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DarKO knocks 'em out.
His email paved the way."I'm overflowing with words and pics on the Australian hifi show that took place in Melbourne last weekend. Ordinarily I wouldn't think twice about banging it up on my own site. However there were some exhibits/manufacturers that I think would benefit from a broader (read: European) audience. You want? I'll run the surplus photos and notes on my site as a teaser piece." With thanks to John's generosity, here goes his report on what Down Under strutted for hifi in 2013:

This was the Chester Group's third consecutive year in Australia and it looks like they're here for the long haul, alternating between Sydney and Melbourne year on year. In 2013 Roy and Justin Bird's Australian Audio and AV Show was still smaller than the likes of RMAF or T.H.E Newport Beach, making it easier to visit rooms more than once without being plagued by FOMO (fear of missing out).

Their new Melbourne venue—the Intercontinental—is a more luxurious setting than either the Denver Marriot or Newport Beach Hilton/Atrium. It's grandiose and spacious enough to keep crowding to a minimum. The wider spread exhibitor layout meant there wasn't so much sound bleed between rooms.

The overall demographic seemed to be slightly younger than at the USA shows, no doubt helped along by a Headzones area that enjoyed solid foot traffic right up until the final whistle. The Audeze LCD-X (AU$.2059) and Abyss AB-1266 (AU$6.700) were the must-hear headphones of the weekend.

It took me a couple of return visits to get a seat in the always buzzing Addicted To Audio booth. I found Sennheiser's HD800 (AU$1.699) to sound remarkably different driven by a Woo Audio WA-6 (AU$799) with Astell&Kern AK120 (AU$1.300) source and then later in Sennheiser's own room with their own-branded HDVD800 DAC/amp (AU$2.399). The latter was cooler, less honeyed but streets ahead in terms of purity and transparency.

There is some incredible design talent Down Under that deserves wider exposure. Does anyone else in the world make active speakers as accomplished as Melbourne's SGR Audio? If so, do they come in Lamborghini yellow? Nope. Thought not. SGR's all-new floorstanding MT3.2SE (AU$60k+) made an unforgettable first impression. SGR's MusicKube is still some way off but their AudibleHQ Black Dragon music server (AU$1.499) will see the light of day before Christmas.

Also based in Melbourne but of a far more conservative design approach is Greg Osborn. On display were large passives that command your attention long before your bum hits the listening seat. The Grand Monument Reference (AU$20k) sounded sonically grand and physically monumental. Monolithic, yo! Osborn also satisfies the budget end of the market with his Eos standmounts ($AU1.720). I won't offer further opinion on the Osborn or SGR sound as I wasn't at all familiar with the music they played. It's always interesting to see which exhibitors permit or encourage attendees to spin their own tunes. Isn't that the best way to audition gear? I don't attend shows to get a definitive take on something. My mandate is to seek out and earmark products for investigation further down the line, in my own home, with my own gear and—most importantly—my own music choices. Besides, hotel rooms are generally far from optimal environments for listening. They're a poo-poo-ers paradise! I was amazed at some of the trickery pulled off by exhibitors to get their spaces sounding as good as they did.

The Chester Group's new Melbourne venue was also a sweet setting for these exhibitors to play it different musically. A few did but most stuck to a predictably lightweight programme. Why so afraid to rock out, Australia? Is this not the home of AC/DC? More worryingly, some folk believe that electronic music has no place at a hifi show. Exclusivity determined by product quality and price is one thing but music snobbery is another the high-end could do without. Moreover lumping all electronic music under the Harry-high-pants descriptor of doof-doof does a complete disservice to the genre. It's not all same-same and certainly not all four to the floor i.e.Tim Hecker sounds completely different to James Zabiela who sounds nothing like Murcof. Calling it doof-doof is a bit like referring to classical or Baroque as old man's music. Daft Punk are electronic music artists and audiophile folk have really taken to Random Access Memories despite its less than stellar dynamic range even on vinyl. Could it be that it's because this record is a bucket load of funky fun? I must've missed out on the exhibitors who reportedly dipped into it. My loss.

Believing that few if any exhibitors would accommodate a USB key, I arrived armed with seven carefully selected songs culled from this playlist burnt to CD only to be caught out at my first point of call. I tried to take ten minutes with the Zu Audio Definition MKIV (AU$19.000) in the Magenta/Krispy room...but no CD player, only vinyl and USB. Gah. Still the 845-tubed Audion Black Shadow mono blocks (AU$12.000/pr) looked stunning and also provided a little heat for the room. Not that it needed any extra warmth. This room was cozy busy each time I returned for another gander and a chat with Magenta main man Mike Kirkham. He's still raving about the Metrum Hex DAC (AU$3.500). I've said it before and I'll say it again: the Zu Soul MKII love tubes. Up until last week I was running mine with a Weston Acoustics EL34 Topaz (AU$1.800) with stunning results. But guess who wanted his amp back for the show?

