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Last Saturday, I undertook the long and arduous journey to Newport Beach—53 miles from my house through some nasty L.A. traffic—for The Home Entertainment (T.H.E.) Show at the Hilton and Atrium hotels across the street from the John Wayne/Orange County Airport. While the name of the show implies a wide range of electronic entertainment, the vast majority of exhibitors that filled the two hotels fell squarely in the 2-channel audiophile camp, including lots of headphones in two dedicated areas collectively dubbed The Headphonium.
I spent a few hours in the Hilton seeing—and, more importantly, listening to—as many demos as I could, which was only a small fraction of what was there. Here are my impressions…
I started on the lobby level, where several ballrooms housed the largest systems. The first room I wandered into had several systems assembled by The Source AV Design Group, which sells and installs a variety of high-end brands. I started with the system based on Boulder electronics and two Focal Grande Utopia speakers, which sounded fantastic. The track I happened to walk in on was from Nickelback—very loud, but super clean. I also heard a Count Basie big-band track, which was much more my style. Each instrument was cleanly delineated; I especially liked the sound of the trombone section, a sound I know intimately since I’ve played in many such sections in my life.
The recent outbreak of Audio Shows does, indeed, warrant the question: “Are there Too Many Shows?” The answer to the question cannot be answered with a simple “Yes” or “No”. It depends entirely on one’s prospective.
This increase in shows does place additional burdens upon the Audio Press and, in some cases, the manufacturers of fine high-end audio products. However, these might be considered necessary evils as the industry continues to evolve and try to find new ways to thrive.
Twelve years ago, I worked with a Public Relations / Marketing / Events company in Las Vegas, NV when I stumbled upon T.H.E. Show at the St Tropez Hotel and CES in the neighboring Alexis Park Resort. As I wandered the halls of both venues, listening and absorbing the unique superiority of “sounds” as I had never experience before, a question kept coming to mind: “Why had I not heard of most of these companies up to this point”. Upon deeper involvement, I discovered an industry that seemed to solely survive on an enthusiastic, yet limited audience. It was almost like an industry had developed and the marketing was left behind. The marketplace seemed to survive only to feed itself, through limited advertising to the mass public and a dealer/distributor system that, by its own definition, limited its exposure to a select few. For those who became almost fanatical in their quest for perfect sound, there were outlets – but, by and large they were unreasonably isolated from the outside world. For those on the outside, the exposure never came. In those years, reviewers, manufacturers, dealers, distributors spoke of a “dying industry” on a regular basis.
It was at that time, and in subsequent years thereafter, when I took full control of T.H.E. Show, I decided to dedicate my control and resources to expanding the audience for high-end audio. Common public knowledge of high-end sound was limited to what was available in large big-box stores, as well as through a few companies who could afford the luxury of wide spread marketing. With limited resources, it was going to be a challenge, but T.H.E. Show would attempt one goal: To add more buyers to these products – period! To help people make an educated, well-informed choice. T.H.E. Show and CES had a wide array of analog and a growing number of digital choices – the challenge would be to enlighten the general public’s knowledge of these superior products.
At the same time, more audio shows began to sprout up all over the globe: Munich; Milan; Hong Kong; Shanghai. Here in the U.S., the Rocky Mountain Audio Show led the way in 2004 with a highly successful audio show FOR CONSUMERS. Not only did RMAF draw “outsiders” from the 4 million population of Denver, but also attracted the industry-savvy crowd from across the globe.
Marjorie and Al Steiffel, founders of RMAF, attempted to “bring in new blood” through promotions in schools, music organizations, the local Denver Audio Society and other outside groups that “might” gain interest in the industry. The stage was set. The inevitable “expansion” of audio shows became evident.
