What CES Is Really Like
The first Consumer Electronics Show took place in New York City in 1968, and how I wish it had stayed in my adopted hometown. When I first attended, in 1985, CES was a twice-yearly event, with "the summer show" in Chicago and "the winter show" in Vegas. I loved the summer show, partly because I love Chicago, but also because it was much smaller than the giant CES of today, with its six-figure attendance figures. Eventually the summer show withered while the winter show—or the International Consumer Electronics Show, to use the full name—has gone on to become the world's largest trade exhibition in consumer electronics.
CES is big. No one space, even the massive Las Vegas Convention Center, can contain it, so it spills out into other facilities. The main LVCC includes three large halls: Central, where the big-name TV makers cluster; North, home of car audio; and South, actually a double hall with lots of gadgets and accessories. Home audio manufacturers, once banished to the awful suburban-motel-style Alexis Park, now occupy several floors in the Venetian. The ancillary T.H.E. Show at the Flamingo offers still more audio exhibits but is unrelated to the Consumer Electronics Association, which runs CES. And then there are the outliers: manufacturers exhibiting in other hotels outside any official show space.
How can I explain how overwhelming it is to step into CES at LVCC? Try this: The average football field is 57,600 square feet. The Las Vegas Convention Center is 3,200,000 square feet, or more than 55 football fields, and CES fills 'em right up. Sensory overload begins the moment you pass the threshold. Especially in the Central and North halls, the noise is overwhelming, like a giant fist that pounds you remorselessly. Central Hall is perhaps the most surreal part, with the most color and the heaviest foot traffic. That is where the biggest companies have the biggest booths with the most bewildering yet tantalizing arrays of products. As you step into these territories, your feet sink into deeply padded carpet, reinforcing the feeling that you're entering a dream world. The number of flat panel TV screens cannot be counted. At night, when the show is closed, I think they breed.
The Japanese companies (Sony, Panasonic, et al.) used to dominate though the Koreans (LG, Samsung) are now their peers and both are increasingly overshadowed by Chinese companies—like Hisense, whose mammoth booth was the first one this year to proudly greet showgoers just inside the front door. I actually remember 1980s-era CESes when U.S.-based TV makers were dominant. Those days, those companies and those much smaller shows are gone. Sometimes I feel like the ancient mariner as I walk the floor and realize that most of the people I'm sharing it with (get out of my way, you cattle) are younger than me.
Covering CES as a member of the press is harder than it used to be, and not just because I've notched up a few decades as a showgoer. Once there were just a few dozen accredited consumer electronics reporters and critics and I knew most of the names and faces. But over the last decade or so our ranks have multiplied many times over with hordes of newly accredited, sometimes scantily accredited, bloggers. So instead of walking into the LVCC press room at lunchtime and having a hot meal with a small circle of friends and acquaintances, I now sit on the floor with a box lunch surrounded by a vastly larger number of strangers. (Note to self: Get the VIP lunch ticket next year.)
The other source of press-stress is my own blogging. Of course I blog! The employer who pays for my health insurance justly expects no less, and I crank out as many items as I can type, each with exclusive homespun point-and-shoot pic. But the writing, photo editing, and uploading reduce the amount of time I can spend actually talking to my contacts and trawling for new reviewables. It has also altered my way of covering an exhibit: Instead of meandering happily around and having leisurely conversations, I have become goal oriented, browbeating my contacts for product data while juggling notebook, pen, and camera. I ask the same question of everyone: "What are you showing this year that we've never seen before?" Of course I'd ask the question anyway, blogging or no blogging, but I wish I had more time to listen to the answers.
A few of you will smirk as you remember that a website I cofounded in the mid-'90s, etown.com, actually pioneered show blogging and online CE coverage in general. Yes, I have been hoist with my own petard. During most of that era I did my power-typing as the show-floor editor while my erstwhile business partners ran around and filed stories. Our project failed to make us massively rich, as we had hoped, a fact that still leaves me sad. The most memorable year was when the CES authorities put us in a fishbowl in the Concourse that links two of the big halls. This high-profile location seemed like a great idea at the time, but people kept wandering in and distracting our reporters, confusing us with official show staff. As the ranking editor, I would have to get up from the keyboard, inform them that this was a private office, and ask them to leave. Some of them didn't like it. We were much happier the year we had a more private and privileged space overlooking the show floor, where we could enjoy the panorama while working in peace.
