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CES 2013: The Greatest (Audio) Show On Earth?

CES High End Audio @ The Ventian

Walking up to the Venetian

A tower outside the Venetian Hotel

The Audio Show

Blasphemy. That's what it is, plain and simple -- blasphemy. I mean, how is it possible that "The Denver Show" isn't the greatest audio show on Earth? The very idea boggles the mind. It has the crowds, the products, the history -- it is The People's Show, after all, and it's The People that make this such a great and wondrous hobby. Am I right?!? Umm, no. Look, I love RMAF -- with a hot burning passion that would make Diana Krall roll her eyes and shudder in mock horror. Oh, yes, indeed I do -- and no, I'll not say an unkind word about that Grande Dame of the audio show circuit, because RMAF is a great show. Mmm, mmm, delicious. But I have to ask -- okay, I don't have to, but I find myself compelled to, so I suppose it's the same thing -- what is an audio show for? Note that this is different from asking who an audio show is for, a question I find quite interesting of itself. In fact, let's take that first as a way of explaining the other.

There are three types of audio show attendee. Yes, there are probably more, but for the point I’m trying to make, there are three. Work with me here, okay? Okay — here are the three:

  1. The audiophile, looking to see what’s what, hobnob, and generally spend some time with the like-minded
  2. The prospective buyer, that is, someone with cash and looking to spend it in the next 60 or so days
  3. The industry affiliate — a vendor, a distributor, a dealer, a reporter, a reviewer, or a friend of one of the above

I’d wager that most of us think that audio shows serve these three groups of folks pretty much equally. This would be wrong, but I feel pretty confident that this is where most of us would come down, if pressed. Why wrong? Because not every show is the same — they really don’t (and shouldn’t) all serve the same audience, nor serve different audiences to the same degree.

A local audio club is really where Group 1 “fits”. Not saying that Group 2 (or Group 3) can’t be served there, but the point of those clubs is to hang out, share, and learn. A regional show, arguably, targets Group 2 (more on this in a second). And then there’s CES. The Consumer Electronics Show, now in its 548th year, serves exactly one and only one group — Group 3. Group 2, the buyers, are curiosities and happily entertained, but generally viewed as on par with three-eyed five-legged bugs — “how did you get in here?” I mean that seriously — random consumers aren’t even invited; please disregard the word “Consumer” in “Consumer Electronics Show”. No, CES isn’t RMAF (or Newport, or AXPONA, or CAF, &c) — this thing, this entire thing, the “what is a show for” is answered quite directly: CES was designed as a showcase of technology … for … sellers. Oh, and press. Yeah, can’t forget them. Now, by contrast, T.H.E. Show at Las Vegas, which runs pretty much concurrent with CES, is a “regular show” — which means that the attendee bias tends to be … well, definitely not Group 3. With me so far?

So, looping back to the problem … the problem is that people come to a show are rarely who you want them to be.

People who pay to rent space at an audio show want to make sure that the money they spend there is actually well-spent. No shocker. They’d like the foot-traffic coming through their carefully set-up rooms to be predominantly of their targeted interest-group. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they’re not there to hang out, by and large (sorry, Group 1). For many vendors, an audio show is marketing at worst and a store-front at best, but however you cut it, it’s all part of the sales “proof cycle” — one step or another along the path of parting consumer from funds. Yes, I’m oversimplifying it, but here’s the steel-in-the-glove — for most vendors and most audio shows, the point is sales, and who they want to see is hordes of Group 2 folks. Group 1 is “nice” — word of mouth is always helpful — and Group 3 may have a happy gem or two tossed into the mix. But the point is still sales.

Talk to an exhibitor after a day on a show floor. Get ’em a beer. Ask ’em “how the day went”. And they’ll tell you — crowds were light, traffic was thin, interest was off. What do they mean? That the majority of the traffic wasn’t Group 2. And this is, in a nutshell, the problem with today’s audio show. It’s an easy problem to have, really. Why? Because show organizers don’t really care. I mean, they care in that they’re specifically interested in ensuring that the exhibitors continue to do so, but that’s really as far as they go — they’re financially incentivized to fill the space. They’re paid by attendees: 1,000 paying show goers contributing $10-$30 each. They’re paid by exhibitors: 40-200 show rooms at $2,500-$5,000 each. To justify the prices of the latter, they point to the numbers of the former — “show with us and put your products in front of thousands!” If, of those thousands, only dozens are actual buyers, well, that’s unfortunate … but that isn’t the fault of the show, is it? Perhaps it’s the products, their pricing, or the deal being offered? How true this rings depends entirely on who you ask.

