The 2012 Consumer Electronics Show: A Better Way?

Every time I stepped from the slow elevator onto the casino floor at Harrah's, where Stereophile's editors spent their sleepless nights, my hatred for Las Vegas was revitalized. It felt like some kind of bad joke: Oh god, I'm still here. I would turn right and see the same flashing lights, the same low ceilings, the same people—still sitting, still smoking, still hoping, still staring blank-faced into spinning screens of cherries, spades, and jokers—and I would wonder why.

And later, after navigating the long lines and crowded elevators at the Venetian, which housed most of the annual Consumer Electronics Show's high-end audio exhibits, I walked the seemingly endless halls, praying for invisibility, bobbing and weaving through dealers, distributors, manufacturers, and reps, who would inevitably see me, smile, and pull me into their suite.

"It's great to see you, too, but I'm supposed to be covering budget amplification."

"Ah, but we have this $10,000 amplifier . . ."

Once free, I would begin my search again. I would remind myself of the room number I'd been heading for prior to being abducted, realize that that room was not on this floor at all, double back, this time declining the elevators in favor of running down the stairs—because the stairs have got to be faster—to the 28th floor, then take a fast elevator and its tedious opera excerpts down to the lobby, and snake through the casinos, through the smoke, past manufacturers announcing angrily, impatiently, that no one from Stereophile has visited their rooms, past the long legs, the short skirts, the cleavage, wondering why.

Why? Most people visit Las Vegas in search of money, sex, drugs, or simple escape. But why are we here? Why do we do this? Does it have to be this way? Is anyone happy? Is this fun? Is this love? Do we do this for love?

Maybe this is just work: one way of making money.

CES 2012 had its redeeming moments. I was thankful for running into Anton Dotson, an especially kind and thoughtful person and a lover of wine, music, and hi-fi, who for the past several years has exhibited at T.H.E. Show (a fringe event held at The Flamingo) as NFS (Not For Sale) Audio, recharging minds, bodies, ears, and souls with music, a smile, and a glass of something delicious.

In Dotson's room, nothing is for sale. People are invited to come in, relax, have a drink, enjoy a discussion, or just listen to music. No favors are asked of you, no so-called "long-term loans" extended under the table and around sideways glances—"Because we all know no one's making a lot of money in this business," said one manufacturer—no words spoken that would make you feel in any way uncomfortable or out of place.

Why does Dotson do this? He does this, it seems clear to me, because he knows no other way. He does it out of love.

Anton Dotson enjoys being a part of T.H.E. Show for many reasons. He especially notes the camaraderie among exhibitors, the willingness to share resources, the after-hours parties at which guests are invited to enter exhibit rooms, recordings of music in hand, and listen for as long as they like.

That's the spirit of hi-fi we should be promoting.

A rep for one loudspeaker manufacturer told me an interesting story. He'd been asked to give an after-hours demo for a potential customer. During the demo, he asked the listener, "Do you like what you hear?"

"Yes," the listener responded, "but I want this sound at 120dB."

The rep was taken by surprise but not deterred. "In this business," he explained to me, "it's kinda like they say 'jump' and you say 'how high?' So I came up with some ideas . . ."

Setting aside the health hazards—listening to music at 120dB for an extended period is sure to cause permanent hearing damage—can we blame this rep for wanting to please his customer? Great amounts of money are at stake. For such a customer, money was not an issue—he was a millionaire. But was he an audiophile?

Which reminds me: All sorts of people are drawn to hi-fi shows, for all sorts of reasons. The hi-fi industry serves not only music lovers and audiophiles, it serves those who want the security, real or imagined, of knowing that they have the best that money can buy.

The hi-fi industry serves the 1%: people with money to burn.

At a show like CES, the goal of the hi-fi press is to report on all of the exhibitor rooms in as thorough and thoughtful a fashion as possible. In the present circumstances, this goal is impossible to achieve. Each CES would have to last a month, and we would need a special breed of tireless, exceptionally proficient writer, capable not only with the word but also with the camera, owner of a smile that never falters, and with reserves of patience and cunning that never run dry.

Or we could choose to stay home. Why attend CES at all? Here, in New York City, Stereophile has access to many of the biggest names in hi-fi, as well as some of those creating the most idiosyncratic, bespoke products. We could choose to stay here and report at will, over the course of years.

And sacrifice the inevitable spike in Web traffic gained from attending and reporting directly from CES? Forfeit the page views?

Doubtful.

Anyway, what sort of message would we present to our industry if we chose to ignore CES? Manufacturers might assume we didn't care about them.

I listened more to people than to music in Las Vegas. Music in Vegas is an ugly sound: the grinding of gears, the jingle of loose change, a terrible hissing noise outside your hotel window, the buzz and clang of temptation, desperation, desire, despair, poor men and women on the street slapping business cards against their cold hands, promoting cheap sex—living, breathing, walking spam.

Hi-fi is about making music. CES is about making money.

I suppose the logical solution would be to simply continue doing what we've been doing for years. We will do our best, while acknowledging our limitations and taking into consideration the inevitable compromises and frustrations of a show like CES. As long as manufacturers of high-end audio choose to be a part of it, Stereophile will be there to cover it.

