CES 2018 Confounds Expectations

Photo by John Atkinson

The question, "What if they Gave a CES and Nobody Came?," which headlined my As We See It from mid-2016, was echoed by a similar title on Jon Iverson's opening blog for our coverage of CES 2018. Yet hopes and fears that our industry's increasingly limited presence in the Venetian would sound the death knell for "high performance audio" at CES do not reflect the experience of those who this year chose to either exhibit or wander hallways and eateries in search of dealers and distributors.

Yes, there were only two big suites on the 35th floor, and smaller exhibits were limited to the 29th floor. Even some of those were separated by exhibits from technology companies unrelated to high-end audio. As for swanky off-site suites at the Mirage across the street—the only off-site exhibits that Stereophile tends to visit—they were limited to two, and at least one of those was only open for two days. But exhibitor after exhibitor reported satisfaction with their experience. In fact, so many of the people they had hoped to see made it to CES that some have already announced their decision to return.

For the record, Las Vegas seemed easier to visit this year than in the past. Part of that, of course, was due to the fact that there were fewer exhibits to cover. We only sent four people, one of whom was videographer extraordinaire Jana Dagdagan. The ever-amazing Jon Iverson was able to depart after two days of covering an amazingly large number of rooms, and I finished my coverage on Day 3 and wrote for hours on the final day before heading home.

But there were other reasons why a visit to Las Vegas was less arduous this year. While the line for registration badges at McCarran International Airport was inexcusably massive—that the CTA (Consumer Technology Association) does not have more people working registration there escapes all reason—it was relatively easy to get an Uber from airport to hotel without being forced to pay the hideous 5.2 times surcharge that Uber slapped on us two years ago. When I got to the airport at 1:15 pm on the final day, while the show was still going on, the security line was astoundingly short compared to years past, and personnel noticeably unruffled.

Despite massive crowds and the preposterous blackout at the LVCC (that began right after I left), almost everyone I encountered except for one male line cutter and one woman who barged into the elevator as we were trying to exit was polite, friendly, and unjaded. Jon and I may have skipped an ultra-expensive gratis dinner at Picasso so that we could write more blogs, and I may have celebrated the New Year Jewish style with two dinners of Chinese food, but when I had John Atkinson and Michael Fremer as dinner companions, I felt more prosperous than Picasso.

As much as Las Vegas during CES remains a toxic rip-off, with all the inflated pricing, surface distraction, and unbridled decadence that descriptor implies, it remains, for some companies, a less expensive alternative to exhibiting at the full-to-capacity Munich High End. Some also report that it's far easier to conduct business with industry folk at a trade show than at a consumer show (eg, AXPONA, Munich, LAAS, RMAF, CAF, NYAS). While more and more companies seem to be choosing to cruise the halls in quasi-parasitic fashion, hoping to snare industry folk as they walk between rooms that others paid for, it seems unlikely that high-end audio is poised to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Which is another way of saying, there is every reason to expect that Stereophile will return to Las Vegas in 2019, where we will again encounter a significant number of product premiers from companies familiar and new.

bilguana's picture

McCarran International Airport.
Those badge lines at the airport keep getting longer and more confusing every year. One had to get into the far line, which blindly wrapped around a kiosk, to finally get summoned over a gap to the final line. Will we have to go outside next year to get our badges?

Art Dudley's picture
Thanks for the heads-up on the typo, bilguana.
Anton's picture

"They Gave a CES and Somebody Came."

Thanks for the good news.

Maybe scaring off the audiophiles allowed the businesses to focus on business. I never thought of that!

Hurray for both kind of shows!

