"Dude, I am so old! I mean, seriously, who plays The Flaming Lips And Stardeath And White Dwarfs With Henry Rollins And Peaches doing Dark Side Of The Moon as a demo at an audio show? Well, guess what - Zu Audio does. Suck it, Nils Lofgren!" That’s Part-Time Audiophile Scot Hull commenting on the Zu Audio room at T.H.E. Newport Beach in 2012. "I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Zu Audio showroom where I’ve recognized even a single LP being played. Not once. Not a single fucking time. Ever," says Hull. Hull masks his sense of aural alienation with humorous language but visitors not charged with formal show reporting are often more direct in their assessment of Sean Casey and Co.’s mostly vinyl selections. Whilst exhibiting at the AXPONA show in Chicago this year, Zu Audio quoted (via Instagram) two comments heard in their demo room. "Do you guys ever play anything from THIS planet?" and then "You oughta hear what they're playing in the Zu Audio room. Makes John Cale sound like elevator music"; both of which would be hilarious if they weren’t ever so slightly depressing.

A point of order here: am I the only one who finds John Cale’s version of "Hallelujah" to best both Leonard Cohen’s original and Jeff Buckley’s histrionic cover? I reckon your average audio show attendee would seriously dig Cale’s piano driven take. It’s far from unpleasant. Some apparently don’t deal with difference of opinion or alternative music choices as well as others. One Zu guest, hitherto unfamiliar with the world of hifi shows, summarized her time in Zu’s AXPONA 2015 room as a place where she "heard a lot of good music and met some really snobby smart people." If they’ve made the drive from Utah, the Zu Audio room is the one place where music choice difference is real and ongoing. Be careful. This isn’t so much praise for music that aligns with my own taste as it’s a round of applause for not being the same as everyone else. Hip-hop, Motown or Metallica aren’t really my bag but I’d happily champion a room that ups their respective antes. Sean Casey’s love for psychedelic rock and Gerrit Koer’s inclination towards bass-heavy dubstep are no put-on. These guys spin what they love, an approach that leads them to stand out time and again. And if this all sound too cozy, know that Koer openly trashed my choice of demo music (Peter Gabriel Plays Live) that I dropped onto his turntable at last year’s T.H.E Show Newport.

In a sea of white man's Blues, Krall/Barber/Jones, Pink Floyd, Jazz ensembles and what I can only describe as music for the soundtrack of the 3pm meds round at a retirement home, difference matters more than most would care/dare to admit. Other breaks from the norm for this show-floor walker have included—but are not limited to—Fields Of The Nephilim in the Chord Electronics Room at CES 2015; DeVore Fidelity allowing a whole side of Brian Eno’s more abstract work to run its course at RMAF 15; and Johan Coorg of KEF’s evangelist preacher routine that consistently underpins his own alternative music policy: he spins more soul, funk and dance music than any other room host.

Still of concern to me at least is that these points of departure are little more than aberrations. They come, they go and the show’s broader musical aesthetic continues as per usual. Maintaining the status quo ensures no nasty surprises and a better reference for moving from room to room but it also ensures there’s very little on offer for those who find a show’s live music programming equally stultifying. What's the future for audio shows that continue to pander mostly to white middle-class men who’ve already tipped 40? Actually, it’s not an issue of age or class. It’s myopia. Playing it safe has funneled the collective musical diet into an increasingly narrow niche that doubles as a straight jacket. I touched on this in 6moonbeams #1.  Instead let’s ask: what fundamental shifts are required for an audio show to properly appeal to folk who breathe air beneath the middle-age marker or, more tellingly, for those for whom the homogeneity of music that currently dominates has zero appeal?

Headfi’s Jude Mansilla and his community of younger disciples aren’t necessarily a safe bet for day saving. With the recent success of the CanJam SoCal headphone show under his belt, Mansilla has slated a similar event for London later this year. At the very least, it’s proof positive that there exists sufficient momentum for personal audio shows to stand alone without the need to hitch a ride on the coattails of their two-channel brethren (as per Marjorie Baumert’s RMAF). It’s the traditional two-channel events that run the greater risk of casting themselves adrift. Audio gear is but one route to sensory pleasure. It can be so much more than making Alison Krauss sound congenial. Music can and should be unpleasant. Not everyone slid into an elastic-panted middle age where Peter Gabriel’s first four albums sound a bit too arty for their own good. For listeners like me and hopefully you, hifi is still about better mainlining the gob-spit of Johnny Rotten or the atonal angularity of Autechre’s Gantz Graf. Consequently, the ten tracks below offer points of departure whilst simultaneously asking: do you remember what it feels like to be assaulted by music rather than gently caressed? We were all young once. We probably all attended kick-ass rock 'n'’ roll shows at one time or another. Some of us still do. When and why did the music we hear at audio shows become so buttoned up?

