I really like audio shows. Apparently, you do too. My most popular posts are from reports on a show. This site’s biggest surges in traffic occur around shows. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Stereophile, TAS, and others would show a similar swings in their traffic patterns, albeit on a scale a bit different from my own feeble offerings. So, for the sake of the argument I’m about to rant on and on about, let’s take it as read that the “audio show” is of interest to the general public. The question, then, is why show coverage usually blows.
I got to thinking about this again yesterday after a responding to a comment that came in about RMAF. And the more I thought about it, the more issues I got tangled up in. To my thinking, at least, there’s a lot going on here, so I thought I’d take a moment and get a bit more formal about what I think is going on, point a finger at some underlying causes and concerns, and talk about my approach and why and how I “do it” the way that I do.
The blogosphere is different
The high end audio industry is really insular. Shocker, isn’t it? Okay, no, no revelation there. But it does have some implications for the current state of affairs, so this is probably as good a place as any to start.
Stereophile has been publishing for about a hundred years or so. The Absolute Sound has been around for even longer. Okay, I exaggerate, but the point isn’t publishing dates but rather the fact that both are very established print-publication media outlets. In print, you have certain concerns that simply don’t apply to a more Internet-friendly medium, like blogging. To wit — there’s simply no issue with word count and space considerations when you’re publishing online. At least, not to the extent that such things are relevant to print. I like to point out this rather obvious point when talking about TAS specifically, and their coverage of shows. When they cover a show, TAS covers a show — they marshal a half-dozen or more crack reviewers and send them off with their overly precise assignments, each given what appears to be a word-count window in which to describe their various experiences. I really enjoy reading through these, but it’s most definitely an approach that favors print media — what you end up with is a summary of the show, albeit one from a variety of perspectives. If you wanted granularity or detail, well, that’s too bad. TAS won’t get that for you. You get the highlight reel and that’s about it. Hope you like what we liked! After reading through their coverage, I always feel like I might have missed something. Like the whole show.
That’s where Stereophile steps in. With their new, Internet-ready, made-for-the-blogosphere approach of a single post per “interest item”, you’ll get a pic or two and several lines talking about what that pic is talking to. You’ll get posts about events, gear, personalities, and innovations. What you won’t get … is comprehensiveness. And if I’m being perfectly fair, you don’t get a lot of depth either, but what you do get is a lot more than what TAS is offering. And while I’m being honest, Stereophile’s approach feels a bit capricious — why one thing is captured and not another, or more accurately, why not 10 of the others, isn’t really explained other than by omission. Young Stephen Mejias (he’s younger than me, so I’m entitled to lord our not terribly significant age difference over him) alludes to some of the “why Stereophile does that” in a recent post about shows while he’s talking about how hard he finds them to work. Which brings me to the next problem.
No matter what your job is, no one will understand how hard or painful or tedious it can be — until they do it for themselves. And tradeshows are particularly challenging. There’s a new place to be, and if there’s an overnight involved, there’s the sleep issue. And the travel costs. And all that unfamiliar stimulation. And then there’s the pace. All those faces to see and hands to shake and catching up to do. Don’t forget the drinking, eating, and bemoaning all the eating and drinking that you just did. Keeping track of all your shit. Getting to everywhere you need to be. More faces and hands. And somewhere in there, there’s a job to do. While it can be exhilarating, it’s also overwhelming. Exhausting. Even something of a grind.
So, how does this relate to suckage in reportage? Pretty directly, actually. The folks that “do shows” are pretty much the same “poor schmucks” that have always done shows. They’re usually old, with years and years of industry experience (i.e., they’ve done lots and lots of them) — or they’re total noobs just aping those “more esteemed” colleagues in an attempt to appear wise, trustworthy or otherwise not-a-complete-noob. Anyway, it seems, according to these august gentlemen, that there are certain truths that become obvious after you’ve “done” more than a couple of shows.
- One, sound quality always sucks.
