Anticipated dégustation would come from the new €31'000/pr Audiopax Maggiore M50 monos which the company's Silvio Pereira from Brazil and Geoff Armstrong of Monaco's Sound Galleries would premiere [right]. At 50 watts per side, they purport to clone the perfect high-power triode. This they do with 3 x KT88 SET amps per chassis which are combined at the output terminals. They feature adjustable load-line parameters which exploit very kinky interactions between dissimilar output transformers and offset tube bias options in proven Eduardo de Lima style. Given how much I'd enjoyed his Edena demo last year which led to a subsequent review, I also looked forward to hearing Christian Yvon's new €16'000/pr Apertura Audio Adamante speakers which I'd already committed to reviewing unheard. Sven Boenicke too was on my list of must-see speaker designers and Swiss brands. I knew one new thing he'd bring would be the SwingRack in a custom size made for US reader/dealer Fred Crane of StereoDesk. German electronics company Audionet had sent out a tantalizing pre-show email announcing a new team, new products, new website - in short, nearly a new company.

I wanted to meet Udo Linnenberg from the eponymous German firm whose product I'd reviewed to finally put a face to his face plates. On the opposite end of the scale, the giant Vox Olympian Vox Elysian horn system from Kevin & Lynn Scott of Living Voice would be the obligatory yard stick to calibrate my ears for what's humanly possible. As they had for the last two years, they'd likely be my vote for Best of Show again; and by a fair margin. Eight of these ultra-expensive utterly bespoke and all'round intense speaker systems had already found homes before this show opened. Voxiferous! Closer to terra firma, I was curious whether Italian Albedo Audio would have a new speaker (they would, the Amira below). I knew that EnigmAcoustics would celebrate the Euro launch of their hybrid Dharma headphones with self-biased electret tweeter and dynamic mid/woofer; plus matching triode-based headphone amp in a repurposed Sopranino glass casing. That'd be another stop on my must-hear list. Ditto Hannes Schützenauer's Wiener Lautsprecher Manufaktur. Last year I'd wondered: "Does the world need a €50'000/pr mini monitor? Kim Tranholm Nørgaard of Danish firm Ambitious Audio Design was most affirmatively affirmative. Sleek as sin and with a proprietary mid/woofer he couldn't talk about without having to off me later, I did concede that the seamless appearance was a marvel of industrial design and manufacturing chops. But I seriously begged to differ on the, ahem... fiscal positioning. That was my good deed for the day." Checking out status on their website, the Ambitious 1 was set for production in Q4/15 and a preview in Munich, hopefully this year in an active system to take the measure on how 60kg of aluminium, brass and stainless steel have been wedded to 1" and 5.5" diamond drivers.

I was curious too whether Aqua Hifi from Milan might have addressed demand for DSD. As dedicated R2R people, it'd be irrational for them to turn DSD into a multi-bit affair à la 32-bit Sabre. The most logical solution would be a dual-engine deck where to their existing PCM DACs they add a one-bit function via another converter chip or equivalent FPGA and have simple file-format recognition route the signal to the relevant conversion engine. If someone could do that at sub Light Harmonic pricing, my bet was on this Italian team. Finally, a chance to clap ears on Bakoon's new 50-watter would be swell. As I imagine is true for all members of the press, each year from late April to mid May, I've suddenly become everybody's best friend. Manufacturers and PR firms who couldn't be bothered to communicate squat throughout the year now are on a swishy first name basis to insure that I visit their or their clients' exhibits and post a free announcement in our news page. Whilst I know that it's just inanimate software which opens such generic notes with a cheery "Hey, Srajan" and sundry variations on the buddy theme, I still despise the unwarranted familiarity. Like everyone else working more than a decade in a given sector, I've made friends and acquaintances. These folks ain't either. In stark contrast to their slightly cavalier approach are one-up personal emails in a more formal tone. You feel that someone actually took the time to sit down to properly introduce themselves and ask for some of my time during the event. Don't underestimate the power of the actual personal touch. Yo, Adrian!

Given the considerable expense of attendance plus the usual seniority booking for available spaces, it can be from hard to impossible for smaller companies to participate. I thus doubted I'd see Pacific Rim firms like COS Engineering, Fore Audio or Wow Audio Labs whose products I'd reviewed and awarded. Most newcomers start with a single product. That's not enough for a live demo. Being new also means, no built-in audience draw. This becomes a less attractive proposition for would-be room sharers who prefer high-profile partners to drive traffic. Burson Audio from Oz would only need to outsource speakers and cables. Still, I was unsure they'd attend even though I was keen on sampling their new Conductor Virtuoso 3-in-1 DAC/pre/headfi and matching TimeKeeper amps. Really, some of any year's most exciting discoveries don't happen at shows at all. They happen when freshly minted makers knock on my doors via email, introduce themselves and ask for a review.
On the foto phront, I'd acquired a Gloxy Power Blade. It's a Jedi light sabre of sorts, a battery or AC-powered stick with nearly 300 LEDs. Its claimed reach of 10m and up to 10 hours of battery life go beyond typical camera-mounted LED add-ons. Some exhibit rooms approximate nightclub vibes not just with breathy Jazz vocals. They also do real darkness which might be moody but also is bitchy and batty for taking any halfway informative photos. Lighting up such dim spaces even with a ceiling-reflector flash can skew your white balance and still cause undesirable reflections. Plus, your camera can't focus properly in the dark. With my new weapon, I could light up a room with constant filtered light first, then aim, focus and still double up with a flash if needed. At least that was the armchair theory. Measurements and specs on the Gloxy all promised perfect sound - er, pictures. No need to first look and work with it.