For audiophiles, no description of the CES experience would be complete without a glimpse of the Venetian, where the high-end audio exhibitors now live the high life. In the few years I've been getting to know it, I've finally forgiven the Venetian for not being Venice itself (one of the world's most humane urban landscapes). The Venetian experience starts with exhibits in the big lower-floor meeting rooms, though there were fewer audio companies there this year. The ballrooms adjacent to these meeting rooms are enormous, and in fact they used to accommodate the giant pre-show press events, with disgruntled reporters and bloggers standing in 90-minute lines before each event. But this year that circus moved to the even more capacious Mandalay Bay.
The best parts of the Venetian—and CES itself, as far as I'm concerned—are the five exhibiting floors in the Venetian Towers. That's where the small audio companies rule the roost, in cozy and intimate hotel rooms, joined by a few larger companies that book multiple rooms because they want to be where the action is. This is the idealized CES that I secretly love, a pedestrian-scaled audio paradise designed expressly to aid the search for good sound. To get there from either the meeting rooms or the press room, I have to thread my way through a nasty smoke- and noise-filled casino and past some insipid bling boutiques catering to tasteless people with too much money (as opposed to tasteful audiophiles with too much money). And there is usually a wait of a few minutes to get into the elevators. But the result is worth it.
I get off the elevator and find myself facing a trio of long—and this is Vegas, so when I say long, I mean loooooong—corridors, each festooned with dozens of exhibitors. (The map pictured above will give you an idea of the layout.) The exhibit rooms are basically hotel rooms pressed into service as listening and/or meeting rooms, with banners right-angled over the doorways, so I needn't even twist my neck to read the signs. A room may be devoted to a single manufacturer, or to several exhibiting communally, with one company's turntable or DAC feeding another company's amps pumping power into another company's speakers, all tied together with yet another company's cables, to say nothing of the acoustic treatments. The air is warm from all those big amps.
I approach this scene in two ways. One is to read the banners and visit the companies I know, the ones whose products I've reviewed in the past and might review again. That's my job and I like it. But the other method I employ—and I'm going to trot out the italics again because this is the really fabulous part—is to just wander and listen. I duck my head in the door, and if I hear something I like, I walk farther in. Maybe I'll just stand at the back, take in the scene for a few seconds, admire the lovingly set up system under flattering mood lighting, and give the sometimes lonely exhibitor a smile and a nod before I depart. But sometimes I'll hear something I really like. It might be from a company I know or one I've never heard of before. Then I look for a seat, rest my feet for awhile, and finally remember the reason I endure this CES madness in the first place: I love good sound. I love it because it brings me closer to music, and getting closer to music is what high-end audio is all about. At the Venetian I'm surrounded by people who love music and strive, in their own ways, to bring it home. Your home and mine, gentle reader.
So much for love; what about hate? It's not so much CES I hate: I'm a veteran and I know exactly how to find the CES-within-the-CES that matters to me. As a matter of fact I admire the people at the Consumer Electronics Association who keep this sprawling mega-event from degenerating into chaos. If the world were as well organized as CES, it might be a better place. And the service people in Las Vegas are everyday heroes who don't get enough credit for their hard work and good cheer.
What I really loathe with a passion is the city of Las Vegas itself. I'm no prude, but a place built on gambling and prostitution is not one I want to visit each and every year. Vegas tyrannizes the human spirit with its inhuman scale and its windowless casinos filled with clueless victims. Walking (and I love to walk) is a burden because both the indoor and outdoor enviroments belittle the pedestrian. The casinos are deliberately labyrinthine to keep you from wandering outside, and if you make it outside, the Sasquatch footprint of the buildings makes it a trial even to walk next door. The desert air savages your respiratory tract, making it even more susceptible to the bugs constantly being passed from one hand-shaking showgoer to another. International CES is an international event, as the name says, which means if there's a single cold or flu bug anywhere in the world you are guaranteed to be exposed to it.
For many years I was resigned to the fact that I'd be sick for weeks after every show. Then I discovered the secret to surviving it: Spend ten hours a day in bed. Nothing fights disease like a well-rested immune system. But if you do that, you'll also miss out on the convivial part of the CES experience, the luxurious late-night meals with your friends in the industry. Still, I'm willing to trade a few nights of fancy dinners for a month of good health in the middle of winter. I used to come home sick from CES every time. Now I never do (knock wood).
Now that you've had a taste of CES, should you try it? For industry insiders, of course, it's an indispensable chance to renew and extend contacts; and for a reviewer like me, it's a chance to start planning for a year of listening critiques. But if it's information you want, stay home and read. CES show blogging has become as expansive as the show itself and there's not much you might learn that you wouldn't find on our site as well as those of our sister publications: Stereophile, AnalogPlanet, AudioStream, and inner|fidelity. Leave those 55 football fields to the pros.