- Two, attendance always blows.
- No show is as good as it used to be, back in the day.
- Three, there’s nothing new to see, hear or do, because, honestly? Everything has already been seen, heard and done before. Repeatedly.
I think this is what happens to many professionals in any profession. It’s a kind of ennui that settles in. It’s this blanket that dulls the senses, kills the excitement, and takes the sting of panic out the frantic pace. It makes it possible to move through the motions of being totally out of your (wildly introverted) comfort zone. It also is a tremendously useful excuse for totally sucking at your job and justifying spending all your time doing something you find endlessly interesting — like gossiping like a high school cheerleader who just saw the quarterback making out with your supposedly BFF. Said another way, instead of “working”, you goofed off. It’s not because you suck, which you do, but because you’re thinking, “Who really cares? Shows are stupid. It’s all about the networking, am I right?!?”
You know how this happens? Editors send the wrong people to shows. If it’s true that the sound quality at shows always sucks (which is flatly false), then there’s absolutely no reason to send grumpy old reviewers. Instead, you need to send reporters. And yes, there is a difference. You know who’s a good reporter? John Atkinson, the Editor at Stereophile. I’m not saying he isn’t a reviewer, too, because he clearly is. But have you ever seen John at a show? It’s like he has demons driving him from room to room. That man works a show. You know who’s a bad reporter? Yeah, it’s a pretty long list.
Pictures are not worth shit without words
Here’s a pet peeve — “show coverage” that has some high-level overview BS and then posts a couple (dozen, hundred, whatever) pics that are totally unlabeled or in any way usefully identified. Drives me insane. I mean, why the fuck did you even bother? Did you just go room-to-room, take a pic, and just leave? What the hell? As an editor, that’d drive me up a wall. I can’t imagine an editor posting anything like that. What am I looking at? Why do I care? At the very least, tell me the manufacturer and models of something that’s in the pic! Actually, don’t bother. You’re fired.
Here’s a related complaint, but not really a peeve — I really wish that editors felt that audio show coverage warranted good, quality photojournalism. Or at least half-assed photo journalism — like mine, for example. But, sorry, no — a point-and-shoot camera isn’t cutting it anymore, and that half-assed, single, fuzzy, “room shot” is almost not worth bothering with. I’m not saying that an editor has to send a pro photographer along for the ride, but seriously, pics snapped from a $100 point-and-shoot — or worse, an iPad — is just kind of insulting.
Note to the photosnappers: take a second. Maybe even 60 seconds. Take your time and actually set up the shot. Remember, this is what your reader is clicking on your shit for, so take that pic — and then check it. Do us all a favor and take a half dozen more, just to be sure that you have at least one pristine pic to post along with your insightful and incisive commentary. And, for bonus points, include more than one pic in that write up. And no, that doesn’t mean two pics total. I mean five. Hell, ten wouldn’t be out of place. If you’re in a room, talking about all the expensive products on display there, take the pics to prove it and that show the respect that that hard working manufacturer deserves.
Of course, this critique hits me equally as I don’t really do this multi-pic approach as universally as I ought to, either (but I will in the future!). But here’s a game for you. Want to see which posts correlate with the most time I spent in a room? Count the pics. If there’s just one, there’s a reason for it. Of course, that reason might be “battery failure” or “camera malfunction”, but still. There’s a reason. And if that reason is hardware related, I’ll mention that. If I don’t, well, feel free to draw your own conclusions.
Crazy Eddie (er, “Editor”)
I think some of the most confusing show reports can be laid at the feet of bad editorial decisions. Having your team of crack(pot) “reporters” canvassing a show with a very specific agenda (speakers under $5,000, or only digital, or analog over $10,000) is insanely limiting. Last I checked, most displays were multi-faceted in that they tended to have more than one category of gear represented. Totem Acoustics tends to show with, well, amps, for example. And they tend to show speakers at several price points. So, what, you have 2 or more “reporters” hitting that room to dissect the system on display?
