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Capital Audiofest (CAF) 2013 Show Report
Part 2 Report By Kemper Holt


  I began Saturday with the intention of attending Alan Silverman's presentation. In the meantime, I helped John Gatski move some equipment in place for the event. While waiting for the start, I ventured next door to find the SVS room nearly empty. Who should I bump into but an alumni of Myer-Emco, Gary Yacoubian, and we quickly recalled the Dahlquist DQ 10, Ampzilla, Thorens, and Maggie days from the distant past, and memories of Ed Myer. Gary, now president of SVS, said now would be the perfect time for me to play any music I wanted, challenge accepted. I played a long set list and everything sounded top flight. Vocals tightly focused, big dynamics, deep powerful bass, speakers hard to localize, I just kept playing tunes I loved and had a great time. An hour later I was still in their room, which was a tale of 2 cities, I mean systems. The 2 channel system had the benefit of Mark Levinson electronics, and the $2000 per pair Ultra Tower's punched way above their price class. Even more surprising was the Ultra Bookshelf, which sounded bigger than it should have, and seemed destined to be a great match to an SVS sub in a 2.1 or HT system. The fit, finish, looks and sound of the Ultra Towers make them a top contender in the affordable speaker race, and for me the best speaker value at CAF. A $2000 per pair speaker will not be driven with ML gear very often, but the combo sounded great. Then Gary showed me to the 5.2 HT setup across the room. SVS had the audacity to use an Integra AVR to power a pair of Ultra Towers, Ultra center, and a pair of surrounds. Now we have a real world scenario with components that are affordable for many enthusiasts. Gary played excerpts from a Sting concert, a Tron movie plus a stunning opera segment from the Berlin Concert that was spectacular. This was an affordable home theater that wowed me and the crowd that had gathered.


My Saturday began like my Sunday ended, at Vinnie Rossi's Red Wine Audio room paired with Harbeth. I only had a 50% success ratio entering this room, sardine-like most of the show. When I finally pushed through the masses, I felt let down as a pair of dinky Harbeth P3ESRs were covering about half of the top of the stands that should have had 30.1s in place. I came to full attention as soon as the music started, impact, detail, bass that can't be coming from that shoebox. To get dynamics and fun levels from speakers that are 83.5 dB/W/m sensitive calls for some amp grunt, enter a pair of RWA Lilianas, about 175 wpc into the 6 ohm load did the trick. This is the only room where you won't be reading about AC conditioner or cords, everything in the room was off the hook, er I mean off the grid. All the electronics were powered by high current LiFePO4 batteries. Vinnie suggested a quick change to the big Harbeths, yes, bring them on. When you listen with your eyes, preconceptions can dominate judgment. The 30.1s just don't "look" the part of an exotic, huge, weird shaped, visually cool new generation speaker, they appear kinda ordinary. But they sound like music, true timbres, dense, tonally neutral, voices were spot on. These speakers disappeared, imaged superbly, and had my feet tapping. So much for judging a book by the cover. The music emerged from a quiet/black background attributable to the RWA battery powered front end. Both the Isabella preamp with optional Bellina DAC, and the Liliana monos have tube stages, yet have very low noise levels. Vinnie has also stopped fiddling with his new integrated amp, the Signature 57 ( 57 wpc @ 8 ohms), and it is ready to go. This was another of the rooms I sat down in many times during the show to enjoy some music. At the end of the show, I caught a part-timer making off with a pile of RWA kit, have fun Scot, you're a lucky man.


Veterans of hotel room shows know a thing about getting decent sound out of a small room. Placing the speakers across the corner of the room is a good start. Don't try to get full range floorstanders to behave and not overpower the room is another.  Scott Dalzell, who is a local proprietor from Vienna, VA, runs Viva HiFi and this must not be his first rodeo. Scott assembled a nicely balanced system, both in price and sound quality. This system was simple, reasonably priced, looked great and sounded even better. The speakers were Daedalus Audio's new Pan standmounts, a ModWright KWI-200 integrated provided the drive, and a ModWright modified Oppo 105 player was the source. WyWires supplied the AC conditioning and all the cabling. I'm listening to an older take on Dan's CD player mods in my home system, the Sony NS999ES with "Truth" treatments, and I will tell you the tubed Oppo 105 is the sleeper that had my personal tracks on CD sounding more involving and emotionally moving than almost anywhere at the show. This system wasn't complex or unjustifiably expensive, it just made you want to close your eyes, smile, and bop your head to the tunes.


