Tonbridge Audiojumble, Winter 2011

by Ken Kessler | March 3, 2011

Deeming something "the world’s best" is risky, unless you’re absolutely certain that you’ve experienced every rival. But as far as hi-fi flea markets go, I don’t suspect there are that many as well organized or well attended as John Howes’ semi-annual event at the Angel Centre in Tonbridge, Kent, in the UK. I recall a tube-oriented vintage hardware event in Rome and Milan, a valve-radio show in another part of the UK, and there may be others -– but the consensus is that Howes’ show is the best for secondhand gear.

According to Howes, who sells and restores as well as collects (he’s big on UK-made horn speakers from Voigt), this year’s event in February apparently had the best attendance ever, and the vibe was sensational. It felt the way hi-fi shows used to feel. But the proof that the show has grown beyond the confines of the UK is the increase in foreign enthusiasts. Yes, the show has always attracted a smattering of vintage-audio specialists from Italy, Germany, and France, but of late there’s been an increase in the number of the heaviest hitters of all: collectors from the Far East. For decades, the Japanese have been the most fastidious, enthusiastic, and insatiable, but Korean collectors now match them for selective acquisitiveness. And they go straight to the most rare items.

At this fair, as you’d expect, there’s a preponderance of vintage British hardware. If there’s an equivalent event in the US (please let me know of one), you’d expect it to be top-heavy with American components. But the Howes show never fails to surprise, and I am kicking myself for missing a pair of mint Acoustic Research AR4xes, while Howes himself was seen coveting a vintage McIntosh tuner. I got lucky, too: I swapped three LPs for an ADC turntable. Other gems noted were a pair of old DCMs, some ancient Thorens record players, loads of NOS tubes, every model of Quad amp, tasty Tannoys, plenty of vinyl, and turntables galore.

At every Howes show, three items are snapped up before any others: any decent Radford tube amps, anything from Nagra, and BBC LS3/5As, particularly the less-common 15-ohm models from Chartwell, Goodmans, and the like. SME tonearms don’t hang around for long, either, and this show is the best place to be if you crave a Thorens TD124 or a Garrard 301 or 401.

So, if you’re in the Southeastern part of the UK any February or October, and can spare a jaunt that’s less than an hour from London, you simply have to check it out. Visit for details.

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