This mirrors commentary from posters too cheap to attend but who glance at published show photos, then riff on what a system really sounded like. Or those who enter an unfamiliar room, listen for a minute, then exit proclaiming specifics about a preamp or cartridge. Those chaps are the true experts. Our kind is far less advanced. We can only make approximate judgments about the combined performance of the whole thing. This includes the acoustics; a possibly poor seat or position if it was standing-room only; music one dislikes or otherwise thought wasn't telling enough to feel sure about any judgment; and sensory overload which already has you off a bit a short time in. The day when just looking at something tells me what it sounds like, I'll no longer have manufacturers ship anything. A photo will suffice. Show reports in absentia. Debussy said, "it's unnecessary for music to make people think. It would be enough if it made them listen." This means mental and emotional openness to give things a fair try even when design premise, execution or other items run counter to personal notions of right, wrong, desirable or familiar. Which now begs a short lick on what one listens to at shows; and why.

Let's start with why. As a maker, one wants to present a system in its best possible light and play to rather than against it. If one knows the setup has issues—using a convention center space with an AC supply at near overload, noisy neighbours, a fluctuating number of hot bodies coming and going plus interface challenges—one strategically works around them. One does not work to highlight or trigger the issues with the wrong kind of music or SPL. As a consumer, one might attend as a prospective buyer with less willingness to accommodate these facts. One canvasses the event chasing something very specific about whose sound one wants the most clarity despite the mass of unknown variables. As a dealer/distributor, one might be shopping for a new line; or a particular solution to fill a current gap. Now listening, looking and talking to the maker become equally important. Or, a dealer/distributor might simply want a personal opportunity to interface with his/her existing suppliers, talk business strategies, new models, desired features, issues and such. Now talking and socializing are the main business at hand. Serious listening takes place at that person's own facility afterwards.

Many reviewers double task on spotting new assignments whilst producing show reportage. If part of a bigger team, they might be assigned a particular beat like 'loudspeakers above €20K', 'accessories' or 'digital streaming'. Their needs are listening, taking photos without people blocking the view and collecting product facts. The latter often involves some Q&A. Keeping quite busy with direct review inquiries, spotting new review opportunities isn't a personal focus. Relative to beat, it's everything. Relative to listening, the real thing happens at home. Producing an interesting report is a strong focus. That's my way of supporting the industry at large which provides my livelihood; and those of its members which directly support our venture. In short, there are many different reasons why people attend. Some of these not only can be at cross purposes. They are. Point blank. Each of them shape focus and perspective. As such, they influence any commentary that might arise from it—was it a good show or not—and how people behave whilst there. Listening focus can clash with talkers. If exhibitors support and engage the latter, I assume that they have very good reason. At the end of the day, manufacturers aren't there to play DJ or throw a party. They're there to do business. Whatever furthers that is what they must do. Where I'm concerned, most if not all my reviewing business can be conducted via email or phone. I view a maker's needs relative to existing or potential in-room customers as far greater than my own. Cater to them, not me. Afterwards, I'm just an email away to follow up. Or—hint!—before.
Albedo Audio Amira

By now it's clear how different reasons to attend affect what one listens to. Potential buyers, end users or dealers/distributors, most benefit from tunes they know intimately. They often are selected to demonstrate particular qualities. We might call those challenging demo tracks. Their purpose isn't being pretty or enjoyable. It's to lay bare playback weaknesses. Obviously makers spend big money to attend. At any given time, they tend to host a variety of people who have different purposes to be in their room. They don't fancy 'dare-or-die' sessions; or those which drive all but one listener out. It's their show. They have a lot invested in just being there. I respect that. I'm their guest. Hence when I come across a system which really speaks to me, my main reason to request a personal track or two really isn't about judging the system. It's not about critical listening. It's to enjoy music I love over a rig which might sound better than my own; or which does certain very enjoyable things so differently that I'm curious about what new things it might show me about such favourite tunes. It's not about trying to trip things up. It's pure hedonism. If other people enjoy it too, so much the better. If they don't, it's time to ask for my CD or USB stick back and let them hear something different. Would a reasonably short cut from one of Jacques Loussier's two violin concertoes with percussion and tabla be a relatively safe bet?