Openly Baffled

2018 Capital Audiofest

[Italian version here]

Official Show Website Capital Audiofest - USA
Event dates November 2-4, 2018 in Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC
Report: December, 2018
Reporter: David Hoehl - TNT USA

Vive la révolution! The shellac revival has begun, and thanks to your humble reporter, you are in on the ground floor. I just returned from this year's Capital Audiofest show in Rockville, Maryland, a near-in suburb of Washington, DC, and signs of renewed interest in 78s were everywhere. I predict that in no time sales of 78 RPM records will be up at least 500% from last year's figures. The sky's the limit!

"500% of zero is still zero," I hear you murmur. Details. Always details!

Kidding aside, this year's show did have more than one nod to those of us who like to dwell in audio ancient history. For example, an old friend was on the reception table greeting visitors to the Hollis Audio Labs/Danville Signal room, and the same commendable canine was on display and even for sale in several guises in the Classic Audio Loudspeakers room (where, in fairness, he's been a fixture for every Captial Audiofest I've attended):


Ohm's display was making an express pitch to the antiquarian crowd:

[Ohm posters]

When it came to the gear, however, I gather we shellac revivalists are deemed to have deep pockets. Take, for instance, this thoroughly rebuilt Garrard 301 in the Prana Distribution room. Stunning eye candy? You bet! Still, I suspect most of us who collect 78s would be hard pressed to justify sinking $28,000 into such a thing (particularly given that model's inherently limited speed variability; see here). Fortunately, for show attendees it was available at a deep discount. At that bargain price, I'm sure I would have snapped it up myself were I not already drowning in an embarrassment of 78 RPM turntables--if only to correct the spelling on the price card!

[Garrard 301]

By comparison, the price of the potentially more exciting development for the 78 lover seems positively modest at a mere $12,500: the Dr. Feickert Analogue Firebird, proudly preening its flammable plumage in one of several rooms sponsored by Tenacious Audio of Augusta, Georgia and Syracuse, New York. Mind you, adding in the Soundsmith Hyperion cartridge at $7995 pretty much eliminates the differential, but even that made a--doubtless unintentional--nod to the playback technologies of long ago: the cantilever is made of cactus needle, the same material record collectors seeking to minimize wear sometimes chose for their Victrola needles!

Admittedly, this one will fall into the category of "old news" for many TNT readers, I suppose, but it was "new news" to me. I promise you on a stack of 1922 Victor Talking Machine Co. catalogues, however, it is not "fake news"! I had not taken notice of the "Dr. Feickert" name before, although it has figured in past TNT-Audio reviews; for example, see here and here for reviews of this avian-minded concern's Woodpecker and Blackbird models, respectively. (In my defense, those reviews predate my association with this celebrated publication.) Suffice it to say, the current top-of-the-Feickert-line Firebird and at least a couple of other models feature a 78 speed with some adjustment and make provision for two arms, possibly a useful feature for those who want to play both LPs and 78s without swapping out cartridges (or perhaps who want to try their hands at playing the Cook dual-track stereo recordings from the early '50s). One can be up to 13" long, suggesting the turntable has promise for 14" and 16" pressings, assuming it has enough clearance between spindle and tonearm bases. I also don't know if a 78 RPM stylus is available for the Hyperion cartridge, but Soundsmith does offer one for its Strain Gauge line, so perhaps there's hope? Anyhow, here is a modern turntable of high end pretensions with a 78 speed and provision to vary it by some amount, albeit with no digital readout to assist in setting "off" speeds. Unfortunately, the representative in the room didn't know how much; indeed, he didn't even understand my inquiry on that subject until I explained that "78s" often run at drastically faster or slower speeds. Nor have I been able to track down any specifications for that figure on the Dr. Feickert web page or in any published reviews online. The representative speculated maybe 5% or so, but if I were planning to sink that kind of money into a turntable to play 78s, I certainly wouldn't rely on what clearly was a wild guess. All of which raises a rhetorical question: with R&D and manufacturing costs being what they are, why, oh why do high end manufacturers persist in equipping their gear with features attractive to 78 collectors and then fail to follow through by adequately describing them?

