Every year at spring break, Rotterdam hosts a small but special HiFi show - the Doelen Lente. To get the proper idea, think of the city of Rotterdam as a city of workers, not so much intellectuals. Shirts in the shops already have their sleeves rolled-up, ready for the big-mouthed little-hearted worker. The city goes to sleep at 10:00 PM because the day starts early the next morning. Such a tidy environment supports many festivals and events that are endorsed by the city counsel. A festival like the Summer Carnival starts early, makes a big mess and a few hours after the approved closing time, all streets are cleaned up and traffic resumes.

While typing this report from our upper-story flat, 300 feet below on Rotterdam's Coolsingel main street, the 24th Rotterdam Marathon is about to kick off on this special date of 04-04-04. Some 11.500 runners from all over the world are warming up for the 42.195-meter run. Hundreds of thousands of people are waiting along the route to cheer for the athletes whether they know them or not. The only worry the athletes have is to be back on the Coolsingel within 5 hours. After a cannon shot at 11:00 AM, all runners are on their way. While the circumstances are good, they aren't brilliant. The temperature is right and there are no rains but the winds are firm. After about 20 minutes, the runners abandon the Coolsingel and the shoppers return. In about an hour and a half, the crowds will flock back to get ready to hail the winners and survivors.

Back to the prior week. The Doelen Conference & Concert complex, home of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and pied-a- terre for Valery Gergiev, opens its doors to music lovers and hardware fanatics. Inside a unique mix of gear and music awaits. You see, this HiFi show is built around the concept of live music as the real thing. Only live music can communicate the emotions between performer and listener and vice versa. Reproduced music, even on the best equipment, lacks the return line from listener to performer. Therefore, the feedback from the equipment has to come as a substitute.

Every year the Doelen Show starts off with a competition. Students from the light music departments of all Dutch conservatories wanting to participate are asked to send in a demo tape or CD. A savvy jury of longtime professional musicians chaired by a walking musical encyclopedia chooses the three best from the demo tapes. Once invited, these three performers or groups have to compete before the event's live audience. The winner receives an award and 1.500 euros from sponsor Tannoy. Winning commits to performing at next year's show during the next installment of the competition to demonstrate artistic progress

Accordingly, the show starts for us with an early morning concert of last year's winner. Honesty demands of us to mention that the progress of the talented 2003 winner doesn't seem great. We have witnessed many amazing coming-outs of young talent now playing with the crème de la crème. This performance just misses the hoped-for oomph factor.

After the first live performance, we meander to the top floor to collect some impressions of reproduced music. Pit stop # 1 is the completely filled room of Dutch KR/Von Schweikert distributor Eurogram. The combination of Dutch Pluto turntable, KR Kronzilla monoblocks and the new Von Schweikert VR-4jr really keeps the audience spellbound. These American speakers are from the first actual production run and, contrary to the hand-built prototypes we heard at CES, sound good. Of course, the setup is a major factor here as is the effect of a room filled with people. Add to this a really passionate presentation of music and equipment and a HiFi show properly presented can be lots of fun!

How do you like your eggs in the morning? Hopefully at least with a kiss. Something like that must have been on the mind of Belgian designer Koen Vaessen when he blueprinted the Aquarius loudspeakers. This 1.15 meter high bass-reflex built from a 9-millimeter thick compound material sounds natural. Shanling was the source of choice here. For tube-aholics, Koen Vaessen also has a fun Nixie tube clock on sale.

It is time to return to live music, with the stage meanwhile set for the competition's finale. A young saxophonist and his three companions play a mix of standard Jazz and some original tunes. Sound and technique are good but dynamic emotiveness is a bit subdued. The same holds true for the second contender. Singer Christel tries to win over jury and audience with standards and a good but not great voice but again, the performance runs low on ability to get the emotion beyond stage edge into the audience. We could have done with a bit more spice.

Number 3 is a group - piano, bass, drums and vibes. And boy, they really do go for it with all original compositions. This particular performance in fact is the second one they play in this line-up. Here are dynamics, emotions and craftsmanship bonded together in true musical fashion. There is a tight and spontaneous relationship between the musicians as they give each other clues. There is respect when one goes off into a short solo. These four young men whose origins are from various Eastern European countries plus Portugal know how and what to play.

The jury of course pretends a hard time during deliberations. Without a doubt though and delayed just a bit for impact, the prize goes to the last quartet. Relieved from the tension of the competition, the group called As Guests gives a final encore. These guys can play! Afterwards, they tell us that their prize money will make their first recording possible. We'll keep you posted.

