Waiting to fly back to the UK with a flight full of tech industry and press people gives one a chance to reflect on CES. Last year, I wrote a feature entitled ‘We Need To Talk About Vegas’ (http://www.hifiplus.com/articles/we-need-to-talk-about-vegas/), questioning the validity of CES as an audiophile event. I was conflicted then, I’m even more conflicted now.
CES is the mainstay of the consumer electronics calendar. By not appearing, the high-end audio world doesn’t send a message to the rest of the CE market, it silences its own voice. We are a small enough industry in a small enough market for our absence not to matter at all. To that end, the rooms that were not taken this year by audio manufacturers who did not attend were filled with companies outside our sector. The Venetian Tower – formerly listed as the ‘Specialty Audio’ sector – is now known as ‘Tech West: Venetian Tower Exhibit Suites’ and brands like Metronome and LAMM end up facing visitors going to see AARP and Pernod. Of the five floors traditionally devoted solely to audio, only one remains fully audio committed, and of the dozen or so large exhibits normally seen on the 34th and 35th floor, there were just five companies in six rooms.
The news is perhaps better for the high-resolution and headphone worlds, where they have their own distinct spaces in the main Las Vegas Convention Center (Chris Martens will be discussing this at a later date). This means higher visibility and greater foot traffic, although much of that foot traffic will be in search of random things like interactive scarves and smart lawns (yes, both these were shown at CES this year). Of course, the main ‘zoo’ isn’t a place to demonstrate the nuances of high-performance audio because the background noise levels are too high, but it increases the possibility of people who might not normally think of audio discovering our hobby. That visibility is simply not there with the Venetian Tower as it stands, although there was some traffic from people intending to visit a robotics or even bedding manufacturer and stumbling on high-end audio.
In great fairness, this year’s CES wasn’t quite as bad as many expected from a high-end audio perspective. Granted Thursday and Sunday were extremely quiet from a visitor perspective, but that wasn’t the case at all on the Friday and Saturday. The ‘quality, not quantity’ mantra was doled out a lot (personally, I don’t see the reason why you can’t have both at once!), but distributors and dealers who stayed away last year visited the reduced number of manufacturers.
In a way, the problem is compounded by the CTA’s increased security demands with regard to attendance figures. This is a polite euphemism for ‘wanting to charge $100 for attendees’: although CES is trade only, many audiophiles found the admissions process wasn’t too demanding or expensive and appeared on ‘buyer’ tickets. However, in hardening up the admissions process and charging more for a ticket, this effectively stopped a lot of enthusiasts flying in under the radar. In addition, Las Vegas has learned that the CES nerdosphere spends more money in restaurants and bars and less at the slots and tables means hotel prices increase exponentially through the CES period; a room that might cost $60 per night on Jan 2 would cost $600 or more two days later. All of which makes the concept of attending CES a tough call for the audiophile enthusiast.
With events like AXPONA and RMAF filling the space traditionally taken up by CES in America, and Munich and Hong Kong shows providing a more valid international backdrop for trade and enthusiasts alike, CES’s viability as an audio space remains in doubt.
Yet, for all that, I still maintain that the annual CES is a useful vehicle for the audio business to do business, as it keeps high performance audio from becoming completely invisible. However, what we currently have at the Venetian Tower is patently not working. It’s not working for enthusiasts, because they have no access to these potentially wonderful exhibits. It’s not working for the distributors and dealers, who are struggling to come to terms with spending thousands on a room and hundreds on a badge just to talk to people with whom they are already in regular contact. And it’s not working for the manufacturers, who find the drayage costs of getting their products from one part of the Venetian to another costs more than shipping them around the world. Change is needed here, we’re just not sure precisely what!