Earle Weston makes beautifully hand-crafted tube amplifiers down on the Mornington Peninsula where hand-wound transformers and keen pricing show he's clearly in this game for the love more than the money. Is there a more humble man in the Australian hifi scene? Doubtful.

Coming soon to the top of the Weston's lineup are his new statement Artisans. On show was the 45wpc Class A KT150 push-pull model (AU$7.995) with a parallel 300B 18wpc single-ended (AU$9.995) in the pipeline. Both are dual mono designs right down to a twin IEC sockets and power switches. On the inside of each Artisan will be top drawer everything.

Weston and his co-host Paul Spencer of Red Spade Audio were both gracious in giving me time to spin David Byrne and St Vincent's The Forest Awakes. Spencer's LSK HE2 (AU$1.800 raw MDF kit) had no trouble with those sometimes difficult-to-define lower tuba notes. The presentation might have erred toward the polite but it wasn't without a certain charm. Back to South Australia, I dropped in on the VAF room first thing on Sunday morning to find them home alone and playing that Nils Lofgren track. Keith, it's time for an extended vacation. It's not that the song is bad per se. It's just played frequently enough that familiarity has morphed into tired cliche. I'd get sick of Talking Heads too if their tunes were to become ubiquitous at demos.

Audiophile music complaint aside, VAF's cute cubic coaxial i90 standmounts offered up an enormous soundstage that'd be ideal for an office space or small apartment. If you can't accommodate the bigger Zu Union cubes, the i90 are well worth a look/listen. VAF have also extended their DC 'architectural' range beyond the SonicWall (a wall-mounted flat panel speaker) to include skinnable standmounts that could only be described as looking like a table that's been crossbred with a lamp - ideal for those who want great sound from a speaker that doesn't look anything like a speaker.

Upstairs in the Linn room they might have been playing Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" but the sound wasn't sufficiently engaging for me to pull up a chair. Maybe I was too fidgety after that third Nespresso coffee. Maybe I was tired. Maybe all I need to say about this Linn miss is it's not you, it's me.

Audio Dynamics were an exhibitor soliciting guest CDs. Being showcased were well-known electronics from Norway's Electrocompaniet and less well-known loudspeakers from France's Davis Acoustics. Appropriately but accidentally, I fired up a French language Kraftwerk-esque bleeper, Pop HD by Atom™. The resulting sound was bouncy, light and agile but a little bright up top - too loud, man, way too loud. I nudged the volume pot down a notch and the wincing evaporated. The 2013 version of Bowie's Sound and Vision fared much better, the distortion of producer Tony Visconti's vocal gating technique clearly evident. Our host seemed in no hurry to move me or my CD along. Other exhibitors could learn from how this room was run.

Warwick Fremantle of Pure Music Group didn't appear like he was in the business of selling hifi hardware at all. Just a a room...spinning records...chatting about music. Not once did he talk up the Mola Mola Kaluga monos (AU$18.000), Mola Mola Makua preamplifier (AU$12.000) or Gauder Akustik Berlina RC-7 loudspeakers (AU$38.150). They speak for themselves. What I heard bucked expectations: new generation class D amplification and ceramic drivers delivering a sound that was easeful, graceful and relaxed. Terrific! I stayed longer than originally intended to take in cuts from Grace Jones, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters.

I suspect many attendees will have left the KEF room disappointed. Despite Jessica Chua and Dave Tan of KEF's parent company GP Acoustics flying in from Hong Kong and Germany respectively, Advance Audio Australia relegated the LS50 and Blades to static display. They'd opted for a more AV vibe here but apart from the occasionally chirping of TVs on the far wall, the room was eerily quiet. Why weren't guests encouraged to play music on the laptop that fed the all-new X300 A Wireless powered loudspeakers?

Things were altogether better in Advance Audio's second room. Raveen Bawa of dCS had made the long haul from Cambridge to answer questions about their flagship Vivaldi four-box stack. Amplification from Dan D'Agostino powered Wilson Audio Alexia loudspeakers. You'd definitely hope for a life-changing experience from a system whose total cost nudged AU$350K. It didn't disappoint. First a phenomenal Elvis cut, then for me the musical highlight of the weekend: Lorde's Royals. The production on this recording is clean and doesn't rest its laurels on an overload of saccharine. The result? Transparent front-to-back layering with a low-end that kicked regal ass, proving that not every corner of the high-end is soaked in an aural beige.

Another room consistently firing on all cylinders with different (read: contemporary) music choices was that of retailer-distributor Addicted To Audio. This Melbourne outfit represents a dizzying array of brands but with their wholesale arm trading under the unlikely name of Busisoft, a number of show attendees took to calling their two-channel room the 'Vienna speakers room' for obvious reasons.

The vibe here was more international with overseas guests adding gravitas to their brands' local promotion. Eric Suh of April Music/Stello and Xuanqian Wang of AURALiC were milling about all weekend always happy to chat and answer questions. Wang tells me he's been on a promo tour for the best part of eight weeks and that his number one aim is to get the lifestyling AURALiC Gemini into the New York Times. Suh is quieter and more unassuming.

