to make clear was that the differences with these new amplifiers were not subtle. Everyone, not just me, picked up on the improvements within just a few seconds, the improvements were that apparent. Now, if you've read any of the assessments of this system from shows past, you'll likely recall that no one who really got what this system was capable of doing had any real issues or complaints with the sonic results it was capable of developing prior to this year's event. Yet the improvements were stunningly apparent.
The flagship VSA ULTRA 11, flanked by the new Von Schweikert Audio Endeavor series Special Edition.
First, while there had been no indication with the previous system that there was any veiling or lack of transparency, this year's presentation was much clearer and resolute, still with absolutely no grain, glare, or etch. As cliché as it may sound, it was if I had been wearing dirty, smudged, and smeared glasses when looking into the soundstage and the overall musical gestalt. And, besides offering a considerably clearer view, with obviously greater resolution and transparency, there was an additional unfettered sense of openness and dimensionality to the entire soundscape. The stage was deeper, wider, and taller, and in a more realistic, dynamic manner, not in some emphasized or distorted caricature of that space. No, this was not subtle at all. And again, everyone with any previous experience with this system felt the same way, noting the difference virtually immediately! This year, this system made an enormous leap forward, further advancing and expanding the limitations of what can be accomplished in the realm of electro-mechanical reconstruction of a live performance.
I was fortunate enough to have been contracted to host two special LP spin sessions for this show, not just the typical Saturday night event, which has become a tradition now. On Friday night, I played David Bowie's fifth studio album, the Glam Rock masterpiece, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, in its entirety to a full house. I played my personal 1981 Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs Half-Speed master release, which has the densest tonality and texture, and is the quietest, most dynamic, most extended, spacious, and layered sounding copy of this LP I've heard since its release in 1972!
The lobby card in front of the Potomac Room announcing the two LP Spin Sessions.
Then on Saturday night, with a packed house yet again, with more than just a few celebrities, including Mark Philips from Part-Time Audiophile, Julie Mullins from The Absolute Sound, David Solomon from Qobuz, and Jonathan Derda from MoFi Distribution, to name but a few. I spun LPs from my personal collection that, while not technically "audiophile" titles, were sonic knock outs. I was even loaned pre-release copies of Mobile Fidelity's soon-to-ship first two Dire Straits LPs (Dire Straits and Communique) by Jonathan Derda, for a special treat.
I'm not going to go on at great length about how remarkable the sound was; you can read my past half dozen show reports for a blow-by-blow break down. Suffice it to say that the scale, power, dynamics, immediacy, weight, palpability, tonal density, definition, vividness, shading, space, intimacy, impact, color, and the sheer suspension of disbelief, of reality, that this system manifests, kept everyone in their seats. No one left once we started – either night! Comments after the conclusion of Saturday night's session was that the evening had been more like a live concert than any listening session. In my four decades in and around this industry, I can say without concern that this system simply has no equal. And further, that this system never sounds better than it does in the Potomac Room at Capital Audiofest, which is just another reason that it has become one of my favorite shows of the entire annual show cycle.
A closer view of both the VSA ULTRA 11 and the new Von Schweikert Audio Endeavor series Special Edition.
I clearly understand that only a small handful of people out there actually have the disposable income that would allow them to set this up kind of luxury system in their own dedicated listening room. But, if you are a music lover, as I am, I urge you to go out of your way to hear this system when it makes an appearance at a show near enough to you that you can attend. You owe it to yourself to hear what is possible in the world of two channel playback today. It is utterly magical, and you will likely never get the chance to hear something like this again, nor will you forget the power and emotion of the experience once you have heard it for yourself. And tell ‘em Greg sent you!
Sunday in the Potomac Room brought an amazingly bold and highly successful experiment. Leif Swanson, Chief Designer for Von Schweikert Audio, decided to drop the new $20,000 per pair Von Schweikert Audio Endeavor Special Editions into play. That's right, the same one million plus dollars' worth of gear used to drive the $325,000 ULTRA 11 flagships was used to drive their new $20,000 statement Endeavor model speaker. Ballsy, right?
A closer view of both the VSA ULTRA 11 and new Von Schweikert Audio Endeavor series Special Edition.
What a treat. While stepping back slightly in the realm of transparency and resolution, only slightly mind you, what they were able to present was a fully fleshed out and complete presentation. Rich in tone, with dense color, vivid texture, subtle expressiveness, and superb transients – macro and micro. What we got a glimpse of here was that all VSA speakers, regardless of price, size, or shape, share the same sonic DNA. The Endeavor SE was a total overachiever, leaving many listeners with mouth agape and eyes wide in disbelief. This is going to be a very successful loudspeaker.
Now, some disappointments. Klaus Bunge, of Odyssey Audio in Indianapolis, IN, always puts together a fabulous sounding room, teaming up with VPI and Craig Buckles, of Magnan Audio Cables, yet again this year. Though I stopped in Friday morning to have a listen, an emergency cropped up that took me out of the room before I could start my demo. By Sunday when I returned, a turntable incident had caused irreparable damage to one of the new Odyssey Liquid speaker's tweeters, leaving me with no chance for a demo. I was doubly disappointed as everyone who heard the system prior to that accident said it was far-and-away the best sound this team had ever achieved....
I also missed getting a good listen to the GT Audio room. I stopped in twice, once to find too many people in the room and a stirring discussion under way with no listening happening; plus a second when they were doing a video shoot later on Sunday, when I was beginning to be consumed by the flu that seemed to affect everyone at this year's event.
Finally, I missed out on the ACORA acoustics room as well. After some discussions about this room with a few people, and after hearing the raves over their RMAF performance, I had planned a visit to this room on my Sunday itinerary. However, by the time I had finished breakfast and made the first three of my dozen or so planned stops for Sunday, what had started as a dry cough Saturday night had turned into a full-on black plague incursion of a very nasty flu! By lunch time, even after a trip to the pharmacy next to the Hilton, I was a coughing, achy, exhausted mess. Sadly, I was not the only one to come down with and be smitten by this bug. More than twenty of my colleagues and friends recounted contracting this flu by the time they had left Rockville after the show closed.
Summing It All Up
You really should put this show on your calendar next year. It is three days of like-minded music lovers getting together to celebrate the music that enriches all our lives, making them that much more tolerable and beautiful. Until next time, please, just... enjoy the music!