Are You Goin' to (an) Audio Fair?

When I was a young music lover, I'd often listen to Simon and Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme LP, specifically the song "Scarborough Fair/Canticle."

Are you goin' to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
Remember me to one who lives there,
She once was a true love of mine.

That memory came back during the e-mail exchanges I had with John Atkinson and Stephen Mejias about the positives and negatives of the proliferation of regional audio shows. (JA's reflections on these shows were the subject of last month's "As We See It.")

Annual fairs were the major trade events of the High Middle Ages. The regional fairs of England and France made it possible for English wool to become Flemish cloth, which in turn could be traded for luxury goods such as silks and spices, brought overland on old Roman roads from Italian merchant ports such as Venice. But fairs were not only for professional traders. Ordinary people could shop for gowns, wines, daggers, amber jewelry, and Baltic furs.

The e-mail conversation began with my telling Stephen that he'd done a great job of covering the California Audio Show in San Francisco in July. SM replied that, as much fun as it had been, there are now just too many audio shows to cover. The weekend before CAS, John Atkinson had been attending the Capital AudioFest in Maryland. Two weeks before that had been AXPONA NYC. Two weeks before that had been T.H.E. Show Newport Beach.

I entirely agree. To me, it has begun to border on the Theater of the Absurd. In a play that Pirandello might have imagined on a bad day, John Atkinson imitates the Flying Dutchman, cursed forever to wander hotel corridors floored with the Carpet from Hell, once again having a tantalizing rendezvous with MBL's US guy Jeremy Bryan (who has exhibited at every North American Show this year), hearing the same demo tracks yet again, all the while wondering when the love of a pure maiden will allow him finally to die.

And it's not only journalists who have entered Audio Show Overload Mode. Even if a manufacturer attends none of the European shows, exhibiting at one of the eight North American consumer shows, over and above the Consumer Electronics Show and the CEDIA Expo, requires major commitments of money and time.

Why so many audio shows now, and what does this mean for the future of high-end audio?

I've come to the conclusion that, about five years ago, the "ecosystem" of high-performance audio retailing passed a tipping point. Before the tip-over, the situation was one of too many retail stores chasing too few potential customers. Since the tip-over, too many manufacturers and importers have been chasing too few retail stores.

Karl Marx commented that history happens twice: first as tragedy, and then as farce. I saw the first, tragic run-through from my vantage point as a producer of classical-music recordings dependent on bricks-and-mortar retailers of same. The two biggest customers for my record label, JMR, were Tower Records and Borders—one long since gone, the other starting to liquidate 399 retail locations as I write this. I can't tell you how many meetings, telephone conference calls, and e-mail discussions I was involved in many years ago, trying to arrest the slide in classical music's market share. Does anyone who was not then in the business still remember April as "Classical Music Month"?

Five years ago, a new high-end audio trade group, A5, was trying to get established. Just as the case had been with classical music, there was a great sense of urgency, but again, no consensus on what to do. We all agreed that local, mom'n'pop stereo stores were facing extinction. Some people wanted to run, in Architectural Digest and The New Yorker, full-page print ads extolling the benefits of high-performance audio. I contended that what was needed was to refocus local dealers on the basics: getting people who were not the usual audio-club hangers-on into the listening chair.

I can't claim that one more trade group shouting encouragement from the sidelines would have made all that much difference. As I stated in "As We See It" in August 2008, it's possible that hi-fi equipment's important place in society and culture from the mid-1950s through the mid-'80s was the result of a unique confluence of demographic, societal, cultural, and technological conditions. Comparatively recent developments, especially the Internet, have made it almost impossible keep open the doors of a store dedicated to listening to music through two channels. Even New York City's flagship audio retailer, Sound by Singer, closed its signature 16th Street storefront in August 2010—an event that would have been unthinkable five years ago (footnote 1).

I think that the proliferation of audio shows suggests that the old audio-retailing ecosystem no longer can meet the needs of some of its participants. With so few dealers, what is a startup audio company or a newly appointed US importer to do to gain exposure? The answer for quite a few was: Exhibit at AXPONA NYC, even if the halls turned out to be dim and the turnout iffy—there was little else that that company or importer could do.

