T.H.E. Show at Newport Beach 2013: How to Survive an Audio Show

This is my third audio show in a year, so obviously I am now an expert and qualified to give you advice on getting the most out of your audio show experience. Or at least, how to do it the Kirsten Way™, which may also be the Insane Way™.

Wear comfortable clothes

When I went to RMAF in 2012, I wore a pedometer and learned that I’d walked approximately fifteen miles by the end of the day. T.H.E. Show in Newport isn’t quite so spread out, I don’t think — and more importantly, I wasn’t walking a mile each way to my hotel — but it’s a LOT of walking and standing. Wear comfortable shoes. No fashion statements here: wear your most supportive orthopedic dork shoes if you have to. I recommend closed toes, for those crowded elevators.

Don’t dress too warmly. At the Hilton in Newport this year, the hallway air conditioning was set at a toasty 79 degrees, and individual rooms can get even warmer — no one wants the noisy air conditioning running, and those tubes can get warm. Leave behind the sweaters. Wear powerful deodorant. (PLEASE wear powerful deodorant. Remember those crowded elevators? Have a heart.)

If you’re going to Newport, remember that while it’s hotter than balls during the day, in the evening the wind picks up. You might want to stick a sweater or long-sleeved shirt in your bag if you’re planning on hanging out by the pool in the evening.

Drink a Lot

No, seriously. Usually my beverage of choice for this is beer, but Coke works almost as well. My husband and I go to these things with the brave intention of seeing every everything, and we usually do, but that requires Fortification. Here’s the thing: you’re walking a ton, so you’re burning eleventy-million calories. You’ve got to replace that somehow, right? Not to mention that there’s only so much sound your brain and ears can take in before you start kind of drooling out of one corner of your mouth and waving your arms around vaguely when exhibitors ask you what kind of music you’d like to hear. What time is it? Time for a beer.

Or, fine, a Coke, or even a glass of water. The important thing is, get out of the hallway and go downstairs to the lobby bar. Sit outside if you can. Sit down for a minute and just process what you’ve been hearing so far. Maybe visit the Positive Feedback hospitality suite. Something. I don’t recommend going back to your hotel room (assuming you’re staying on site) — then the temptation toward a nap is just going to be too strong. But do take a break. I do this every floor and a half or so. This is also when Mal and I talk about what we’ve heard so far, look at our notes, and start talking about what we liked and didn’t like. It is necessary.


Following on the above, do make sure you eat throughout the day. I really recommend a true breakfast, even if you’re not normally the breakfast type. No one wants to deal with a hangry audiophile — keep that blood sugar up.

Organize Your Test Tracks

I’m not someone who asks to have test tracks played in every room I visit. I just don’t really find it necessary most of the time, unless I’m shopping or I’m really curious about how a system will handle a particular type of music. And unless I’m actively shopping, I take most of my cues about playing my own stuff from the exhibitor. If he says, “Got anything you’d like to put on?” I usually do. If it’s a mostly analog system and the exhibitor hasn’t offered, I usually keep my mouth shut, or simply request a type of music from her collection. But I do bring some test tracks, usually a few CDs. I bring a USB stick loaded with files, too, but honestly usually the process involved in trying to get the tracks to play is more trouble than it’s worth. It’s a good idea, though, to actually write down the track numbers for your favored test tracks, since it’s embarrassing to forget which Tom Waits song you wanted to hear and skip through three before you get to the one you want, while the exhibitor says disparaging things about Tom Waits. Not that that’s ever happened to me or anything, of course. So, yeah, write down your test track listing somewhere. Or make a note in your fancy smartphone. I personally look forward to the day where I can just plug my USB stick or iPhone into a port and play music immediately, or maybe beam it in telepathically, but we’re not there yet.

Take Notes

If you want to have any hope of anything other than vague hand-waving recollections, take notes. I know, you’re probably not a journalist. That’s ok, take notes. Unless you’re only there to hear a couple of specific things, or you’re Sherlock Holmes and can go into your Memory Palace, take notes. They don’t have to be good notes, mind. My best notes say things like, “Chapman + Wells OMG Ben Folds ‘Golden Slum’ [illegible] telling me sit down and shut UP.” (I don’t know if you can tell, but the combination of Chapman speakers and Wells Audio amplification was something I quite enjoyed at this show. The important thing was that I remembered and knew what I meant.)

