The Audio Show and the Myth of Crappy Sound Quality

I was cruising the web today and found this on the new HPSoundings:

Unfortunately, this show was not the most awe-inspiring in terms of overall sound. What show is? Mostly, I was left wanting something, anything, to grab a serious hold on my attention. There were, of course, notable and praiseworthy standouts, but essentially each room had significant flaws that were difficult to overcome. To me, the most important thing to take from a show such as the RMAF, is what the experience represents, in and of itself.

I’ve argued this before, so I’m not sure that belaboring the point is particularly productive, but here’s the short-form: no, a room doesn’t always “work”, and no, a crap demo doesn’t entail that the gear involved is at fault. But that being true, it doesn’t therefore also entail that no room will be good.

Yeah, yeah, yeah — unfamiliar room, strange acoustics — blah blah blah. Come on. Hotel rooms are not roving alien time/space warp-bubbles that eat sound and fart death. In point of fact, most of the rooms in a hotel are very regularly shaped and are easily “tuned” — unlike what most of us use as a listening room. Look, there is nothing about the nature of the universe that requires poor acoustics at an audio show so why pretend it’s impossible?

In my admittedly limited experience (only 10 shows so far!), I’ve yet to attend one that had uniformly bad sound — or anything even remotely close to it. I mean, think about it. We’re talking about several hundred professionals with something like a bazillion years of aggregate practical experience between them. We’re talking about teams that have access to rather sophisticated tools at their disposal, including several cottage industries that sell entire suites of measurably successful and market-proven products that do nothing but deal with the issues of “room setup” and “room interaction”. Isn’t it weird to think that they couldn’t somehow manage to pull together at least a few decent-sounding demos — even if by accident?

This is probably a dead horse by now, but whatever. To the vendors that actually take the time and expend the not-inconsiderable effort in constructing a successful demo for our listening pleasure, it’s the least we could do to recognize their skill, luck, and experience. Failing to do so because we have decided a priori that there can’t be good sound, because it’s a show and everybody knows all shows suck, isn’t that not only naive but disrespectful, too?


  1. Speaking purely personally, I have in the past used this as a “pre-defence” for non-audiophile friends who might decide to come along to an audio show to hear stratospherically-priced gear. Invariably they’re disappointed with what they hear (that’s another thread in itself) so it’s handy to manage expectations a bit by stating that sound is always crap at hifi shows. If it happens not to be, great. If it truly is crap, at least friends can still entertain the idea that I’m not simply deluded and in need of professional help.

    All that said, I agree with your article in general. I’ve heard some cracking sounds at shows.

  2. The reason why most reporters tow this line is because it gives them the opportunity to appear critical without actually criticising equipment or manufacturers. Generally the result of, “product X did not sound that great but I suspect the room had a lot to do with it” type reports is the reporter being offered the product for review – whereby, in their room, it sound much better, but never bad.
    Taking this approach the reporter/reviewer who would otherwise universally acclaim everything (including ridiculous SET amps costing thousands of dollars) is great, can maintain their quasi-critical appearance.

    On a slightly unrelated note; I agree whole heartedly with your comments on audio shows in general. More details and more HIGH RES photos please – who doesn’t like audio porn?

  3. I have never been to one of these shows. I have thought about going at times, just to see the gear, and enjoy the atmosphere.
    I would never expect to actually make purchasing decisions on what I hear there. Too many variables. I would probably expect that the sound experienced at a show would either reinforce in a positive or negative way what I would already expect of a particular piece of kit from manufacturer X. Of course I would want to hear the gear that I already own, and see how it performs in a small room etc.
    The other factor of course, is that it takes some time to adapt to a new sound. You cant judge a sound from a quick audition.

  4. I have to say that I’ve never been to an audio show, but have been to many trade shows of various types and say that the vendors at these shows do the best they can with the environment they have to work in. Of course the equipment may not sound perfect in a hotel room, and it take time to tune the system in to that room. How long does it take and how many tweaks does it take for me or you to get our own system sounding perfect in our own listening room? I know these guys spend a lot of time, effort and money into going to these shows to give us an opportunity to see what great stuff they’ve developed. To them I say, THANKS!

  5. Scot;

    While you say you’ve attended 10 shows, it’s pretty clear that you’ve never exhibited at one, otherwise you would recognize the enormous forces working against you in trying to make a good sound.

    For starters, you’re often assembling an unknown, untested system. Audio shows make strange partners, and if ,for example, you’re a speaker company, you’ll need to split your room with other manufacturers to keep it affordable. So you may have a source from one manufacturer, electronics from another, cables from a third etc, etc. Even if you’re all friends who respect and normally use each others gear, companies always want to show their latest widgets at the show, so the chances of having used all the components in your system together before the show are slim.

    Yes, even crappy hotel rooms with flimsy sheet rock walls can be tuned, but how much time do you have? Most of us have spent months or years fine tuning the gear setup, speaker placement, and room acoustics in our own systems. At a show, if you’re lucky there might be 18 hours from the time your gear shows up in the room until the show opens. Often, you will finally get everything assembled and switched on just around the time in the late evening when a noise curfew kicks in, and you can no longer play above whisper levels.

    Along with the short setup time, comes cold gear. Many components sound pretty crappy until they’ve warmed up for a few days. That’s why many rooms at a show will sound best on the final day. I once knew a manufacturer who would move into the show hotel a couple of days early, just so he could get his gear plugged in and warming up. Then, once he had access to the exhibit room, he would zip the gear over from his sleeping room to the show room as quickly as possible so he could plug it in again. Add in the fact than many manufacturers bring brand new gear that they haven’t even had a chance to break in yet, and you can have real problems.

    I could go on, but I’m getting kind of long winded.

    • I’m certainly not arguing with any of that. Room setup isn’t trivial — even when you have “all the time in the world”. And yes, it’s hard — granted.

      But the problem with show reportage, which is what I was arguing about, is that there’s the assumption that no show demo can sound good, so why bother talking about sound quality at an audio show? Everybody knows it’s gonna suck, wink wink …. which is complete bollux. Even with all the challenges you outlined — and more besides — a great many audio show rooms do sound much better than good. How does this miracle happen? I’m guessing here that, whatever the reason, it’s not divine intervention. Nor is it as unusual as a lightning strike or a visit from the Lotto Fairy.

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