The Ups and Downs of the Hi-Fi Show

Spring is traditionally prime time for the audio industry to dust off the cobwebs and bring out their best and latest gear at a hi-fi show for the public to see, hear, and touch. But the pandemic of the past two years wreaked havoc on the show front.

The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF) in Denver, an annual October event, was the prime consumer audio show in the U.S. for years. On the trade-only side (not open to the public, at least not officially), the Specialty Audio division at the annual January CES in Las Vegas was king. It may have been only a footnote in the overall immensity of CES, but for the high-end audio industry it was the big time, filling three-plus crowded floors in the Venetian Hotel.

Both of these specialty audio shows are now gone. RMAF was apparently unable to ride out the Covid-19 bump that for the past two years forced the cancellation (or on-line streaming) of most trade and consumer shows.

The CES Specialty Audio show died a slower death, beginning around 2018. In the early 1980s a small audio show was held annually in Frankfurt, Germany. It moved to Munich later and began a rapid growth, helped no doubt by the fall of the Iron Curtain in the early 1990s and the opening up of the Eastern European market. The Munich show eventually grew to Olympic proportions that the worldwide audio industry couldn't ignore. For that and other reasons the CES Specialty Audio show was nearly dead by 2019, before Covid was even a blip on anyone's radar. It's no longer a factor in the high-end consumer audio business. High End Munich is now considered the premier annual audio show internationally, and reopened earlier this month after a 2-year Covid hiatus. It's open to both the trade and the public.

Rocky Mountain and CES, not to mention the fall holidays, dominated the schedule so much during their heydays that a number of shows cropped up in the Spring, where they now remain.

The biggest Spring show at presently in the U.S., as far as I can tell, is Chicago's AXPONA in April. My only visit to it was in 2019, and in that pre-pandemic, strong economy it was a huge and well attended event despite cold, snowy weather. The Los Angeles area has had an off-again, on-again history of audio shows but the latest, as I write, is T.H.E. Show, definitely scheduled for next week, June 10-12 2022, at the Hilton Long Beach. And after an long absence, the New York Audio Show is now scheduled for September 2022.

Audio shows are great fun, but do have their ups and downs. On the upside it would take you days or even weeks to find dealers offering demos of a product you want to audition, given the scarcity of well-equipped audio dealers today in all but the largest cities. But at a show you might get to hear something you're interested in, or discover appealing products you weren't considering. I emphasize "might" because no show can cover more than a fraction of the available manufacturers and products. But if you're determined to hear loudspeaker A from manufacturer B, and B will be at the show (you can usually find a list of exhibiting companies on a show's website) try reaching out to them before the show to find out what they'll be demonstrating.

While most audio companies are small and often flexible enough to actually answer your query over the phone, that flexibility can also mean last-minute changes. Don't give them a hard time if they demonstrate their Superba DeLux III instead of the DeLux II you were anxious to hear.

The downsides of a show demo are often the same as with any demo, anywhere. The rooms (typically hotel sleeping rooms with the beds removed) are often small and acoustically mediocre at best. The exhibitors are often unable to get the best out of their products in the short time they have to set them up. Furthermore, what they might have heard during setup could fly out the window when a dozen showgoers are crowded into the room.

Stereophile's John Atkinson once told me about a classic pre-show setup session at a show in the U.K. Two manufacturers were sharing a room — a common practice at audio shows — where an amplifier company that didn't make loudspeakers supplied the amp and a speaker maker that didn't make amps brought the speakers. After an hour or two of rough setup, the amp maker said a late night session was still needed to get the sound right. But the speaker man grabbed a pile of CDs, plopped one into the player, listened for a minute or two and said yes. He then listened to a second disc and rejected it.

This went on for an hour or so, with some discs accepted and others not, until he had a pile of "good" CDs for the public demo!! Of course that doesn't work if an attendee comes in with a CD he or she wants to hear. Some show-runners will beg off, others will accept the challenge and quietly grimace at the result.

But CD players are uncommon at hi-fi shows these days. The sources are usually either streaming or vinyl. I have the same issue with vinyl as a source at shows as I have in using it to review loudspeakers. While I recognize the current popularity of vinyl among many audiophiles, for me a transducer is the most potentially colored component in a system (apart from the room!). With a vinyl demo you're now adding the often unknown colorations of one transducer (the phono cartridge) to the colorations of another transducer (the loudspeaker — the component you're likely trying to audition!). If you're intimately familiar with the phono cartridge in use, fine, but that's unlikely at a show.

Home theater or surround-sound demos are extremely rare (or even non-existent) at hi-fi shows. One reason for this involves the two subsets of audio fans — stereo-forever and those who cling to home theater. The two overlap to a degree, but there are more stereo-forever listeners who turn up their noses at a home theater than the reverse. Another reason for the lack of home theater demos at audio shows is that the setup is more complex and takes up a lot of space, meaning that the company will need a larger, more expensive room.

It also must be said that the typical use of the loudest and most action-oriented material for a home theater demo often turns off the stereo listener who might otherwise be surprised by the subtleties and spaciousness that surround sound offers. The only show that does feature home theater demos is the trade-only CEDIA event in September, which caters to custom installers.

By far the major downside to an audio show, for many listeners, is price. Not the cost of admission, but the prices on many of the products being shown. Attendees will hear some of the best gear available, but many of them are there just to listen and dream, knowing that it's unlikely they'll ever be able to afford such a setup. I'd love to see a show where no component in the system is allowed to exceed an upper price limit, perhaps $5,000, resulting in a system costing no more than $15,000. You might not be able to afford it all immediately, but can realistically imagine it in your future.

If an entire show of such setups isn't possible, a separate floor or section allowing for 10-20 rooms with these limitations shouldn't be unworkable. No limits would be imposed on cables or dubious accessories. A manufacturer would look foolish using $20,000 worth of cables in such a system, a clear disincentive to do so. I vividly recall a small room at that 2019 AXPONA loaded with affordable gear. It was packed.

jeff-henning's picture

As a consumer, I can't think of any reason to go to a hi-fi show. As a journalist (which I'm not), sure.

From the various sources I've read about the products at the several shows in the last couple months, it's obvious that a large number of speaker and electronics designers have no interest in making equipment that anyone who's not in the upper 1% can afford.

If you want a system that costs more than most people's houses, I really don't have anything in common with you.

The other thing that gets me is how dubious many of the products are. Lots of claims with little to no science to back them up.

Hey, if you want a "stereo" that weighs in at a couple tons and costs $500,000, go for it.

While none of my systems are "state of the art", they all sound really good for their price points.

You's never catch me at one of these cluster-f?#kfests.

brenro's picture

Who cares?

itsratso's picture

funny you guys would show a pix of salk speakers, i bought a pair while i was at axpona recently. it would be nice if you guys actually reviewed something from him as he is one of the good guys in the industry and his speakers are absolutely beloved by people. as far as shows go, absolutely there is a bunch of unobtainium snake oil ripoff stuff there. it is audiophiles after all. but there is also cool and affordable stuff, like salk.