Kiwi Mark Jenkins took considerable time to expand upon the Antipodes music server's (AU$3.400 and up) development process - most informative. Jenkins promises that I'll find it far superior to a Mac Mini + Audirvana so I've put my hand up for a review unit. "It'll sound like shit for the first three days and then after that...well, you just let me know" he said with a knowing grin.

Back to the music. Jenkins dropped Infected Mushroom, then Tom Waits and then (like a true patriot) Flight of the Concords' Business Time. Fun and then funny. The Antipodes server on demo was easily more tonally rich than an Astell&Kern AK120 Toslink'd transport. Well played Mark, on both counts. With familiar music to hand I could make judgment calls with some degree of conviction. As price points might suggest, the Burson Conductor (AU$1.800) + Timekeeper (AU$2.860) combo proved no match for the outright lucidity of Stello's Eximus DP1 DAC (AU$TBC) and Ai700 integrated amplifier (AU$8.000).

And that's my takeaway from a weekend in Melbourne. There remains an ongoing disconnect between (much of) the audiophile community and (much of) contemporary music. I'm not talking about Top 40 countdowns, Katy Perry or Justin Bieber. I'm talking about the artists written about on websites such as Pitchfork, Drowned In Sound and Resident Advisor. I'm not asking for everyone else to dig it, only the tolerance and conviction required of exhibitors and fellow attendees to give more airtime to the the likes of Lana Del Ray and Trentemoller. If those artists strike you as too obscure, how about more from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan? These are some of the most worshipped artists of our time and yet I barely heard a peep from any of their extensive catalogues during the 20+ hours I spent walking the corridors of The Intercontinental. Howzat for audiophile disconnect?  Ironically there was Stones and Led Zep vinyl aplenty on sale at the rear of the Headzones room. Dylan and Elvis Costello MoFi pressings too.

"Why would I wanna play that (compressed) (modern) (rock) crap?" is a common retort. Why? Because a/ it'll be familiar to more people and b/ because it rocks! Not every visitor wants a critical listen. People spin all manner of music and with differing sonic priorities that largely depend on mood or social occasion. Sometimes people wanna rock out, relegating concerns about dynamic compression to an afterthought. What does the Rammstein or Nirvana fan do when the prevailing musical vibe at an audiophile show is so polite and pretty? I promise you this: the room that spins Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or Tommy in its entirety will draw the biggest crowd of the weekend. These shows need more classic album playbacks. Google 'Colleen Murphy Classic Album Sundays' and then tell me I'm way off the mark.

I dropped into the TAD room to say hello to the very convivial Andrew Jones. His presentation was eloquent and sprinkled with nuggets on the TAD loudspeaker design and development process. In running the room with a clearly well thought-out selection of 'studio quality masters' Jones will have extracted the very best from the TAD Evolution One (AU$34k) for the majority of the weekend. And what right-minded exhibitor wouldn't want that? But even he must acknowledge (privately at least) that such a relatively narrow range of music funnels brand exposure into a more traditional audiophile vessel. But I can't imagine Mr. Jones will lose any sleep over this. In visiting the TAD room I was more eager to pass on my enthusiasm for the standmounts Jones had recently designed for Pioneer: the less than catchily named SP-BS22LR. I'd last heard a pair at T.H.E. Newport Beach show in June where they caused quite the buzz for giving so much in return for so little cash. The Pioneer room host had already informed me that the SP-BS22LR were now available in Australia so the first thing I did upon returning from Melbourne was order a pair direct from the Pioneer Australia website. At a local price of AU$200 they have the potential to be super-budget class leaders. Buyers in the USA get an even bigger bargain. They can pick a pair up for less than a hundred bucks via online retailers.

I've written before about how show room hosts could/should see themselves as DJs, carefully curating playlists that will inevitably get peppered with bursts of spontaneity during the course of the weekend. Zu Audio's Sean Casey has got this down pat. He'll follow a Diana Krall cut with Roky Erikson and then Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. He'll play pretty much any record you bring to his room. He caters to everyone but music snobs. Audio shows need more Sean Caseys. There were bursts of musical colour in Melbourne last weekend, some of which I've mentioned above and some of which I only heard about. However the inclination for exhibitors to reach for the tune least likely to offend prevailed. Isn't it time for some of them to let go a little? Have faith in your potential customers by putting a CD player and iPod dock front and centre and then observe how attendees will sit through all manner of variety (weirdness!) for a chance to spin their very own favourite demo cut. Giving show attendees the opportunity to audition gear with familiar music—especially when alternated with superior sounding music—better equips them to make that all important judgment call. And judgment calls are what beat a path to a sale.

PS: If you enjoyed John's writing, mosey on over to for a second helping. As this report showed, John very much has his wits about him and prefers high-value kit that's easy to live with to costly monstrosities that might good look on a glossy cover but less so once you bring 'em home. His musical choices too speak more to a general than specialized audience which, if you ask me, is much needed in hifi discourse. That's why we're lucky to have him contribute occasionally whilst being plenty busy running his own site. - Ed