The 2015 California Audio Show: Not Just Another Show

The California Audio Show may have been smaller than in years past, but its proportion of excellent sounding systems—6 out of 32 or so, if you count exhibit rooms that had more than one system in play—was quite high. For this reason alone, I believe the show offered great value for attendees. And it also offered some great views of San Francisco International Airport, as this shot, taken through my 7th-story hotel window, attests.

Here is the word on show attendance from show organizer, Constantine Soo:

The final number is 2300 attendees.

This year, with PonoMusic helping us spread the word, attendees came out in troves. We have long wanted to capture the Millennials in the Bay Area, and the sponsorship of PonoMusic made it a reality.

Next year, we will continue on our success and double our efforts to bring more new blood in. We hope to hit the 4000 attendees mark.

Back to me. Despite the large proportion of excellent sounding systems, the absence of participation by many major local dealers, including, for starters, Music Lovers Audio of San Francisco and Berkeley, Audio High of Mountain View, AVS Marin, and Tone of Music in San Francisco, was lamentable. Equally MIA, except perhaps in passing (eg a Clearaudio cartridge or Shunyata Hydra), were a host of major and lesser known brands, not the least of which were Wilson, VTL, VAC, Focal, Soulution, TAD, PS Audio, Synergistic Research, Shunyata (except in passing), Parasound, Emotiva, KEF, Vandersteen, Bowers & Wilkins, Sony, Ayre, dCS, Harbeth, Aesthetix, AudioQuest, Grand Prix, Vivid, Clearaudio, MBL, MSB, McIntosh, Kubala-Sosna, Emerald Physics, WyWires, Zesto, Rockport, Paradigm, Transparent, Von Schweikert, and many more whose owners and manufacturers are now feeling slighted and contemplating angry emails to John Atkinson.

Even though not all major and trend-setting brands are available in Bay Area dealerships, by a long shot, they often find their way to shows, regardless of local representation. In this case, a host of dealers and manufacturers did not feel impelled to haul their gear to Millbrae. Which means that CAS's particular snapshot of our industry, while of great value, was nonetheless narrowly focused and somewhat incomplete. (I regret that I could not cover the small Headmasters assemblage, which provided another valuable, albeit incomplete, snapshot of our industry.)

Everyone hopes that audio shows will attract new, potential audiophiles and give our industry a boost. In that regard, I was delighted to discover, among Friday's attendees, George Oaker, whose email address, operaphile@..., will give you a sense of where his heart lies. George not only took at least one of my "Voices to Die For" classes at Osher Lifelong Learning at UC Berkeley, but also showed up frequently at the opera and song recitals I reviewed before we fled East Oakland, CA for Port Townsend, WA.

After the show, George sent the following report about his sole day at the show:

Ah, a multiplicity of impressions! I have two primary ones. In one of the very first rooms I visited, I heard the Tannoy Westminster Royal Gold Reference. I was extremely taken, not by any of the usual aspects that I commonly see in reviews, but simply in the fact that the sound seemed to have no trouble at all getting out of the speakers. The music was dramatically "easy," effortless, and spacious. It reminded me of the few times that I got to hear Luciano Pavarotti live at San Francisco Opera. It was as if all he had to do was to open his mouth, and all this glorious sound poured forth, seemingly without effort. When I saw the price, $40,000/pair, I was hardly surprised. At that price, it had better sound extraordinarily fine.

The other primary experience is from the other end of the price spectrum. The tiny little $395/pair Serene Talisman speakers had a clarity that was simply amazing for their size and their price point. I'm going to order a pair, along with a Fostex volume control (which includes a 24/96 DAC) so that I can have a volume control next to my keyboard rather than on the back side of the speaker.

As I wandered through the show, I was mostly quite pleased with what I heard, but it got to the point of "Yes, another fine speaker, but nothing surprising." Well, the Kharma Elegance was a cut above the crowd, as was the Lansche plasma speaker.

