About this time each year, the whole tech world points its gaze upon Las Vegas for the annual CES. Typically, as I write this, I would be sitting in a departure lounge with dozens of other UK tech journalists waiting for an 11 hour flight for our yearly gadget hajj, knowing that those who exhibit have already been in the town for at least two days prior to the press cabal’s arrival.
Not this year, however, and possibly never again.
CES is gaining in popularity year after year. Each successive event adds more tech sectors, more parts of Las Vegas given over to the show, and more show-goers, be they manufacturers, distributors, press, online or bricks-and-mortar retailers, or press. And yet, although CES began with audio, the high-end presence in Las Vegas has been in sharp decline each successive January. For us, and many others in the audio sector, CES 2017 was a tipping point.
In part and with the aid of 20:20 hindsight, the audio world pressed its own self-destruct button by choosing a gilded cage in place of a zoo. The main exhibition halls of Las Vegas – the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Sands Expo and Convention Center – are sufficiently far removed from specialty audio section in the rooms and suites of the Venetian Tower to make foot traffic almost non-existent. The need to take over hotel rooms is entirely understandable as they are more sonically isolated than booths in a packed hall, but by removing the audio world from the main expo, the only people who walk the corridors of the Venetian Tower are pre-existing audio enthusiasts, rather than passing buyers and press who might express – and subsequently develop – an interest in high-end audio.
Moreover, the costs involved in CES have spiralled for exhibitor and visitor alike. High-end’s weight problem (heavy electronics matched with even heavier loudspeakers) is almost unique outside of the large multinationals with million-dollar budgets. A lot of tech companies can haul their latest product in a flight case or two, but when you are dealing with possibly half a ton of electronics (or more), the drayage costs of hauling those products from the airport to the hotel and from the hotel’s ground floor to the 29th often match or exceed those of international air freight. Moreover, knowing they have a captive audience of more than 180,000 visitors means LV air fares and hotel bills hit their absolute peak in early January. This has meant over recent an increasing number of companies in the audio world (both exhibitors and distributors) have switched their allegiance to shows like Munich, and with so few trade visitors to the Venetian Tower suites last year, that 'increasing number' became a torrent.
Before we boarded the return flight last year, we knew it was hard to justify flying to Las Vegas for CES 2018. There was also a sense of some kind of disconnect between CES and high-end audio, and that disconnect has not been fully repaired in 2018. Yes, there were concessions made (this year empty rooms in the Venetian Tower aren’t filled with random companies to make up the numbers, unlike 2017, which left visitors to wonder what mattresses had to do with high-end audio), but the damage had been done. Where the show once had five floors and hundreds of exhibitors, this year there are but two floors and a few dozen exhibiting. Where you couldn’t cover the whole audio sector of the show just five years ago, this year you could see it all in a day.
We decided enough was enough. CES is still the main consumer electronics event, and with the high-end audio world turning its back on the event, that effectively means audio stands outside of the rest of the consumer electronics world. I don’t know whether that is a bad thing (we move from being ‘almost invisible’ to ‘invisible’ to the rest of the CE world) or a good one (we were always shouted down by the gadget-of-the-year by the sheer weight of generalist consumer press). Many companies are looking at the audio show schedule in terms of cost-benefit analysis, and Las Vegas simply doesn’t add up.
In a way, I hope this changes for the better, and not because I want to go back to Las Vegas next year. I want the audio world not to be invisible, and it would be better to find a way to make the audio world and the rest of the CE world meet up at the same event once again. In part, we made our own playing field uneven, but it’s in the interests of all those interested in audio to flatten that playing field out once more. However, I simply can’t see how that can happen.