CAF 2023: Standout Products

I knew a guy, a reviewer, who walked into a room at a hifi shop, sat in front a system he’d never heard before and within moments turned to me and said, “Great phono stage.”

I won’t share my exact thought at that moment but it had something to do with a famous children’s book that also featured Jane. The thing of it is, at hifi shops and hifi shows we’re hearing the room, the music, the gear, and more than likely other people talking so picking out the performance of a specific piece of this puzzling puzzle is damn near impossible. At best, we may appreciate what a particular system sounds like and be intrigued by a particular piece, interested enough to want to hear more.

Here are some hifi products that tickled my fancy this past weekend at Capital Audiofest 2023.

in the Robyatt Audio room

The classic and stunning, in looks and performance, Michell Audio Gyro SE turntable was doing its classic stunning thing in one of the Fidelity Imports room (top pic) with a Michell T8 tonearm ($6999 for the Gyro SE/T8 Bundle) and Cusis M Moving Coil Cartridge ($3499) as well as in the Robyatt Audio room mated to a Sorane SA1-2 Tonearm and Miyajima Carbon Cartridge ($2999).

I own a Michell Gyro SE w/T8 tonearm so I know from whence I speak of stunning.

I reviewed the Q Acoustics Concept 50 Floorstanding Speakers back in October of 2021 and has this to say, “It’s not every day that my excitement meter gets pegged to the max, but the Concept 50 hit the mark early on in their Barn stay and kept it there for the duration.” Part of my excitement was bolstered by the Concept 50’s $2999/pair price. You are looking at the top end of the new Q Acoustics 5050 floorstanders, the top of the company’s new 5000 Series speakers. After sitting in front of them for a just a few minutes in one of the nine (9) rooms sponsored by Fidelity Imports, I asked the friendly room rep, “How much are they?”

“They are two thousand dollars a pair.”
“Did you just say $2,000. . A Pair !?!”
“Yes I did.”

Consider my excitement meter pegged to 11.

I’ve been eyeing Germany’s Thöress amps for longer than I can remember, and the EHT Integrated Amplifier ($10,995) was a pleasure to see and hear in the Old Forge Audio room, mated to the Heretic AD614 speakers. The EHT is a hybrid design, mixing tubes and MOSFETs (in- and out-put) for 20 Watts of power into 6 Ohms. Another cool aspect of the Thöress EHT Integrated Amplifier is it fit perfectly in the back of my station wagon.

GoldenEar is two-fer-two in my reviewers book of ‘Big Value’, having reviewed their Triton One.R and flagship Triton Reference Tower Speakers. The new Golden Ear T66 Tower Speakers with Powered Bass, first spotted at Axpona 2022, are now in production covered in Santa Barbara Red ($7200/pair) or Gloss Black ($6900/pair). This is the first pair of Golden Ear’s new T Series of speakers to come post-The Quest Group’s acquisition and its slender, sleeker design appeals to me eyes while my ears are keeping mum until a review pair arrives in Barn.

Vinnie Rossi‘s BRAMA Preamplifier ($33,995) and Stereo Power Amplifier ($33,995) are, to my eyes, things of jewel-like beauty, pictured here in one of three rooms sponsored by dealer Alma Audio. There’s way too much tech inside these lovelies, including a pair of horizontally mounted 300Bs in the Preamp (don’t worry, Vinnie has taken care in the implementation and orientation), to dig into here but I hope to find some BRAMA in Barn in the new year. I first reviewed a product from Vinnie Rossi way back in 2005 (!) and it has been a fascinating journey watching his designs reach new, and lofty, heights.

The new Merason DAC1 MKII ($8500), imported by Well Pleased AV, sat pretty in another room sponsored by Alma Audio. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Merason’s DACs in a number of systems at a number of shows where I was always drawn past the gear and into the music suggesting the Merason sound, which is due in part to a pair of Burr Brown 1794A converter modules, bears closer scrutiny.

France’s Diptyque Audio panel speakers always drawn me in, albeit in a manner that demands a head shake or two to get into the unusual way they energize a room. The new Diptyque Audio DP 140 MKII ($16,999/pair) were on active energizing display in another room hosted by Fidelity Imports.