Gumbo2000's picture

You must have gone to a different show than the majority of commentators whose reactions I have been reading! Maybe it was your incessant, almost stream of conscience type reporting that gave you the impression that something was happening. :)

One of these days maybe you will escape your bubble!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thanks for the strokes on my writing. My so-called bubble is based on discussions that John Atkinson, Jon Iverson, and I had with exhibitors.

cgh's picture

Vegas is rough. I recently read a searing critique of the NY mass transit system, particularly Amtrak (the MTA got off easy and wasn't mentioned... this time.) The writer described the Amtrak waiting room as a large space with thousands of people frantically trying to leave it as fast as possible. That's me in Vegas. Getting through my itinerary in Vegas is similar to how I did homework when I was nine. Frantic rushing. I usually can't tell you a single detail from memory after the fact. The days and nights have no punctuation marks. My memories are like teletype. Vegas just does that. All I want is to be wheels up with Red Rocks and Mount Charleston over the left wing, 2500 miles until a shower.

John Atkinson's picture
Jason Victor Serinus wrote:
I may have celebrated the New Year Jewish style with two dinners of Chinese food...

Vietnamese food, to be accurate Mr. S!

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

It's that bubble. It does terrible things to the mind.

Anton's picture

I've been to great parties that other people hated, so I figure a show might have different people having different experiences.

I'm happy that with only one exhibit floor, the four Stereophile staff members could almost cover it, despite the surface distraction, and unbridled decadence that descriptor implies!

Thanks, Jason, I thought you killed! Don't step out of your bubble, you might step in gumbo and have to clean it off your shoe!

jmsent's picture

..and was smaller last year than the year before. Not a good indication for the future. CTA has been ambivalent at best about the high end sector, and I have to wonder how far this has to shrink before they throw in the towel. Unless they make some serious changes regarding costs and other issues, the only direction I see is down. It isn't as if this is anything new. The High End exhibits have been shrinking for years and it's simply because there are too many other good options. Those few hangers-on who still believe CES to be their best choice, will not be sufficient to sustain it, IMO. Next year will, I suspect, be pivotal.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Next year will, I suspect, be pivotal.

That's what I said last year. ;-)

jmsent's picture

..some of this depends on whether they have a multi year contract with the Venetian. If so, the show will go on regardless. But at this pace, I think both Axpona and RMAF now have more exhibitors than CES.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

So did LAAS last year. But as long as CES works for some manufacturers, they will return.

tonykaz's picture

it's the biggest Show on Earth ! , if your stuff doesn't work at CES it isn't Consumer stuff. The only bigger event is the Tour de France Bicycle Race. ( I'm told ), ( not counting the Presidential Inauguration of Obama ).

But then, Audiophiles aren't Consumers, are we ?, we're obsessive collectors with extreme niche affiliations. We should have our own little gatherings like Burning Amp, etc...

Did you have a walk thru that Visual Canyon ?

CES is a Spectacle.

Roll-up Flat Screen OLED from LG, phew.

Brace yourself, things are going to get Crazy.

Tony in Michigan

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

All of that is irrelevant to high-end audio exhibitors. All that matters is that a significant number of their dealers and distributors show up or make appointments.

As for the Canyon or whatever it is, I did not check it out. All I spent time at were the high-end exhibits.

Anton's picture

Is that like Fendi for Hi Fi?

I'm picturing Louis Vitton leather for the front baffles of the new Sonus Faber Stradivari/Guarneri line.

Gucci watch faces for those steam punk D'Agostino amps!

When we start calling it high end and kvetching about how terrible travel and accommodation is in Las Vegas...well, we've become some synonym for frozen ice crystals.

Why do we buy into that term?

It's worse than "perfectionist audio."

tonykaz's picture

PBS News Hour, just today, Jan 16, describes how nearly 70% of our 13 Year olds have Smart Phones.

Winter CES2018 is all about the Smart phone controlling everything in our very lives.

Your ( our ) "Pivotal" is happening right now.

I can recall going to "Futurama" Exhibits in the 1950s and thinking it was Science Fiction.

Now, Today, a walk-thru CES shows what we will be owning/buying over these next few Months.

I might now be able to voice my request for my "House-System" to display "Music in the Round" on my Reading-Room Flat Screen OLED roll-up Monitor.

The Main Floor of CES was filled with technology that will be pivotal components in our near-future existences .

I'm getting the feeling that we audiophiles are becoming like "Off-the-Grid" recluses because we have our little get-away/hide-aways.