There’s a certain sense to the notion of “audio show as store front”, especially in light of recent — and by “recent”, I mean “the last decade” — economic issues that have resulted in a rather dramatic constriction of the reseller channel (aka, “the dealer network”). Without a reliable, local, brick and mortar outlet to serve every potential customer, vendors are resorting to alternative means to drive interest such as direct-to-consumer marketing and sales, and to satisfy the tire-kickers, the audio show circuit.

So, back to the problem — the mix at an audio show like RMAF is pretty thorough-going, and admittedly, some are worse than others. But at any regional show, there are lots of non-buyers wandering the halls, chatting up the “celebrities”, ogling the wares, filling up the air and seats. And that’s how it is. RMAF is perhaps the best of the best when it comes to consumer-facing shows — 170+ rooms and thousands of attendees, it’s a menagerie in the best possible sense of the word. But it’s also fractured, with significant representation of all three major attendee Groups. And most of the regional audio shows can only aspire to its draw — both in attendees and exhibitors.

Which brings me, full circle, back to CES and its clarity of purpose. Yes, there are folks there happy to sell to consumer — but that’s not on the docket at sign up. It’s not why vendors show there. It’s not even hoped for. If it happens, it’s a happy, bizarre accident. No, at CES, everyone is there for one reason — to show off. And boy-howdy, do they.

They’re there to show their newest shit. Their coolest tech. Their world-beaters, their game-changers, their new secret sauce. It’s in the smug expressions of the exhibitors, their confident whisper, their elegant displays. Look what we just did.

And that’s why CES may be the greatest audio show on earth: clarity. Expectations of both visitor and attendee were obvious. Both sides put forth a good show. Many hands were shaken, many babies summarily kissed, many bottles of Purell unceremoniously emptied. Alcohol in some form or other flowed in just about every-other room. It was … fun?

Look — don’t get me wrong. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — I love RMAF. In fact, I love the other regionals almost as much. There’s just a different vibe at those shows that comes from, I think, competing needs. Those shows are a bit about competition, about leveraging yourself up and elbowing yourself forward. Yes, there’s fun. Yes, there’s cool gear. Yes, there’s interesting personalities. But CES is … distilled. Focused. Intense. This is where the big guns show up and pull rabbits out of hats. CES is where things start. And that makes it cool and interesting.

Well, that … and the bewildering variety, of course. That’s pretty freakin’ awesome, too.

Welcome to the Zoo

And by “bewildering variety”, I mean just that. This show is ‘stunning’ in the sense that it will, at least temporarily, cause you to cease all mental and physical function. Yeah, really. Let me pause a sec here — I have to ask — have you ever been to a trade show? Not an audio show. A trade show. Small confession — I’ve been in the “IT Industry” for the last 20 years now, and I’ve been to a lot of trade shows. They’re neat, especially the extravaganza ones that attempt to outdo some standard set elsewhere/else-when. The displays get crazy, the hawkers get intense, the in-your-facedness of it all goes so deliriously over the top. So, with all the technology showcases I’ve been to, for all the trade shows I’ve attended or staffed or exhibited at, for all the mayhem and general insanity of even the most wild and bizarre and absurd, CES sets itself apart in the same way that the World Tree makes other trees seem like newly-sprouted weeds. It is the fount of insane. Yeee-haw, motherf***er!

The main show happens over at the Las Vegas Convention Center, a two-stop monorail ride from the Flamingo Hotel (where T.H.E. Show is held). Gibson had a big tent-like-thing set up at the foot of exit — the giant headphones were a dead giveaway to … well, something. Personally, I’ve never understood the whole Gibson + Onkyo thing, but whatever. The wisdom of certain “market adjacencies” may require more explanation than I have patience to understand.