But from all of those involved in high-end audio at the Consumer Electronics Show, I still want to know: Why do we do this? Isn't there a better way?

Maybe there isn't a better way. But if there is, why aren't we pursuing it?

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COMMENTS
Patrick Butler's picture

Yes, CES is about making money.  The lovely people at NFS Audio spent $3700 on the their room alone to bring their joie de vivre to attendees.  While it is wonderful they did this, the means to do so came from somewhere.

We have a wonderful industry.  Bright and hard-working people abound.  We make money manufacturing, selling and reporting about hifi that can bring joy to people's lives.  When the activity of doing so becomes joyless, then there is a problem.  Your particular column often revolves around the pleasure of listening to music, and doing so keeps the emphasis where it needs to be. 

As an aside, Vegas and I have come to a healthy truce after years of disdain for each other.  I agree to take it on it's own terms, and it agrees to only make me visit once a year.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thanks, Patrick.  As usual, you make great points and offer a healthy, refreshing perspective.  Next year, I'll remember your words and hope that I can come to a truce with Vegas, too.

music guy's picture

...count the "I"'s.   I'm old school but your reviews appear to be centered on you.  

Patrick Butler's picture

Stephan,

There is no subjective experience without "I."

OneMic's picture

I am going to agree with Mr. Mejias here.  Being paid to fly to our nation's adult playground and listen to state of the art audio equipment sounds pretty terrible.  I hope you are recovering from all that preferential treatment in your New York City apartment.

 I really enjoy the coverage Stereophile provides for CES; getting to see the latest and greatest products that I would never be exposed to as I live in a small town amazes me .  I hope you get your wish Stephen, and Stereophile never sends you to CES again. 

Stephen Mejias's picture

OneMic, I don't disrespect the position I'm in. I take it as a privilege. But I also have a responsibility and the right to express my opinion on the things I see and hear. As a writer for Stereophile, I work as part of the hi-fi industry, while also having to remain outside of it. In that way, I can offer greater value to the readers, who must be my first responsibility.

I understand that you live in a small town and have less oportunities to see and hear the amazing products that CES highlights. But that shouldn't cloud your impression of what I'm saying. You have no idea of how privileged I feel to be in a position to share these things with people all over the world. To me, that's amazing; it's a fucking gift.

But I think there are problems with hi-fi's involvement at CES. I want better for the world of hi-fi than what CES currently offers. That's my point.

I've never complained about having to listen to state-of-the-art audio equipment. It's all the other shit at CES that comes with the greedy, thoughtless urge to make more money that drives me mad.

And don't get me wrong: I have no problem with making money. I would like to make boatloads of money, myself. I just don't think that making money should be the first priority here. Yet, at CES, making money is too often the only priority. I have a problem with that.

I hope you are recovering from all that preferential treatment in your New York City apartment.

I live in Jersey City, in a decrepit building covered in pigeon shit. I love it, though. But preferential treatment is another one of those things that pisses me off. I would prefer to be treated like anyone else.

himynameisjuan's picture

CES is about making money, but so is everything else really. It's how one spends their money that really matters.

CES is also about innovation. Innovation is gaining convenience, often with compromise. Hifi is about not compromising sound, however inconvenient one's set-up may be. 

As a side note, what were everyone's thoughts on the iNuke Boom speaker?

shinri's picture

Due to personal reasons, I missed CES for the first time since 1986, but I actually found that I really missed it.

Having been on the exhibitor side of the fence several times in the past, I think I understand why there's a lot of pressure for the exhibitors to have money somewhere near the front of their thought processes. When adding up all of the costs for a small company to exhibit, you often end up questioning if it's even worth it. Unfortunately if you're a no show, people will assume that your company is either dead or dying.

More recently I too have made my peace with CES and Vegas. As someone who isn't generally asked to file any kind of show report, I don't have the pressure you guys have to dash around looking for new stuff within a certain category. This allows me to contrate on the social benefits of having everyone in one place, and forget about even attempting to see everything. The simple logistics of even trying to hit all of the high-end exhibits makes it pretty much impossible anyway.

Still I have a few pet peeves:

Press day is broken. That whole process has become irrelevant in a world where any earth shattering anouncement can be made online and available to all instantly. CEA should simply put up a website where all registered press can stream the press events live, without having to wait in a hour long line with no promise of even getting in.

Off site exhibitors other than the large group at The Flamingo are a massive pain in the ass. Just getting to an off site location for single exhibitor will eat at least two precious hours, time that will mean skipping over at least a dozen other manufacturers at the Venetian or Flamingo.

The transportation setup is broken. These days I normally rent a car, and drive myself to the various venues. Sure it's selfish and does nothing to help the traffic problems, but the none of the other options (CES buses, monorail, taxis) work at all. Even with parking, I end up spending less than if I took cabs everywhere. Having a car also lets you get out of the casino loop in the evening, with access to more affordable hotels and restaurants. Last year, my entire CES tab including hotel, flight, parking, and car rental was less than $1000.

Okay, I'll shut up now.

Michael Trei

(gets off soap box)

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