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If this sounds like something you'd only do after suffering a head injury, you might be surprised to learn that every year in the UK, a dedicated clutch of men and women do just that. The HiFiWigwam show is an offshoot of the HiFiWigwam forum, a 50,000 member community founded in 2005. Integral to the forum from the outset has been the idea of the “Bakeoff,” a get together of members to listen to some hardware and software, have a drink or ten and turn online presences into physical beings. The concept of the Bakeoff proved sufficiently durable that thoughts turned to holding a really big one. From there it was a hop skip and a jump to co-opting a confused but well meaning hotel and effectively starting their own hifi show.
The logistical challenges of this are considerable. It is just about possible to fit my system into a good sized car but many of the setups that make the journey require vans to be borrowed or hired and given that some of them travel about as well as a truckload of sweating nitro-glycerine, a fair amount of faith on the part of their owners that everything is going to come back in one piece. When I worked for a HiFi manufacturer, taking new equipment in dedicated packaging, with backup and engineer support to shows was fairly nerve wracking. For owners bringing vintage equipment often bereft of packaging, let alone any formal service support, the worries are an order of magnitude worse.
Against logic, reason and common sense though, the idea worked. Since the first show in 2008, the show has refined some basic concepts and continued to grow. 2016 saw a marquee assembled in the grounds to give more space for visitors having refreshments and pouring over the records for sale. The hotel has learned other tricks too. A team is on hand in the morning to help exhibitors turn bedrooms into demo rooms by getting beds out of the way. Parking is no longer a free for all and perhaps most importantly, the bar is now adequately stocked. The mechanics of the show now work in a way basically in keeping with a more mainstream event.
The result of this is a show unlike any other I've been to or exhibited at (and for my sins, I've exhibited at all but two of these events). As there is no commercial imperative to the rooms- nothing is for sale and no manufacturers or retailers are involved- the whole affair is decidedly more relaxed, more like a classic car show than anything else. With only personal pride on the line, exhibitors are generally more likely to play the music they want rather than what might be considered low risk. This is a show where you're as likely to hear Austrian Death Machine as you are Norah Jones.
[caption id="attachment_2044" align="aligncenter" width="382"] Ed's setup[/caption]
It is also a celebration of analogue. Well over 75% of the rooms this year boasted a vinyl front end and in the 'main' room, straight in front of arriving guests, a team of committed (and brave) exhibitors had assembled over $100,000 worth of vinyl playback fronting a gigantic pair of horn loudspeakers. Elsewhere decks that ranged from "near scrap" (the owner's own words) to serious pieces of high end were on show and running in partnership with a huge variety of equipment. The show is a fantastic reminder of how good vinyl can be and the flexibility it offers in accompanying gear.
The show also brings some truly incredible records to your attention. Over the years, I have accrued at least thirty albums I first heard at the show and would never in a million years considered listening to them were it not for my introduction there. People also bring some incredibly rare and precious discs with them. This year was the first (and possibly only) time I've seen a copy of Air's Love 2 in the flesh while other very rare pressings made the journey to be played and enjoyed rather than sealed away while their owner worries if reading the inlay notes will drop condition from mint to near mint.
More than any of this, it is the sense of community it fosters. As you wind your way up a totally inappropriate set of stairs and through few fire doors with your pride and joy, you will inevitably question your sanity at some point. Before you know it, someone you barely know will be there grabbing doors, steadying boxes and ensuring you reach your destination. I managed to damage one of the two arms on my deck the day before the show (remember kids, grownups use tweezers to remove cartridge tags). Another forum user- despite having just read I'd botched my own arm- unhesitatingly offered the use of his identical one to ensure we could exhibit as intended.
And the joy of exhibiting is a profound one. The system I exhibited this year was a hybrid of some of my equipment, some belonging to a friend and a review sample there with the kind permission of its builder. The resulting collection of bits, combining as it did a pair of twenty year old loudspeakers, a brand new phono preamp and the collected works of ten different companies is the sort of thing that is never going to appear anywhere else and this is pretty much the case for every room in the show.
Of course, the cosy dimensions of the UK make this a more practical thing to do than it might be elsewhere but I'm increasingly convinced the concept has international potential. Being able to listen to other people's systems, to enjoy their music and to simply get to know them on a personal level is tremendously rewarding. It means that even as you sit there amongst the boxes of your system, realising you have to put it all back together, you still want to go and do it next year.
And make no mistake, I'll be back next year.
Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.