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Capital Audiofest (CAF) 2021 Show Report

Capital Audiofest 2021 Show Report
Back from the brink with passion!
CAF 2021 Show Report By Greg Weaver

 

 

Tidal, Siltech, Ideon, And CAD
Wilson Room
Saturday morning started with a press-only event in the 770 ft2 Wilson Room, sponsored by Doug White, of "The Voice That Is," from Philadelphia, PA. This event started at 9:15am, forty-five minutes before the show opened that morning, and included only specifically invited members of the press.

Joined by Michael Vamos, President of LA's Audio Skies, this was to be the US Show premier of Greece's Ideon Audio flagship products, including the Absolute Epsilon DAC ($44,000), their Absolute Stream Server ($19,900), and Absolute Time Re-clocker ($8,900).

 

Michael Vamos, President of California's Audio Skies, introducing members of the press to the flagship products from Greece's Ideon Audio.

 

Michael took us through the intricacies of boutique digital audio manufacturer Ideon's philosophy, which features their own in-house developed dedicated software for the Sabre ES9038PRO DAC chip. Offering balanced operation, they provide a triple distillation USB and S/PDIF input and use three new zero-noise, proprietary active bridges, that they say offer an ultra-high-end design that reduces the noise from rectification to zero. Housed in a 26 kgs (~58 lbs) CNC milled chassis, its balanced output has four analog output channels, using dedicated power supplies with no capacitors in the signal path, and it supports 44.1kHz to 384kHz PCM up to 32 bits, Native DSD (up to 8X DSD).

The rest of the system included the TIDAL Audio Prisma Preamplifier ($40,000), featuring a built-in phono-stage and offering balanced inputs and outputs. This was the first show and North American premiere for the TIDAL Audio Intra Amplifier ($33,00). Weighing in at just 27 pounds, the Intra is a dual-stereo power amplifier with 4 amplification channels offering three different modes; stereo mode single-amp'ing, dual stereo mode bi-amp'ing, and dual-mono mode for LF amplification.

Everything rested on the Ictra Design Proto-AS Rack ($22.500), power conditioning was provided by the Equitech 2RQ Balanced Power Conditioner ($6,545), leveraged the very intriguing Computer Audio Design GC-3 ($4,500) and GC1 ($1,995) Ground Controls, and all cabling was from Siltech including the first US showing of their moderately priced Classic Legend Cables.

 

Doug White of "The Voice That Is," with Michael Vamos, after the press event Saturday morning.

 

Speakers were the drop-dead gorgeous 20th Anniversary limited edition (limited to 20 pairs worldwide) TIDAL Audio Contriva loudspeakers ($72,000/pr.)

Doug has a habit of achieving exceptional sound at shows. He is so good with his setup and equipment synergizing techniques that I all but take for granted that his room will be among the best sounding at any event he attends. This year was no exception... and in fact, it was clearly above and beyond the typical excellence I have come to expect from Doug's efforts.

 

One beautiful looking and sounding system. Tidal and Ideon Audio electronics, Tidal speakers, Ictra Design Rack, Equitech Power Conditioning, Computer Audio Design Ground Controls, and all Siltech cabling.

 

It is no secret that Germany's Tidal electronics and loudspeakers are exceptionally refined, with detailed, resolute voices, which consistently retain their remarkably musical lucidity. Yet this year, the room's microdynamic expressiveness was even more breath-taking than usual, recreating tremendous delicacy and intimate detail with every track offered. I'm forced to consider that the enhanced microdynamic involvement and subtleties of expressiveness may have profited from the contributions of the Ideon digital front end.

Upper-frequency extension was exquisitely detailed and extended, allowing for an incredibly authentic expression of air and shimmer. Tonal balance was remarkably smooth and coherent, rendering an exceptionally finely textured and fleshed out sense of the entire musical envelope, all emerging from a starkly quiet, remarkably dark, virtually noiseless "background." The result was a musical presentation very alive sounding, one that was almost dripping with immediacy and palpability. This room was deserving of inclusion in my Top Five Rooms, those five most musically authentic-sounding rooms I experienced at this show, and could be considered a strong contender for second place overall, along with the Randolph Room, assembled by Lou Hinkley and Fred Ainsley. Bravo Doug and Michael.

 

 

Acora Acoustics
Eisenhower Room

Indulge me just a bit of backstory here please. This is a remarkable tale, so I hope you won't mind. On the Saturday morning of the 2019 Capital Audiofest, I had breakfast with Scott Sefton, representing Esoteric at the time, and relative newcomer, Valerio "Val" Cora, who was launching Acora Acoustics, of Ontario Canada. We chatted and both gentlemen filled me in on what was going on, and in fact, indicated that Scott would be leaving Esoteric to take on representation of Acora. Their tale was so intriguing that I couldn't wait to check the speakers out. However, during my Saturday night LP sessions, I began to contract one of the worst colds or flu I can recall having as an adult. By Sunday morning, I was miserable! The congestion had mucked up my hearing considerably, so...at that point, my listening was done for that show. Since I was unable to hear them at that point, I promised them both that I would check it out at the next show... Little did we know that it would be two freaking years!