But the question kept nagging me: I heard music; I attributed it to the speakers. But behind the speakers were a cartridge, a tonearm, a turntable, a preamp, a power amp, and various cables-not to mention the original source disc. How much of what I was hearing could I attribute to each component? I have no idea. The Tannoys were being driven by nearly $100,000 worth of amplification. What would they sound like when mated to substantially more modest electronics?

I was curious about the manufacturers who chose to exhibit at the show. I saw remarkably little in the way of brand names that I had even heard of. It was gratifying to see so many rooms using the Oppo player, as I treated myself to one recently. Perhaps a show is an effective way for a startup to get its name in front of the public.

It was interesting to see The Tape Project, with its 15ips ½-inch tape. That got me to wondering: how does the price of an exceptional tape recorder compare to the sky-high prices that I see for turntables, tonearms, and cartridges? http://tapeproject.com/ was no help.

Musically, I didn't hear much classical, though I heard more than I expected to—but no opera. I neglected to bring along a disc of my own.

Overall, quite an enjoyable and informative day.

Even if some of my observations may differ from George's, I believe his report is exceptionally valuable. Not only does it make absolutely clear that CAS was a worthwhile experience for a first-timer, but that it also led him to make a purchase. It also suggests that a daily "Newcomers to the High-End Orientation," led by a combination of press and industry, might prove of supreme importance. It's not that I don't think that Ask the Editors and other panels are worthwhile—I love being on them, and valuable stuff always comes out—but I do sense that the nature of questions asked by veteran audiophiles often intimidates first-timers. Newbies need a 101 all their own. Come to think of it, it's something I'd love to offer.

Speaking of seminars, the line-up at CAS6 was tops. Nelson Pass (see separate report), Andrew Jones, Bob Hodas, Keith O. Johnson, Mark Waldrep, and others from PureAudioProject/Mundorf, High Fidelity Cables, LRE Audio, and ASC gave presentations. Of special interest were seminars on music and healing and room acoustic measurement by Dr. Craig Allison and Nyal Mellor. The Digital Audio seminar included Cookie Marenco, Brian Zolner, and a representative from Oppo/Pono Music. I can't comment on the two entertainment offerings, because I missed them, but they sure looked enticing on paper.

But questions still remain. What if CAS moved to September, when so many people are back from vacation, and students are in town? Would it also benefit by switching locations to downtown San Francisco, which lies central to the Bay Area? Might either or both of those switches mean that lots more people would attend, and many more potential audiophiles of all ages would discover the high-end for the first time?

Finally, would either of those major changes convince more dealers to participate? (One reason that dealers skipped this show is because they did not believe that all the money and effort they had to spend to exhibit would pay off in sales.) True, a switch to a Big City hotel does not mean that rooms will sound better, but it almost certainly means higher prices for exhibitors. Nonetheless, showing in San Francisco does afford a level of prestige that, bless its semi-Silicon heart, a Millbrae location, even one accessible by both freeway and BART, does not.

Stereophile's job at shows, however, is not prognostication, but critical observation. In this respect, I honestly feel that this was a very good show, and deserving of our and your attention. I'd love to hear what more attendees think. The Comments section is open to one and all.

Chance encounters—seen in the corridor (left-to-right): Reference Recordings' Keith O. Johnson, Bricasti's Brian Zolner, and show organizer Constantine Soo.

COMMENTS
DaveinSM's picture

I attended this show for the first time this past Saturday. I really enjoyed it, and ended up staying a lot longer than I had anticipated. There were systems of all kinds there. I was particularly impressed by the big sound of both the YG Acoustics in the Pass Labs room and the GamuT RS3. Both speakers put out a big sound and deep bass that belied their size, all while being well away from any room boundaries. I wish I could've caught the Nelson Pass and Andrew Jones seminars. Maybe next year...

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Why can't you slobs build a device for today, a black box with a built-in Mac, DAC, router, Wi-Fi, broadband connectivity, an acceptable LED display, keyboard, mouse or touch pad, phono stage, and browser, to access iTunes, YouTube, Spotify, HD downloads, etc.? How difficult can it be to marry a solid-state preamp and amp to the internet, cable/satellite TV, disc player, turntable, Sirius/XM, PC or Mac, AND streaming device (like Roku)? The signal, after all, is primitive, less complicated and refined than FM and vinyl of old. Merge technology. Stop thinking in little boxes.

