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Capitol Audiofest 2010

The first annual Capitol Audiofest took place in the Washington D.C. suburb of Rockville, Maryland on June 11—13. The term “first annual” always gives me a chuckle, because I think “how do you know?” There may never be another. But this Capital Audiofest was such a great success that it is sure to be the first of many more. It seems to have earned its “First Annual” title honestly.

There is a great deal of Hi-Fi activity in the metro D.C. area, but many of the locals have complained that there are any good shows or meets. Rockville. Maryland resident and music lover Gary Gill took notice and grabbed the festival bull by the horns. He may not have realized what he was getting himself into, but he forged ahead, none the less. He is to be congratulated, as CAF 2010 was a rousing success.

The show took place in an unusual venue, the beautiful Glenview Mansion in Rockville. This is not your typical hotel or convention center show, not at all!

Glenview Mansion, location of Capitol Audio Fest 2010

This is a great old 19th century mansion that has been transformed into a civic center and meeting place. I think the choice was brilliant. Not only did this great old house give the demo rooms a much more domestic look and sound than the typical hotel suite, it favorably influenced the whole show. The central foyer served as a meeting and registration focal point. You had to pass thru it to get up and down the stairs or to other parts of the house. Below you can see half of the entrance-foyer.

Foyer of Glenview Mansion, location of Capitol Audio Fest 20

Demo rooms were spread throughout the house and also into an overflow cottage on the grounds. To find some of the rooms you had to do some twisting and turning up and down hallways or short stairs, which added to the fun of discovery. The attending crowd was a good mix – black, white, young, old, men women and children. Nice to see such a diverse crowd come to hear Hi-Fi.

There were approximately fifty manufacturers represented in 14 rooms. Everyone seemed to be busy; there was good traffic all thru the show. Some exhibitors thought the attendance was light, but it seemed busy to me, especially considering the size and scope of the show. Let’s take a look at who was there, in no particular order.

Just to the right of the entrance was United Home Audio who were showing a number of cool systems. They had the MBL Audio Nobel speakers as the main attraction. Playback was mostly from open reel tape on their lovely tape decks. I’ve heard the MBL speakers before at several shows, and while they sound great, tons of detail and openness, the omnidirectional sound has never been my thing. But this set-up was very nice, indeed.

Playing mostly opera and symphonic works off open reel was often stunning. The space was big and open, as you would expect an opera to be, with very clean vocals. All driven by MBL electronics. They did a great job. Once I got rid of the chatty couple beside me (and got dirty looks from them in the process) the tapes were a pleasure to listen to. The speakers disappeared.

MBL omnidirectional loudsppeakers

United were also showing some Nola speakers – the Viper reference II and a pair of smaller Nola bookshelf speakers (not shown). The Vipers were driven by a new Jolida JB100 power amp from a balanced Jolida 3000 preamp.

Nola Viper References II driven by Jolida amplifiers

Toward the back of the house YG Acoustics and GTT Audio Video had the prettiest room in the place. The door was always closed here, so it felt like entering into a chapel. The closed door did not keep anyone out, though, the room was always busy.

YG Acoustics and GTT Audio Video

The YG Carmel is not a large speaker, but it did have a large sound. No trouble presenting a big, full image in this room. They didn’t squander the luxury of the large, tall room. Female vocals were very rich. The giant block in the middle is the Swiss made 710 power amp from Soulotions. Quite an impressive amp! The main focus of this room was an A/B comparison of the YG Carmel and another pair of speakers that I did not get to hear.

A trip upstairs led to a lot more fun stuff. In the front room was a pair of very smooth Living Voice speakers driven by Border Patrol triode amps.

Living Voice speakers driven by Border Patrol amplifiers

These seemed to make a good combination – what I would call a “British Sound.”

Border Patrol triode amplifier

It was charming to see and hear so many tube amps at the show, especially the direct heated triodes such as the 300B and 2A3. I got hooked on these old triodes back in the mid 80’s when I lived in Paris. It’s good to see that the cult has crossed the Atlantic and is alive and well – thriving, in fact.

In an upstairs corner I found Dwight Maxwell of Grapevine Audio showing off some impressive chip amps. (see insert) Those are Gary Gill’s speakers. Dwight explained that he had spent a lot of time and a lot work on the power supply and is finally very happy with it. After all, what is an amp but a fancy power supply?

Grapevine Audio with Gary Gill loudspeakers

He was also running a prototype DAC that seemed to be working well in no way held the system back. Looking forward to the new DAC as a commercial product.

Tucked away in the Widow’s Peak room with the gabled ceiling was Randy “Wild man” Bankert of Sonist. Randy had driven all the way from California just to share his speakers, cookies, M&Ms and single malt scotch. He was generous will all of it.