Well, it may have taken two years, but I had every intention of keeping my word and having a listen...especially since all the press on this line of speakers since that time had been so overwhelmingly positive. I made my way into the 2,280 ft2 Eisenhower room at a corner of the meeting room hallways, just past Olive's Restaurant. Now as large as the room was, it was NOT symmetrical, nor did it have the typical parallel surfaces. In fact, the protrusions, the circular inset in the ceiling, and the large, sweeping semicircular back wall screamed problematic right from the get-go.

 

The Acora Acoustics SRC-2 flagship loudspeakers driven by the Audio Research 750SE monos.

 

Sources were the Transrotor Massimo turntable ($16,800), using either the Transrotor SME Tonearm ($4,300), fitted with a Dynavector DRT XV-1t ($9,450), or the Charisma Musiko ($2,500) fitted with a Charisma Signature One ($3,800). The phono stage was the Audio Research Ref Ph10 ($33,000). The digital front end, which I didn't really spend much time listening to, was comprised of the Aurender N30SA Network Player ($24,000) using the Esoteric Grandioso K1X DAC and CD Player ($37,000). The linestage was the Audio Research Ref 10 ($33,000), feeding a pair of Audio Research 750SEs ($75,000/pr.), while all cabling, signal, loudspeaker, and AC, was from Cardas. All this was driving the Acora Acoustics SRC-2 flagship loudspeakers ($37,000/pr.).

Scott and Val were consummate hosts, positioning me in the best overall seat and accommodating my listening choices. I picked a few tracks from a Mobile Fidelity reissue of a Dire Straits release that I knew intimately, and they added the track "Stimela (The Coal Train)" from the Analog Productions two 45rpm LP release of Hugh Masakale's Hope; always a treat.

 

The Transrotor Massimo turntable, Audio Research Ref Ph10, Aurender N30SA Network Player, and Esoteric Grandioso K1X DAC and CD Player.

 

I'll admit that I was surprised, and a tad disappointed, with this first listen. While there was engaging liquidity in the mids, allowing for pianos to soar and for vocals to come across as breathy and visceral, if just a tad on the nasal side of natural, I was somewhat surprised by a rather limited high-frequency extension. And while the system had a decent sense of bloom, it offered fairly shallow soundstage depth, seemed overly restricted spatially, with midbass that was a bit forward and loose, and poorly defined deep bass that was light on impact.

When we talked afterward, I slowly shared my disappointment with Val, first verifying what tweeter he was using to try to understand the shelving, the roll-off, I noted in the uppermost frequencies. When he explained that it was a well-known Beryllium tweeter, I was stumped. I asked about the midbass and bass concerns then, and that is when we got deep into the discussion of the room issues... something everyone at a show must deal with, but rarely talks about.

Val offered some really scary details on how bad the room sounded during set up, including the fact that the day before open, they ALMOST tore everything down and reoriented the positioning of the entire system in an attempt to resolve some serious sonic maladies. He explained that they had to dampen the room to tame several problems at certain frequencies and, even in doing so, weren't even close to getting anywhere close to what they knew to be the SRC-2s full potential. I apologized to Val, explaining that I had expected to love the system, but had truthfully found it a bit remiss. He and Scott were disappointed, but thanked me for my honesty, nonetheless.

So, why did I share this initial disappointment? Because both Val and Scott took what I said to heart and dug in to affect some serious changes to that room. Just after breakfast Sunday morning, I ran into Scott in the hallway near the restaurant, and he asked me if I could find time to swing by again and give the room another listen. He had that Cheshire cat glint in his eyes as he asked. I knew something was up, and I assured him I would be there later that day.

When I got there a bit later in the afternoon, I could hear the changes before I got into the actual listening space.... This was clearly a much different sounding room now. Once I took a seat, they cued up "Stimela" once again. Shut the front door! Not only was there now a clear sense of upper-frequency extension, restoring the previously missing shimmer, sparkle, and air, but everything was also much more open, broadband, offering considerably more space and a more honest sense of the acoustic. The midbass forwardness was gone, and frequencies below 55 or 60 Hz had taken on much more definition of pitch and speed, were tauter, and seemingly, DEEPER!

Damn, what a transformation from the previous day. They had changed the room tuning DRASTICALLY! Those efforts had affected a dramatically different sounding system, rendering the entire presentation much more musically honest and engaging. So much so that I felt I had finally begun to hear some of the "magic" other reviewers had spoken of when talking about these speakers.

Honestly, the wholesale improvements they had managed to achieve, in so short a time, represented a near monumental accomplishment, and in fact, represents the most significant transformation of a system's performance that I've ever experienced at a show. Val and Scott, my hat is off to you! You really took to heart what was missing from the room and were able to find a way to make what was merely good, stand out! Kudos.

 

 

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