Is it just me, or does that seem totally asinine?
I remember chatting with a manufacturer after a show, relating an experience where he attempted (unsuccessfully) to talk several reporters into actually staying and listening to a piece of gear that didn’t quite fit their assignments. Let’s just say that I can’t imagine a result where this sort of a priori division of labor will lead to superior copy.
There is a better way. If you’re lucky enough to “have staff” to cover a show, do it in the way that the show is itself naturally organized. By rooms. RMAF, at the Marriott in Denver Tech Center, has a tower, the main floor and a mezzanine, and another, multi-floor courtyard area. Give someone the tower. Someone else the main floor/mezz. The third gets the courtyard/tower. Each one goes through, room by room, and presents what they find there.
This is exactly what I do, by myself. I start at one end and work my way through. Sure, I’ll double back. Why not? I’ll make a note to follow up, and if I can, I do. If there were two of me, or three (or more) or I had some particular interest or specialty or experience with a given piece of gear, I’d simply add the room that had that element I was interested in to my room-by-room coverage, or make sure it was in my coverage patch to begin with.
Seriously, folks. How hard can this be?
It’s all about me
So, what do I — as a consumer — want out of a show report?
- A room by room synopsis. Every room! I want to know what was in a given room, what it costs, and how I’m able to order it or find out more about it. This is the absolute bare minimum and is pretty much tantamount to labeling your pictures. Didn’t do it? Don’t bother posting it.
- Tell me if the sound in the room was good, bad or uncertain. Tricky line to walk, sure, but if it was great, tell me all about it. Tell me who was talking about it. Tell me the reactions of the crowd, your friends, your colleagues, your frenemies. Was there serious hating going on? Green waves of jealousy? Looks of smug self-satisfaction?
- If there was an event, a show, a performance or something that happened during the show, make it its own post! Make me feel like I was there.
- Pictures. I want pictures! Lots and lots of pictures. Remember, if I’m right, an audio show is taking over some of the work that those now-vanished dealerships used to — so, in the case of the show report, part of what the consumer is looking for is fuel for the fires of longing. So, take some damn pics already. And none of that crappy point-and-shoot stuff. I’m talking real lighting, interesting angles, and all the appeal you can bring to the pic. People are going to be lusting after those objets d’art, so sex it up a bit, willya?
- What’s new? If it’s new product, I want to know. If it’s a new feature on an old product, tell me all about it how much cooler this new widget is or at least link to a fuller discussion. If there’s something about this product or feature that’s revolutionary — make that revolutionary item the subject of its own post!
- Show me the faces! This is a bit off the path, but if I can’t get to the show, I miss out on a lot. Playing “who’s who”, and weaving that into a room report is fun, as long as it isn’t what’s eating up all the copy. I find that I like seeing the designers and corporate flunkies flogging products thrown into the verbal/pictorial mix, but I don’t need an in depth interview or even a quote. Who was there, what were they all doing — that’s enough to add serious flavor to dull reportage. If you need to go deep with anyone in particular, new post!
- Tell me what’s hot. Was there a buzz at the show? Before the show? After? What were folks talking about or fighting over? Don’t just show, tell me what all the hubbub was centering on. Bring me in! It’s like eavesdropping at the water cooler, even it is totally vicarious. Speaking of eavesdropping — were there any major catastrophes? Those are always fun. Any gear explode? Catch fire?
I think that’s it. Tell it. Show it. And then tell it again, but this time, with feeling.
I don’t get paid to do this stuff (though I am open to suggestions on how to make that happen), so as I’ve often said about this site, you get what get and you’re lucky to get it. But when I go to an audio show, it’s like a vacation. Sort of. One that I run around like a madman at, forget to eat, don’t drink nearly enough coffee or water (but plenty of booze for some reason, curious, no?), don’t sleep enough, and generally walk away from with weak knees and a ringing head. But it’s fun. No, really! It is. Well, at the very least, it’s way different than my day job and sometimes (most times) that’s vacation enough.