Sonist at Capitol Audio Fest 2010

You’ll see the little Glow EL84 tube amps powering the Concerto 2 and Concerto 3 speakers. The boxes are a beautiful stained poplar wood. I like the Glow amp, having owned one and hot-rodded a few. I didn’t think they would drive the Sonist speakers to much of a level, but I was wrong. Randy was playing polite “easy” music while I was in the room, but as soon as I left the party started, you could hear it way down the hall. No worries about enough power. Funny story. I was staying at a hotel about 2 miles from the event. I decided it would be nice to walk there, but it was one of those hot and sticky Maryland days. About half way there a nice lady called out to me from her front porch. “It’s too hot to be walking!” “Yes ma’am” I said, “it sure is.” I stopped to rest for a spell and chat. When I told her where I was going see said it was within walking distance – and asked “are you going to the audio show?” Well that surprised me. Had Gary promoted the show so well that everyone in Rockville knew about it? No. Turns out that Randy had stopped there the day before to chat and ask directions after driving nearly non-stop from California. Small world!

Way over on the other corner of the top floor was the brand new Cathedral Speaker Company. Aptly named as the speakers look like something you might see in a cathedral. And resolutely retro. Big, beautiful and grand. Not bookshelf or satellite speakers, these. They are 2 way speakers with a horn on top and a 15″ woofer, a classic combo with its roots in the 1930s. The Altec 811B horns were lit by Selenium D220 drivers. Nothing seems to hang a voice in the air like the Altec horns and they were working their magic here. The audience was impressed. Warning – I own Altec horns and several Selenium drivers, so I may be a bit prejudiced. 😉

Cathedral Speaker Company - Altec 811B horns with Selenium D

These were driven by a restored Fisher 400 amp. Vintage all the way!

Also on the top floor I found Rick Craig of Selah Audio whom I know from Audio Circle.

Selah Audio Vertia and sub at Capitol Audio Fest 2010

Rick is also from North Carolina. In his room he was playing the Vertia bookshelf speakers supported by custom, powered subwoofer built to go with the Vertia. Electronics where Marantz and a DEQX for sub crossover duty and a little room EQ. They sounded good together, a laid back, smooth, full sort of sound, similar to what the English speakers at the show were doing – but with more authority. Rick has his electronics sitting in front of the fireplace, which may be fine for summer use – but not winter!

Up at the front of the top floor was Command AV with Joseph Audio speakers and lots of cool Luxman electronics and Manley Labs gear in the room with the smaller speakers.

Command AV with Joseph Audio Pearl

It’s my personal belief that bad crossovers are the number one problem in Hi-Fi. The Joseph audio speakers have conquered that problem – superb crossover work. They may have been my favorites at the show and I was not alone in the opinion. The Pearl2 is a superbly done speaker. While not my “style” of speaker (I like horns) I could not deny that they were seamless. And you can hear that right away. They simply come together as a whole. Good drivers and a great crossover will do that for you.

Over in the next room with the smaller Pulsar bookshelf speaker the same great design work was easy to hear. At first I thought a guy with a saxophone was in the room getting ready for the concert later that night. Had to go I the room to see it wasn’t real. (Trio Jeepy by Branford Marsalis) That doesn’t happen to me often.

Joseph Audio Pulasr with Manley Labs Amplifiers

The Manley Labs electronics seemed to bring out the best in the Pulsars, and vice-versa. Just like the bigger Pearl2 floor standers and the Luxman electronics.

I did stop by the Polk Audio room, but the crew in there was playing some odd electronica music that didn’t float my boat so I didn’t stay long. To each his own, I guess I’m getting old…..

Back down stairs I spent a good bit of time in the Highwater Sound room. Jeffery Catalano is a cool guy from New York who doesn’t care what he plays, as long as it’s music. Fortunately, I liked what he was playing. It was always vinyl. The “Chet Atkins Lab” LP was great.

Highwater Sound Aspara HL1 speakers, with Puresound 2A3 triode amps

I’ll admit that I never could get a grip on these Aspara HL1 speakers. Simple 2 way with a 12″ woofer and 2″ compression driver on the top horn. At times they sounded “just right”, at other times too laid back. It’s hard to find a speaker that’s too laid back for me, so I’m not sure what was up. Other listeners seem to really enjoy them. If you think that horn speakers are forward or honky, you need only listen to these – they are far, far from that. Jeffery was pushing the Asparas with a Puresound 2A3 triode push-pull amp. The Puresound line seems to be a lot of amp for the money. Worth looking into. Jeffery was spinning a TW-Acustic Raven Two with 2 TW-Acustic 10.5 arms. One had the Dynavector XV1-T and the other the Ortofon A90 cart. Thanks Jeffery for the great demo and cool music.