Is high-end audio headed back to the Middle Ages? Going forward, will it be the case that high-end audio will be a luxury good, such as kid gloves or fine silks were in the Middle Ages? Back then, your local economy could provide the necessities but not the luxuries: local beer, but not fine wine. You didn't have a local kid-gloves-and-silks store (no "stores" at all, only craftsmen), so you had to wait until the annual Saint Peter's Fair, where you dealt directly with the makers, who visited from afar for two weeks. The makers would travel a circuit of such fairs. Hmmm . . . sounds familiar.

The advantage of regional shows is that the audio consumer gets to hear many more products than any one dealer could carry. The disadvantages are that each regional audio show take place only once a year, and isn't much of a substitute for a local dealer when it comes to after-sales service. The best outcome would be for regional audio shows to establish themselves as effective outreach tools to support local dealers, and not as ends in themselves.



Footnote 1: Sound By Singer announced in August, after this issue had gone to press, that it was to open a new store, at 242 West 27th Street, New York, NY 10001.
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Comments
K.Reid's picture
AXPONA NYC and Atlanta

John,

First let me express that it was a pleasure to meet you at the AXPONA NYC show. We met during the private violin solo where the Wharfdale Airedale was providing the background music. You might recall that immediately before the solo, I requested a track from Keiko Matsui's CD "The Road" be played.

I attended both AXPONA Atlanta and NYC. Though attendence may not have been spectacular, it was well worth going and enjoying the music heard through many systems that I may not have otherwise been able to experience without having to travel a great distance just to hear one manufacturer's product.

In my opinion, the 800lb gorilla that is keeping consumers from flocking to Best Buy, HiFi dealers and Audio Trade Shows is the economy, which has been in a depressed state for three years now and is not expected to improve dramatically over the next year. Unemployment remains high and mortgage foreclosures continue. What does this equal? Lack of consumer confidence which means the consumer's wallet is not open for mid-to-high end electronics equipment.

The other issue is computer audio. While I applaud manufacturers for advertising DACs and components that stream music. I would suspect that most people are just downloading cheap music from itunes or other sources and making do.

With the exception of we audiophiles, I would posit that most people neither care nor have never heard of DAC and the benefits a quality one can provide. I think we 'philes have to ask ourselves the question - would the average person who downloads an itunes track from Lady Gaga, Norah Jones, Justin Timberlake, Rhianna, etc. really care about 24/96 downloads, an airy, sweet top end; liquid midrange, black background or bass pitch?

My guess would be - no, they don't. They would just hear music that's "good enough" for their needs and go about their business. For we audiophiles, it's a big deal. For the masses, I think not.

You will note that I have omitted the category ultra high end equipment. A class which, in my opinion, would include flagship products from companies such as Wilson Audio, B&W, Magico, Rockport, Krell, D'Agostino, McIntosh, Audio Note, etc. Why? Because these flagship products costing five or six figures are not geared toward the low or the middle class. Such products are aimed at the wealthy, who in this economy may still have the discretionary income to afford 4, 5, 6 figure products.

Since most consumers are not buying mid or high end audio, the inevitable result is that smaller hifi dealers have to close their doors - an unfortunate byproduct of a stale, struggling economy. I applaud companies such as MBL, Revel, Wilson, Wharfdale, Acapella and others who have taken great pains to go the regional audio shows to market their products. Undoubtedly, these companies' missions are to sell product and try to remain at the forefront even in depressed economic conditions.

One other salient point is the lack of advertising for the regional shows to the general public. All that I have seen were advertisements in Stereophile, Home Theater and The Absolute Sound for the shows. More than likely it is cost prohibitive to run commercials on NBC, ABC, CBS and FOX. If the goal is to create more awareness to the general public, then one has to use medium most people listen to and see everyday - radio, televison and more robust internet advertisement.

In the end, we audiophiles must continue, for lack of a better phrase, to fight the good fight. That is - work to keep changing common perceptions that all high end audio is expensive and unnecessary. My sister was the same way until AXPONA NYC...when she met Jeremy Bryan and listened in awe of the spectacular (emphasis added) MBL 101.