But I guess it’s like anything — do it enough and it’s no longer special. Which is a shame. Or would be, if I was getting burned out. I just wish more show-reviewers would at least fake it better.
So, when I hit a show, like RMAF for example, I’ll be there at opening. Usually before. “Oh, but rooms sound terrible at the opening — they don’t sound right until the last day!” This is another pernicious “truism” used to justify total slackitude and it’s simply, patently, and obviously not true. Most displays have been setup at least 48 hours earlier and have been running pretty constantly, with near-constant tweaking, for at least a full day before the curtain goes up. They’re gonna sound good on Day 1. Or not.
By 1pm on that first Friday, I want to have already been in half a dozen rooms already. I’m still working out how to best/most thoroughly do this. I need to get more aggressive about asking someone on duty “what’s new?” before snapping my pics, grabbing literature, sitting in the sweet spot for a couple of minutes and then moving on.
“Oh, come now,” says you, the ingrate purist. “How can you really appreciate what you’re hearing if you’re only in the room for 5 minutes?”
To which I have to reply: “how long does it normally take you to realize something is good or bad?”
Here’s the fact of the matter: any psychologist will tell you that the human animal always makes snap judgements about perceptions — including about sound quality. And given that it’s terrifically difficult to pull out the sonic contribution of a single element in a system when you’re unfamiliar with every single bit in it, all you can reasonably do is judge the system as a whole. In the end, what you’re mostly commenting on is the skill of the setup team, the aesthetic of whoever put the display together, and the synergy of that system — as a whole. And you can usually get a good feel for all that in the first 30 seconds. If it doesn’t work, there’s really no point in hanging around as it’s going to be almost impossible to ID the weak link. Hit enough of these in a row and you’re no longer wondering why pro reviewers aren’t bothering to actually cover the show they’re attending. Unlucky, I guess, but giving up is such a pathetic over-reaction. Anyway, untangling sound quality is one reason why I don’t really bother to slam rooms. I mean, where do I start? Was it the room? The gear? The setup? Lack of/the wrong room treatments? Some lack of synergy between components? Sometimes, it’s obvious what the problem is (giant speaker + highly reflective room = bad sound), but usually its not. So, dissecting the corpse of a not-great sounding room is kind of like kicking someone when they’re down. It’s just gratuitous. Sometimes, I’ll allude to it in the write up, but unless it’s particularly egregious, I’ll usually not talk about the sound quality at all, or perhaps I’ll pass over the room entirely, and just move on. Not to say that if your room doesn’t get a note from me that it sounded bad, though. I’m just one guy, folks.
When I’m more familiar with one or more of the components, or something seems to click with the system as a whole, I sit. I’ll drag out my own music if the room isn’t besieged. I’ll ask questions, try and get at what it is that I think is going on, at least a bit. And then I move on. Honestly, I’d love to linger and hang out. Some of these rooms are just phenomenal, and even when they’re not, I really love some of the personalities involved in this industry. I like to think that I’ve made some friends in my short foray into the industry and catching up with them is great. But that’s what beer (or wine, or scotch) is for. Show time is boogie time.
I’ll try to work systematically. I’ll usually start with what’s right in front of me and work at angles until the floor I’m on is done. Then I’ll move to the next. If a room is jammed, I’m liable to make a note about it and move on. When I have time, I’ll come back around. If a room is full of crap I couldn’t afford without inheriting Mitt Romney money, I’ll skip that too. Statement pieces that cost more than a Mercedes-Benz are usually more about penis size than about sound quality, so if you’re into that, well, there are places to get that sorted out. I tend to skip those rooms as a matter of course in favor of getting to more rooms — I figure that’s where all the “audio authorities” are hanging out anyway, so it’s not like those rooms aren’t getting covered. Sure, I’ll go in if it’s convenient (read: right in front of me), but if it’s at all crowded or the music isn’t playing, or if there’s a stuffy vibe, screw it. Movin’ on ….
