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July 2015
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Skoffin' Up Food For Thought
The High-End Audio Show Paradox
How can our hobby be declining when high-end show attendance keeps going up?
Article By Roger Skoff

 

The Show Paradox Roger Skoff wonders how our hobby can be declining when Show attendance keeps going up.  I had the pleasure of attending and, in some small way, participating in T.H.E. Show Newport recently, and both the evidence of my eyes and the word of the promoters tell me that that it set new records for attendance, both by exhibitors and the public.

Frankly, that has me a little bit baffled: For the past several years, people, including me, have been bewailing the fate of our hobby and our industry. We've been issuing dire warnings of our industry's ultimate disappearance, either into a pablum of uninspiring sound intended to be played on fancy smartphones by uninterested people or into a tiny enclave of militant Hi-Fi Crazies bravely clutching their analog and their exquisitely good but violently expensive gear to their bosoms as a talisman against impending musical darkness.

Even I have said much the same thing: In an article in another publication called "Electric Trains" (Audiophile Review December, 13, 2012), I wrote that, in just my own lifetime, electric trains had gone from something owned by every boy and, at Christmas-time, to be found circling every tree, to the very expensive hobby of just a tiny core of affluent and very committed old men, and I said that, unless something very major were done very soon, a similar fate seemed to be in store for audiophile-quality high fidelity sound.

One bit of evidence that those bleak prophesies may already be in the process of coming true is the undeniable fact that there has been a steady decline in the number of specialty high-end audio dealers across the United States of America. This has been going on, it seems, almost since the dust first settled following the highly touted and exceedingly successful introduction of the compact disc (CD) in 1982, and, despite burgeoning audiophile markets abroad, has continued in the United States with fewer new dealers opening their doors each year than the number of established dealers closing them. As digital sound has become ever cheaper and more accessible to the general public, the public seems increasingly to have come to regard it as a utility and its players as appliances, and to have been willing to exchange potential sonic merit for convenience, portability, and the ability to carry your ten thousand favorite tunes around with you at all times in a device the size of a thin stack of postcards.

There are at least two things, however, that are clearly pushing back in the opposite direction.

AXPONA 2015The first is analog. Like the renascence of vacuum tube electronics after solid-state appeared certainly and irrevocably to have rendered its death-blow, vinyl records and the gear to play them with are resurgent, with more and more new products and software being released every year. While they're still a small segment of the overall music market, LP records are definitely on a rising curve, while the CDs that "replaced" them are – in the face of newer formats and streaming media – clearly on the decline.

The second is headphones: After having bought players little better than a Walkman and "in-the-ear" 'phones of similar quality, people – even the young -- are now learning to recognize and value better sound, just as the current generation of audiophiles did back all those many years ago. It's now come around to the point where no-longer-cheap personal portable electronics are challenging the state-of-the-audio-art and some of the headphones they're played through are in the $1000 range and up and, for their sonics, rival even some of the very best loudspeakers.

Whether it's analog or headphones or something else entirely, people – even in the USA -– are, once again, and have been, for the last few years, interested in seeing and learning about new products, and where they go to do that is at an ever-increasing number of shows.

Back in the day, T.H.E. Show – not only in importance but, except for some possible local events, in actual number – was CES (the "Consumer Electronics Show"). That was theoretically a for-the-trade-only event, but as I quickly discovered when I became a hi-fi manufacturer, at least a third of the total number of attendees to the high-end audio exhibits were "sneak-ins" -- customers or pals of one of the attending dealers or exhibitors, or high-end audiophiles who had just plain faked their "industry" credentials.

If I remember correctly, the first of the national shows that was actually intended for a consumer audience was the Stereophile Show. That show, alternating from one coast to the other over its several year run, gave interested audiophiles the opportunity to see the newest gear from the hottest manufacturers or as shown by local dealers, and even allowed them to meet and hear seminars by industry notables without the need to “know somebody" or to pretend anything at all, and was, for a long while, a ringing success.

Rocky Mountain Audio FestPerhaps inspired by the Stereophile Show, other consumer-oriented shows began popping-up all over the country: In no particular order, but just as I think of them, these included AXPONA (the Audio Expo of North America, in Chicago), the Capital Audiofest, near Washington D.C., the New York Audio Show, the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, in Denver; and more.

One consumer hi-fi show that was set-up to parallel and run simultaneously with CES was T.H.E. (The Home Entertainment) Show, Las Vegas. This eventually branched-out to add T.H.E. Show, Newport, near Newport Beach, California, co-sponsored by Las Vegas promoter Richard Beers, and the Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society (LAOCAS), headed-up by former Turner Broadcasting Chief, Bob Levi.

With truly great management and organizational skills, and by approaching the Newport Show as a "lifestyle" event, featuring the very best of audio, both home and personal, plus generous amounts of live music, exotic and classic cars, and other attractions to make the show appealing to the broadest possible spectrum of attendees – including dates and spouses, Richard Beers and the LAOCAS wound-up attracting an unprecedented 406 companies to exhibit at the 2015 event, and drew an impressive public turnout of nearly 9000 attendees. T.H.E. Show, Newport has, in fact, become so successful that all of the promoters' efforts have now been concentrated on it, and as of this year, the Las Vegas show has been discontinued.

California Audio ShowThe next show likely to see impressive growth is also in California – the California Audio Show. Inspired by the spectacular growth of T.H.E. Show, Newport, Show owner Constantine Soo says that "California's Silicon Valley is the tech center of the world. With a population of just under 39 million, if California were a separate country, we would be the world's 34th largest; California's economy, just as a State, is the eighth largest in the world (ahead of Russia and Italy) and is sufficient to qualify us as members of the G-8; we already have Newport, the largest consumer hi-fi show in the United States; and, with nearly an eighth (12.18%) of all the people in the United States living in California; we think there's plenty of population – especially in the area of San Francisco, one of America's greatest cities – to support another one, and that's what we intend to do: We're going to make California America's hi-fi State, and the high-end audio center of the world."

As a first step in achieving that laudable but certainly ambitious goal, Constantine Soo has just hired Jim Arvanitis, a well-known and highly-regarded sales and marketing executive for Sony, Kenwood, and other powerhouse companies in our industry and, in the past, an influential member of the Audio Board and other executive committees and working groups of CEA (the Consumer Electronics Association) to be his new Show Manager. According to Jim, 2015 will, after five years of previous success, break new ground for the California Audio Show. Next year's (2016) Show, which will go into planning immediately after this year's Show (August 14th through 16th, 2015) closes, will be even greater.

Jim says that his goal will be to attract new people to our hobby and that he has important new ways – including some of the very best ideas from the T.H.E. Show, Newport – to help make that happen. Good! The more the merrier! We want him to attract more people to our hobby, and a well-run, lifestyle-type show is a fine way to do it. We wish him success, and we'll always be eager to welcome new friends to...

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