The Case Against Show Reports

Now that Stereophile's reporting on the 1985 Summer Consumer Electronics Show has ended (I hope!), I would like to express strong dissent with its style and content. In fact, I believe that most of it should never have appeared in print.

I don't attach any cosmic significance to audio reviewing. It's supposed to be fun, not the source of ultimate truth. I do, however, believe that it must be responsible to both the audiophile and the industry. Subjective reviewing is one thing, but shooting from the hip is quite another. Praising or damning the sound and technology of products on the basis of a high-fidelity show set up to market products to dealers—which may or may not involve an emphasis on producing the best possible sound—is hip-shooting at best, and generally irresponsible.

First, I simply don't believe that the sound of components can be judged at a Show—even when those components are well set-up. A responsible subjective reviewer always works with a known reference system where he or she fully understands the system's limitations. This is inherently impossible at a Show. You don't have the time, you don't know the room or the associated components, many setups are designed to market well rather than sound good, many display systems are constantly upset by visitors (or salesmen), and the rooms are often crowded. Worse, a half day at a CES is enough to turn even the most sensitive and placid reviewer into a half-deaf neurotic. The CES is all push and shove, loud, harsh sound, and hard sell.

A responsible reviewer also takes the time to talk to manufacturers, to make sure he or she fully understands the product. This is sometimes possible under show conditions, but not often; most manufacturers have to concentrate on selling. They can't take off a few hours to humor a reviewer, even if the reviewer will sit still and pay attention. It's certainly possible to pick up enough information to write a "gee whiz" listing of interesting new products, as long as you stop at the right places. But when it comes to saying one product or concept is right and another wrong, on the basis of a CES visit, you'll be as likely to praise bad products and damn good ones as the reverse.

Further, shows are filled with products (read prototypes) rushed to completion two days before the show; some are even nonworking dummy boxes. Many show displays include products that will never be marketed, particularly in the form shown at the CES. Such products may be the product of designer exhaustion, or may have been tweaked and tuned to a level never to be evidenced in a production version. Responsible reviewers do not review prototypes for the very good reason that they are not what the consumer buys.

These comments apply all too clearly to the CES surveys in the last two issues of Stereophile. Far too much of the writing was highly controversial hip-shooting, wrong, or demonstrated a failure to understand what a CES really is—and its acute acoustic limits. In fact, I feel it was some of the worst reporting that has ever appeared in this magazine.

Further, I think the time has come to downplay puffery and gee-whiz reporting on audio products as much as possible. Far too much audio reporting deals with products that never reach the market, with technologies that, after their brief rage, leave behind another group of burned (and often burned-out) audiophiles. Finding the best products for the audiophile is not necessarily a matter of what is new, but of what is good—and what is real. This requires careful, systematic listening and reviewing of finished products that can be purchased from more than a handful of dealers.

Let the reader beware. Taking any of our "reviews" of CES equipment too seriously can be dangerous to both the ear and the pocketbook!—Anthony H. Cordesman