Back at the hardware show, it's time for a Dutch-first. Tannoy has taken the opportunity to haul in a pair of classic Westminster Royal HE loudspeakers. In a special room, these cupboard-sized folded horns hold a small audience captive. By the looks of a 16-year-old punk, he is completely flabbergasted by the performance, even by Diana Krall. Unfortunately, the Royals are equipped with super tweeters. From our point in the room, they produce an irritating clicking noise. Switching them off opens up the soundstage and the speakers just disappear from the room, leaving music in their place. This trick, worthy of David Copperfield, must be why so many Japanese audiophiles fancy these speakers in their very small rooms. They simply do disappear when played. The combination of a 38cm dual-concentric driver with Alnico magnet and a folded horn is unique. The choice for Alnico -- a combination of aluminum, nickel, cobalt and some love potion -- makes the driver very dynamic. The horn takes care of the frequency range from 18 to 200Hz at which point the driver's direct radiation and an acoustical crossover take over. At 1Khz, an electric network crosses in the tweeter for the rest of the spectrum. Almost any amplifier can be used because the gentle giants sport a whopping 99dB sensitivity at 8 ohms. Just forget about that super tweeter.

Another not terribly ordinary loudspeaker is the Magnat Vintage 990. After the refined and controlled Royals, these large transducers come as a shock. In a fairly empty room, they sound like a PA system. Even driven by a pair of beautiful Jadis amplifiers, they lack refinement though their specifications are impressive, with built-in discrete amps for both the bass and low-bass drivers. At 90dB sensitivity, they do require quite some power to come alive and breathe in a large room.

Sunday is show day two. It starts off at the live end with a combined masterclass/Battle of the vibes. The musical part of the show is co-organized by the driving forces behind the Dutch production company/annex record label Baileo, Frits Landesbergen and Jeroen de Rijk. The word 'baileo' comes from the Indonesian Moluccan islands. It connotes the town hall of a Moluccan village, a place where the community members with authority gather to discuss all matters concerning the community. A specific trademark of a baileo is its open character both in architectural construction and general accessibility. Frits plays vibes, drums, piano and teaches at the Hague Conservatory. Jeroen is the percussionist.

The master class theme is taken literally. There is the 'old' teacher Carl Schulze; Frits the student-become teacher; and his pupil Jacco Griekspoor - three generations of vibists. Between numbers by Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson, Frits teaches the audience about the instrument. Again, the joy of playing radiates from the stage. Three vibraphonists in a friendly battle is not a very common sight. Styles vary from two-stick playing to four, from soft touches to hitting it hard and fast as it comes. It's impossible to keep your foot still and that silly grin off your face.

Before Sunday's musical finale, there's some time to wander into further rooms. Dutch speaker designer Xanadu -- is the Doelen Show this year a speaker show? -- demonstrates their latest models. Looking like any other speaker, they sound (or better don't sound) very good, just spreading a balanced sound wave through the large room. Just before the concert that will concludes the live part, we drop into a room where the audience is kept by serving drinks in a bar-like environ. Not the best way to demonstrate your wares, but it sure is attractive. Waiter, a creme de mint please.

In a strange asymmetrical location halfway under a staircase, we listen to a pair of Waterfall loudspeakers. Built completely out of glass, they visually disappear in their surroundings.

Back in the concert hall, it is time for Joke Bruijs (pronounced Yo-keh) accompanied by the main artists of the Baileo label. Joke's play list stems from the American Songbook and we have to admit, that's not our favorite. Nevertheless, we have committed to reporting on the complete show so here we are to sit down and listen. A little background on Joke - she started singing at the age of 15 and developed into a well-known singer/comedienne/ cabaretier/actress. Last year she recorded with Baileo and went on tour with some of the musicians here present.

As the French say, c'est la ton qui fait la musique. It's true. Joy, respect and real musicianship are present on the stage, with Joke's personality helping to involve not only the musicians but also the complete audience. All show concerts are walk-in performances so people are constantly coming and going. With Joke's concert, people walk in but not out - they stay until the end. We enjoy two hours of fun and have to admit being wrong with our original concerns over the repertoire. Good musicians simply cannot make bad music.

Now we are back home, listening to our as-good-as-it-gets sound system trying to block the noise from the busy street below. The finish of the Rotterdam marathon is just minutes away. A couple of camera-equipped helicopters are closing in and hovering almost in front of our windows. It is time to wrap up writing, stop the CD and switch on the live feed on the television.

Post scriptum
The marathon is won by Felix Limo, a 23-year old Kenyan, in the record time of 2:06:14. Even though at the start of the race, Rotterdam's most popular crooner Lee Towers (who actually used to work on a ship's crane) sang "you never walk alone", Felix ran the best part of the 42 kilometers on his own. - number two came in many minutes later.