[Feickert Firebird]

Enough antiquarian musings, I suppose. Turning to general impressions of the show, I'd say a few points were particularly noticeable. One was that atmospheric lighting has become the norm, not the exception. Some rooms were so dark I actually had trouble getting a clear view of the gear.

[Some Dark Rooms]

[Some Dark Rooms]

I also detected some hints of exoticism creeping in. I'm pretty sure I smelled incense in the VPI/Odyssey/Magnan room, which sported a vaguely North African look, and decorative motifs in Prana Distribution's main room evoked the music of distant Eastern lands; all it needed to be complete was a gamelan.

[Prana Distribution statues]

Overall, the show continued the trend of ever more vendors in the atrium (2017 left, 2018 right):

[2017 and 2018 shows, atrium]

Curiously, the show was divided this year; the 2017 show sprawled over a series of contiguous floors, but this one substituted a larger segment of the main floor for one of the upper ones. I managed to put in at least a brief appearance in all the rooms on the atrium floor level and the main floor above that, encompassing all the large exhibit rooms and a good fraction of the small ones, but I did not make it to any exhibit rooms above on the fifth floor.

[warning sign]

Another difference: last year's large CanMania headphone show-within-a-show was a no-show this year.

Smooth jazz continued its reign as the demonstration music of choice, but a few cracks in its dominance began to show. One or two displays offered us a bit of classical or somewhat meatier jazz selections--Ohm, for example, was playing the 1812 Overture when I arrived, although it then promptly shifted to the Pink Panther--certainly a welcome change. Once or twice I heard show or movie tunes and even a bit of reggae. The most radical depature, however, was in the Zu Audio room, which served up one side of Nine Lives to Wonder by The Legendary Pink Dots.

[Pink Dots]

Just as in last year's show, I heard no CDs. Sources continued to favor music from hard drive or streamer, although plenty of turntables were also in evidence (see, for example, image immediately above). Some exhibitors built their systems around laptop computers. Others chose dedicated streamers or servers; for two of numerous examples, speaker makers Martin Logan and Bache Audio favored the aurender n10 and the cocktailAudio X50(D), respectively.


[digital sources]

That said, a few displays gave a nod to CD collectors and showed high end players, and if most sat mute on subsidiary tables, one, a Symphonic Line Vibrato in the Odyssey/Magnan/VPI room, managed to hold a place in the main demonstrator setup. The title for most massive probably goes to the CEC TL0X, lurking to one side of the main display in the Prana room. By comparison, the conventional full-sized Raysonic players in the Legacy Audio/Raven Audio room and the Vibrato seemed positively compact.


[Raysonic CDs]

[Symphonic Line CD]

Mind you, all looked small by comparison to the Triangle Art Master Reference turntable in Triangle Art's room; the VPI Avenger Reference, coincidentally on display right above the Symphonic Line CD player in the Odyssey Audio/Magnan/VPI room; or the TW-Acustic Raven AC-1 on display courtesy of The Voice that Is. But then, the digital machines do play compact discs, after all!


Some of the nicer sounds at the show this year came from open baffle speakers, a class of gear that certainly was present in prior years but that hadn't impressed itself on my consciousness before. A particularly interesting setup was in the Hollis Audio Labs/Danville Signal room. What at first I thought was some sort of crazy system of surround Magneplanars turned out to be a group of acoustic panels defining a listening space especially for The Monoliths open baffle speakers.

[Monolith listening area]

[Monolith details]

As in prior years, Magnepan, alas, was conspicuous by its absence at this year's Audiofest, but, that said, my first impression wasn't entirely amiss: the Monoliths incorporate planar elements as tweeters and midrange drivers. The Monoliths are a three-way open baffle system designed to be triamplified and sold primarily in kit form, although they can be had preassembled. They include Rythmik Audio HX300XLR3 amps for the subwoofers; the user supplies amplification for the rest of the drivers. The manufacturer recommends pairing the Monoliths with balanced gear and by default provides balanced inputs and outputs, although it adds "single ended inputs and outputs are possible." Ominously, the descriptive literature urges the would-be owner to "inquire for pricing."