Give me a box for under $3000 that can make music with today's formats and sound half-way decent. I don't expect much; my expectations are reduced. I know how crappy digital and streaming music is. Just give me a centralized, quality command center to access everything, the digital files in my Mac, vinyl, CDs, satellite radio/TV and internet. How unimaginative, dumb and greedy can you slobs be? You think I'm stupefied by your overpriced jive and pseudorefinement? You think I care about gold-plated jacks?

Give us a digital, cyber version of the ancient living room, hi-fi/TV console. Nobody gives a phk about the Apple watch or Apple Music. We need something useful and fun, something functional and easy to use. Are you listening? Want to make a fortune?

John Atkinson's picture
Osgood Crinkly III wrote:
Why can't you slobs build a device for today, a black box with a built-in Mac, DAC, router, Wi-Fi, broadband connectivity, an acceptable LED display, keyboard, mouse or touch pad, phono stage, and browser, to access iTunes, YouTube, Spotify, HD downloads, etc.?

If you don't call engineers "slobs," you might find them more prepared to pay you attention.

But why do you need a mouse, keyboard, and touchpad? There are plenty of audio devices similar to what you describe (other than the phono stage) that rely on an iPad app to provide all the control and information you need. See, for example, Michael Lavorgna's review of the Simaudio MiND at www.stereophile.com/content/audio-streams-4.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Thanks for your response, Mr. Atkinson, but I look at the Audio-Streams silver box, read the review and I still don't know what it does. So this thing scans whatever Wi-Fi sources are around that may contain music and stores them? Is that all there is? Don't need or want it, thanks.

That's not what I had in mind. What is needed is a user-friendly, easy-to-use device that integrates ALL audio-video signal sources -- analog (including phono, tapes), ethernet & Wi-Fi, digital (including CDs), internet (including streaming, like Roku), cable, satellite (including TV & satellite radio), broadcast TV & radio, and computer (including all the various audio-video files) -- into one box. It should integrate easily into home theater systems. This device could contain an integrated amp or have outputs for outboard preamp/amps.

If you like typing and moving an arrow on a tablet, fine. I don't. A keyboard and mouse or trackpad work much faster for me. And I don't want to squint at some small display. The display should be as easy to use as a desktop.

The technology is all there. It just takes someone to build it.

Karlsson's picture

Am I the only one that thinks these YG, and Magico speakers are completely lackluster and straight-up boring? Pure Hi-fi, with no real involvement? Year after year some of you gush over the Burwell? Really? These speakers absolutely lack any serious listening– $80,000– seriously? I heard more lively, airy, great soundstage– relax and hear great reproduction– doing almost everything right in the Pure Audio Project room. For less than $5000, these speakers were completely captivating. I just don't get it. Year after year a I hear these $25k–30k speakers that just don't involve the music. I was more captivated by the Serene audio desktop speakers than a lot of the stuff at the show.

akprentice's picture

This was my 4th visit to CAS and I am sad to see the number of exhibitors dropping every year (this year seemed worse than previous years). It is good to see Constantine's optimism for growth as I would hate to see the show drop off the calendar.

One factor that I am sure has had impact for the last two years is that the show was held on the same weekend as the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. Maybe it only needs to be moved by one week to get better attendance.

My favorite system was the AudioVision YG/Bel Canto system, which sounded very good on Saturday afternoon after the replacement Black series components arrived. Jason made the right decision to wait, as the system did not sound good with the cheap Bel Canto gear that was used earlier in the day.

Other high points included the Linn room, where the Akudoriks seemed to disappear, the Audio Alchemy/Elac room, where there was obviously some dark wizardry at play, and the Nelson Pass talk.

My main disappointment was that I somehow missed the Basil Audio room entirely (I am a Naim owner, so this was really annoying).

There were far too many people talking over the music in the rooms, both exhibitors and attendees. In one room the gentleman expressed opinions about the sound of the systems in the previous few rooms he had visited - it is not clear how he formed those opinions when he clearly was not doing much listening.

