Capitol Audio Fest Show Reports

Leif S

[Industry Expert]
Feb 14, 2015

CAF 2018: The Audio Company, Von Schweikert, VAC, Esoteric, Critical Mass, and The Big Why
Posted on November 4, 2018 by Marc Phillips in CAF 2018 // 1 Comment

Each time I’ve visited the Von Schweikert rooms at hi-fi shows over the last few years, Damon Von Schweikert and Leif Swanson have upped the ante in terms of presentation, sound and most importantly, the WOW Factor. First of all, I’m not damning them with faint praise, as if back in the day their exhibit rooms were only so-so and they’ve gotten much better. No, we’re talking about a duo who wins award after award, best-in-shows, all the marbles. The fact that they keep outdoing themselves is perhaps troublesome for their competitors, but outstanding for the industry. I’ll explain why in a bit.
The Most Amazing Hi-Fi Store You’ve Ever Seen
That’s it in a nutshell. When you walk into the tremendous lobby and atrium of the Hilton for the 2018 Capital Audio Fest, the first thing you’ll notice is the incredibly big VAC banner over what looks like a glass storefront. It’s not a store, though—it’s the exhibit room for Atlanta’s The Audio Company, featuring VAC and Von Schweikert and much more. It looks like the most beautiful, most upscale high-end audio store in the world right in the middle of a hotel lobby, with static systems in the front windows that cost six figures and a big system in the back pounding out tunes that costs, well, seven figures.

The room inside is huge, bigger than any exhibit room I’ve ever seen at a show, and beautifully and tastefully lit. Only a few speakers can energize a room this big, in my opinion, and the $300,000/pair Von Schweikert Ultra 11s is certainly one of them. These are monstrous in size, about eight feet tall, and they look like they weigh at least a ton—each one of them, that is.

But now that I’ve told you how much they cost, I have to stop for a second. Everything in this system is incredibly expensive. The two pairs of VAC Statement 450iQ monoblock power amplifiers—four amps in all—will set you back $240,000. The VAC Statement phono stage is $80,000. The VAC Statement line stage is $75,000. The Esoteric Grandioso transport, master clock, monoblock DACs and network audio player will cost $124,000. The amazing Kronos Pro turntable with Airtight Opus 1 cartridge almost seems like a bargain at $66,500, especially when you discover that the equipment racks and amp stands from Critical Mass run $164,000 for the complete set.

None of that matters.

The Real Point
You can drive yourself mad thinking about how much this system costs, and how rich you’d have to be to be in order to have enough disposable income to put something like this in your house. To tell you the truth, I’ve visited the Von Schweikert plant and they’re making and selling plenty of speakers at any given point in time. But who’s buying this stuff?

You need to weigh all that against sitting down and actually listening to what a system like this can do. I spent way too much doing so the first day of the show—the after-hours party went until after 1 am. We listened to everything from a tumultuous performance of Beethoven’s Appassionata to Madonna to ‘70s prog-rock to Andreas Vollenweider, and while the scope and range of the sound seemed infinite in terms of possibilities, the system also excels at presenting everything in its correct size, so while Roger Waters is surrounded by a soundscape that reaches well to the sides of the room and back toward the listener, he’s exactly 6’ 3”, which he is.

The Big Why
That brings us back to the discussion of who can afford a system like this, and how obsessive they might be about listening to music. Quite frankly, that’s none of our business. What is our business is that people like Damon and Leif and Kevin Hayes of VAC and the whole staff at The Audio Company are filled with passion and are pursuing perfection, and they are generous enough to share that at numerous shows all over the world—all for the price of an admission ticket.

So instead of complaining about the lofty price of high-end audio equipment, we should feel grateful that we can go to an audio show, plop down in a seat for two or three days, and experience something that might make us deliriously happy if we let it.

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Leif S

[Industry Expert]
Feb 14, 2015
From Stereophile

110318-VAC 1-600.jpg
As they did last year, Marietta, GA-based retailer The Audio Company occupied the Rockville Hilton's largest and most spectacular ballroom with a decidedly grand system built around loudspeakers from Von Schweikert, amplification components from VAC, digital-source components from Esoteric, and a record player from Kronos. Also as last year, the room was virtually always packed with attendees anxious to experience such a thing. I was among their number on Saturday afternoon—the generous mood lighting made it seem more like Saturday night—when I took a seat in the middle row and dared the various silver and black and gray boxes to entertain me.
110318-VAC 2-600.jpg
An unfamiliar and evidently high-minded (but not unpleasantly so) rock recording rolled through the air: Impressively loud, clean drum thwacks and bass-pedal notes thundered their way through billowing clouds of ambience, while electronically treated choirs intoned "Ahhh" and a male vocalist sang and spoke such seemingly random lines as "It's a miracle" and "What is the half-life of a color TV?" I had no idea what any of it meant, but it was all very compelling, and the ultra-wide-frequency-range sound was undeniably impressive. It was like a cross between going to the movies, going to a disco, sitting in a big glass box while a thunderstorm rages overhead, and getting high.