In the next room over Salk Signature Sound was putting on a good show in one of the biggest rooms. This room was also used for the concert Saturday night and the swap meet Sunday morning.

Salk Signature Sound at Capitol Audio Fest 2010

The Song Towers (center) were playing when I entered the room. They were driven by an Audio by Van Alstine tube amp. What a big, open sound. They had the advantage of lots of room and good distance from the walls and were taking full advantage of it. Most of us would love to get this kind of sound going in the living room. Very enjoyable.

Last but not least was the very first room I visited. The GOTO room. Certainly the most impressive room and the GOTO drivers are legendary. This was my first “up close and personal” with GOTO.

Goto loudspeakers with Platine Verdier and DSA Phono-One preamp

These are truly remarkable in their detail, openness and imaging. The electronics behind them were certainly up to the task, too. The turntable was the remarkable Platine Verdier from France, one of my long time favorites. The Verdier is closely tied to the French Audiophile school of SET amps and high efficiency speakers that I come out of. The cartridge was the Audionote fieldcoil model that I did not get a model number for. Far, far above my budget, anyway (the price of a small car). Retired MIT professor Douglas Hurlburt was there with his much loved DSA Phono-ONE preamp. We had a good chat about preamps and many other things audio. Even die-hard tube fanatics love his phono preamp.

Goto Loudspeakers at Capitol Audio Fest 2010

I had just one problem with this set-up – tonal balance. It was overly bright, not enough flesh on the bones. Where the Aspera rig could seem to recessed, the GOTO rig was too forward. A pity, because given the right tonal balance, this could have been a life changing system. Comments were generally good, but I heard several that agreed with my take on the tonal balance. Crossovers, again. The GOTO system is normally run with active crossovers but for this show they used passive 4-way. Nothing wrong with passive crossovers, they can be superb, but this one did not suit the system nor the room. Again, too bad. When you get to this level, nothing goes unnoticed. A blessing and a curse, as Mr. Monk would say.

Now on to more fun.

Gary Gill had arranged a jazz concert for Saturday night in the big demo room on the left. This was a real treat. After a full day of listening to jazz over speakers, here was the real thing. Leading the band was Nasar Abadey on drums. Nasar is a cool dude in person, but he can be hell on those drums! On bass we had James King, a soft-spoken fellow and wonderful bass player. I really enjoyed his solos. On electric piano was Allyn “Magic Fingers” Johnson who probably got more applause than anyone else. Allyn was cookin’. Too bad Allyn wasn’t playing a real piano, that would have been the crowning touch. The electric piano paled beside the acoustic instruments. Didn’t hurt the playing, though. Saxophonist Antonio Parker was a little late getting to the gig, he got lost. Maybe he should have stopped to ask the nice lady on her porch! No worries, Nasar let him blow off “lost and late” adrenaline with a really fast number before launching into a ballad. It all worked out just fine and Antonio was worth the short wait – a great player with great tone. I used to blow alto sax, so it was a treat to hear someone as talented as Antonio up close.

Nasar Abadey, James King, Allyn Johnson, Antonio Parker, and Gary Gill, playing at Capitol AudioFest 2010

But who’s the trombone player? None other than Gary Gill, the event organizer. Nasar asked him to sit in on a couple of songs and Gary did a fine job. Everyone had a blast. I don’t know who was having more fun, the band or the audience. Both seemed to be trying to outdo each other.

Up close these guys were loud! No one at the show was playing their system anywhere near this level. But it was never painfully loud, just very present. Real music, you know? Is a ride cymbal a 20″ tweeter? Something to think about.

Sunday morning brought more fun – a swap meet. Piles and piles of vintage audio gear everywhere. Amps, turntables, tunes, tubes and more. It’s a good thing I had to tack the Amtrak home or I would have left with a truck load. All at reasonable (not eBay) prices, too. Gary Gill had hundreds, perhaps thousands of LPs for sale throughout the weekend. The proved very popular.

A swap meet like this isn’t something you see at the big audio shows. These D.C. area guys must have a lot stashed away in their basements and attics. It was fun just seeing it all. A swap meet can be a real history lesson. I was conservative and only left with a handful of 12AU7 tubes. You can never have enough of those.

The “First Annual” Capitol Audiofest was great fun and I’m glad I could attend. Most of the folks I spoke to at the show felt the same way and were looking forward to doing it again next year. Kudus to Gary Gill, all his crew and the other folks who made this a unique and fun show.

See you next at Midwest Audiofest in Ohio!

Readers' comments

    Thanks for the fine reveiw and want you to know that round two is ready to go for July 2011. Please take a look at the http://www.capitalaudiofest.com website for updates.

  • Very interesting review, nice pictures, fantastic location – intending to join it next time. Especially the horn speaker systems lead to a “must have” fealing…

    • Just updated the website for the 2011 event.

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