I’d like to say that I spend the evenings scribbling furiously, but I usually am too fried to do that. The aftershow is for falling down, or failing that, food, gossip, and talking smack. Ted or Barrows or Michael or whomever I run into will have the scoop on some shit I totally missed out on (scribble scribble) and this is how I set or alter the agenda for Day 2 (or Day 3 at RMAF).
It’s clumsy but it works. At least a little bit.
The Year of the Show
I think the audio show is here to stay. More folks come to the regional shows than ever before — and there are more of them now than ever before, too. The whys and wherefores of this are a bit beyond me, but as a consumer, I have an idea — good, local dealers are harder to find these days, but information is ever more plentiful. Consumers like me get inundated (if we want) with data and impressions and advertising from a ton of sources (including me!).
When a consumer wants to take that next step, the first thought is: stop at a shop. But brick-and-mortar mega-dealerships that have dozens of different product lines that you can come in and hear, see and feel, are by and large gone from our local neighborhoods, victims of a long drought in the economy. Sure, some of them still exist, but those that do may not be convenient. So, if you have to drive all day to get to one of those stores anyway, why not just go to a show instead? A show is likely to have ten times the variety, it feels like a party, I can talk to actual designers and manufacturers, so what’s not to like? I can very quickly sort through a bunch of rooms and a ton of gear I may have never seen before (but I’ve read a ton about), and I might even be able to score a great deal — sign me up!
It’s a theory.
January: CES & T.H.E. Show
This is the megamother. Every name that is a name in the Big Leagues of high end audio is at CES. Even those brands that don’t bother to go to any other show, well, they go to CES. The year’s upcoming new product announcements are all made at CES. If you’re going to go to one show during the year, CES is the one where you’ll get the full impact of the shock-and-awe approach to audio. It’s like the Super Bowl of the audio show circuit. Supposedly, this show is just for press, but that’s kinda BS. If you want to get in, you’ll be able to get in. Now, I say all this, but, I’ve never actually been to this show. I was going to go this year, but the dates didn’t work, so, c’est la vie. Next year? We’ll see.
March 9-11: AXPONA
This is also called “The Stereophile Show” as they’re a big sponsor. I went to this last year, and it was pretty good. It was a bit small as show’s go, I was able to hit every room at least once in a single day — even if it felt a bit rushed. As that was all I had money for, that worked out pretty well. I’ll probably hit this one again if I can get some cheap flights.
April 13-15th: New York Audio & A/V Show
This is a new show (new to me, at least), but it’s a short hop to get to The City from here, so I’ll probably spend at least a day up here for this one. No real expectations here, but NYC has a ton of great shops and a bazillion audiophiles with serious cash. It’s being held at the Waldorf, too, which should be hilarious.
June 1-3rd: T.H.E. Show at Newport Beach
I’m told that this is the show to hit, after CES and RMAF. It’s pretty big for the same reason that the New York Show could be big. LA has some great big audio shops and a ton of audiophiles running around all of which adds up to a really beeeg shewwww. I’ve never been, so I have no idea what to expect here. This is also a mandatory stay-over show, so it’s gonna be expensive. No idea how to square this one yet, but here’s to high hopes.
July 13-15th: The Capital Audiofest
Local show! This one is a no-brainer for me as it’s all of 20 minutes from my house. I’ll be there as many days as I can get a hall-pass for. The last two years have been progressively more interesting and I think this year will be the year CAF breaks out.
If there’s only one show to go to all year, most folks will tell you that CES has all the glitz and glam. It’s Vegas, baby! But RMAF is the one that the audiophiles actually go to. The biggest show — by far — in terms of rooms filled to the rafters with audio goodness, RMAF has never disappointed. There is so much here that it defies description, but if you’re up for a road trip, this is the one I tell everyone to not miss. I’ll be there with bells on. Again.