Moving in to the main show floor, I saw more video screens than I’ve ever seen before. Not like, “the most in one place”, I mean “in my whole life. They were everywhere and everyone was showing off their latest. OLED, 4k, flexible, or simply gigantic — and while I personally couldn’t give a flying f***, folks certainly were exercised about all of it. Unfortunately (for me), I guess I just don’t get it. An 84″ TV? Dude. It’s been 5 years, and I’m still having trouble justifying my 50″ LCD to my wife. Blacker blacks? Hmm. Yeah. And you think audiophiles talk silly? Ha.

I think the first real clue that CES was different from other gadget showcases I’ve been to in the past was all the car stuff. I mean, there was an entire show floor (one of three) that appeared dedicated to all things auto. WTF?

Other observations — there could have been entire showfloors dedicated to two other things: personal device “accessories” and headphones. I think I counted no less than 5 million new headphones being introduced here. And twice as many cases, covers, decals, adapters, and widgets for your iDevice. Man oh man was there a lot of crap on display. Lots of plasticky shit, destined for some landfill or other, by way of some sweaty-faced hopeful that was convinced that this would be their ticket. Sorry, that was a bit mean, but that was my feeling wandering through some of the outer-reaches. The farther you spun away from the galaxy-core that was Sony, the higher the optimism and hopefulness quotient. It was kinda sweet.

Speaking of Sony. Their display floor was about an acre, filled with white columns and display cases, and entirely encircled by a Mobius strip of a display screen. Set about 8″ off the ground and about 8″ high, the entire interior surface was showing movies. That’s like 1,000 linear feet of motion pictures. There were huge displays from Canon (yay!), Nikon (boo!), Polaroid (didn’t they go out of business?) and a monster telescope from Celestron that had me really reconsidering expensive amplifiers. Monster Cable had someone spinning around on her head, break dancing, I think. Video games and consoles and more games, and and and and. Lions, tigers and bears. Oh my.

CES and the World of High End Audio

By comparison, the Venetian was tame. Which is almost bizarre to write — I mean, the Venetian as a hotel is most definitely not tame. An exercise in excess in itself, the contrast between the High End Audio portion of CES and the carnival that was the LVCC was exactly like entering a different world. A really posh one at that.

The High End Audio “area” of CES was confined to 4 floors of the Venetian Tower. Laid out like a three-fingered … flower (?) … the first two floors (29 and 30) had demo rooms in just about every room. I figure there were almost 150 demo rooms on these two floors alone. Add another 20 “luxury suites” on the upper floors (34 and 35) and you have a show about the same size as RMAF. And that’s not counting the football-field sized booth-stuffed show floors over in the Venetian proper. Yeah. CES is big.

The average demo room at the Venetian is something like 800+ sq ft. Yes, really. There’s plenty of room to set up even tricksy loudspeakers — and even with room for seating after all that. And space left over to have a static display or five. Yes, really. I did say the Venetian was an exercise in excess, didn’t I? Seriously — and I can think of a better hotel to have an audio show at. Space … and some isolation. Room to room interactions were almost entirely local — the guys across the hall, or perhaps right next to you, might fuck up a demo, but it was rare.

On average, I thought the sound quality at this show was “very good”. With that kind of bar, it was hard for anything to really stand out. I’ll try and mention the exceptional inline. On average, the exhibitors were polite and helpful — almost to a fault. Again, this was focus. With very little to distract them, most rooms had price/gear sheets to help me understand what I was seeing and hearing, and most of the vendors were able to quickly and efficiently funnel me through to the new and interesting. Almost every room had some kind of space set aside for meetings — even if it was just a jumbo-sized restroom (you could play air hockey in one without banging your elbows on anything). And those little spaces were humming with traffic — the dealers and distributors negotiating new and renegotiating old contracts and who knew what else. On the exhibitor list were some of the biggest and baddest names in audio — Magico, YG, Conrad-Johnson, Magnepan, Wilson Audio, Boulder Amplifiers, Lamm, Harman-Kardon, MBL, Bang & Olufsen, Totem, Meridian, Dynaudio, Pioneer — and several hundred more. It’s … overwhelming. Exhausting. But whatever your adjectival preference, what it wasn’t was boring.

T.H.E. Show in Las Vegas

And it wasn’t even all that was happening in audio that week. F***, I had another entire show to visit. Ha … ha … ha ….

Shell shocked, I walked into the T.H.E. Show and was transported. The intensity was gone and in its place was the familiar blend of spices that said “audio show”. I saw “show special” signs and VISA card readers and order forms. Yes, this was more familiar for sure. More Diana Krall. More “Keith Don’t Go”. More “sweet spot music”. Let’s just say that I finally got to use the CDs I’d been toting around — and got some rather surprising results!