The system: Von Schweikert Ultra 11 loudspeakers ($300,000/pair) and V12XS Shockwave subwoofers (two of 'em, at $11,500/each); two pairs of VAC Statement 450iQ monoblock power amplifiers ($120,000/pair) plus VAC's Statement phono stage ($80,000) and Statement line stage ($75,000); Esoteric Grandioso P1 transport ($38,000), Grandioso G1 master clock ($26,000), N-01 network audio player ($20,000), and two Grandioso D1 monoblock DACs ($19,000/each); Kronos Pro turntable with SCPS-1 power supply ($51,500); Air Tight Opus phono cartridge ($15,000); and $164,000 worth of Critical Mass Olympus V12 Luxury equipment supports.


WBF Founding Member
Apr 20, 2010
Metro DC
On behalf of all the DC,MD, and Va. audiophiles I would like tp thank you for bringing us the most expansive and impressive audio exhobit I have ever visited. I look forward to next year. It appears the show continues to grow.

Leif S

[Industry Expert]
Feb 14, 2015
Newest report from Enjoy The Music

Capital Audiofest 2018: As Good As It Gets! – Part 2
CAF 2018 Show Report By Greg Weaver

Within my CAF 2018 show report part one, I covered the wide diversity of approaches and price points that successfully managed to create the engaging sensation of real music at this year's event. Now, let's take a trip into territory that is typically reserved for only that one percent (or fewer?) of buyers, or a handful of very lucky journalists (can you see the smile on my face?), territory that the average listener can only experience at a show like this. Let's spend some time in the 50 foot, by 50 foot, by 10-foot-tall Potomac Room, just off the Atrium main floor at the Rockville, Maryland Hilton, at Capital Audiofest 2018.
I suspect you've all heard the phrase, "Go big or go home?" While the team of players that installed and showed the system that enchanted us in the Potomac Room on the mezzanine level of the Rockville Hilton may not have created this phrase, they sure as hell have made it their own! The main system in this room, a system that has wowed everyone who has had the opportunity to hear it, save for some who blatantly refuse to acknowledge this truth (more on this subject later), presents a musical experience far truer than that created by any other system I've for the other embodiments with this same equipment at other recent shows.

Sponsored by The Audio Company of Marietta, GA, co-owners Keith Sequeira, Jim Kumpe, and Gordon Waters, played host to a system that carried a retail price of $1,300,000! That's right, one million, three hundred thousand dollars! And while you may rightly expect any system even approaching that lofty price should be impressive, as monumental as that sum sounds, it still doesn't begin to inform you of the transformative, beguiling, simply staggering listening experience this synergistic system produces. The reconstructed sonic event, an entirely fabricated deception, an auditory illusion regenerated by this utterly magical conglomeration of electro-mechanical devices in this room, was truly epic and inescapably authentic!

The analog source was the Kronos Audio Pro Turntable ($38,000), with the Kronos Audio SCPS-1 Power Supply ($13,500). This Super Capacitor Power Supply, referred to as a DC Accumulator, provides DC to the motors from a pair of alternatingly charging banks of 32 Farads of capacitance, at 20 volts. While one side is discharging and driving the motors, the other is recharging. The arm is the 12" Kronos Black Beauty Tonearm ($8,500), designed by André Thériault and Louis Desjardins, which was fitted with an Air Tight Opus 1 Cartridge ($15,000). Digital playback was either the Esoteric N-01 network audio player ($20,000) or the Esoteric Grandioso P1 transport ($38,000), using the Esoteric Grandioso G1 master clock ($26,000) and a pair of the Esoteric Grandioso D1 monoblock DACs ($38,000/pr.).

Electronics were all from Kevin Hayes' Valve Amplification Company, and included the Statement Phono Stage ($80,000), the Statement Line Stage ($75,000), and two pair of Statement 450 iQ Monoblock Power Amplifiers, four in all ($240,000/four).

Speakers were the Von Schweikert Audio flagship ULTRA 11's ($300,000/pr.), and a pair of Von Schweikert Audio Shockwave V12 Subwoofers ($11,500/ea.) were deployed in critical locations near the rear of the room to manage active room correction.

