What to Make of CES 2014 and Beyond?
Before you lies what I expect is the most comprehensive coverage of CES 2014 "high-performance audio" exhibits available on the Web. Combined with the online coverage at our sister web publications, AudioStream, InnerFidelity, and AnalogPlanet, it gives you far more than a snapshot of the vast array of new audio equipment on active and passive display at CES 2014 and T.H.E. Show. The implied optimism that motivates so much new equipment, and so many innovations, gives signs of strength and renewal in a world where listening habits and means of music distribution are ever-changing and, in the minds of many, evolving.
So much new equipment is especially welcome in a year when it was impossible to evaluate the state of the industry by assessing attendance. January's flight-grounding weather, a manifestation of radical climate and atmospheric changes that will ultimately affect our industry and lives in ways that will dwarf the impact of the iPod, iPhone, wireless connectivity, and emerging audio formats, set CES off to a slow start. If Convergent Audio Technology's Ken Stevens couldn't make it to set up shop until the third day, neither Joe Reynolds of Nordost of Massachusetts nor Stereophile's Rosemarie Torcivia could rebook on a flight that would arrive in a timely fashion, Michael Lavorgna of AudioStream only made it pulling an overnight in Denver, and the Marchisottos went through hell to arrive in time for their Nola pre-show opener (with a system that had not yet begun to settle in), imagine how many other people from multiple countries decided to join Joe and throw in the towel.
What is certain is that while the rooms of CES's The Venetian venue were crammed with equipment, its rooms and halls were less filled with distributors and retailers. The lower-priced alternative T.H.E. Show at the Flamingo appeared to fare even worse. To quote a private email from an industry veteran who flew to Las Vegas this year solely to attend meetings, "We did not exhibit, as we had been told that T.H.E Show wasn't going to be successful this year. The predictors of this news were correct, the place was a ghost town, very depressing." The poor showing does make me wonder about the future of T.H.E. Show Las Vegas, especially since its sister, the far more consumer-oriented T.H.E. Show Newport Beach, has both been successful and has grown since its inception in 2011.
In one of his finer think pieces, posted on the last day of CES, Paul McGowan, aka Mr. PS Audio, not only questions why CES remains an exhausting four-day show for the high-performance audio industry, but also discusses why he no longer presents an active exhibit. Instead of lugging an entire system to CES, and attempting to engage with a challenging mix of industry professionals, press, get-in-by-any-means-necessary consumers, and site-seers who attend CES for reasons other than high-performance audio, Paul instead rents a suite where he holds three days of meetings with dealers and distributors. He may show them new products on passive display, but he reserves the whole ultra-expensive dog and pony show for the host of consumer shows that now take place in the US, Canada, and beyond.
It's a convincing argument, but one that ignores one vital new development CES 2014: the new Hi-Res TechZone in the Sands Convention Center. Situated downstairs and through the woods from the high-performance exhibits in the Venetian Tower, where only a few companies such as Parasound choose to exhibit, the Hi-Res TechZone was a major attempt on the part of HDTracks.com, Acoustic Sounds' SuperHiRez.com, BlueCoastRecords.com/IsoMike, NativeDSD.com, AIX Records/iTrax.com, Mytek, Sony, and other companies to disseminate information about high-resolution audio to industry members who are not necessarily affiliated with the high-performance audio community.
According to Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast Music, fully 50% of visitors to the zone were not even familiar with the high-resolution "movement" before they set foot in the place, poked around, or attended one of the three star-studded panels. "There's a buzz going on about DSD," Cookie told me by phone, "and when two different chip manufacturers from different parts of the world mentioned to me that they're agnostic about DSD, but all their manufacturer customers are now requesting DSD chips, it made me think that this is much bigger and happening much faster than I anticipated."
Cookie was very happy with attendance. "We got out of it much more than we thought we would. For us, it was about education and long-term development. In that respect, it succeeded. And I also got to know all the other retailers, which was great. There were even jokes about the food fight between the DSD side and PCM side of the room."
David Chesky of HDTracks not only shares Cookie's optimism, but also postulates what's coming next. "Just the fact that a multi-national giant such as Sony has taken an interest in hi-res shows its potential to influence far more than our audiophile market," he says. "We audiophiles have always been considered a niche cult. Thanks to hi-res, there's a growing understanding of the importance of sound quality. The average person will now become aware of better sound, we can swing the pendulum from 'MP3s are good enough' to a desire for something better, and a new eco-system will develop to support the hunger. This could ultimately make both the music and audiophile industries stronger."
In short, just as the combined impact of headphone listening, portable listening devices, palm-size DACs, and hi-res audio is transforming the high performance industry as we have known it, so too are fledgling forays such as the High-Res TechZone transforming the face of CES. Whatever your feelings about love-it-or-leave-it Las Vegas, when it comes to CES, there's plenty of life left in the old baby. It will be more than interesting to see how this all plays out in the year ahead, and discover what CES 2015 will bring. The guy in the picture below might already be tweeting about it!Jason Victor Serinus