To Play or Not to Play

To put it mildly, Jack Vad (second row in photo, orange shirt) was dismayed. The Grammy Award–winning media producer and chief engineer for the San Francisco Symphony had just returned from the 2014 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, and was trying to make sense of his experiences there. When he'd carried his latest recordings, which I think are superbly recorded, into rooms at the show and asked if he could play them, exhibitors were anything but enthusiastic.

Vad, who at RMAF 2014 also appeared in an "Experts Ask the Experts" panel discussion, and presented formal demos of the same recordings in the Parasound and Sony rooms, had brought along a flash drive containing high-resolution tracks from SFS's new, Grammy-nominated West Side Story and Masterpieces in Miniature SACD/CDs, both conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. The latter included a performance of Fauré's Pavane whose beauty nearly overwhelmed me in the room shared by VTL, Wilson Audio Specialties, dCS, and Transparent Audio.

"I wasn't asking to play cuts that were overly challenging, such as something by Anton Webern," Vad told me after the show. "I thought they were selections that would be entertaining, and I knew them really well. But in most cases, if there wasn't a technical snafu—there were some playback systems that couldn't grab the material—there basically wasn't one room I went into where people didn't want to get my music off the system."

What Vad found especially confusing was that his music never drove other show attendees out of rooms. In fact, at his formal demos, people were enthusiastic, and even applauded. "There was a sort of ubiquitous editorializing going on," he lamented. "It was almost as if there was an invisible hook, and a feeling that, somehow, there were so many problems that this material brought out, either in the components' integration or execution, that exhibitors didn't want to be heard. I'm assuming this, because it happened to me many times."

Exhibitors never declared that Vad's West Side Story tracks sounded poor. Instead, they stopped them midstream.

"It's not that I went in there undercover, pretending to be someone else," Vad continued. "My nametag clearly said I was connected with the San Francisco Symphony. By the end of the show, I began to wonder if I had to be a Stereophile reviewer to be treated decently."

Not really. I'll never forget the time John Atkinson and I visited the room of a certain loudspeaker manufacturer at T.H.E. Show Las Vegas. When I asked to hear a bit of a CD of Puccini's Tosca that the late Harry Pearson had considered a wonderful recording, the exhibitor waited a whole 90 seconds before exclaiming, "That's room-clearing music!"

Given his experiences, Vad asks an essential question. When an exhibitor discovers that a recording either won't bring out the strengths of the system being exhibited—or, worse, exposes its flaws—what should that exhibitor to do?

At least one exhibitor has publicly addressed the issue of what sort of recordings to play, and how to play them. In "RMAF 2014: 3 Simple Rules for High-End Audio Show Attendees; Or, How to Avoid the Utter Humiliation of Being Thrown Out of a Hotel Room by Your Favorite Audio Icon," an essay published on November 14, 2014 by the e-zine The Audio Traveler, Marc Phillips, of Colleen Cardas Imports, decries attendees who request inappropriate volume levels, or ask to hear a bootleg recording of ear-splitting heavy metal through tiny minimonitors powered by low-powered single-ended-triode tube amps. "I won't do it," he proclaims. "Most room exhibitors will do it, and a few I know openly solicit the attendees for their musical choices because, as one person has told me, 'That's the best way to discover new music!' But some will not, and it's important to know why and to not hold it against them."

Phillips tells the tale of a reviewer who visited his room and asked to hear a track from his "special" trade-show mix CD. Unfortunately, his burn stank—every track sounded "thin and harsh and barely listenable." Others in the room began to wince and depart. Worse, another reviewer, this one from a "major publication," who had strolled in during the debacle quickly joined the retreat—then mentioned in his show report how bad the sound had been.

Phillips's solution was to play only vinyl at RMAF 2014. Because few people bring along their own LPs to audio shows, he managed to control the music "without looking like a total asshole" and telling people to stuff it.

Both Vad and Phillips have valid concerns. Attendees with ears as finely tuned as Jack Vad's deserve to hear familiar recordings that will reveal components' strengths and flaws, especially recordings of acoustic classical music in which, for example, the differences between the reproduction of a timpani's fundamental low frequencies and its higher harmonics erodes the presentation. Exhibitors, in turn, want to play only tracks that will showcase their systems in the best possible light.

There must be a way to honor the needs of both. To make that possible, attendees should stop asking exhibitors to play poorly recorded or inappropriate tracks. It's equally important that exhibitors be up front about their ground rules, and politely explain what sort of recordings they are and are not willing to play. But it would also be great if they did everything in their power to arrive at shows with their equipment already broken in, and do their best to ensure proper setup in the limited time available. If every exhibitor and manufacturer had their act together, whenever someone like Jack Vad brought them superbly recorded, full-range music that can all too easily expose flaws, there would be few, if any, flaws to expose.—Jason Victor Serinus

Allen Fant's picture

several members have their eyes closed?

