Capital Audiofest 2019 Show Report

I’ve known about Capital Audiofest but hadn’t gone until this year. I’d heard it was a small but fun show – not enough to compel me. I didn’t have the money or the time. The New York Audio Show happens around the same time and is only a train and subway ride away so I’d go to that instead.

This year I finally made it and boy do I realize what I was missing. CAF is now a major show. Coordinator and audio luminary Chris Yuin told me that Capital Audiofest started almost a decade ago in founder Gary Gill’s house. This year it was held at the Hilton Washington DC/Rockville Hotel and Executive Meeting Center in Rockville, Maryland, about a 45 minute Metro subway ride from DC’s Union Station. (The subway stops right at the back of the hotel – how convenient!) There were 119 exhibitors listed and 234 brands. CAF now has the size, look and feel of a “real” show if not as big as Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, AXPONA and other such audio events…yet.

Right off the bat I noticed that the show seemed more upbeat, relaxed and well, fun than others. This sentiment was shared by everyone else I talked with. People were clearly there to have a good time both during the show and after hours. Olive’s, the hotel bar, became the unofficial after-show hangout.

I only had less than a day to check out as many booths as I could, so this isn’t comprehensive coverage. I just took a Zen approach to visiting the rooms and went where chance and circumstance led me. If I left out a room here, it wasn’t necessarily because it didn’t interest me or didn’t sound like the angels singing from on high.

And I would have loved to have heard Tom Fine (son of legendary Mercury engineer Wilma Cozart Fine and a top-notch audio man in his own right) and his presentation of the new Analogue Productions/Mercury Living Presence LP re-issues of the Janos Starker Dorati/Dvorak Cello Concerto and Bach Suites for Solo Cello (in the Robyatt Audio room). Or attended one of The Absolute Sound and Positive Feedback reviewer Greg Weaver’s popular listening parties in the big VAC/Von Schweikert room. Or gone to a Waxrax punk/post-punk/reggae 45 vinyl listening set. And other cool events I wasn’t even aware of.

I never make absolute judgments based on the sound I hear at a show. (Sorry to disappoint anyone who’s looking for Pronouncements from On High.) I’ve worked on room setups enough times to know that it can be a high-stakes crapshoot. The room may be lousy. The AC power may be lousier. If you’re using streaming audio as a source, I hope you’re not the anxious type when the internet connection goes down. A little insider tip – sometimes when manufacturers co-exhibit, a not-uncommon way to share room rental expense, they’ve never tried their gear in combination with each other before. Talk about rolling the dice. (Others have their equipment locked in to the last speaker spike.)

So…if I hear unimpressive sound, I don’t make a snap judgment. I’ve been to shows where the same speakers sounded OK at one and mind-blowing at another. (I know associated equipment matters but still…) Or maybe the stuff just needs warmup. (It’s no secret that some exhibitors work feverishly through the night getting their rooms ready before opening day.) If I hear good sound, I take that as a sign the equipment is good and will probably sound better at someone’s home. If I hear fantastic sound, I consider that the stars have aligned. That and the exhibitors worked very hard! Kevin Hayes, president of VAC (Valve Amplification Company) told me that for their huge exhibit in the Potomac room, they got special permission from the hotel to bring in their mountains of gear two days early. It showed.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in the industry over the last few years about how high-end audio may be a dying endeavor, to be lost forever when the last of the baby boomers lose interest, and as a corollary to this thought, that younger people don’t care about good sound. To all this I say: nonsense! Based on the evidence at Capital Audiofest and other shows I’ve attended in the last few years, I’d argue the opposite. CAF’s Gill told me that attendance was up almost 10 percent, and I’ve noticed more and more younger people (even pre-teens), women and non-audiophiles coming to shows. (Sorry guys, you can usually spot a wizened audiophile 60 yards away and no offense, I’m one of yez.)

Another enticement – if you’re in the Eastern seaboard or New York metro area, it may not be as expensive as you think to make the trip to the show. I took Megabus from NY’s Penn Station to Union Station and it cost…$41.99 round trip. The EVEN hotel where I and many other attendees stayed had a base rate of $108 a night. Plus, the show is a blast!

The most fun moment of the show? I was in the KR/Caprice/Alta Audio room listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Big Black Cadillac Blues” from the live Blues Hoot album. Excellent sound quality. I had little time and got up to leave halfway through the cut.

At that exact moment Lightnin’ yelled out, “COME ON BACK!” It was startling. I stopped dead. KR’s Calvin Johnson, Caprice’s Luis Alberto and soon everyone in the room joined in and yelled, “Come on back! Come on back! COME ON BACK!”

I sat back down and said, “Well holy crap, I guess I gotta come on back! When Lightnin’ Hopkins tells you to come on back, you better listen!”

Here are some CAF highlights.

One of the two impressive displays – couldn’t fit them both in one photo – in the Daedalus Audio suite also featuring Lampizator, Linear Tube Audio and more.

 

You want tubes? CAF had ‘em, including the mighty KR Audio Kronzilla SXI stereo tube amp. The T-1610 tubes drive the speakers directly — there’s no output transformer.

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VPI’s Harry Weisfeld reveals his secret identity as The Flash! Although he ran right back to hear the spectacular KEF Muon speakers, and the new flagship VPI Vanquish turntable and Shyla cartridge. The Muon’s chrome finish is actually polished aluminum.

 

Finding the sweet spot in one of Genesis Audio’s rooms.

 

The resurgence of vinyl was in full evidence in the Atrium, which had 40 exhibitors, up from 25 last year. I found not one, but two copies of ex-Genesis member Anthony Phillips’ rare The Geese and The Ghost – one sealed for $10!

 

Legacy speakers big and small for one and all.

 

Digging those good sounds…Clement Perry of Stereo Times and Alta Audio’s Mike Levy.

 

Just Audio had two floors’ worth of extensive new and used equipment displays including this lust-inducing vintage audio rack, all fully restored and ready to play.

 

For fans of coaxial speakers, the ModWright Instruments room featured the Fern & Roby Ravens and Tredegar turntable (with Soundsmith Zephyr cartridge and Schroder CB arm), along with ModWright’s tube integrated amp, phono stage and modified (natch) Pioneer UHD LX-500 disc player.

 

Copper’s own Roy Hall with a bevy of Music Hall turntables.

 

Designed by the great Andrew Jones, Elac speakers deliver superior sound at surprisingly attractive prices.

 

Elegant design – and sound – in the Soundsmith room.

 

Powerful dynamics were heard from the Tekton Moab speakers. I thought they were hooked up to the big St. George Audio tube amp on top of the rack – but it was the little silver amp (I misplaced the name, unavailable at press time) doing the work!

 

“And now we’re full of energy”…the new VAC Statement 452i IQ MusicBloc amps striking a Kraftwerkian pose, framed by the Von Schweikert Ultra 11 speakers.

 

VPI’s new flagship Vanquish turntable/phono stage/power supply with the new Shyla cartridge. Cable management not included! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

 

By the end of the day this is how a lot of us felt like. Not to worry, the Soundsmith turntable/arm/cartridge combos I heard sounded as clear as the picture is blurred.