The IsoThermal TubeTraps from Acoustic Sciences Corporation ($26,000) were used for room treatment, and all equipment rested on Critical Mass Olympus V-12 Luxury racks, which come in at $10,250 per component space, and this system used 12 such spaces (for $123,000)! It also used four of the Critical Mass Olympus V-12 Luxury amplifier stands, also at $10,250 each, adding another $41,000. Finally, interconnects, power cords, digital, and speaker cables were all from the ULTRA series of MasterBuilt Audio cable (>$200,000).

As well as this stunning live system, they had five other static system displays, the first of which, off to the left just inside the door, was the heart of the system introduced at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest just one month ago. That show saw the world primer of both the VAC Statement 450i iQ integrated amplifier ($150,000) and the Von Schweikert ULTRA 9 loudspeakers ($200,000), both of which are headed to my listening room mid-December for review in another journal.
Just past the eye-catching 450i iQ and ULTRA 9 display, also on the left, was a more modest system featuring the Transrotor Fat Bob turntable ($11,000) fitted with an Airtight PC-7 cartridge ($2,500), the Naim SuperUniti streamer ($6,995), and an Esoteric K-07 CD player ($6,500). Electronics included the VAC Sigma 170 iQ integrated amplifier with integral MC/MM Phonostage ($11,500), all resting on a Critical Mass Sotto Voce rack ($7,110). Loudspeakers were the entry level Von Schweikert Endeavor E3, finished in a black piano lacquer ($10,000).

Not to be slighted, just to the right of the entrance, was another killer system featuring the Transrotor Rondino turntable ($19,500), with an Air Tight PC-1 Supreme cartridge ($11,000), the VAC Master preamplifier ($40,000), the VAC Statement 450S amplifier ($46,000), all sitting on the Critical Mass Maxxum rack ($18,750). Speakers were my current reference, the Von Schweikert VR-55 Aktiv's ($60,000/pr.)
Further into the room, just behind that system, was the last full static system, featuring the Clearaudio Innovation Wood turntable ($16,000), with 12" Universal Tonearm and the Ortofon MC-A90 cartridge ($4,000), the Esoteric N-03T network audio transport ($11,000) and the Esoteric K-03X CD player/DAC ($20,000). Electronics here were the VAC Renaissance V preamplifier with phono stage ($12,990) and VAC Signature 200iQ amplifier ($14,500), all resting on the Critical Mass Maxxum rack ($25,000). Speakers here were the Von Schweikert Endeavor E5 ($40,000/pr.).

The final display, further into the room on the right, included the dynamic duo of the VAC Statement Line Stage ($75,000) and Statement Phono Stage ($80,000), plugged in and lit up to allow for some up-close and personal appreciation of the sheer beauty of these flagship products.

Gleaning all those equipment price lists, it doesn't take much effort to arrive at the conclusion that we are nearly two-hundred grand over the two-million-dollar mark! And, this is all in one room at this show! I've been attending shows since the 1970's, and in all that time I've never seen a more impressive display of product. But, enough about quantity... Let's talk quality; that is, after all, what this whole room embodied.

While I've heard some variation on this system on over a half dozen occasions since its introduction at AXPONA 2017 in Chicago, and almost this exact system in this same room at last year's event, the performance this year was even more impressive than any ULTRA 11 appearance prior, especially after some time and repeated tweaking of the analog front end. I've covered this system in detail in several other reports, for several journals, but if you are interested in a deeper dive into this world-class, state-of-the-art system, have a look at last year's report on this show.
Following in the tradition we started last year at this very show, I was permitted to program all the music played on this majestic system right after dinner Friday, from about 8:30 PM, until just after 1:00 AM. Because I personally prefer the sound of analog, I played exclusive selections from my personal collection of LPs brought with me for this express purpose, or, ones that I had already recommended or given to these guys to use in their demonstrations. This event was open to anyone who whished to attend, and it seems to have become quite popular. Along with the large number of general show-attendees, Fridays audience included nearly a dozen other manufactures (not associated with this room), as well as that many more journalists and reviewers. Honestly, the bulk of the audience stayed for the whole evening's presentation, and in fact, my performance Friday night was awarded a "Best of Show Gold Award" from AVShowrooms!

Before I discuss the synergy of this system as a whole, which is the ONLY way to consider the sonic results it accomplishes, I want to take just a bit of time to focus on the ULTRA 11. This product in particular, and the entire ULTRA lineup in general, represents the culmination of some 40 years of design heritage, starting with the unique work of Albert Von Schweikert, as now realized by designer and Vice President Leif Swanson, and Albert's son, Damon Von Schweikert, and is something unique.


