After so many audio show cancelations during the past 20 months, it was with a slight sense of disbelief that I found myself waiting in line at the registration desk on Day One of the 2021 Capital Audiofest (CAF), held at the Twinbrook Hilton in Rockville, Maryland. I’d made the two-hour drive up from Charlottesville, Virginia, with my longtime buddy and former Crutchfield colleague, Dave. We’d both attended CAF in 2018 and 2019, and were excited to be back.
Although Maryland isn’t currently experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak, CAF’s organizers wisely took precautions, most noticeably requiring that attendees and presenters wear face masks. I put mine on as I entered the hotel lobby from the parking garage, and with a few brief exceptions, like lunch, it didn’t come off until I exited the building as the show closed for the day. I overheard one guy in the registration line complain that the mask info wasn’t mentioned on the website (it was). But overall, people cooperated, and just seemed happy to be at an audio show.
Near the registration desk was the Marketplace area, where records and merchandise were sold, along with several large meeting rooms named after US presidents. The systems in these rooms featured marquee brands well known to audiophiles, and produced mouthwatering sound at eye-watering prices.
But there were several more-modest systems that delivered sound that stuck with me throughout the day. And I found myself seeking these systems out again at the end of the day, as a respite for my fatigued ears. For this report, I’ve focused on a few of those systems.
Salk Sound/McGary Audio/AntiCables
At previous CAF shows I’ve enjoyed the combination of McGary Audio tube amps driving Salk Sound speakers, so this room was one of my first stops. Jim Salk was showing a pair of 2-way floorstanding speakers that are so new they don’t yet have a name…or price. They feature the beautiful natural wood cabinetry and premium drivers that Salk Sound is known for.
Each speaker uses two of the 6-1/2-inch Purifi woofers that have generated so much buzz in the DIY speaker community, while the tweeter is an SB Acoustics Satori 1-1/8-inch beryllium dome. I asked Jim if the Purifi woofer lives up to the hype and he confirmed that it does. Although there’s no official price yet, and this new speaker doesn’t yet appear on the Salk Sound website, Jim thought they would be priced around $6,000/pair, which seems more than reasonable based on the cost of those drivers alone.
The speakers were powered by the latest version of Mike McGary’s 30 watt per channel tube amp. The recently released SA-1E ($6,600) features circuit and parts updates to his well-regarded original SA-1 design. The amp contributed to the system’s engaging, three-dimensional sound. The amp was fed by Exogal’s Comet Plus DAC/preamp ($3500), and the cabling was all AntiCables.
Over the course of the day I heard megabuck systems that sounded bigger and more powerful, but few that I would say sounded better.
Linear Tube Audio/Spatial Audio Lab/Holo Audio – Kitsune HiFi/AntiCables
I’ve been a fan of Clayton Shaw’s boxless open baffle speaker designs since I first heard a pair of his Emerald Physics models at an audio show many years ago. According to Clayton, getting rid of the box reduces or eliminates not only box colorations, but also many room interaction issues, especially with bass frequencies. After selling Emerald Physics in 2010, he had to wait out a non-compete agreement before introducing his refined open baffle designs under the Spatial Audio brand, in 2014.
The Spatial Audio X4 Premium speaker ($7,000/pair) is a new 3-way passive dipole design that lacks the built-in subwoofer amplifier found in Spatial’s X3 and X5 models. The Air Motion Transformer tweeter is horn-loaded in front, but not in back, so there’s little high-frequency energy coming off the back to interact with a room’s front wall. The 12-inch midrange and 12-inch woofer were originally designed for pro audio applications and these drivers use paper cones. The simple external crossover attaches to the back of the speaker.
The 94dB efficient X4 Premiums were driven with ease by a Linear Tube Audio Z40+ integrated amp ($7,650), which produces around 50 watts per channel. In recent years the two companies have paired up often at audio shows, and LTA is one of the amps Spatial uses when developing their speakers.
The digital source was the well-reviewed Holo Audio KTE May DAC ($5,598), while the interconnects, speaker wire and power cords were again supplied by AntiCables – likely the most affordable cabling in any room at the show. The sound was bracingly clear, open, and coherent from top to bottom.
MC Audiotech/Linear Tube Audio/Luminous Audio/Weiss/Wolf Audio Systems/Parasound/Audience
Every high-end audio show I’ve ever attended has had its share of unconventional looking speakers, and CAF 2021 was no exception. The MC Audiotech Forty-10 ($40,000 – $60,000/pair) looks simultaneously retro and futuristic – a look definitely better suited to a living room than a man cave.
The folks behind MC Audiotech are industry veterans Mark Conti and Paul Paddock. I chatted briefly with Mark at the show, then followed up with a phone call a few days later to get the scoop on these unusual speakers.
The Forty-10 is a full-range 2-way dipole design. A curved Spaced Array (their nomenclature) uses ten drivers to produce the mid and high frequencies, and sits atop a bass cabinet with two 18-inch pro sound woofers. An outboard electronic crossover connects the two sections, and the system requires bi-amping. Linear Tube Audio’s Reference 40 amplifier ($5,700) powered the Spaced Array, while a Parasound Halo 23+ ($1,699) drove the woofer cabinet.
Vinyl playback was via a VPI Reference turntable feeding the new Luminous Audio Arion MK II phono preamp ($7,999), which received a glowing review in Michael Fremer’s “Analog Corner” column in the December issue of Stereophile.
This was another room where once I was seated and listening, I just didn’t want to leave. The sound was relaxed and seamless, which surprised me a bit once I got the details on the speakers’ unusual design.
Two years ago at Capital Audiofest 2019, I first heard Eikon Audio’s intriguing Eikon IMAGE1 speaker system. The system’s pair of compact floorstanders filled the large room with high-energy sound, including astonishingly deep, impactful bass. Company founder Gayle Sanders happened to be standing nearby and was happy to answer my questions. The combination of built-in amplification, active crossovers, and powerful DSP room correction enabled the IMAGE1 system’s startling performance.
When I stopped by Eikon’s room at this year’s CAF, the spotlight was on the compact IMAGE.5 system – a pair of compact 2-way speakers based on the same innovative thinking as the IMAGE1. Again, the most striking aspect of the sound was the taut, controlled bass. Eikon systems include a matching “control module” that functions as a preamp for connecting and controlling source components. (The IMAGE.5 retails for $12,000.) There are RCA and XLR analog inputs, as well as a suite of digital inputs, and built-in room correction.
One way that Eikon’s DSP approach differs from other companies is their prioritization of time domain accuracy over frequency response correction. And they differ from other “lifestyle” products by delivering superb performance, combined with eye-catching looks and the convenience of smartphone app control. Perhaps it’s a harbinger of the future.
Having attended previous CAF shows, a few Rocky Mountain Audio Fests, numerous Stereophile shows, plus a dozen or more CESs, I can honestly say that this year’s CAF was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever been to. Kudos to Gary Gill and his team for putting together an outstanding event in the face of unique challenges. Audiophiles in the Pacific Northwest may want to mark their calendars for the Pacific Audio Fest, scheduled to take place in Seattle July 29 – 31, 2022. Gary is the show director.
Moving from room to room throughout the day, I heard a few audiophile chestnuts that get played at every show, like The Eagles’ “Hotel California” and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Tin Pan Alley.” But I also heard plenty of well-recorded music that was new to me, and I put together a Spotify playlist collecting some of the songs that caught my ear. (Thanks, Shazam!)
Header image: Eikon Audio IMAGE.5 system. Photo courtesy of Steve Kindig.