STEREOMOJO SPECIAL REPORT
T.H.E SHOW 2009
James Darby - Publisher
Linda G. Darby - Editor
Clark Hertz - Senior Editor/Canada
William Schuchard - Senior US Reviewer
High end audio was again a large presence in Las Vegas in January of 2009 at the largest electronics show on the planet. Though displays and exhibits were spread among several venues all over town, the two main spots were the opulent Venetian Hotel which was part of CES and the Alexis Park Hotel about twenty minutes away from the main strip where the alternate site is called T.H.E SHOW or The Home Entertainment Show. We covered both. In both cases, regular hotel rooms had most of the beds and furniture removed, replaced by stereo systems of every conceivable size and price. Many rooms were shared among several companies to lower expenses and to facilitate complete systems. For example, companies that make only speakers, turntables or cables teamed up with those that make only amplifiers or racks or disk players. Our job entails going to room after room, seeking those products that were new or noteworthy, listening to designers, distributors and manufacturers tell us why their product was the best and then taking a quick listen in environments that are very unfriendly to making music. We were in a huge rush12 hours each day, taking notes, lugging cameras and accumulating what seemed like tons of brochures along the way. It's not glamorous or, with a few exceptions, not even fun. It's also very expensive just to be there.
If you are reading this, you are probably an audiophile or someone who has a keen interest in stereo stuff. There are many momentous changes taking place right now that will affect you, so we are going to take a little more time to let you in on what's transpiring before we get to our normal pictures and descriptions. You can skip this part if you wish, but we think you shouldn't.
Amidst the glitz and hype in each room, the was a very ominous presence looming this year - the economy. It hung over the shows like smoke over the fires in California. We were told that even the Venetian hotel where the high end show was, the largest resort casino in Vegas, is on the brink of bankruptcy. One taxi driver told us he used to own a construction company in town and now was just trying to survive by driving a cab. One well known audio sales rep who has worked for his company for years told us he had just been laid off and asked us if we knew of anyone who was looking for a rep. Several very expensive components were offered to us to buy at pennies on the dollar, just to move them.
The economy was a topic of nearly every conversation. And not just companies in the United States. CES is attended by industry people from all over the world - it's not open to the public. We don't have final figures yet, but we were told that attendance was down anywhere from 30 to 50 percent. That's huge. Thursday, the first day, the usually teeming hallways were empty. We often found ourselves the only attendees in a room filled with expensive gear. Things picked up on Friday and Saturday, but it was still slow. On a somewhat brighter note, several companies told us that while traffic was down, people looking were more serious. "The tire kickers and time wasters have been weeded out this year", we heard. But newer companies with new products were finding it almost impossible to find dealers who were willing to take on a new line, no matter how compelling their products were. Dealers are also weeding out the lines they already carry, abandoning some very pricey luxury names in favor of more value oriented products. Overall, we think that might be a good trend.
Several electronics and speaker makers told us examples in the past where a customer had told them that their product was the best they'd ever heard, but when they were told the price, the customer shook their head and said, "Sorry, that's not expensive enough. I'll be damned if I'm going to get rid of my $50,000 (fill in the blank) to buy yours for $10,000! Even though it sounds better. Don't you make anything that costs MORE?" Those days are fading fast.
Many companies who were planning to debut cost-no-object or very pricey new models left them behind or delayed their development "until things turn around". More companies featured middle-of-the-line products in their rooms this year instead of their big boys. One result is that there were far fewer new products at CES this year than in times past. Most of what we saw had already been displayed at the Rocky Mountain Show last October. They need to sell the inventory they already have first. They are also pursuing reviews more aggressively. More people asked us to do reviews than ever. Since there was less new stuff, we did not request as many new reviews, but every single one we requested was eagerly agreed to.That's good for you and us.
Most local stereo stores, we call them "brick and mortars" as opposed to those who sell only via the internet, have been struggling for some time - even before this downturn. Many will not survive. That's not good, but for many it is their own fault. "The stores that will make it are those who run them as a business and do the things businesses need to do to prosper. Those who get out and go after sales, work their client lists, make phones calls, get out into their communities and provide great customer service will be ok. Those who sit and wait for customers to find them will fail", one long-time successfully distributor told us. He is correct.
TIme after time, we heard complaints about the policies of the Venetian hotel that frustrated and angered exibitors.The hotel demanded that shipments had to arrive a full month before the show, leaving many to scramble to get their new models there in time. The hotel removes the standard furnishings before the exhibitors arrive, but once they get in their rooms, if they need something moved like an end table that's in the way, they can't touch it themselves, they have to notify the hotel to come and do it. The Ventian then charges them $500 to move it a few feet. Exhibitors often have to use the large bathrooms in their rooms to store empty boxes and such. This year, the Venetian sent people to put plastic ties on the doors so the bathrooms could not be used - even though the vendors were paying through the nose for them. We're not kidding. Read the notice on the door. Unbelievable...
Of course, they also charge extra for internet access even though the rooms cost thousands of dollars. Even Motel 6 gives free in-room high-speed net access. Unbelievable.
There is much more to tell, but suffice it to say that the Venetian is not an industry favorite. Things at the Alexis Park which hosted T.H.E SHOW were much more accomodating. The Alexis used to be the only venue for high-end audio. We think the high-end stereo industry should get together to find and agree to a single location not in the Venetian. True, there would not be as much spill-over traffic from the main CES trade show where they exibit everything from Ipod cases to computers and TV's, but that would also eliminate a lot of the "tire kickers and time wasters" that plague the rooms. It would be more affordable so more small companies could participate. All the rooms would also be open to the general public (like you) which is not the case now at the Venetian. Does that makes sense?
Oh. One other thing. There's another trade show taking place at the same time as CES in the same convention center adjacent to the Venetian. The porn industrydisplays every sex toy video and everything else related to the sex trade - including the women. So, amidst the crowded lobby, elevators and other floors, there is a constat parade of females (many way too young looking) walking around in the trashiest, next-to-nothing outfits imagineable. Linda and I even saw some in nothing more than bra and panties with fishnets and high-heels. These are not pretty women. "Skanky" is the word that comes to mind. Now most of the people walking around the palatial and magnificent Ventian are dressed in suits and other professional business attire, so the contrast is stark. Now, we are not prudes, but standing in an elevator or walking behind a group of women that are nearly nude in such an envirnment is not pleasant. Last year, after leaving the wonderful Sumiko room that was filled with SME turntables, Sonus Fabre speakers and Primare amps, a door in the hallway burst open and we had to stop while a guy lugged a bunch of camera equipment and lights out into the hallway. Through the open door, in plain view was a man and two women on the bed, totally nude, apparently filming a porn scene. Below are two of the "better almost-dressed" examples of what was walking around the Venetian. The hundreds of others were much worse. Maybe there's a time and place for such, but this is not the time nor place. Even in Vegas. Just another reason to find a better place for the high-end audio show.
Please note that, despite what other publications may say, it is nigh impossible to do critical and accurate sound evaluations at shows like this, though it is somewhat possible in some situations to ascertain an overall impression, and that's what we will try to do for you. Some rooms are heavily sound treated, other use no treatments at all. As we will reveal, some systems have technical issues that vendors try to conceal that are not their fault, but things happen beyond their control. For all these reasons and more, the roll of publications like Stereomojo are vital in informing you of a component's real performance and value through the review process. When we found an unusual product that met our stringent requirements, we asked for review samples - especially if it one not likely to be covered by those other print and web mags.
Enjoy. If you have questions, please write us.
GO TO PART 2