Leif S

[Industry Expert]
Feb 14, 2015
Greg Weaver's coverage Part 2

The front baffle of the ULTRA 11 is impressive, with its concentric array using four 9" reinforced ceramic mid-bass drivers, two 7" reinforced ceramic midranges, two beryllium tweeters, and a 5" aluminum ribbon super tweeter. Stepping behind the ULTRA 11 and getting a glimpse of the rear baffle will give you pause, and an inclination as to just how this megalithic speaker pulls off a good bit of its extraordinary magic. Here we find a pair of 15" sealed subwoofers, one at the top of the enclosure, the second near the bottom, each powered by its own 1,000-Watt amplifier, and a central mounted ambient retrieval array, including a pair of horn loaded Magnesium tweeters (chosen because they can operate at lower frequencies than the Beryllium tweeters on the front), one above, and one below, a second ribbon super tweeter, identical to the one used on the front baffle.
To give you an idea of how well and accurately the ULTRA 11 does bass, I'll point to Roger Waters magnum opus, Amused to Death, [Analogue Productions APP 468761], which I had with me at this event. At the end of track 6, "Late Home Tonight, Part I," a fighter jet releases a missile and the resultant ridiculously dynamic detonation presents a serious challenge for any loudspeaker. I've heard this passage recreated by many excellent speakers since its original release in 1992, mostly portrayed as a seriously powerful pressurization of the air in the room by even the most competent of transducers.

Yet with the ULTRA 11, this intense event is presented more literally as a moving pressure wave, one you can literally feel as the sensation of this wave rolls through the room, starting well behind the speakers, rushing past you on its way toward the back wall! While I've had mildly similar experiences from two other exotic and pricey loudspeakers, nothing else even approaches the unparalleled and dramatic peripatetic wave experience that they present.

Overall, the ULTRA 11's driven by this all VAC statement series of electronics exhibits the most superb dynamic performance I've yet experienced. As much subtlety as it can expose in the microdynamic realm, it simply stuns listeners with its macro capabilities, revealing the best I've ever heard in both weight and impact, yet with bass pitch definition that is unsurpassed in my experience. Musical power was unyielding, with articulate weight and attack on torturous drum or bass tracks. This system, more frequently and fully, has the ability to evoked fight or flight responses with musical drama like that server up at the conclusion of "It's a Miracle," also from Roger Waters' Amused to Death. In terms of dynamics, both the sense of unfettered ease and seemingly unrestricted scaling, when it comes to presenting the sheer power and scale of a performance, the ULTRA 11 simply has no equal, period.

Also, for a loudspeaker system communicating with the blended voices of 28 drivers, its musical coherence is extraordinary. The sense of presence, the realism, scale, and vitality of the music, is simply the most truthful I've heard. Maintaining the proper loudness across the spectrum of each instrument, from its lowest to highest registers, its broadband accuracy, taken in conjunction with the essential non-existence of any notable additional coloration or loss of harmonic body across the entire audible spectrum, represents a benchmark in my experience, one only shared very closely with the ULTRA 9.
Before I move back to discussing the unqualified allure this remarkable system generates, I want to make it clear that I am not alone in my recognition of the singular achievement of the VSA ULTRA line of loudspeakers. I have had several other colleagues share with me privately that they clearly see the ULTRA 11 and 9 as occupying at least the equivalent, if not loftier, strata of product as that held by the likes of Magico, Wilson Audio, and YG Acoustics. Some have gone on record saying so, but others, perhaps edited because of concern about the politics or revenue streams of their publications, have held back, being considerably more restrained in their appraisals. It is my belief that we, as journalists privileged to be allowed to cover this amazing industry, in my case for some 35 years, should share our honest sense of what we hear, and why. That, dear readers, is what I strive to do with each and every report or review I file.

As you may well expect from a system powered by an all-valve statement series of electronics from a Maestro like Kevin Hayes, one of the industry's premier designers, this system portrays tone color, or instrumental timbre, with an accuracy that I have only witnessed a handful of times previously. In fact, ULTRA 9's, when hitched to a similar set of electronics and ancillaries, actually may ever so slightly edge out the 11s in this category.

Using four of the simply gorgeous looking 450iQ monoblocks, with eight KT88s per chassis, or 32 in all, configured in a vertical biamp configuration, it should come as no surprise that system voicing is full bodied and replete with the complex harmonic structure, including the textural nature, of instrumental voices, rendering a voiced tonal balance that is as faultless as I've experienced. Listening to vocals, like those of David Bowie from the 45 RPM 12" single, "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)", or Eric Woolfson, from "The Tell-Tale Heart," or "The Cask of Amontillado," from the Mobile Fidelity release of Tales of Mystery and Imagination, is chillingly stark and emotive.

