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Positive Feedback ISSUE 68
Capitol Audiofest, 2013
Let me say, before anything else, that I think that the Capitol Audiofest and events like it are the best thing to ever happen to the high end audio industry. With the internet, there has been an explosion of information about audio gear, information available for everyone, information that sometimes isn't any good. At the Audiofest and at events like it you can go in and actually hear for yourself what equipment sounds like. The environment is not the best possible one for listening, but it's still listening and it's still the only way anyone can decide for themselves what they really need.
I'm not a fan of many things that have taken place in the high end audio industry in the past 25 years, and I see a lot of things out there that are of doubtful value and some that are just plain fraudulent. There is only one cure for this: actual listening. With the demise of the Stereophile show and the disappearance of many small local high end retailers who have been undercut by online sales, there are few places where people can go to actually listen.
So, I went to the Capitol Audiofest to listen. I'm going to write here about some of the things I really liked, and I'm going to ignore the vast majority of the things I didn't like. Many of the rooms didn't sound very good, but that's just how things are and the rooms that sounded good more than made up for them. But, just because I didn't write about your favorite product, don't assume I thought it sounded bad or that the demo was bad, because quite honestly I only had eight hours to see the whole show and there was really too much there to see in eight hours. Maybe there was too much to see in a lifetime when you think about how long it can really take to get a sense of how systems sound.
So, let me talk about some of the things I liked.
MY THREE FAVORITE THINGS AT THE SHOW
The absolutely most exciting thing at the show is that Janszen speakers is back. David Janszen, son of the founder Arthur Janszen, is back to making electrostatic speakers again. At the show, he was showing a pair of the JansZen zA2.1 hybrid... an electrostatic driver with two woofers arranged on either side of the panel, and a little dome tweeter on the side operating at very low levels to just open the soundstage a bit. The end result has that characteristic open and airy electrostatic sound, along with a much wider sweet spot than you might be accustomed to with electrostatic speakers. Definitely the best sounding room in the show, and one of the most interesting new products as well as the return of a grand old name.
The SECOND most exciting thing at the show is a new name but an old concept.
Bill Hutchins of LKV Research is selling a new phono preamp that is severely overbuilt, but the money is put into things that matter. The LKV Research Phono 2-SB is a black box with a simple conventional preamp design inside, done right with a serious power supply, balanced differential input to reduce cable and noise pickup problems (but ordinary unbalanced input if you prefer not changing your turntable wiring), and a passive RIAA network that is properly set up and accurate. These sound like simple things but these are things that are overlooked on some far more expensive preamplifiers; I have reviewed some top tier models that had phenomenally inaccurate RIAA de-emphasis.
This is done right, and it's not in a fancy box with a lot of lights and buttons. It's just a simple thing that does what it's supposed to do and that's what high end audio is really all about in my opinion.
The THIRD exciting thing was at Cuneiform Records who were showing off their material. These guys run a real record label with a broad range of new and reissued material (can you believe that they are re-issuing Happy The Man synth albums), but they care about audiophiles and about the audio community. So many of the mainstream commercial record labels just don't get it. So many of the audiophile labels, on the other hand, present spectacularly accurate recordings of depressingly bad performances and music. These people get it. They are music people who are also audio people and they were showing off a huge variety of musical material of different styles at the show. I'd tell you that I have liked their LP issue of the Blue Cranes' _Swim_ but just go to their website and see what they have to offer and just buy some records.
OTHER COOL THINGS
Maybe you have a moving coil cartridge and you don't want to spend the money for a whole new preamp from LKV research but your existing preamp doesn't deal well with super low-impedance sources. You should look into getting a step-up transformer like the one from Bob's Devices. Bob has a small box with a pair of Cinemag 1131 phono step-up transformers, compact and simple and as clean as you'll find in a transformer design.
Jack Wu of Woo Audio was showing off a very wide range of headphone amplifiers; I listened to the WA-22 which was an odd creature using 6080 regulator tubes going into low-ratio output transformers, and it sounded very fine. This was probably the only room in the show that was not adversely affected by the hotel room acoustics!
Ultrasonic Records was showing off a device built around a commercial ultrasonic cleaner, with a custom arrangement to rotate eight LPs through the cleaning bath. This was a very ingenious arrangement to avoid full immersion of the records like some other ultrasonic cleaning systems have used, and it won't damage the record labels like some of those have done because the label never contacts the cleaning solution.
It also costs less because it can use a smaller tank, so it's a win in both directions. If you purchase old and grubby records at yard sales like I do, the ultrasonic cleaning is really the only way to get them properly clean. Putting records like that into your vacuum machine just contaminates the pads and then you're just moving the junk onto other records. The vacuum machine makes clean records into cleaner ones, but the ultrasonic system can turn filthy records into clean ones.
Kanso Audio Furniture was showing the Tana turntable shelf, an isolation shelf that suspends your turntable from a wall. I have been skeptical of similar devices in the past but the demonstration unit there made this actually look practical and worth trying out.
GT Audio Works was showing off a small full-range ribbon planar speaker called the GTA1 and a larger hybrid system (larger panel plus cone woofers).
The GTA1 was demonstrated with some interesting small subwoofers made by B&G called the Radia and I'd first like to say that these are very interesting designs that do a good job of reproducing very low frequencies in a small room without much conducted vibration into the building structure and I'd be interested in later testing these for other applications.
But both the GTA1 and GTA2 gave clean and coherent images with good tonality, and the open and airy sound that you expect from a ribbon. I thought that the smaller GTA1 sounded much better in terms of imaging but that may well have been the room setup and it's very hard to deal with room problems in these small almost-square hotel rooms.
