CES 2015: A Major Opening, or Not Just Another Show

Photo: John Atkinson

On one level, this was just "another CES." The barrage of humanity, traffic, flashing lights, cigarette smoke, hawkers, gawkers, noise masquerading as music, and the ever-present Las Vegas Strip above was such that, as I entered the Venetian on the last day, all I could think of was the promise that, before the night was over, I would be back amongst the trees, silence, and rejuvenating peace of our home in Port Townsend, WA.

But on a deeper level, the "high-performance" audio displays in and around CES 2015 signaled anything but business as usual. Take a look at the pages upon pages of blogs that follow, and you will see a gratifyingly large number of new music servers, network players, headphone and computer audio-based cables, portable playback devices, and fine-sounding lower-priced products. Herb Reichert, who covered relatively affordable products in all categories, was so enthused by what he encountered and heard that he wrote, even before his blogs were complete, "I saw so many smart happy people, young and old, showcasing well-considered innovative products that I think we might just be heading towards a new golden age of audio . . . maybe."

One thing is certain. The High End is not standing still, as might a stunned islander, watching in despair as the effects of global warming submerge his home. From a host of innovative products to three days of hi-res audio presentations, the industry is finding ways to embrace both new technologies and the younger generation that has adopted them.

Yes, vinyl has made a strong comeback. As Michael Fremer reports at AnalogPlanet, there were many new analog products in all price ranges at CES 2015. But for young people, and those encountering vinyl for the first time, it is far more than a retro product; it is, first and foremost, a tangible, collectible medium that, like high-resolution music files, can facilitate a deeper connection to music and its creators' intentions than any MP3 download possibly can.

It's an exciting time for the high-end. Even as designers and engineers redefine the limits of what was thought possible just a decade ago, more and more manufacturers are also thinking in terms of gateway products. Marijuana may not be a gateway drug that inevitably leads to cocaine and heroin, but Pono and other hi-res portable music players, great sounding headphones, music-enhancing headphone cables, and bargain-priced products may in fact serve as the entryway to a whole new generation of committed music and equipment enthusiasts.

The Age of the Audiophile is far from over. As CES 2015 has made abundantly clear, the show may be over, but the fun has just begun.

william.meredith's picture

Putting a happy face on empty halls and rooms won't change the steady decline of interest in over-priced audio gear.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I am sorry, but you are wrong on this one, William. CES is a trade show, and an increasing number of dealers are choosing to do business via phone, email and Skype rather than invest a large sum of money in traveling to a city that they do not particularly wish to set foot in.

Secondly, you miss the point of the wrap. Yes, there were many high-priced products at CES, some of which have either pushed or exceeded the limits of what we thought possible just a decade ago. But there was also an increasing number of entry-level and lower-priced products that are capable of impressive musical performance. On all levels, there were reasons to celebrate.

corrective_unconscious's picture

And I'm enjoying the extensive coverage here.

However, as a reality check, are you denying there's been a shrinking number of high end dealers? Or that high end audio has been shrinking in terms of number of customers? (As distinct from expensive home theater.)

No doubt there's a surplus of components aimed at the ultra high end consumer - that's the only way these companies can hope to make a go of it in a declining market segment and with an economically squeezed middle and upper middle class.

The fact that you can find relatively affordable components (by high end standards) which offer good performance does not speak to the statistical trends. Nor does dealers doing more business virtually argue against theses clear trends.

Unless you disagree the trends I've mentioned are in play at all.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

A major transition is happening in the high end. If one is attached to the old model, one can choose to see it as the sky falling. Or, if one is willing to open one's eyes and ears to the major shift in listening habits, and to an entire new generation of music lovers, one can the transition, not as a death, but rather as a shift to new means and forms.

They who are not busy being born are busy dying. I am ultimately hopeful that the most resourceful in our industry with adapt, and see their way through to developing products that serve a different and more diverse music-loving public, both in the US and throughout the world.

corrective_unconscious's picture

You didn't directly address the trends of fewer high end audio customers and shrinking pool of high end dealers which has been going on for years and years.

It's true that along with the shift to ultra expensive components chasing a small universe of customers that there has a scramble to DACs, streamers, bluetooth speakers and headphone rigs in an attempt to survive. However, most of the instances in these categories represent reduced sales revenues overall as compared to high end audio's heydays, and much of this new stuff is more lifestyle than traditional high end.

deckeda's picture

I saw several examples (Devialet, Naim) that take "lifestyle" to what anyone's definition of what the high end is. Don't judge by the style or numbers of component boxes as a way of extrapolating the hobby's health. It's irrelevant.

JVS answered your missive, and directly.

corrective_unconscious's picture

Actually he assiduously avoided conceding or acknowledging the obvious point a number of posters have made about decreased traffic at the show and about decreasing dealers and decreasing numbers of customers for high end gear. He did this by implying some companies or companies' efforts are dying and others are being born, but that sort of re-tooling obviously does not address the matter of overall shrinkage, which has been clear for years and years.

As for your two examples, I clearly said "much" of the new stuff I was discussing is more lifestyle than high end. You must have missed that part.

Further, whatever the high cost and outrageous claims from Devialet, that gear and some of the new Naim gear (their one piece speaker with electronics, for example,) do have that lifestyle sensibility, imo. In fact, Devialet's $10k unit comes with little speakers you put on a sidetable, which I think is how they're pictured in some ads. That's lifestyle, no matter how daunting the technology or industrial design.

It seems to me that a lot of people want to be cheerleaders rather than reporters...or maybe they're in genuine denial.

Allen Fant's picture

Celebrate indeed.