[Monoliths and details]

No such reticence about an alternative open baffle line on display in the VPI room. The entry point for Pure Audio Project speakers appears to be around $3,000, but they are of a modular design; the price will depend on which elements the buyer chooses to combine for a particular setup and can run at least as high as $20,000.

[Monoliths and details]

It came as no surprise that VPI, maker of some of the world's premier turntables, would display a wide array of high end tonearms as well:

[Monoliths and details]

Several old friends from prior years' shows were back. I've already mentioned Classic Audio Loudspeakers, which once again had taken out one of the principal exhibit rooms for an imposing display of handsome, solidly built--well, loudspeakers. I wonder if the flurry of interest in open reel may be abating? As far as I can recall, this room had the sole open reel deck on display this year, at least on the lower floors, aside from two or three at the tables of a used equipment vendor in the atrium. On the other hand, one of those had sold, and at a good price, so maybe the paucity of entries in the exhibit rooms this year was just coincidence. Be that as it may, I arrived in the Classic Audio Loudspeakers room just too late to hear the Studer there in action; the musical honors were courtesy of a classic of a different sort, a Technics SP-10 Mk. 2 turntable. (Too bad it wasn't a Mk. 3--those are among my top contenders for 78 RPM playback. But I digress.) Amplification was all Atma-Sphere Music Systems: MP-1 preamp and power supply feeding MA-1.5 mirror image monoblocks.

[Classic Audio Loudspeakers]

[Classic Audio Loudspeakers]

[Classic Audio Loudspeakers]

By contrast, but perhaps appropriately for speakers intended for outdoors service, the planter speakers I'd seen way back in 2015 were on display in a hallway. Happily, this time the foliage in the display was more restrained and did not leave the impression of cubist carrots. Alas, once again I was unable to form any impression of how the things actually sound, as the display was silent, at least when I passed by.

[Monoliths and details]

Fern & Roby was another repeat exhibitor, showing its cast-iron-plinth Montrose turntable and Ravens speakers. Roommate Linear Tube Audio provided the amplification with its Z10 integrated amp, a Berning design whose case, not at all coincidentally, is by none other than Fern & Roby.


Channel-D once again was showing its intriguing software for digitizing analogue records. Alas, the software also once again is compatible only with Apple computers; this committed Microsoft user therefore continues to be out of luck. That Hilo Lynx A-D/D-A converter, however, can interface with Windows, and it looks awfully tempting. Next time I have a spare couple of thousand dollars sitting around, I'll make a point of looking into it as a potential replacement for my aging (and much less expensive) Edirol UA-5.


To close, let me remark on an aspect of the show that I've mentioned in earlier years as well: everyone involved, exhibitor and show administrator alike, was friendly and welcoming. Capital Audiofest really does have the feel of a show put on by enthusiasts for enthusiasts, and the experience of touring its exibits may be tiring, but it's never less than enjoyable. Please let me offer a special "thank you" to the nice folks at Triode Wire Labs, who--just as they did several years ago--spotted a hurried, rapidly dehydrating reporter and very kindly presented him with a water bottle and insulated holder. That spirit of community is what makes the Audiofest such a pleasure to revisit year after year.

DISCLAIMER. TNT-Audio is a 100% independent magazine that neither accepts advertising from companies nor requires readers to register or pay for subscriptions. After publication of reviews, the authors do not retain samples other than on long-term loan for further evaluation or comparison with later-received gear. Hence, all contents are written free of any “editorial” or “advertising” influence, and all reviews in this publication, positive or negative, reflect the independent opinions of their respective authors. TNT-Audio will publish all manufacturer responses, subject to the reviewer's right to reply in turn.

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Copyright 2018 David Hoehl - -