Last week was the High End Society‘s show in Munich, Germany. This was my first time going. I wasn’t prepared.
I’ve been to a few US-based audio shows. A few. 30 or so, and all in the last few years. I’m not bragging; I’ve made a thing of this audio-show-thing, but I know that the average Stereophile alum, like Michael Fremer or John Atkinson, has probably been to more. Probably something like 10 times as many. But I’ve been to enough that I kind of feel like I’m beginning to get a handle on the current state-of-the-art, as it were. Where things were. Where things are. Where things are going.
Let me just say this: Munich is different.
If CES is an “industry event” (which is arguable), where the focus is more on business-to-business connections, with dealers and distributors rubbing elbows with manufacturers and press, then Munich isn’t like that. If RMAF is a “consumer event” (which is also arguable, but less so), where the focus is more on the consumer, and the manufacturer/distributor/dealer is invited to put on a show and trumpet their presence, their mastery and their newest, then Munich isn’t like that either.
It’s both. But it’s more than that.
Europe, like North America, is seeing a growth in the High-End Audio Show Circuit (HEASC, but the acronym is still under development). That is, there are lots of little regional shows. There are up-and-coming shows in Greece, Italy, Poland and the UK — and there are many more. In the US, there are regional shows in Chicago, LA, New York, and DC — all in addition to the big shows in Colorado and Las Vegas, and all growing. Yes. All of them are growing.
The question is “why”?
I think that’s a fair question. Everyone knows that high-end audio is dead, or failing that, it’s dying. No one is interested in high-end audio anymore. Everyone is enamored with convenience and simplicity — the iPod Generation has won, and the earbud and Mastered-for-iTunes audio now rule the land with a lazy, slovenly slouch. This wisdom is true. It is known. It is the Law in the world of media.
And then there’s Munich.
Quite frankly, it sticks out like a thumb on the hand of the Audio Show Tour (AST, but the acronym is still under development). A thumb, hooked directly into the eye of the prognosticator and his cardboard signs of scrawled with predictions of gloom and doom.
Look, I’m not saying that The Cheese hasn’t been relocated. Or eaten. Or taken to a cave to be “aged” and gnawed on by rats. That’s the thing about time — it rolls on and things change (thank you, Heraclitus). Yes, things are tough. Yes, it’s only been a few years since the Great Recession. Yes, a lot of vendors/distributors/manufacturers have vanished. Yes, yes and yes.
And then there’s Munich.
Day 1 of High End was restricted to press and trade/industry folks (and the goons were out to make sure that the separation between those elites and the masses of unwashed were being enforced). Even with that restriction, there were easily several thousand people (6,500+, according to the show organizers) strolling around. That is, the press day at Munich had more people diggin’ the high-end audio groove than most US-based audio shows got during their entire run. And yes, each day of the regular show got many more attendees. Like three to four times as many (over 20,000!). The only thing that kept it from being a completely paralyzing soup of audio-addled humanity was the layout — this sucker was pretty freakin’ big. No, not CES-big — CES is the biggest show by far, by physical size — but Munich is audio only, while CES throws all manner of craziness into a tossed banana salad of noise, color and mayhem. Four large-scale CES-like open-floor layouts jammed in hundreds of displays, and three floors directly above them provided a hundred more traditional experiences.
And then there’s the people. The attendees, I mean. At Munich, they were different. The “grey-haired man” audiophile was not just a minority. Sure, they (we?) were there. But the average age of the attendee hitting Munich this year was far closer to 50 than 70. That’s different. And there were women. And not in the sense of 20 or 30 extraordinarily patient women, following around their audiophile spouse, but something like 20-30 percent. Still low, yes, but when you’re talking 10,000 attendees (or whatever it was), that’s thousands of women. There were families, too. I saw hundreds of little tykes traipsing around behind mom or dad, alternately happy and terrified at the crowds and at the things they were most definitely not allowed to touch, chew, or throw.
I talk to my wife about this split. It’s a topic we keep coming back to. My wife, who happens to be a somewhat retired singer/songwriter for a local band of some repute back in the 1990’s, has little or no interest in Things Audiophile, and while I’ve attempted to entice her to rock some or all of the High End Audio Tour (HEAT, but the acronym is still under development), she keeps looking askance at the entire project. To be fair, she does keep after me about “making friends”, so I figured this would be a natural avenue to explore, but she’s an introvert. Married to an introvert. Which means that dynamite may need to be involved at some point. Anyway — the point: I asked my wife about the differences between Munich, and say, a random regional show here in the US. She had nothing more than a shrug and a suggestion: perhaps Europeans don’t piss away nearly as much of their free time as Americans do (with TV, Internet Gaming, Facebookery, 80+ hour work weeks), and when they do vacate, “the arts” play a (disproportionate) role.
