I think I see where you are coming from, in that it mirrors some of my experience, and some of my evaluation of printing approaches. I certainly identify with your "journey" in terms of examining how you want your work to look. There are certainly lots of variations!
Technically, AZO has brighter whites, blacker blacks and a longer gray scale than anything else I've seen. For many scenes, its rendition is (IMO) the finest available in a silver paper. For other scenes, another paper might be preferable.
Esthectically, You can develop/print anywhere from a long gray scale with just a touch of pure black and white (I'm thinking John Sexton's Tmax work here) to a intense black and white with no in between (Bill Brandt). Either one is a valid expression and neither is more correct than the other.
A guy on the Leica forum on photo.net asked one of the rarely astute questions on that forum for which he never received an adequate answer. He rated his tri-x at 400 and was told by his professional lab that if he rated his film at 650, as many notable photojournalists do, his work would have more impact. What did people think of this approach? The point is, is that it depends what you want. do you want a longer gray scale with better shadow detail or do you want "impact".
AZO, to me, has a bold, yet subtle tonal range. (I sound like I'm giving a wine review!). Nothing better for getting your zones from the real world on paper. Enlarging paper has more impact yet less separated shadows and highlights (which might be better for both portraits and pumping up a low contrast scene.)
I think you summed up the purpose of your posting in the first sentence, "for those who might be considering a change of materials."
Personal aesthetic (other than having something to say) is the toughest part of this. I hate when I print a negative a few different ways and at the end of it, all I can say is that I like certain aspects of each of the print treatments better.
For myself, I'm moving back the other way, (having enlarged 5x7 for years)... I've mounted the 8x10 standard on my monorail and will restrict myself to a 300mm lens, and plan to print exclusively on AZO for about a year. Maybe we can swap some prints along the way...