Copper Magazine: Scenes from Capital Audiofest 2021, Part One

Written by Harris Fogel

Copper Magazine: Scenes from Capital Audiofest 2021, Part One

To be honest, we weren’t sure we’d be able to make it to the Capital Audiofest (CAF) 2021. Not for lack of wanting to, but because of a cascade of problems, car repairs, home construction headaches and other issues before the show. Also, Nancy and I were a little apprehensive, as we had only been to one event since the pandemic started, having taken Amtrak to the Pepcom Digital Experience press event in New York. It was a revelation to step back into our old lives again, and we thought a trip to Rockville, Maryland would do us good.

We headed to the show on Saturday morning, and as soon as we walked in, we were greeted by Gary Gill, organizer of the festival. Gary was speaking with throngs of folks, getting them registered and talking with the friendly folks at the check-in desk. David Solomon of Qobuz was there, and suggested we walk a few short steps to check out the Qobuz listening lounge. The venue was open and airy, and it was a beautiful day, sunny and clear. The light streaming in the front windows lit up the bar, with folks all chatting away.

Everyone we met seemed to be in a happy, almost joyous mood. I asked around and this was the first audio show they’d been to since the pandemic started, and it felt good to shake off some cabin fever. The Marketplace area in the atrium was filled with vendors, from Mytek Audio, showing off their latest DACs and creations, to CD and LP vendors, Kirmuss Audio and their LP cleaning systems, Wally Analog with their turntable setup tools, and even a gent selling tie-dyed shirts. Off the main floor was an area for exhibiting headphones, and the large Potomac room featuring Valve Amplification Company (VAC) electronics, Von Schweikert Audio loudspeakers, and other components.

Upstairs, the first folks we bumped into were analog wizard Michael Fremer chatting with Roy Hall of Music Hall Audio outside his suite, which he shared with Boris Meltsner of Amped America. This suite was always full, due to the combination of great sound and Hall’s supply of Lagavulin and Meltsner’s Beluga vodka. One of the highlights was Music Hall Audio’s new Stealth turntable, making its debut at the show. We had a discussion about the supply chain problems facing the industry, and Hall recounted the challenges he has had just reserving shipping containers from China. Before the pandemic, a container was $5,000, early this year it was $20,000, and recently the price hit $28,000, and mind you, that’s for an empty container. How were manufacturers supposed to stay in the game with price increases like this, he wondered? Amped America was showing their Amp 2400 stereo amp and AAP-1 preamplifier.

We had a wonderful time hanging out with the two audio clubs who took out hospitality suites. The DC Hi-Fi Group suite was jammed with members, visitors, and marauding members of the press, ready for libations, music, snacks, and conversation. Upstairs in the Library Room, the DC HiFi and Home Theater Group also had a swinging scene, complete with supplies of Kirkland pre-cooked bacon to make Bloody Marys.

The rooms featuring VPI turntables were always busy, and they even had a fire pit brought out in the courtyard. The only thing missing were S’mores. Thrax held late-night reel-to-reel listening after-parties, and we made it a point to attend excellent lectures on the history of the Theremin by Arthur Harrison, a Wally Analog WallyTools seminar on cartridge alignment by J.R. Boisclair, Mytek’s Michal Jurewicz on building a music streamer from the ground up, and much more.

One of the best events of the show was a lecture in the Essential Sound Products suite by Jim Anderson, Grammy award-winning engineer and producer, who discussed recording Patricia Barber in high-resolution. After wowing the room with extraordinary audio, someone asked what resolution the songs we heard were recorded in, and when he said, “it’s a standard CD,” you could hear some people gasp. With all the talk about high-res audio, it was amazing to hear what a standard 16-bit/44.1 kHz Red Book CD could do, which we found very reassuring. Don’t toss those shiny discs just yet!

Many of the rooms were outfitted with Norman Varney’s EVP Equipment Vibration Protectors, audio component isolators from A/V RoomService, Ltd. The LampizatOr Pacific DAC also graced a lot of systems. Qobuz was everywhere, and the tables in the headphones area were stocked with more amps, DACs, headphone, cables, and smiling patrons listening to music than I could count. I heard simple systems that sounded great, and giant systems that looked like they could have been drawing the output of multiple power stations up and down the Eastern seaboard. There were so many rooms, that two days really wasn’t enough time to take it all in.

There were too many rooms with extraordinary systems to name them all, without doing a disservice to all of the show’s 80-plus rooms, but a few stood out for us. The Triode Wire Labs folks always seemed to have a room full of happy listeners, and one room, Overture Ultimate Home Electronics, featured the new Technics SL-1000R direct drive turntable, McIntosh MC901 dual mono power amplifiers, and the US debut of new Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 speakers. This system had gorgeous sound, with hints of yesterday, a dash of legacy yet updated for today. It was one of the only rooms we wished had a bit more space, as those massive monoblocks seemed to take up half the room. Another favorite suite, Wolf Audio Systems, featured TAD loudspeakers, which have never failed to impress. One of the best-sounding rooms, The Gryphon, also had one of our favorite attempts at dressing up the space, with a small stand of tall potted plants forming an ersatz forest in the background.

There were so many rooms with so much gear that a week wouldn’t have been enough time to properly sit, listen, and discuss everything with everyone there. One of the most fascinating rooms was Eikon Audio, whose sophisticated room correction system and IMAGE.5 system left us wanting more. MC AudioTech set themselves apart with their unique Forty-10 loudspeakers with Audience cables handling all the signal transfer work. If you haven’t heard them, their dipole design is quite the experience.

The best part of the show was its effortless feel. It was a relaxed, easygoing affair. Proof of vaccination was required, as were masks, and we never witnessed any anti-vax or anti-mask behavior. We had the sense that everyone was thrilled that the show had actually taken place, and respected what it took to make it happen. I suppose it didn’t hurt that we were in the backyard of the CDC. Gary Gill and his team did a fantastic job, and we look forward to his future events, like the upcoming Pacific Audio Fest, slated for July 30 through August 1, 2022.