There's No Business Without Show Business

Cole Porter: An All-Star Tribute (DVD, VAI) includes outtakes of the great Ethel Merman filming for TV, in 1960, a performance of Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band." In take after take, something goes wrong. Each time the director shouts "Cut!," Merman stops in her tracks, almost as if deflating; when the director yells "Action!" she starts from the top, fresh as new, the model showbiz professional.

This issue of Stereophile hits newsstands days after the first consumer Show of the 2013 season, AXPONA in Chicago, has ended. The next four months see audio shows in Montreal, New York, Munich, Newport Beach, San Francisco, and Washington DC. A goodly number of exhibitors at these shows could learn a thing or two from Ethel Merman, who took center stage in my consciousness after a discussion I had with John Atkinson at October's RMAF about blogging from shows. I was lamenting that I'd seen far too many exhibits that fell flat. The sound stank, or the room looked lousy, or the person in charge didn't have his or her act together, or all of the above. Why, I wondered, would a company spend countless hours and thousands of dollars on an exhibit space, only to blow the opportunity to strut their stuff before an audience of eager audiophiles? Don't they realize why they're there in the first place?

"It's a show," said John. "That's what some of them forget. They're there to put on a show."

Thankfully, many exhibitors don't forget. They work night and day for months on end to get their gear and presentation show-worthy. They arrive early for setup, and spend hour after hour tweaking the sound by trying different speaker positions, moving furniture, swapping cables, covering reflective surfaces, and applying room treatments. They do everything in their power to create a space that makes attendees want to listen, and then listen some more.

Certain names immediately come to mind. Constellation, dCS, Dynaudio, Joseph Audio, KEF, Magico, MBL, Nordost, Parasound, Peachtree, Scaena, Soundsmith, Synergistic Research, TAD, VTL, Wilson Audio, and YG Acoustics invariably excel in presenting their products, as do such distributors and dealers as Aaudio, Avatar Acoustics, Musical Surroundings, Music Lovers Audio, On a Higher Note, and The Voice That Is. Their attractive displays often include spotlighting, potted plants, and large banners that serve double duty as commercial signage and room treatments. Business cards and literature are easily accessible, as are lists of equipment on display, complete with prices. Browse the show reports at stereophile.com and, again and again, you'll see photos of the same companies' rooms, which stood out for their excellence of presentation.

But such exhibitors excel at far more than attractive rooms and handy literature. Their setups invariably include speakers whose dimensions, bass extension, and radiation patterns are appropriate for the space. If they demonstrate a huge, expensive speaker in a small room, it's only because they know that that model can sound good in close quarters. And if the room is large, they're sure to have enough amplification to fill the space.

Especially important, they know how to create an inclusive atmosphere. Many keep an eye on who's entering the room, and intersperse musical selections with succinct introductions to the equipment on display. They make space for people with lots of questions, as well as for those who mainly want to listen without interruption. It's a balancing act, and they do it well.

At the other end of the spectrum are bare, drab rooms that look like bachelor pads gone awry. Instead of potted plants or flowers, CDs and LPs are scattered this way and that. Questions about what's playing are often met with "I dunno. Joe—he's not here—burned it from a sampler that Usher Audio gave away years ago. All I know is that tracks 4, 7, and 8 are the best for the demo."

In other rooms, when you ask for model numbers and prices, you get blank stares, calls to the office, futile searches through Web pages and poorly organized binders. Some exhibitors neglect to demo well-broken-in samples of their products. "It needs 500 hours before it really sounds right," they say, trying to explain away the horrid sound they've just subjected you to. Sometimes they offer reasons for the lack of break-in, all of which seem plausible. Yet the fact remains: They're not playing show-worthy gear. Only so many people will buy equipment based on hype alone.

In some rooms you wait in vain for the music because the exhibitor is deep in conversation—he's shouting, or playing music so softly it seems an afterthought, or both. That you're eager to listen to music makes no difference; whatever topic has seized his attention takes precedence. You stick it out, hoping you'll eventually hear what you came for . . . or you move on.

Most dismaying are the exhibitors who, asked to play something that will show off their systems' strengths, serve up blank stares. Alternately, they offer a stereotypical list of audiophile favorites—the same RCA Living Stereo and Reference Recordings blockbusters, the same albums by Diana Krall and Anna Netrebko, the same tracks from Ella and Louis and Brubeck's Time Out, the same classic rock you hear day after day at show after show.

You ask for something classical and they put on a movie soundtrack. You offer a USB drive full of unusual, wonderfully recorded tracks, and they don't know how to load them into their server. They're anything but John DeVore (of DeVore Fidelity) or Garth Leerer (of Musical Surroundings), or Peter McGrath (of Wilson Audio), each of whom always has something new and exciting he's eager to share.

Bravo to the exhibitors who get it, who remember. Time and again, they manage to fill acoustically challenging hotel rooms with beautiful, engaging, viscerally exciting music. They know what it takes to put on a good show, and they rise to that challenge. Is it any wonder that their equipment wins the most attention and the most reviews?

As for the rest, La Merman could have sat them on her knee and told them a thing or two about show biz, without which there's no business at all!

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