Miracle Audio: I nearly experienced a miracle when I entered the next room, in/on wall speakers that had a deep and wide soundstage, powerful bass, and an open character. The surprising sound came from a New York based company, you guessed it, Miracle Audio. A pair of DiAne speakers and a subwoofer was on display, which can be flush-mounted and virtually invisible for those who just don't like to see any speakers or wires. Their own electronics included an extremely quiet Phonatic phono stage and a Divinitive preamp. If you or your spouse wants that clean look with great sound in your Home Theater, give these a listen, and bring a fat wallet.


Another room that had an "affordable" budget for a killer system, Dennis Murphy's Philharmonic speakers and Frank Van Alstine's electronics. The Philharmonic line has matured from last year's CAF, having a standmount pair, Philharmonitors, a small footprint tower, the Phil Slims, and the Philharmonic 3, shown here in stunning Olive Burl and premium cabinet. The Phil 2 has been dropped as everyone wanted the bass extension of the Revelator woofer in the 3. The 8" is transmission line loaded, the Neo8 planar-magnetic mid is open baffle, and a RAAL ribbon tops it off. Dennis' forte is crossover design (working with Jim Salk on a few designs), and his talent is audible in the 3's, the sound is seamless and coherent with very flat frequency response. I was able to listen to 6 of my personal cuts and every one sounded great, focused vocals, transparent, deep powerful bass, and natural! The Slims use a 6.5" Revelator, a 3" Titanium cone open baffle mid, and the same RAAL ribbon as in the 3. With closed eyes, they sound eerily similar to the 3s until deep bass comes along, not quite the weight of the 3s. And this beautiful sound came from American built and designed electronics from veteran Frank Van Alstine with attainable prices. Frank had a world premiere of his new pure tube preamp, the Trancendence 9, a cathode follower design with optional remote volume control. The phono stage is still in multiple development prototype stages, passive and active RIAA and tube and SS variants are being tested and listened to as I write this, winner TBD. We were able to switch between all 3 speakers and two of Frank's amps via an ABX switchbox, a cool device that Frank uses in house to be sure the new circuit/idea/improvement is in fact so. When you make a change you believe is going to sound better, you root for the new design, but the ABX box keeps things double blind, and the results honest. Which did you "hear" was better; oops it was the old model, back to the drawing board. The two amps Frank brought were the Synergy 450 (SS), and a hybrid FetValve 600R and both sounded great, the FetValveeeked out a slightly bigger stage but both helped the Phil 3s sound dynamic. Frank's design team uses active regulated power supplies for each circuit, 12 in a Synergy 300, and the result is a fatigue free sound with plenty of dynamic excitement and transparency  Here was a room with wonderful sound, and the system cost less than some room's cables, keep it up Frank and Dennis.



Stunning finishes go hand in hand with first rate sound at the Salk room. Jim Salk had a new design, Veracity ST, along with the entry level in the SoundScape line, SS8. So that is what has been knocking on the common wall between the Philharmonic and Salk rooms, the SoundScape 8s at full orchestral tilt. Jim used a simple path of electronics, a Wavelength DAC (also serving as Preamp), and a FetValve 600R from Van Alstine, they were well matched. The SS8's were finished in a maple with red stain, and the Veracity's were just stunning. I enjoyed just sitting and listening to music in this room, relaxing and fun.


These ESLs are the first to my knowledge that are not dipoles. David Janszen, yes the oldest son of the inventor of electrostatics Arthur Janszen, displayed a simple system that wowed with dynamics and detail. One immediate benefit of the non-dipole ZA2.1's is their ability to work great in a small (Hotel) room; they imaged nicely and did not have any big bass issues. David had a small, 120w, mono amp tucked in behind each speaker (I think Bryston PowerPac 120), and a laptop feeding an exaSound DAC to complete the system. The modest front end showcased how good these ESLs are, no need for megabuck kit to drive a typical difficult ESL load, easy to drive and with only 120wpc these 'stats could boogie. I heard rock, opera, jazz, and classical music from soft, to I didn't think they could play that loud levels, and everything was handled effortlessly.


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