Finally, I thought that the sound in the High Fidelity Cables room was nowhere near as bad as Jason described, in fact, to my ears it was one of the better sounds of the show (but there was no way to tell whether this was related to the cables or the equipment).

drblank's picture

departure of Andrew Jones and their recent buyout. I would think that the SF show would be a fairly large show since there is a lot of wealth on the Bay Area that buys audio equipment. 2300 attendees doesn't sound like a huge attendance.

christopher3393's picture

Hi Jason,

Appreciate your coverage of this and other shows. Your title does raise the question: which shows ARE just another show?

Christopher

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

It's from the classic line, "Another Opening, Another Show."

The reality is that there are so many shows that I think some readers' eyes glaze over. This is why I spend so much time on my show reports. I attempt to provide people the sense of what it is like to actually attend a show, walk room-to-room, and make discovery after discovery. Even after all these years, I find shows exciting. They are not the blah experience that some cynical posters (as well as clueless bloggers who somehow think that a series of close-up photos, which they've taken without ever bothering to listen, can adequately replace an animated description of the musical experience) would have you believe.

christopher3393's picture

Thanks, well said.

AllanMarcus's picture

I'll be attending RMAF for the second time. Regional shows are really the only good opportunity to listen to a variety of equipment. I'm guessing $2000/pair is the most common speaker purchase price, yet shows commonly show equipment way above that value. Sure, it's great to hear some 100K, 200K, or even 500K systems, but how many people can actually afford that, or would even buy it after listening at a show? let's face it, the corner audio store is gone (for the most part). The current set of audio stores carry just a few brands, and to tell you truth, are worse than car salesmen.

Of course the industry itself isn't very hospitable to new audiophiles. There is so much snake oil and controversy over cables, DACs, amps, purifiers, regenerators, crystals, room treatments, audio dots, and more that a newcomer has to wade through, It's no wonder people just want a Sonus and an iPad. Plus, there is a ton of audio snobbery in this hobby. Don't have a tube amp? You must shop at BestBuy. Don't have DSD? You're a Neanderthal. Don't have a turntable? You are not worthy of my time. You use monoprice cables? You're shredding your music. And the worst: not gonna spend tens of thousands? move on.

There are so many interesting internet direct (ID) choices for speakers that claim to make speakers that are as good as commercial vendor's speakers that cost twice as much, but you can't hear them before you buy them. OK, great, but this means that if I buy name brand speakers from my local store I'm probably paying twice as much as I should compared to the ID brands. If I want to get the value from the ID brand, I have to take a leap of faith. Ug, back to "just give me something easy. Analysis paralysis

I don't have a solution. I don't think there is one. Component price inflation coupled with separating HiFi snake oil from what really matters is very hard. Lavorgna's recent set of articles on USB purification implied the potential for improvement is "15 out of 100" (his scale). To me that means a 15% improvement in sound by simply adding a USB decrapifier. Really? Can a decrapifier, or wire, or interconnects really make that much of a difference to the average joe with a high end AV receiver, or even some modest separates? Really? Do I really have to raise my speaker wire 3-6" off the ground to get optimal listening pleasure? It's almost too much to digest, so the average person just wants simple. The industry need to come up with the standards that can accurately reflect the benefits of upgrading stuff. Sure a $25 bottle of wine may taste better than a $10 bottle, for the average person, above $25 (maybe $50) and forget it, no one but an oenophile can tell the difference.

For the most parts cars are too complicated for the average person to fix (heck, car companies may soon argue it's illegal for a person to fix his/her own car!), computers have become appliances, although there is still some hobby in there, and audio seems less about the music and more about the status of the price of your ethernet cable (come-on, a $1000 ethernet cable?). Somehow the industry needs to bring audio back down to earth.

Now, one might argue that if there were no market for so many high end audio brands, then the invisible hand of the market will swat brands away. I think that is what's happening. The margin on boutique brands is too low to afford shows, but just high enough to support ID.