Leif S

[Industry Expert]
Feb 14, 2015
Part 3
Transients are so spectacularly fast, distinctly defined, and cleanly delineated, that we are informed as much by the silence between musical impulses as by the effortless drive and pace of the musical gestalt it creates. This system embodies a sonic representation so immediate and palpable, so vivid and articulate in detail, so resolute and transparent, so utterly correct in voice, and so overwhelmingly organic in nature, that you simply must hear it to understand. Mere words are, well, inadequate at best.

All these extraordinary attributes combine to present an unsurpassed degree of soundstaging; undeniably accurate layering, image specificity, size, and shape. The overall spatial presentation, hall dimensionality, instrumental placement and interrelationships, the space between and around those remarkably defined voices, and reverberant cues, set the benchmark for performance here.

And, as goose-bump inducing as this system is, late in the afternoon Sunday we all got a bit of a treat, and an unexpected shock. After doing some other testing, Leif and Damon decided to put the Endeavor E3 loudspeakers into play, just to see how it sounded. Positioning them just about a foot-and-a-half inside, and about 10' in further into the room than the position occupied by the ULTRA 11's, they connected the Masterbuilt Ultra speaker cables and fired them up.

To say my jaw dropped would be an understatement! Here was a very good, yet much more modest loudspeaker, one that, depending on finish, starts at $8,000 a pair, one that was designed to be placed something like 18" to 40" away from a wall (for bass support), sitting fully 7 feet plus away from the back wall, and more like 15' or 17' away from the side walls, making convincingly engaging music!
There was solid, detailed, powerful bass! Midrange had astonishing color, excellent texture, and unmistakably correct in timber. Treble was extended, airy, and full of shimmer. Tonal density and pitch definition were spectacular. How the hell could this be! Ok, to be fair, they did not have the same degree of resolution, transparency, and dynamic scaling of the ULTRA 11s', but the familial sonic resemblance was more than just close, it was downright spooky! And, while I'm sure that a major part of the magic we heard came from using nearly a million bucks worth of sources, electronics, and cabling to drive an $8,000 loudspeaker, I'm just as willing to wager that not too many speakers in this price-range could begin to pull off such a dumbfounding impersonation of their $300,000 über big brother's.

Keep in mind, this substitution was done during open show hours, and the real compelling statement came from one of the listeners in the room, unaware that the E3 was the active speaker. I heard him wonder aloud to someone he was with what the "smaller" speaker might sound like, since the "big ones" were so good! It was clear that he was under the impression that he was listening to the ULTRA 11s! The results were just magnificent, bordering on the unbelievable; so much so that if I hadn't been there and heard it for myself, I could easily be tempted to call bullshit!

I guess my point here is that Von Schweikert Audio has over 40-years of experience in building and advanced the art of loudspeaker design. They have in fact, with one notable exception in Wilson Audio, which was also founded in the late 1970's, been pushing the envelope of loudspeaker design longer than any other company manufacturing speakers today. With that kind of experience and record, should it really come as any surprise that they have the ability to create this kind of magic at any price point, even at 1/30 the cost of their flagship transducing system?

This magical systems ability to render stark transparency to the recordings, to reveal any nuance in detail or scale, replete with musical relevance, marks an entirely new threshold of accomplishment, well beyond merely disarming. Its ability to resolve the subtle differences between recordings, their distinct nuances, to reveal staging cues and differences, microphone placement and type, is simply unsurpassed. Finally, its ability to almost utterly dematerialize, to vanish from your awareness, to disappear in service to its purpose, and transparently render a convincingly musical event, is awe inspiring! In the past, I've said that this system is the most intimately communicative and authentically musically expressive system I've ever had the pleasure of sitting down in front of in my more than three decades as a professional reviewer. Well, they somehow keep improving and moving the bar higher and higher, little by little. The system experience at Capital Audiofest 2018 does not merely raise the bar, it SETS the bar today.

In summation, this is the most impressive, engaging, and musical system I've ever heard, and clearly the finest audio system to be taken out on tour regularly. While I urge any and all of you who love music and the art of reproducing it in the home to go hear this benchmark system, beware. I don't even turn on my reference system (which is no slouch, by any measure) for several days to a week after returning from hearing this system for fear of being disappointed by comparison. But, if you are interested in hearing the pinnacle of what the best designs in the industry can do right now, today, seek out and listen to this magnificent system. It presents the most authentically musical experience I know of, far more convincing than any other I have experienced. It will change the way you hear everything else, save live music, for some time to come. The only thing left to say at this point is...

Enjoy the Music!

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