Falling in Love Again with High-End Audio

I’ve just gotten back from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. And the 2008 shindig has me brimming over with excitement and optimism for the future of both affordable and high-end audio gear. This is extremely unnatural for me.   First of all, pessimism is my natural state.   Second, having covered audio and video since 1980, when I was first employed by Video Magazine, I have learned to express enthusiasm only when I feel it. Sometimes I feel it, sometimes I don’t.   Third, trade shows are tiring, and the bigger they are, the more they drain me. CES is as big as they come so it drains me heavily.   Fourth, I loathe Las Vegas with a vigor that most people reserve for those who do bad things to kittens and puppies. Going there makes me feel sick, depressed and angry. I stopped going to CES altogether from 2001 to 2005 and recall them as the five happiest years of my career.   Yet here I am, just back from Vegas and there’s a song in my heart. I saw—and better yet, heard—immense amounts of great-sounding stuff. As both an audio editor and an audiophile, I was pleased, heartened, and occasionally even thrilled by what I found. Some of it was from companies I’ve never heard of (or noticed) before.   How unfortunate, then, that the mainstream media should totally miss the story. Read just about any non-audiophile publication’s CES coverage and you’d think the show was nothing more than wall-to-wall flat-screen TVs, gimmicky cell phones, and assorted novelties, with a little Vegas sleaze around the edges.  

As someone who covers video as well as audio, I was indeed impressed by the quality of the next-gen LCD and plasma sets on display, as well as the growth of a/v-centric wireless and server technologies. But surround sound, another major part of the home theater equation, was also present at the show, along with its older and possibly wiser brother, high-end two-channel. All you had to do was set foot in the Venetian and there they were in all their glory.

  At the Venetian   Part of my enthusiasm stems from the fact that the CES brain trust did the whole audiophile community a big favor by finding a higher-quality space for sound-related demos. The move from the Alexis Park to the Venetian was a big improvement.   If you’ve never covered CES, you have no idea what a sea change that was. The Alexis Park was (and is) a motel-style complex located halfway between the Las Vegas Convention Center and the airport. Shuttle buses ran there, but it was still isolated from the rest of the show, and not in a good way. Spending time at the bi-level complex of small buildings—with no elevators—meant trudging up one staircase, and down the next, and up another one, and down the next. When you’ve already worn out shoe leather at the mammoth convention center, this up-and-down routine just kills your feet. I used to leave the Alexis Park ready to fall over dead. The T.H.E. Show, which competes with CES for audio exhibits, is still located there, having moved over from the adjacent San Tropez.   The Venetian is another world. It’s closer to the convention center and the big hotels. And it’s a big hotel in itself, with a vast selection of rooms that actually make quite good demo spaces. When you’re an audio manufacturer, that’s always a good thing—it means dealers and self-appointed gurus like me can hear your gear performing at its best. The Venetian is also now the venue for many of the pre-show press events, reinforcing its connection to the rest of CES.   It was at the Venetian that I fell in love with the audio industry all over again. Here I was in a classy hotel—inasmuch as anything in Vegas can be described that way. Perhaps new and monumental would be more apt. And my job was to walk through a half-dozen floors crammed with audio gear. Wow, you mean I get to do this for a living? Sweet.   In the grand tradition of audio companies exhibiting at hotels, my would-be seducers left their doors open or ajar with music playing. I would stroll through each doorway. If I heard anything I liked, I stayed for a few minutes. If not, I quietly slipped out. I have been known to turn my badge inward to avoid attracting attention. In the places where I found good sound, I took notes and pictures, exchanged business cards, and in a few cases of extreme pleasure made on-the-sport arrangements for future reviews. When I left the building, I was tired for sure, but I was happy. I thought to myself:   This. Is. The. Greatest. Job. In. The World.     Meanwhile, Back in Hell   The contrast between the Venetian and the main Las Vegas Convention Center was the difference between sanity vs. insanity, humanity vs. inhumanity. Some of the audio companies I cover were in the convention center’s South Hall, so I was there to scope them out, but that was a cold and alienating experience.   It was literally impossible to stage a good-sounding demo, even when exhibitors built enclosed huts on the show floor, as several of them did. The intimate human bond associated with music can’t form when a neighboring booth’s one-note subwoofer is desperately bleating close by. The number of audio companies in the South Hall was markedly lower than the previous year, many having decamped to the Venetian, relocated to off-site exhibits, or just given up on CES altogether.   But if the South Hall was bad, the North Hall—center of the car-audio universe—was worse. I walked in a few feet, got smacked silly by the sheer pandemonium, turned around, and walked right back out. OK, I’m not a car audio nut, and that’s probably unfortunate because car audio is where the audio industry is making a lot of its money. For some companies, nearly all of their money.   Then there was the Central Hall, the big enchilada of CES exhibit mega-spaces. If you’re a CES first-timer, that’s your first stop. Inhuman scale and pandemonium were there too, but so were color and imagination and loads of genuinely cool stuff. If CES has a brain—a debatable proposition—this was it. If I were reviewing flat panels instead of speaker packages and receivers, that’s no doubt where I would have spent the bulk of my time. I gave short shrift to the gizmo stuff at the Sands, joined at the hip with the Venetian; and to the ground floor of the Hilton complex, a warren of tiny booths occupied by tiny Far Eastern OEM and accessories companies and their often sad, slumbering employees.   Rob Enderle is right when he compares CES to the now-dead Comdex. The show has gotten too big. Not too big to cover—if you limit your subject area, you can always find your own subset of CES, the show within the show, the bits you care about. That’s what I’ve done this year (and every year). The problem with the show is that its growth is unsustainable. Even flatlining at its current size may prove impossible.   This year’s CES took place only days after crude oil prices hit a new high of $100 a barrel. Someday, flying in all those people—and all that stuff, 150-inch plasmas and all—may prove exorbitant. In addition to energy prices, other costs are rising. The Vegas venues are finally getting over-confident, overcharging for space, catering, and other services. As a result, exhibitors are paying more to get less attention from dealers and the press. I heard them grumble.   The displeasure of the consumer electronics industry has already gotten loud enough to warrant a story in The New York Times. Here are a couple of excerpts: “Despite its size, or perhaps because of it, the annual conference has become a challenging and sometimes ineffectual place to introduce new products.” And: “Electronics makers and industry analysts say the show has become so loud, sprawling and preoccupied with technical esoterica that for many companies, it is as much a place to get lost as to get discovered.” And finally, the kiss of death: “Technology companies now frequently introduce their products elsewhere, in an effort to reach consumers more directly.”   The people at the Consumer Electronics Association who run CES are listening. And they’re contemplating moving it to some saner place, according to MSNBC. It’s strange to recall that there was once a booming summer show in Chicago, or that the first CES took place in New York. But Orlando or Atlanta may be more likely. I think a downsized CES that moves around the country would be a great idea.   In any case, my experience at the Venetian was a shot of adrenalin. More than ever, I’m convinced that high-end—or if that description frightens you, high-quality—audio is alive and kicking, designed and marketed by hip people with good ears to other hip people with good ears. Audio, the servant of music, is more lively than ever.   Mark Fleischmann is the audio editor of Home Theater Magazine and the author of Practical Home Theater.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.