I imagine the audio press is stuck between exposing what's real and getting advertiser dollars. The audiophile hobby is about getting the best sound for the money. Selling to the masses (e.g., getting folks to come to shows) will never grow until the industry gets real on who their customers are: middle to upper-middle class folks that want to spend a few thousand bucks: not folks that are willing to drop $250K on a stereo. Region audio shows need to poll their attendees to learn what their audio budget's are. I'll be budgets are way lower than what exhibitors expect.

To sum up. Show a few high rooms, but show entire systems that cost 2-5K in the rooms to draw people in. Audio shows are the new "showroom" for audio we can't hear locally anymore. Also, get the ID brands to attend. Make it more affordable for them. I want to Chane, Tekton, Ascend, Gallo, Orb, Philharmonic, LSA, Sonist, RSL, Selah, XTZ, and Salk at shows, as well as the established brands with their similarly priced stuff.

lonepine's picture

One has the impression that at least for CAS, the organizers are hoping to get new blood in. But there are a number unique challenges to audiophillia (?) that other passions or hobbies don't seem to have.

1. Perception of value. It is ultimately impossible to know what you're getting when you pay $1000 for a cable, just by reading reviews online; or, as a more pedestrian example, the difference between a tube amp and SS amp. While you can swap RAW image files on any photography forum and see with you own eyes, and even print, if you have the capabilities, whether the latest megapixel gizmo is worth it, you can't do that with audio files.

And this perhaps explains all the snake oil out there. The high prices, I'm sure, have a way of creating self-reinforcing biases as well. (You used to see this a lot on the Leica camera forums, unfortunately.)

2. Too many choices. Since the invisible hand of the market has fallen asleep, you have lots of choices- small vendors, big ones you've heard of. How can anyone decide?

3. Economics. Spend college tuition for a stereo. Really? If you want more people involved, you'll need to lob off a zero on a lot of that high end equipment. Or else it'll just be this lux/niche/fringe product. Or just make more affordable items available, and let 0.1% enjoy their lux items.

While I'm probably on the older end of the demographic that the audiophile community might want to bring into the fold, I'm ripe for it: I first recall hearing my folks' Magnavox HiFi console, then they switched to a Marantz 22xx receiver, and, after many years of a boom box, I've had a used Marantz 22xx. Since 2008, I've been deep in analysis paralysis, interested in hearing tube sound but really not sure what to try, unable to hear the amps I've been looking at (and, frankly, not always willing to share what those are for fear of some big online backlash). The question for me ultimately is, will something different be better than what I've got now, given how I've set things up in my home?

Some solutions? More than a show, make it easy for people to audition gear throughout the year. Create a community. How about a series of small meet ups, where people sign up to hear 2-3 systems. Like a pub crawl. Themes: Do a meet up with equipment under a certain budget. Do another for a certain type of technology.

Maybe team up with a local retail, say home furnishings (so that it can be in a room that approximates most people's listening room, aka, the living room, the bedroom, the kitchen), and do an after hours listening party.

If you want to widen the appeal of audiophile, be prepared to meet people who say "X is good enough." That most people probably think that you get to rapidly diminishing returns on this sort of thing. And fewer choices, unfortunately. Less is more.

Maybe have a tutorial on different kinds of sounds, and the words we use to describe them. "This is warm." "This is foward." "This is dry." Frankly, not to pick on anyone, 6Moons may as well be written in Swahili.

Thanks for reading.

kursten's picture

The fact that this show is held the same weekend as Monterey keeps car lovers away. And, since many car lovers are also music lovers (Music Lovers was dearly missed this year, BTW), it forces people to choose between a decent audio show and the world's best car show(s). Personally, I had a hard time choosing between the Quail and Nelson Pass' talk. Also, it's not nearly as easy or convenient for people to travel to Millbrae as it is San Francisco. If the presenters footed the bill for an expensive San Francisco hotel, there would be exponentially more people in attendance, including tourists just walking in off the street (Especially if they used a hotel like the Hyatt Regency with a location on the Embarcadero). It is frankly odd to me that the show isn't held here, considering how many wealthy, young professionals are within a stones throw of the Ferry Building.

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