She may be right. One of my favorite tour-colleagues, Jason Serinus of Stereophile, actually went to the München Opera house one night while here. Apparently, people do that. In Europe. Or if you’re Jason. But the Average American would cringe in horror at the thought, and would probably express some blend of bemused sympathetic admiration to anyone “brave enough” to do that on their own. It’s really not what we do. Not saying that Bavarians do that either, but maybe they do — maybe European culture is just different. Or different enough. Said another way, maybe Americans just suck. Who knows.
It may also be that Munich is just a much easier-to-get-to location for a large section of the world. I’ll offer that my trip to Munich this year was by far the most expensive trip I’ve ever made to talk about anything audio-related. Travel within Europe is probably a bit more reasonable. High End, as a society trade organization, is influential and has been around for a while, and like RMAF, they’ve some advantage in sheer momentum, which may explain it’s size.
That doesn’t really explain the cost, however. Demo/exhibit rooms at US-based audio shows can be a couple thousand dollars for the 3 or 4 days of the audio show. Bigger rooms cost more. But at Munich, some of those demo rooms/spaces cost tens of thousands of dollars. Looking at the size of the Munich show, even given the extra cost of a show at that location and run at that size and with those amenities, the organizers have to be rolling around in bags of cash. And Munich is growing and growing fast.
Which brings me to an interesting point — advertising. The biggest complaint about the US-based audio shows, CES notwithstanding, is promotion. You travel to one of the cities hosting a major event and it’s like it isn’t happening. There’s no signage. Nothing in the paper, or on the radio, or on TV. No billboards, no fliers, nothing at the airport or on the metro or buses or anything. To find out about an audio show, you kinda have to know a lot of stuff — where to look, who to ask, or something.
For Munich, you just have to wake up. Signs are everywhere. On the street. In the subway. People talk about it. The taxi drivers all know what’s happening. Hell, the customs agents coming into and flying out of Germany all knew about it. Clearly, those bags of cash are getting around. That can’t help but be part of why High End is soooo much bigger than all but the very biggest audio shows in the US.
The spirit is also different. A hotel-based audio show is only just so inviting. All those clubby little caves you can wander in and out of, it’s kind of like pretending to be a meerkat for a day — “I know, let’s go explore a warren!” At High-End, it’s like going to the fair. “Hey, honey, grab the kids — we have something fun to do today.”
No, High End isn’t perfect. It’s loud, for one thing. The ambient noise on the large, open “Hall” areas is something north of 75dB. Loud. Conversations aren’t always easy. Listening to a system is absurd and “critical listening” for nuance or tone is laughable. This is spectacle. Pure spectacle. To be fair, the show floor is dotted with little rooms, semi-portable enclosures that can create a reasonable facsimile of a properly-laid out living space. The acoustics in such is usually better than average — but even in the most hermetically sealed of such, unless the setup artists are true wizards, there’s little deep bass, less top-to-bottom coherency, and the ambient noise level is still too high for serious critical listening. Doesn’t mean they’re not fun. No, far from it. Some were flippin’ fantastic. But the serious listening was all for the rooms above. Those rooms were much larger, with more solid and permanent construction. Real doors! And, to a one, they sounded … well, lets just say that the challenges were pernicious and universal, and move on.
But it didn’t matter. The halls to get into and out of those rooms were jammed. Many of the popular demos were full, starting at 10am and stayed that way till 6pm. You want in, you had to queue, hug a wall, and dive when someone stood up. Three days. Thousands and thousands of attendees. Madness. Glorious madness.
In the US, there’s less of this. Some shows, like AXPONA for example, have packed the halls of at least one of the three days. New York managed something like 5,000 attendees on a Saturday a year or two ago. But far too often, certain days are a bit light. Nothing that would qualify as “a throng”. And that’s a pity.
It occurs to me that it’s not just that the market has evolved. It has, for sure. Times have changed. The competition for the household budget is a fluid and dynamic thing. The market has seesawed. Audio isn’t top-of-mind.
And then there’s Munich.
Honestly, my number one impression after drowning in that show-of-shows, is that the US is just doing it wrong. There’s interest — it’s very clearly out there. Yes, the cheese has moved and that may mean that some old-school thinking about how to make money in this segment requires serious re-examination; all true. But it can be done. And is. Clearly.
As for the HEADSHOT (High End AuDio SHOw Tour, but the acronym is still under development), I think some tweaks might help. Maybe.
And not just in Stereophile. I love Stereophile, don’t get me wrong. I have a full three-year subscription and I paid for it. Happily. But no, here I mean: “the newspaper”. Yes, people still read those, despite rumors to the contrary.
And put up billboards! Big ones, all over town.
Seriously consider getting the local news stations to promote a story or something — and yes, more than just radio, but don’t forget radio!
Put ads in taxi cabs, movie theaters, Hi-Fi shops, and box stores, car dealerships, cigar shops, and the freakin’ mall.