Biosphere: "The Fairy Tale". It sounds dated by contemporary electronic music standards but Norway’s Geir Jenssen was once the master of programming simple clean beats especially in the early 90s. This month sees him release a fresh master of Microgravity alongside a bonus album that features previously unreleased cuts from the same era. Pre-order the 3LP set and get an immediate 24-bit download. "The Fairy Tale" moves at quite the clip. Use to test for speed. Better systems will resolve more texture on the surface of the midrange-dominating synth.
Underworld: "Beautiful Burnout". I’ve not been much of a fan of these Essex boys’ stuff since Darren Emerson jumped ship but this is easily the best cut from 2007’s patchy Oblivion With Bells, a widescreen epic that recalls dubnobasswithyourheadman’s deepest moments. Bass propulsion is the order of the day. The listener should get a sense of traveling without moving.
Grinderman: "No Pussy Blues". Nick Cave’s more raucous side project might be no more but this track, the centrepiece of Grinderman’s debut, represents all that Cave continues to deliver live when long-time backing band The Bad Seeds play at full tilt: the typewriter key-strike cymbal and drum work, Cave’s closely mic-d vocal forced high in the mix, the churning guitar. Then comes the ear-shredding guitar squall of the ‘chorus’. Just how much of a peaky midrange can be heard from your loudspeakers? Play this and find out. Run it through an average pair of Fostex FE2034 boxes and you’ll see heads cut clean off. Not for the faint-hearted. Seek out the Adam Freeland remix for an even more balls-to-the-wall version.
Squarepusher: "Red Hot Car". This is as close as Tom Jenkison ever got to his ‘Windowlicker’ moment. Sonically speaking, it’s none too dissimilar to Aphex Twin’s infamous single - a clattering beast that should bump 'n' grind out of your speakers. As good a way as any to ask, "Bass: how low can you go?"
McLusky: "To Hell With Good Intentions". Otherwise known in these parts as the ‘greatest song of all time’™ and the finest example of how well this Welsh post-hardcore outfit spot welded a straight-faced punk aesthetic to absurdist lyrical turns: "We take more drugs than a touring funk band – sing it!" and "My dad is bigger than your Dad / He’s got eight cars and a house in Ireland". After three albums, McLusky would mutate into the even more intense Future Of The Left – a band that drops into Sydney for a live show every couple of years. Last time they toured, I got so ‘involved’ with this very track whilst cycling to work that I fell from my bike and cracked the radial head in my left arm. Doped up on painkillers and arm in a sling, I still made it to the following’s night’s FOTL show. Anyway, you’ll know if your loudspeakers can do rock 'n' roll if they turn in an aural assault proper from "To Hell With Good Intentions". At DAR HQ, the Zu Soul MKII do it best, followed by the Magnepan MMG, then KEF’s LS50. Rogers’ 65th Anniversary iteration of the LS3/5a regrettably does not. Like the similarly BBC-descended Harbeth P3ESR, the broadcast monitor shows no devil horns.
Lou Reed: "There Is No Time". I could’ve picked any number of tracks from New York, Reed’s best album by quite some margin. "Dirty Blvd" and "Busload Of Faith" strut the mean streets with equally tight-clenched teeth. If the previous song had you recoiling with horror, this track returns us to more familiar audiophile territory. Mike Rathke’s supporting guitar work doesn’t see anywhere near enough praise. He makes this album whole. New York was recently issued in hi-res PCM and the master used maintains good dynamic range throughout - well worthy of your cash.
Fuck Buttons: "Bright Tomorrow". What starts as a simple four-four thumper hits pay dirt as the noise comes tumbling down around the halfway mark. Unexpectedly, the sparseness of this cut’s opening few bars really highlights how Spotify’s 320kbps falls short of Tidal’s uncompressed Redbook streaming with which the kick drum sounds plain meatier and offers up more textural information.
Brian Eno: "2 Forms of Anger". One of the more violent tracks from Eno’s first outing on Sheffield’s Warp Records,the same label that continues to bring us Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Boards of Canada. Better systems will more adroitly deconstruct its complex layering. Also a good one for testing channel separation. Over and done in a shade of three minutes.
Gang Of Four: "To Hell With Poverty (Go Home Productions Remix)". It might be sacrilege to proclaim this remix of a re-recording superior to the original but with the band still seeing zero royalty cheques from their disastrous 1979 deal with EMI, I’d rather point to something that will send Andy Gill and John King a few micro cents each times it’s streamed. Anyway, it’s another baller, here augmented by clattering percussion and hints of disco groove and another cut to evaluate slam and the (more amorphous/subjective) ability to rock out.
Bjork: "I Go Humble". The best Bjork track you’ve probably never heard (of). Dating back to the 1995 Post era, this Mark Bell production was tucked away on as B-side of single Isobel. Who is Mark Bell? He was one half of LFO. His abilities for programming techno-infused earworms remains unsurpassed. Late last year, Bell passed away from post-surgery complications. He was 43. Life is short. Too short to fuss obsessively over frequency response curves and fully balanced circuits, especially when such chatter continually banishes physically arresting listening experiences and the difference to the planet from whence it came. I’ll take a poorly recorded John Cale album over immaculately produced elevator music any day.

Listen to this playlist on TIDAL and Spotify.
For more John Darko, visit his website DigitalAudioReview.net