All in all, I was impressed with CES, but on the flight home that Friday, I wasn’t having a list of best-in-show simply pop out at me. By contrast, several rooms at T.H.E. Show made little happy-spaces in my head that I was able to revisit while Grandma Shirley (that’s what all her friends call her, yes indeed they do, uh huh!) told me all about her book club intrigues. I do so love getting jammed into the center seat, don’t you?

Meanderings

My wife chided me for not bringing me running shoes, perhaps suggesting I needed to get some exercise while I was “out there enjoying myself”. Walking a mile from my hotel to the show, a mile back, and several miles actually at the show each day, I think I managed a fair bit of a leg stretch. Happily, I remembered Steven Stone’s recommendation to bring multiple pairs of shoes — the rather impressive set blisters I had by the end of Day 2 was simply an unpleasant interlude and not a game-ender.

I managed to cover CES’ High End Audio show in two days and I could have used a third, possibly a fourth. T.H.E. Show in Las Vegas took about a day. And then there was the Main Show at the LVCC (and then there was the stuff at the LVH and elsewhere that I didn’t get to …). Yeah. Too much to do ….

And too much to eat. Staying at the Flamingo, I had to try Center Cut, but my favorite meal came from B&B Ristorante — best pasta ever! I had pastrami and corned beef sandwich that could have fed a table of five at a Carnegie Deli; and at Hash House A Go Go, I tried to eat a plate of Fried Chicken Benedict, a Man Vs Food recommendation — it was awesome, by the way. By the way, anybody seen my diet? I seem to have misplaced it somewhere ….

Did I mention that a cab ride down the block costs $20? Or to the airport? Or to just about anywhere, even if your destination happens to be across the f***ing street? G**d*** cabbies. A cup of (drip) coffee was $3, and no, there is no such thing as “in room amenities”; if the hotel could force you onto and across the gaming floor, that’s what it did. Seeya, sucka!

Speaking of attempted rape and murder, bandwidth was expensive and terrible. I have about 10G worth of photos I took (and a boatload of video, too!), but to get them up onto the web from my room at the Flamingo at 25Kbps (my average connection speed) would have taken all month. At the Venetian, we had connectivity for about a day before Cisco Systems fired up their demos — and crushed that hotel’s network bandwidth for the rest of the week. It was a conspiracy, I tell you! A conspiracy!

Anyway, I have a lot to talk about. Even more to show. CES announcements came thick and furiously over the week prior and during. I think I received approximately a thousand (being conservative) announcements for new and “thrilling” products. It’s enough to make a guy blush, pant, and set himself on fire by accident (don’t ask).

On Monday afternoon, UPS is supposed to deliver the 50lbs of notes and collateral I extracted from CES. It’s absurd — but that’s what the box weighed when I shipped it out on Friday before catching my plane home. 50lbs of fliers, announcements, pricing sheets, and media kits. Quite frankly, I’m more than a little intimidated. Eek? Anyway, stay tuned, stay patient, and, hopefully, good things will come our way.

Las Vegas Convention Center, decked out for CES 2013

View across the street at LVCC

The Gibson/Onkyo tent

Wall of Gibson Guitars

Laptop tree, courtesy of Intel

Coolest HD video cameras!

Nikon? Boo!

JBL, Inifinity and AKG booth

Sometimes, I think I’d be a better person if I wanted this more than an amp

Sony’s bubble chamber

Another view of the Sony bubble chamber — check out that wrap-around display

Canon? Hooray!

Canon L-Lenses — gimme!

Monster Cable

Get your Occasional now

8 Comments on CES 2013: The Greatest (Audio) Show On Earth?

  1. What’s so wrong with Nikon huh? There are plenty of gold ring Nikkors that will give any piece of L glass a run for its money, and some of them are simply unmatched in the Canon stable.

  2. I think Gavin was feelin’ sympathy for your feet rather than his eyes!

  3. 10 hours of sleep for the week?

  4. Good column–as usual–and spot on. Thanks once again. Ha! Crosley. 🙂

  5. Great piece. Looking forward to more.Alastair,London,UK

  6. ..whew!

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