The reasons are simple: unlike other products to be marketed, high-end audio must be heard properly. It cannot be sold in print. It cannot be sold on TV or radio. It cannot be sold on the internet. A “listening” on an enormous big box warehouse floor is no comparison to enjoying the nuances only a private listening room can provide. One has to experience high-end audio to truly appreciate it. And, as populations have grown the few brick and mortar dealers in a metropolitan area cannot possibly keep up with the desired demand. Even the best of independent dealers do not have the necessary resources to saturate the potential audience that surrounds it. Dealers and manufacturers began looking for more ways to expose their products. Audio shows that promise to help build and widen the purchasing audience are a very viable alternative to doing nothing. With approximately 30 million people living in Southern California, Best Buy’s and huge Electronics stores can be found around every corner, High-End Dealers get passed by. Customers without knowledge either can’t find them, don’t know of their existence or are intimidated by the thought of walking into a “specialized” store.
On year one of T.H.E. Show Newport, we sought out and enjoyed the participation of two dozen of Southern California’s best dealers, most with 4-wall stores. They brought a variety of high-end products and expertise – ALL IN ONE PLACE. With an audience of over 5,000 “interested” customers passing their doors, the process is now reversed. Customers who experience these products at T.H.E. Show now feel more comfortable seeking out a dealer of choice. These symbiotic relationships make shows work and helps to grow the industry on many levels.
With the cooperation of the Los Angeles / Orange County Audio Society and a large budget for main stream advertising (local newspapers; industry magazines; “event” targeted promotions; radio spots and a huge social media campaign), the first The Show Newport broke records for attendance.
Of course, like any growing series of events, the Audio Show marketplace has stumbled along the way. Some were ill-conceived from the get-go; attempting only to appeal and subsequently, take advantage of the existing high-end community as a whole. The industry-based shows are in Las Vegas every January. CES and The Show, run concurrently and attract those “from” the industry to view new products, debuts and network with fellow manufacturers, dealers, distributors and the best of the Audio Press. While some of the other shows will enjoy a certain amount of “industry” relations, their main goal, as a CONSUMER show should be to help build the clientele and thus, the customer base.
There probably is little need for all Press outlets to send an army of reviewers to cover each and every show. The odds of manufacturers unveiling a new product every month are slim. However, the Audio Press does need to cover these events. News is news.
This can, however, be accomplished with a few reviewers depending on the size of the venue; hopefully someone familiar with the area in which the shows are presented who is up-to-date on recent innovations and developments. To send the full force of personnel to each and every show is impractical in these economic times.
The same scenario actually goes for manufacturers. Manufacturers and dealers should ask themselves before committing to an Audio Show, “What’s in it for me?” Does the show organizer(s) go the extra mile to attract new consumers? Is the show presented in such a way as to make it more appealing (less intimidating) to the general public? Are there extra promotions, entertainment events and marketing outreaches into the community to appeal to and gain new attendees? What is the show’s overall advertising budget and is it aimed at bringing new people in the door or simply placating the “faithful”? And, to exhibit in the growing amount of shows, manufacturers should perhaps support their local dealers or outlets, without the huge expenditure of traveling and exhibiting individually at each and every show on their own.
Another concern that has developed is the “timing” of shows. There is plenty of room, all over North America and, the world for that matter but the placement dates of the shows must adhere to common courtesy and industry well-being. The Press needs time to schedule and manufacturers need time between shows, particularly those who operate on limited budgets. T.H.E. Show Newport was purposely placed several weeks after the huge Munich show, the weekend following a holiday and well before the shows in Washington DC and San Francisco. Logistics are important to both exhibitors and the Press and should be taken into consideration. A “battle of the shows” does the industry, as it currently stands, no good at all. Splitting the resources of good, but smaller companies and the Press helps no one.
It would be nice if all high-end manufacturers could join together and open High-End Shopping Malls, in all major metropolitan areas around the world – but that is not where the industry currently finds itself. In the meantime, well-run, well-promoted, well-conceived Audio Shows in major metropolitan areas are a must.
There are many, many great audio manufactures planting seeds, if you will, in an ever-evolving, changing landscape. Audio shows could be viewed as the “bait” – assisting to those “fishing” for superior products to find their ultimate and appropriate catch.