An interesting thing came out of last month’s CES. Because there were fewer exhibitors in high-end audio, it meant those of us reporting on the show didn’t need to take the sort of rigid ‘beat’ we commonly took. A few years ago, we would divide CES up the same way we might divide up a show like AXPONA or Munich: Person A takes ‘turntables’, Person B takes ‘loudspeakers up to $10,000’, and so on. Naturally, the number of people you send to a show dictates how thin you slice those divisions.
An unintended advantage to a reduced CES meant a reporter could step beyond those divisions. It’s still not possible for one individual to visit every room in the event (unless you count putting your head in the room, listening for a nanosecond, and walking out again as ‘visiting’), and an unintended disadvantage by way of counter-argument was that fewer visitors to the audio rooms meant it was harder to extricate yourself from a room at the normal rate. However, the ability to move beyond our ‘usual show beat’ meant many of us got to see many of the same products.
Although the reviewing fraternity is often beset by rivalries and arguments, at shows there is often a temporary détente – primarily because sooner or later you will end up in lock-step with your arch nemesis for a whole floor – and we often end up instead engaging in a spot of ‘social engineering’. I’m a relatively good diplomat in these proceedings and try to avoid the rivalries (like many reserved British types, I was taught at an early age never to talk politics or religion at the dinner table and I am enough of a salad-dodger to view the whole world as my dinner table), so I frequently share what’s good and what isn’t with my fellow reviewers. And what came out of this year’s round of social engineering was a remarkable sense of consistency across the board. Those of us who got to hear the Kronos/Nagra/Wilson system in the Mirage, those who heard the ELAC Adante system, those who heard the GoldenEar Triton Reference, the Raidho and Scansonic rooms, the Revel Performer F208Be, the Sony hi-res portable desktop system, and the YG Sonja XV were all independently and consistently impressed by these systems. In the case of the ELAC, Raidho, Wilson, and YG systems, they were “Have you heard…?” rooms. Others were good, but everyone I met who was walking the halls (and not simply stuck in their own room) was consistently and continuously impressed by these systems. The other systems that got a mention were often extremely good too, but these ones kept coming back time and again, mentioned repeatedly and consistently. That might make us collectively seem like kids in a sweet shop (candy store) and for good reason… we were. But even kids in a candy store tend to gravitate toward the stuff they like and leave the weird stuff to the weird kids.
This is not the first time this consistency has happened; in fact, it seems relatively commonplace in events where it’s possible to visit a significant proportion of the show. Rocky Mountain Audio Fest last year, by way of example, was divided between those who loved the sound of the Sanders or the Kronos/Nagra/Avalon systems, and those who didn’t hear those systems. And there have been other cases of universally liked systems. In researching this, I also looked beyond the audio magazine-based reports and tried to find the ones made by interested bloggers and forum posters, and again – where an opinion was expressed, it was often in agreement with the zeitgeist. People agreed on what sounded good.
There are – and should – be outliers. There will always be people who seem to think the absolute opposite to the rest of the world. As long as they are consistently at odds with the rest of the audio world, their likes and dislikes are at least consistent.
But this invites the question of can you judge this for yourself, especially if reviewers are discussing events in another continent, or at events that are not open to the public? The answer is to take a synoptic viewpoint. If one guy writing on one website thinks a thing is good, it might be good, but if six people writing on several websites think a thing is good, it’s very likely good. For example, although we frequently attend the same shows as our sister title The Absolute Sound, there is no conscious collusion between the titles as to what did and did not sound good. Yes, we may meet in the corridors, rooms, bars, and restaurants, and a spot of discreet social engineering might take place, but this is more ‘did you hear…?’ discussions of fellow enthusiasts rather than ‘secret plans’ of kingmakers.
Although I still suggest there are few absolutes in audio and what might prove great for one person might not have the same resonance for another, this wider consistency among diverse listeners seems to suggest otherwise – that there are universals in audio, and given the choice people tend to like the same things for the same reasons.