Blanket the town! Seriously, get the message out. With enough repetition, the alien becomes the common. Just ask a politician.
Mix it up
The tiny-cave hotel venues are great for the vendors and lousy for the attendees. Okay, ‘lousy’ is too strong, but the most entertaining aspect of Munich was not the bigger demo rooms.
Munich was/is laid out like a series of concentric rings, stacked on top of each other. The top two “layers” were called “the Atrium” (and there were two Atriums), probably because of the open, football-field sized area in the middle. Running around the periphery of that open space was a hallway, with demo rooms on either side and the rooms on the inner side opened onto the open space.
You could wander the hall — and doing so would make Munich look and feel very much like any other audio show.
But it was that big central space, where things got different.
That space was big. Communal. There were chairs, a soaring ceiling festooned with banners, and a café. It was inviting. Fun. But it wasn’t nearly as fun as what was happening downstairs. In the Hall floors. You see, that’s where all the wacky fun sh*t was.
Unlike the Atriums, the Halls (and there four of them) were set up like the Las Vegas Convention Center at CES, except every booth, stall, table and cobbled-together permanent and semi-permanent “rooms” were all audio stuff. No robots anywhere.
In the Halls, speaker vendors were next to electronics component makers and next to the audio wire guys and next to the turntable vendors and next to the headphone multi-nationals next to a local vinyl seller and everyone was RIGHT THERE.
The importance of this “blending together” cannot be overstated. It was a breathtaking.
I wish the US shows would to stop stuffing interesting “little guys” (say, with CanJam or EarGear or any of the headphone-centered mini “shows” that run inside the larger audio show venue) in their own box and shoving that box way the f*ck out of the way. Everything audio, all mixed up in a soup of togetherness, equals awesome for everyone.
In Munich, the energy coming off the mixed-media Hall floors was the pulse for the rest of the show. Without it, Munich would have just been a typical show on the Tour, just with absolutely horrible acoustics. Let me be clear: the Atriums were great, but the Halls made the show. And not just because they were there (somewhere over there), they were central.
Think of it like a casino — you want the patrons to get lost. For hours. Preferably days. Litter the floor area with stands for free caffeine and water, and they’ve suddenly no reason to duck out for daylight. Add food — catered, café, food truck, whatever — and your audience is fully captive for the duration. Ta da!
I understand that this kind of layout is not possible in many hotels. The area where you can set up an audio
free-for-all carnival is usually way off the beaten path and way out of the way of the “regular” hotel guests … and this is why hotels may not be the best bet for the audio show. Dollars to donuts says your targeted town does have a convention center, however. Yes, it’s pricey. Way pricier than that middle-of-the-tier business hotel out in the sticks. But if the show is worth more, vendors will pay more, which makes #1 (above) a whole lot less difficult to achieve.
Dubious? Munich had thousands and thousands of attendees. It was crazy.
No, seriously, it might be time to ditch that out-of-the-way venue.
In all fairness, the M.O.C. (where the Munich show is held) is not central to anything, either, so this is a more of a general call-out. Being out in the middle of nowhere — even if that “nowhere” is an inexpensive business park (that actually has availability) on the outer periphery of a busy and vibrant city — does not really add anything to attract anyone to an audio show.
So cut it out. Go to where the people are. A business park? Not where the people are.
There has to be another draw. No, I’m not saying “audio isn’t enough”, but you have to think like an attendee and not just like a speaker maker. You’re asking me, Joe Blow of Central City, to spend a day (or three) with you. Oh, and you want me to bring my family? Okay — make it easy — make it fun.
Honestly, being “in the city” ameliorates a lot of this. Most cities worthy of the designation have “things to do” — restaurants, bars, shopping. They also have art — museums, concerts, plays. Given that you probably can’t pick up an amazingly awesome restaurant and drop it into the middle of an audio show, maybe you can drag out a celebrity chef or a local brewmaster/vintner. Or do a twist on the “drive-in movie theater”. Or get a local art gallery to come for a day, or talk to a museum curator? How about local writers? Or local painters, sculptors, or craftspeople? Or a local dance troupe? Or theater troupe? A bunch of comics, or maybe an improv group? AXPONA recently ran in the same town where a comicon was running. How cool would combining the two be? Cons are awesome and hugely fun. If your town has a local music school, why not turn those students out? That could be awesome. No school? Your town has a local music scene, guaranteed. Why not have a couple of the better, well-known ones play? Worried about noise? Ask for an acoustic set. Has anyone checked out the local DJ scene? Those guys can pack a room. Younger crowd, too. To be fair, some of the more innovating shows do stuff like this — but none of them are doing enough.
“Do more” and “never stop” are good mantras, here.
Hi-Fi is Dead, Long Live Hi-Fi
Okay, enough preaching. Well, almost.