Don’t Be Afraid of the Sweet Spot

I’ve noticed that, for whatever reason, people sometimes avoid the sweet spot. There will be four people sitting down and listening, and yet the big comfy chair in the middle remains empty. Maybe folks are trying to get a sense of how the system sounds off-axis, but more often than not, I think folks are probably trying to be polite. If that’s your tendency, remember this: the exhibitors want a butt in that seat. That’s where it sounds best. That’s why they keep gesturing to it with increasingly insistent flailing. If you don’t sample the sweet spot, you’re not doing them the favor of hearing their system at its best. I don’t sit in the sweet spot in every room, but if it’s open, I’ll take it for a minute or two.

Don’t Bogart the Sweet Spot

Now, I know I don’t have to tell you this, because you are assuredly practically the Emily Post of the audiophile set, but it is uncouth to take over the sweet spot for too long. Take turns. Obviously potential customers auditioning the system are somewhat exempt from this, but otherwise, it’s really best not to be the guy who settles down into the sweet spot and starts checking email on his phone.

Talk To People

Most of the people who come to these things are awesome. Avail yourself of that awesomeness. I’m actually a pretty shy person, so I know it can be hard to get over that hump, but it’s really worth it to start getting to know people, because so many folks in this industry are worthwhile. If you realize you’re standing in the elevator next to the guy who designed your preamp, say hi and let him know you enjoy his work. It’ll make his day better, and maybe you’ll learn something interesting. Invite people who appear to be alone over to your table when you’re having a drink afterward. Smile a lot. Resist the urge to act like you know everything. Talk about what you heard that you loved. Resist the urge to offer unsolicited opinions about what sucked, unless you’re pretty sure of your audience — this is a small world. Actually, even if you are sure of your audience, resist the urge to rant about what sucked, at least at first. You’ve got your notes. You can rant later. For right now, try raving. Talk about what blew your ever-loving mind. This stuff just kind of rules, you know? And for god’s sake, this is probably the biggest collection of people who are into what you are into you’ve ever been in. Make the most of it. Try not to eat dinner alone.

Go Home and Enjoy Your Music

Hit the marketplace at the show, and pick up some new vinyl, or maybe some MA Recordings CDs. Go home. Let your rack warm up. Put on some new music and sit in your comfy chair. Think, “Yeah, this is pretty great.” Enjoy the system you have, and let the knowledge you gained from the show percolate. Write up a show report online, if that’s your thing. And start thinking about what you’ll do differently next year….

Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney


  1. Excellent advice–whether I follow it or not! As far as requesting exhibitors to play “test tracks,” I’ve found that my requests are almost universally welcomed by exhibitors. Let’s face it, there’s only so much source material an exhibitor can haul around and interesting, well-recorded music (viz., not the “audiophile approved” stuff that one hears over and over) is appreciated. Just don’t ask for a complete audition of Solti’s Ring cycle!

  2. Nice list! Two free iPhone apps that I find indispensable are Shazam and Decibel.
    Shazam is great for discovering new reference tracks being played in the various rooms and Decibel is an SPL meter. I’ll come home from the show with a list of new reference tracks to add to my demo playlist and the SPL meter gives me a good idea of how loud music is being played (usually the upper average is around 90-93 db). Playing those specific tracks, with the volume set to match the playback level, gives me a good point of comparison for my own system vs the systems I liked at the show. It’s also a great way to discover new music, specifically stuff that is well produced and sounds great on a high performance system.

  3. I think this falls under your “Talk To People” heading. Say Im in a room, people listening to a system and my favorite preamp designer is running the show. How do I balance my discussion time with the designer and not bother those trying to evaluate a system?

    • Hi Rick! In that case, I usually either ask him/her to step out into the hallway for a second. If that’s not possible, I’ll stop by later when things are less busy, or catch up in the hall or in the bar later. I try not to get too chatty when the folks running the room are doing their thing (although of course all weekend I was cornering people and saying, “Ok, tell me what I’m listening to right now”…).

  4. Excellent advice. I found it’s really important to pace yourself. One usually starts with a burst of energy, but the momentum flags as the rooms pile up. Also, avoid snap judgments, or rely too much on initial impressions. It’s better to hear a room at least twice before drawing conclusions.

Comments are closed.