Sanders Sound Systems was showing their 10C hybrid electrostatic system, a very cool-sounding system that was sadly difficult to hear because of the terrible room they had it set up in.
And, Kent McCollum from Electrostatic Solutions was showing off some rebuilt QUAD ESL 63 speakers. Now that PF's own Sheldon Stokes is out of that business, there aren't a lot of places to go to get old Quads brought back into condition again. In fact, I didn't realize there were any at all until I talked to Kent. It is very good to see someone doing this work because support on these marvelous old speakers has been thin on the ground.
Harbeth was showing their Monitor 30.1, a thirty-year-old British design that evolved from the original BBC studio monitor designs. I mixed for years on the LS 3/5a, the baby cousin of these, and the 30.1 sounds much the same except with clean, extended (but understated) bass which the little LS 3/5a never had. These guys really are some of the finest little minimonitors out there.
I also got a chance to hear the Legacy Aeris. Now, I have never been a fan of the Legacy speakers in the past, and a friend of mine who uses a pair of their larger speakers as mastering monitors has tried hard to change my mind to no avail. But the Aeris uses a totally new tweeter design, it's again an EMT (think of the old Heil drivers), but an upgraded one that seems to have much better control of radiation. There were some very serious room problems at the demo, so I'd really love to have heard these under better conditions in a good room. I liked them enough that I probably will go out of my way soon to do just that.
SVS was showing off a set of smaller full-range speakers called the Ultra Tower, an MTM design with a dome tweeter and a side-firing woofer. The problem was the demo: the first half of the demo was a 5.1 system with an opera recital in a stadium that had absolutely no sense of space. Not only was everything aggressively spot miked but you could hear tonality changing as the engineers were constantly moving faders around. But the total lack of space made for an artificial and flat sound and I didn't realize it until I listened to other material on a 2.1 system using the Ultra Towers and I suddenly thought, "hey, this doesn't sound bad at all." So, speakers are inexpensive (in part due to good engineering and in part due to offshore manufacture) and worth looking into, but this is another case of a demo that did not do justice to the product at all. The flutter echo in the room didn't help either.
There were a LOT of other speaker systems on display and I didn't have a chance to properly listen to most of them in my mad rush from booth to booth, so don't blame me if I forgot your favorite. There was one speaker company doing a demo with playback off a turntable that had a severe hum in it. Come on, guys. If you can't get it even THAT right, turn it off.
Two big vendors were selling replicas of classic speaker designs, both of them beautifully constructed. Volti Audio was showing off their Alura speaker, which was a magnificent replica of the Klipschorn built of rosewood-veneered Baltic birch. A short distance away, Classic Audio was selling beautiful replicas of the JBL Hartsfield, also in a magnificent rosewood finish.
Both of these speaker systems sounded very very true to the originals. Just coming down the hall I could hear the Hartsfield sound, and sitting in the room and walking around in it, it was clear that the acoustic lens was working just like the originals.
I'm not a fan of either of these speaker designs personally, but I know that many people are, and given how many of the original speakers have been shipped to Asia in the past 25 years, it is very important that some people have spent the time and the effort and the sheer craftsmanship to build these for the people who need them.
I'll say also that both Volti Audio and Classic Audio make several other models of classic replicas. Some weren't on display at the show, others were at the show but I didn't get to hear them. If you care at all about home horn designs, you need to see these guys and you need to listen to their systems.
Van Alstine was showing the Ultravalve power amplifier, which is anEL34-output amp based on the classic Dynaco ST70 topology with a little updating. I didn't get a chance to listen to it seriously but it's hard to go wrong with a combination like that.
A company called Merrill Audio was showing their amplifier, the Veritas Monoblock. This is actually a Hypex class-D amplifier module with the irown power supply added, and I notice that the sales people and all of the marketing literature go out of their way not to mention that this is a class-D system. The demo sure sounded good, though, and class-D technology has come a long way in linearity recently.
There was a company called Deja Vu Audio which among other things builds custom vintage-style gear based on original vintage parts. They were showing off a system with a Thorens TD126 turntable, some amplifiers they'd built using 300B tubes and Acrosound transformers, and some very odd horn-loaded speaker systems using Western Electric horns. It's so good to see folks building bespoke gear these days.
In another room they were showing off the ProAc Studio 100, a very fine studio monitor speaker. I mean, a real studio monitor, not some cheap box someone has put "studio monitor" on the front of. I've used the larger ProAc monitors and these sounded just as good, though with much more restricted bass from the smaller boxes of course.
Johnathan Horwich from International Phonographic was showing not only their line of jazz reissues, but also their program to provide direct dubs of master tapes on 1/4" 2-track tape at very reasonable prices. I am very pleased to find these services coming back; in the 1970s there were a number of companies like Direct-To-Tape Recording that provided recordings on 1/4" that were dubbed in real time and not at high speed. This is to absolute height of analogue release formats and is the best way to get the original sound of the studio at home without any digital generation. There are a few other companies starting to provide these services again, and I want to commend all of them including International Phonographic for making that experience available to a new generation of listeners.
I saw more open-reel tape machines here at the show than I have seen in many years at any home audio event. Let me also put in a good word for United Home Audio which was showing off their reworked and modified Tascam open-reel decks which are specifically marketed for playing back recordings like this. United was also showing off the MBL omnidirectional loudspeakers which I'd really like to hear some time in a better-sounding room because they definitely have promise.
There was some excellent gear at the show, but the room acoustics were almost universally terrible. Once again I was shocked at how few companies brought in bass traps or made any attempt to deal with low frequency problems in the rooms. A few added some high frequency absorption which maybe helped a little bit but was like killing a whale with a BB gun.