The point here is that Munich is different. It’s also different on several levels, and it’s more than just a mashup of CES and RMAF. There’s a physical structure that’s different and it is just more fun.
Anyone walking the floor at Munich has earned the right to laugh heartily in the face of those saying “Hi-Fi is dead”. Yeah — it’s not. Not even slightly. The cheese has moved, to be sure. Things are harder, absolutely. It’s a new world out there, true. But there are still those innovating. Still “figuring it out”. And there are tons of folks out there willing to travel to see it all first-hand. And that was my take-away from my time at High End this year.
I don’t know if this can be replicated in the US, to be honest. There are a lot of audio shows here, and while all of them claim to be growing, none of them is Munich. Not even CES. There’s clearly room for improvement. Or innovation. Like I said, Munich is far from perfect.
Part of the problem, perhaps, is the calendar itself. Take May, for example. In the space of four weeks, we had AXPONA in Chicago, the Vancouver HiFi Show in British Columbia, High End in Munich, and T.H.E. Show in Los Angeles. Four shows. Four weeks. That’s blipping idiotic.
I was talking about this with a European friend, who wondered if this wasn’t just uniquely American. In Europe, they’d sit down and try to find a way to get the most bang for the buck for everyone. In the US, everyone beats on everyone else until there’s a victor. Not sure that’s a fair characterization, but he has a point. It’s not that there are too many audio shows. It’s just that those audio shows are competing with each other in ways that are silly and self-limiting. Setting up a calendar, where the shows are spread geographically, can only help the vendors that want to show there and help the attendees because the shows will be better staffed by the people and gear they want to see. There’s a reason I only went to one of the four shows. And I can’t be alone in having to choose “only one” out of the potential four. Seriously — there are more months in the year, people!
The argument that regional shows don’t need to respect the other regional shows is maliciously short-sighted. The fact that buyers in the Great Lakes region will not travel to LA, much less to Germany, is valid. If any of those shows could stuff their halls like Munich, it might even be an interesting point. But it’s a non sequitur. Using an audio show as a replacement for a brick-and-mortar reseller experience is only one of the reasons to host or attend an audio show. There are others: vendor advertisement, product launch publicity, business-to-business interactions, general industry promotion. And all of that goes into why a vendor chooses to attend a show — selling is part of it, yes, but most of them have retail outlets already, so selling off of the show floor may not be top-of-mind.
My informal survey of audio vendors reveals a common complaint — there are too many shows. Peeling that onion, what they mean isn’t that there are too many of them, but rather, there are too many to attend them all. Most vendors I talk with see the value of the show. They want to come. They just can’t afford it — and not just because of the cash outlay. It’s also the time. There are too many, too close together, and all that means time away from actually making things. Away from “doing work”. If they were spread out a bit more … they might attend more. Said another way, if the shows were scattered cooperatively across the calendar, respecting the itineraries of the luminaries, attendance might go up.
The Future of Hi-Fi
Way back in the beginning, I noted that I’ve been to a few audio shows. The thing I lack, and that many (many) others have, is a sense of history. The number of distinct stops on the HEAST (High End Audio Show Tour, but the acronym is still under development) has waxed and waned over the years with some regularity. We do seem to be in the “wax” stage, with many more shows being planned now than were around 10 years ago. I spoke with my colleague Malachi about it — he calls it a “bubble”. Given the history, he’s probably correct and a correction is due.
I can see the place for four to six high-end audio shows in North America in any given year. More than that and we’re really pushing incredulity beyond reasonable limits. But considering the global stage — and shows like Munich — as part of the overall experience (a thought I’d very much like to encourage) and including such major shows in the domestic calendar is a smart (and kind) thing to do.
Even assuming Mal is right, and that things do go pear-shaped, I still see the audio show as a vehicle for change. Always have, even before the religious transformation of Munich. First and foremost, they’re just plain fun. Audiophiles have an almost overwhelming likelihood of being horrible introverts, so the idea of “getting out” is about as alien and mind-shrinking as they get. But it’s so helpful to put down the keyboard, log off the forum, and go actually meet their peers, their like-minded fellows, and the people behind all of the crazy, wacked-out, products that they love, hate, and love to hate. Seeing some fellow traveler at a bar and listening to his story over a pint, adds more than a little depth to the overall experience. Trust me. Just do it. And at the Audio Show, wherever it is, this is not only possible — it may be the very best reason to go.
Whether THEATR (The High End Audio TouR, but the acronym is still under development) becomes a replacement vehicle for brick-and-mortar audio shops, or morphs into a full-on carnival, or whatever, is anyone’s guess. My palantir is only getting one channel these days, so it’s hard for me to prognosticate. However it goes, today Munich sits atop a large pyramid of amazing audio experiences. It was a wonderful show, full of vim and vigor, and I can’t wait for next year.
Next year, I’ll be prepared.