I applaud Stereophile for reviewing products like the Pioneer's affordable (dare I say cheap) bookshelf speaker and the Logitech Squeezebox touch...and most significantly incorporating "The Entry Level" written by "the Kid". This is bar none my favorite read in Stereophile. While I love reading reviews about the flagship cost-no-object products;  in these times, as soon as I get my magazine in the mail -I go to The Entry Level.

 

 

 

 

 

tom collins's picture
response

i enjoyed reading your well-analyzed comment.  i agree.  i do not have the carefree attitude toward money i enjoyed only 5 years ago.  i am not on the brink, but i do think about every purchase now and 90% of my purchases are now used.  i monitor this market daily, so my opinion adds a slight modification to yours.

so, i would add to your comment that while  i agree that sales for new mid and upper-leverl equipment are depressed, the used market is very robust at this time.  the price for most used gear ranging from 1 to 5 years of age is appx. 50% of the price of an equivillent new piece.  thus, we see a possible true value of the product less the profit that was earned by the dealer and wholesaler.  i say possible because like autos, some products hold greater value in the used market.  this is not turning into a rant against dealers and wholesalers, but just a comment that many people are unwilling or unable to pay those profit margins at this time, but are still willing to spend what sometimes is a substantial amount of money on an item they consider a good value.  this might, emphasise might, mean that some makers are pricing their offerings too high and an adjustment may be in order if it is possible to do so and maintain the business.  exchange rate has hurt the european offerings ever since the eurozone came into being as up to 30% of the price of a german piece may be attributed to exchange values.  so, it doesn't take a genius to see which country is going to reap even larger rewards in these times.

 

here is an interesting situation however.  ever since they have been announced, i have wanted to demo the magnapaner 3.7s.  our dealer can't ever get a demo pair because they just keep selling out their allotment.  the manager has not even heard them.  these are people paying full price without having heard them.  so, that should tell us that offering a high value product at a fair price is still good business even in a recession.

at any rate, this has gotten longer than i meant.  great comment K. Reid.

K.Reid's picture
Good Point

Tom, glad you found my rather lengthy comment insightful. You made a good point about products for sale in the used market. With a little patience and research, one can find some good bargains/deals in the used market.  The only concern is that unless one purchases a used audio product from a authorized dealer, warranties may not be honored. Then again, many audio products do not have warranties going beyond five years.  

You also make a good point regarding some manufacturers price their products too high.  The only point to keep in mind is that raw material costs (especially copper) has increased substantially. The same applies to distribution. Most of this increase in expenses is passed right to we consumers. I think we audiophiles can appreciate the fact that audio manufacturers are certainly entitled to make a profit - the question is at what point does that profit cross in corporate greed/excess.

I'm no economics guru, but in my opinion the best companies charge fair prices for its products, while allowing sufficient profit margin to pay for operating costs, employee wages, charitable endeavors and reinvesting the rest into R&D to bring newer and better products to the market to stay one step ahead of its nearest competitor. Perhaps that's the course Magnepan is taking with the critically acclaimed 1.7 and 3.7.

Perhaps some of the Stereophile editors/writers can provide some additional perspective on this thought-provoking subject matter...

tom collins's picture
not anti-profit

just to be on the same page, i am most definitely not "anti-profit".  i am anti-exhorbetent profit.  i am not in a postition to decide what is a "correct" amount of profit.  all i can say is that the market on the whole is in that position as we all vote with our dollars and some companies survive where others don't.  i expect that magnapan could get away with selling their 3.7 for another $1,000.00.  however, waiting for better times to do so definitely has its advantages as shown by the waiting lines.  the us companies have an economic advantage versus the traditional exporters such as europe and japan and we need to press that advantage while times are tough.  we will never out-cheap china, so the us and canadian companies need to provide high value products in the $2-10,000 range.  everytime you turn around, there is another german or austrian company offering an $8-10k amp or integrated.  us and canadian companies can offer a comparable product for $5-7000 and service them right here at home.  some of the imports must be sent back to the homeland for service.  so, though times are tough, there are still opportunities for audiophiles who prefer to buy new.  personally, i really like the simaudio products (canadian) and feel they offer very good value with a great reputation.  another great high-value product comes from modwright or from david berning.

anyway, just wanted you to know that i am not one of those anti-profit ranters that fill up so many forums these days.

good to chat with you.

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