From Diptyque:

“The new diptyque DP140 MKII inaugurate a new generation of isodynamic speakers designed for music lovers. They are made up of two bass-medium cells operating according to our exclusive PPBM* principle that we have optimized after ten years of research and innovation. Their mechanical structure is inherited from our Reference model. The 55 cm long ribbon tweeter covers a large bandwidth to give the whole an incomparable coherence and natural sound.”

Frequency response is rated at 35 – 20000Hz with a 6 Ohm, 87db/1W/1m load.

Good enough to eat? Those are 2 pair of directly heated 845s run in single-ended fashion for 22 Watts of pure Class A output power from Italy’s Viva Audio flanked by the yellowest yellow mine eyes have seen in a SET amp in a room sponsored by High End by Oz. Founded in 1996 by brothers Amedeo and Giampietro Schembri, I’ve always loved the “V” for vivacious design of Viva’s sexy amps. My DeVore O/96 (“O” is for Orangutan) are also, understandably, more than tempted…

Speaking of energizing a room, the QUAD ESL-2812 pictured isn’t new but the lower price of $9,995 per pair is! Hosted in the Robyatt Audio / Electrostatic Solutions room, the ESL-2812 asked the question that nearly every pair of Quad electrostatic speakers I’ve heard asks, “Who doesn’t love a Quad?”

Fern & Roby‘s new Amp No. 2 ($8500 shown with the optional F&R isolation feet (+$350)), built in collaboration with Michael Bettinger, is a Class A/B solid state integrated amp with 25 Watts of output power on tap and an included MM/MC phono stage and offers the company’s trademark lovely blend of material-inspired form and function.

The aptly named Treehaus Audiolab knows its way around wood and their stunning “Phantom of Luxury” Field-Coil Loudspeakers (starts at $29,000/pair in live-edge Walnut or Elm) lit up room 812 at CAF 2023 with more than just looks. That Super Aero 10” field coil driver is from Atelier Rullit run full range, sourced from refurbished and rebuilt drivers from Klangfilm or Telefunken that are meticulously hand rebuilt and redesigned in Germany. A Fostex T900A supertweeter (above 14kHz) and custom 15” woofer from Acoustic Elegance (below 100Hz) fill out the frequency range.

I reviewed the Rogue Audio Cronus in 2006 ($1795 in ’06), that would be ages ago, for 6moons and said, “But don’t let all that practicality and value fool you – the Rogue Audio Cronus has balls-to-the-wall (of sound) coupled with the delicacy and detail to transform your tunes from stored media to musical juju on tap.” I like to think my writing has improved since and the new Rogue Cronus Dark Edition ($4495) has as well featuring new main and rear circuit boards and a host of upgrades including an upgraded power supply, signal tubes, coupling capacitors, binding posts, upgraded caps and resistors in key spots, and an improved phono stage. I’m an unabashed fan of Rogue Audio and their no nonsense approach and it seems like a re-visit to the their Cronus, in Dark Edition form, some 17 years on is in order.

Last year I visited Jeff Catalano‘s High Water Sound along with my dear friend Alex Halberstadt, who writes for Stereophile among other more esteemed non-hifi publications, and walked away moved well beyond hifi and music. At CAF 2023, a pair of the new Cessaro Horn Acoustics’ Wagner II Horn Speakers ($65,000/pair) moved me deeply well beyond hifi and music.

Anyone who has read my review of the Riviera Labs Levante Integrated Amplifier or their APL10 Preamplifier / AFM25 Monoblock Amplifier combo already knows of my deep affection for their amplification products, which rank among my favorites in a class nearly by themselves in terms of pure music-inspired seduction. So I was more than jazzed to see and hear their powerhouse AFM100 Special Edition Monophonic Power Amplifiers ($82,800/pair) in a room hosted by Bending Wave USA (Riviera is imported by Tone Imports). I’m going to save my fuller comments for my room report but suffice it to say that the Riviera seductive magic was on powerful display.

Clayton Shaw Acoustic Lab‘s CALADAN open baffle speakers ($2950/pair + $150 shipping in the US) sport a pair of 12 inch studio-grade bass/mid units paired with a 1.125 inch silk dome tweeter mounted on a 1.5″ thick baffle crafted from solid American hardwood, as pictured, or painted MDF that sits on Isoacoustics GAIA III footers. I’ve been following Clayton Shaw’s work with real interest over the years and am very happy to see his new venture and hear these new speakers that sound like more.