I plan on escaping to my imaginary world of musical imaging, transporting myself to a distant place in history where Issac Stern is playing Rachmaninoff to the silenced audiences and where Eugene Ormandy is playing Ravel.

I'll have Paul McGowan beaming me up with his BHK Amplification and Ted Smith's DAC.

Winter CES is more relevant than ever.

Tony in Michigan

Bill Leebens's picture

As a nattering nabob of negativity when it comes to CES, I was surprised by the level of activity on 29, and pleased for those who reported decent ROI. I'm happy that it was worthwhile for them.

In the bigger picture: the show overall seems overwhelming and lacking focus. Aside from "CONNECTIVITY!!" there no longer seems to be a central theme or focus. There were "smart" toilets right next to giant full-wall displays around the corner from the hi-res pavilion (weirdly placed, seemingly not well-manned).

I was fortunate to have arrived Saturday morning at McCarran, and was first in line for a badge. Easy-peasey, but lines for badges all over the show were insanely long.

So far, no CES crud. Knock wood!

tonykaz's picture

Are you part of PS Audio ?

What is Copper Magazine ?

Somehow, I'm way out of touch with what PS Audio has been doing for the last 30 years or so. I was once one of Paul & Stan's Dealers, dba B&K Imports in Michigan. ( PS was the first product line we Stocked, used ourselves, and loved ). Now, I'm considering returning to my first love and notice that PS is in Colorado instead of San Louis Obisco ( I think ).

annnnnyyyyyy wayyyyy,

Are you the PS Sales rep ?

Tony in Michigan

Bill Leebens's picture

My title is Director of Marketing. Copper is a mag covering music and sound on the PS website. I edit it.

Sorry, JA---he asked!

tonykaz's picture

Are you here as just another audiophile ?

Well, I'll say it right here : Paul's YouTube daily is brilliant, his picking apart all-things Audio has depth and "density" ( Steve Gutenberg's new audiophile word ).

He's kinda convincing me to build an Audiophile Music System instead of a non-imaging music system.

I'm developing the idea that Paul, Arnie ( rip ), BHK, and Smith are our Elder Statesmen of all things Audio, now-a-days.

So, I guess that at my very Old Age, Paul seems to be Mentoring me and all of us, in his uniquely Overly-polite manner.

After all these years, Paul is still here with us, still the same person he always was, not seeming to be burned out, not fat and flabby, not stroked out and maybe approachable.

It's nice to see a friendly familiar face.

Tony in Michigan

Owner : B&K Imports & Esoteric Audio c.1980s ( the good old days of Koetsu Vinyl )

rschryer's picture

I looked up the word, Bill. And you are either a Muslim official under the Mogul empire, really rich, or an instant coffee. Which are you?

Kal Rubinson's picture

Now that you have looked up the word, try Googling(?) the phrase: nattering nabob of negativity.

Bill Leebens's picture

I was referring to an old speech of Spiro Agnew's, written by William Safire. Proof that I'm old.:-)


rschryer's picture

The "mainstream" media. Gotcha! Thanks, Kal.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Of course, that ain't us.

spacehound's picture

What percentage of people who buy 'music systems' (which is all any of this stuff actually amounts to) has ever even heard of Stereophile?

John Atkinson's picture
spacehound wrote:
What percentage of people who buy 'music systems' (which is all any of this stuff actually amounts to) has ever even heard of Stereophile?

Stereophile, like all hobbyist magazines, deliberately serves a specific group of enthusiasts, not all of the "people who buy 'music systems'." Yes, according to the press conference at CES, the companies see hi-rez streaming, including MQA, as a strategy to reach a wider market, but Stereophile reports what we think of value to its set of readers.

And in response to your other questions, CES is what is called a B2B event. End users cannot attend this show.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

spacehound's picture

Nevertheless, in the end they all amount to 'music systems' and Stereophile's reports, reviews, etc. cover a very wide price range. Which, personally, I think is admirable.

So leaving aside the 'everything included for 500 dollars or less' systems Stereophile does not draw a line and neither do I.

