It's Hi-Fi Show Time Again!

I've blogged on audio (and video) shows before but there's always something more that needs to be said on the subject, even though it's unavoidable that I'll repeat a few things here that you'll also find in those earlier posts.

Every year new hi-fi shows seem to pop up, though some will inevitably fade while others come along to fill the gaps. I've never been involved in organizing an audio show, but can imagine that it's a hectic, rewarding, but often difficult business (our sister publication, Stereophile actually ran a few annual audio shows years ago).

In the past decade or so we lost the Specialty Audio event at CES. CES remains a gargantuan, electronics industry show in Las Vegas every January (open only to the trade and not the public, though almost anyone can get in with a little help from a friendly A/V dealer). But now, without its Specialty Audio spin-off, which was formerly held at a hotel apart from the main CES Las Vegas Convention Center, CES is far less attractive to those in the premier audio business. Audio at CES' today includes little that's likely to interest the serious, high-end audio or home theater fan, apart from a few manufacturers that might rent a suite in a nearby hotel for invitation-only appointments. The major attractions at CES these days (at least for us) are TVs; most of the new, upcoming televisions are launched there each year.

For years the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, a popular consumer audio show, attracted hundreds of audiophiles to Colorado every fall. The RMAF is now long gone, but there's no shortage of other audio shows to replace it. While Colorado today is an audio-show-free zone (which also includes a noticeably large swath of the U.S. from just west of the eastern seaboard to the Rocky Mountains), North America now sports consumer audio shows in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Raleigh North Carolina, Washington D.C., Tampa FL, and (in Canada) Montreal and Toronto. I'm sure I've missed one or two as yet unheralded newcomers here. Nor have I attempted to list shows outside of Canada and the U.S.A. There are dozens of them around the planet.

Any list of audio shows might also include CEDIA. The latter is typically held in September and alternates in various cities (in 2024 it will be in Denver). As with CES, CEDIA is technically trade only. It's a medium-sized show, much easier to navigate than CES, and unlike the latter is heavily devoted to the custom installation business. This includes home theater, sometimes with just a smattering of two-channel audio. I haven't covered it since Covid came and (largely) went, but it's the only show I know of that offers a significant number of home theater demos.

The big banana in today's two-channel shows is High End Munich in Germany held annually in May (9-13 May in 2024, and open to the public). I've never been to it, at least not since it was a tiny, hotel-based Frankfurt show and I was stationed an hour's drive away. It's now immense, and definitely a two-channel show. That's no surprise; home theater, with rare exceptions, doesn't appear to be have made the sort of serious inroads in Europe that it has in North America. That might be because European homes tend to be smaller and therefore less friendly to a home theater setup.

But even in the U.S., high-end audio consumer shows devote little to no space to home theater demos. As I've mentioned in those earlier show blogs, most attendees at hi-fi shows are there for a two-channel stereo experience. I suspect more home theater exhibits might turn up if the demand was there. But a home theater setup is complex and typically demands a larger demo space than a stereo setup requires. That makes home theater more expensive to demonstrate, which doesn't endear it to most exhibitors. SVS, which supports both the home theater market and high-end audio with its full-range loudspeakers and subwoofers, is the rare manufacturer to consistently set up surround sound and home theater in their show rooms, most recently at the AXPONA show in Chicago where the company featured a new, premium line of loudspeakers. But such rooms are typically too small to allow a 5.1 (or greater) home theater setup to truly breathe.

If you do plan to attend a future hi-fi-show a few suggestions here might help you get the best from your visit. In the past I've brought along a few of my own CDs, but CD players now seem to have largely disappeared from most show rooms, replaced by streaming and, of course, vinyl. But bring along a few of your favorite CDs anyway; unlike vinyl they're an easy carry and you might get lucky and find a room or two with a lonesome CD player hiding in a corner. But also bring a list of favorite recordings that might be downloadable via the streaming devices used in most demo rooms.

Also bring one or two favorite Blu-rays or other surround sources. Again, you'll be lucky to find a room where you can use them, but if you do you might just get a dedicated two-channel listener or three to admit that there might be something to this surround-sound thingy. But do choose something a little less over the top than, say, the latest Mission Impossible car-and-train crash video. Use surround music only, or a movie scene where atmospheric, surround music dominates the experience. The explosion of a Death Star can come later; turning the average two-channel devote to the bright side must begin delicately!

But I digress. If music without surround or images is the only source available you can still have a rewarding show experience. Unless I'm looking for something specific (say a new AVR or a streamer), at most hi-fi shows I essentially ignore almost everything in the system apart from the loudspeakers. In fact, the loudspeakers are the only part of any audio show system you can seriously evaluate. And even then what you hear from any unfamiliar audio setup (apart from the source material) is 40% from the speakers, 50% from the room and setup, and 10% from everything else. A rough percentage guess to be sure, but not too far off.

If the sound in a room is appealing, stay long enough to listen to more than one selection from your preferred source material. That's important, since the program source can seriously skew what you hear. If your visit to a room was less than promising, perhaps because you had a bad seat and/or less than inspiring source material (not all demo runners will be equally receptive to searching for your desired music stream), you might want to make a repeat visit later when the stars are better aligned (that is, there's a smaller crowd and the odds of scoring a front and center listening seat is higher).

If you're only attending the show for one day, plan ahead and guard your time carefully to allow visits to demonstrations that are likely to be of interest to you. But if at all possible plan your visit for at least two days. At most audio shows it will be difficult to squeeze in everything that you'll want to see and hear in one day. Saturday is typically the busiest day at any hi-fi show, and Sunday the slowest. Sunday does have a serious disadvantage, however. The closing hour is typically earlier, and some rooms will often try to start packing up even before the anointed hour. Visiting the show on Friday (usually the first day) can also unearth a different problem; exhibitors might still be unhappy with the sound and continue fiddling with the setup even after the opening bell!

prerich45's picture

What you're saying rings true. I've been planning to go to FLAX in Tampa 2025. I remember the 2012 AXPONA show, I ran into Bob Carver in the hallway and I really wanted to say hello, but the man was pouring in sweat like he was working outside! The reason why...his new speaker system was debuting and he was tuning it. I went in the room and I wasn't impressed, it was good - but I was just whelmed (not over or under). His partner at the time could see that and told me to come back on Sunday. I came back on Sunday and sure enough - the sound was beautiful! One thing that also happens - if you seem very interested, some vendors will invite you back for private showings and to just chew the fat for a while. I didn't know about a show in North Carolina - I would like to get to that one as well!!!

Ehto's picture

Yes, AV shows can be a great place to check out the shiny new equipment on display. Although I agree it is difficult to evaluate a speaker system in a noisy, unfamiliar environment such as a show. Me and the team at Orchid Tiling love going to these shows, hope there will be plenty more to come.

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