And I didn't know it was merely a trade jolly. Though from both Jon's direct report and Jason's somewhat less direct comments, a pretty small one in our area of interest.

Also I wonder if their hopes for 'high-res' will turn out to be true? So far we have Tidal with 44.1 plus a small amount of MQA, which maximises at 96/17, and Qobuz which has genuine 192/24 FLAC streaming (so will work on 'regular' DACs) at the same price as Tidal. Both have only a small share of the streaming market.

spacehound's picture

And Jon Iverson is correct.

The percentage of 'consumers' (who ultimately pay for everything ever manufactured) who ever go to shows such as CES even just once is microscopically small, and will remain so despite Jason's efforts to 'talk it up'.

boulderskies's picture

So what are you exactly saying? I could be wrong but I'm hearing "low attendance in the high-end sector."

If a vendor such as Cardas resorts to posting a "text me if you want to get together" on their suite, that doesnt sound good. And if its "easier than ever to get around the decreased number of rooms," that doesnt sound good either.

So what was your point exactly?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Spacehound's comment is off the mark. As repeated over and over, CES is a trade show, not a consumer show. All that matters to high-end audio exhibitors is whether significant numbers of dealers and distributors show up to make exhibitors' expenditure and effort worthwhile. Many of the exhibitors we spoke to at CES said that exhibiting at CES 2018 worked for them.

My speculation is that, with less rooms to visit, the dealers and distributors who attended CES spent fewer days in Las Vegas. They did what they needed to do, and headed out.

I forgot to ask the Cardas folks when I passed them in the hallway, but I have a strong feeling that they never paid for the suite. Either that, or they paid for it, but didn't bother to do a fancy set-up. Since their whole purpose was to talk to dealers and distributors, they clearly decided that they could do that as well in a restaurant as in a suite.

boulderskies's picture

CES may be a "trade" show but my impression has always been that it is heavily attended by consumers. I mean are there really thousands and thousands of distributors, clogging the airport and hotels?

And Cardas' approach is even more sketchy given your impression that they didnt even pay for the room.

In fact your post in general is more and more curious. Again, what is your point? Attendance is down but that is a good thing? Curious indeed.


cardas's picture

It wasn't "sketchy" at all. We paid for our room, just like we have for the past 30-ish years. There was an official CES sign with our name on it above our door. We were "officially official" with CES and honest and forthright about our choice of how we used our room. I find it interesting that even though we put a sign on the door openly stating that we were around and available to speak in person, including my personal cell phone number (which was published right here on the Stereophile blog by Jon Iverson), that there is still this much speculation. As if we would just tape a sign onto an empty hotel room door... ;) We had fun, met with our friends, dealers, distributors and colleagues, and did business without standing around in a hotel room all day. As far as I know there are no "rules" as to required levels of participation. Please let me buy you a drink next time you see me in the halls at a trade show and we can talk in person, it's much faster and more fun that way. ;) We will be at numerous CanJams, Axpona, Munich, RMAF and more throughout the year - and you can always email me - angela@cardas.com

spacehound's picture

While I didn't know it was merely a trade show I'm right on the mark otherwise.

And it's we end users that matter, if we don't buy the manufacturers and dealers go bust. Which many have. Maybe they should cut back on this 'high end' stuff, much of which isn't 'high' at all, just crazy priced.

The 'hifi' part has got smaller and smaller over the last few years and your efforts to 'talk it up' won't change history or how small it was this time.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

"We did indeed pay for the room. Rather than set up a showroom, Angela and I stayed in it, and we used the lower sitting section for meetings. Buying a showroom allowed us to keep our CES seniority (and free drayage), in the event, however unlikely, that we decide to “go big” at CES in the future.

"Last year at CES, Angela and I walked the show while Brian Von Bork (our Sales Director) and Jeff Joseph manned the Cardas/Joseph Audio showroom. We found that walking the show resulted in meeting & talking with a lot more people than we would have by staying in the showroom. This year, with Munich, RMAF and Axpona becoming increasingly important, we decided to focus our efforts on those shows, while still participating, albeit on a smaller scale, in CES."