Anton's picture

It was that kook sitting next to him whistling that ruined the sound.


Great piece, and I will remember it when I take my Black Sabbath demo discs into rooms!

Once, at a hi fi show, someone in the room asked to play an ELO song on those giant Genesis-brand Infinity IRS replicas and the owner of the company said, "No. I will never play that." It was pretty funny. He went right back to Nat King Cole's Live At The Sands without blinking an eye.

"Dah-nse balla-reena, dah-nse."

Cheers, amigo!

volvic's picture

I have brought poorly recorded CD's to hifi shows to see if the recording can sound bearable in upscale gear; some gear sometimes masks the deficiencies while others magnify how poor it was and I always looked out for that in my purchases. Most exhibitors have always complied with my requests and as a prospective customer this produces tremendous goodwill towards their products and their organization. This business is quite a niche affair and to potentially turn away a customer by refusing to play some music at a show is a lost customer. Years ago at the Mtl Hi-Fi show I asked a large well known retailer from Mtl who rents a big room to play a CD, he promptly replied "we don't take requests". I left the room vowing never to purchase anything from his store. A few years later I walked into his store and was tempted to buy a Clear Audio Innovation table that a customer had backed off from purchasing, They made me a great offer and I was about to pull the credit card when the owner came in to the demo room to push the sale a little and that is when I backed off. The same guy who rudely said we don't take requests was piling on the charm. Nuff said walked out and said not for me. The point is treat every individual like a prospective customer at shows, you never know. Some high end audio manufacturers and retailers still haven't figured out the relationship building aspect of building a customer base.

deckeda's picture

Almost none of the conditions would be right, so why get uptight about it? You're there to see what it looks like, see what's available, talk to people and yes do some business, but not ALL the business. And by that I mean for heaven's sake don't prejudge a company by what they will or won't do at a fricken' trade show! That's naive.

The Phillips examples were clear but I do agree that Vad's concerns are equally valid, as it was essentially known already that the recordings wouldn't/shouldn't be subpar.

Any rep with an ounce of confidence could simply play the music and if it was less than what he wanted the system to portray, say, "You know this sounds OK but you're not hearing what the recording can do and what my system can do in other circumstances." And leave it at that. For an attendee to assume show conditions are EVER ideal, or even decent, is just weird.

volvic's picture

"with pleasure I will play it for you" and then say come in and hear it (component) some more under more ideal conditions at our is my card. That is proper salesmanship. I am there to hear it for the first time then make an informed decision as to whether or not I will consider it as a major purchase. First impressions and appearances matter, to call a negative experience with a dealer at a show and subsequent reaction as NAIVE is missing the point as to why these retailers and distributors are there in the first place; to see and speak and show their wares to as many people as possible. Most successful entrepreneurs in history always made their customers and potential customers feel as if they mattered. But hey I am just NAIVE.

corrective_unconscious's picture

You can't trust audiophiles to have either good music on hand or genuinely good recordings of acoustic music, that's for sure. Most of them won't even shut up to sit and listen to music for three minutes in an audiophile society's trip to someone's home, in my experience.

At a show, I would alternate between my source material and that of random customers...while clearly announcing the distinction.

I also would not let any track run for more than a couple of minutes in a crowded, bustling show situation, again so I could offset any customer's choice with one of my own fairly quickly as a matter of course. And a variety of music would be more revealing of my product in a snapshot, show sort of way.

It sounds to me like Vad is complaining that his whole recordings or whole tracks were not played through beginning to end. That's probably not a realistic expectation in most show situations. Maybe at the more sparse, regional ones...or at a local dealer's open house day.

xyzip's picture

From the sales point of view, the hifi show will bring in X amount of ears, and the mission of the presenters is to turn each set of ears into a possible buyer. That's all really.

There is no chance that any group of businessmen would want to pass up the chance, perhaps with a capacity crowd in a premium room-- to sell gear. To imprint the brand(s), to win converts and to sell.

Asking them to play your unknown Cdr is taking the chance that some listeners in the room-- possibly influential ones, possibly on-the-verge buyers-- may walk out in boredom or perhaps even leave the show. This isn't the edgy, adventurous college radio station; this is commerce.

So get used to D. Krall, P. Barber, Jazz Pawnshop, Jenny Does Lenny and Dark Side Of The Moon. They will be with us forever.
And forever. And when that's done, a reprise, a curtain call. ... forever...

Catch22's picture

The shows are for the industry and audio press. Get good press and and you can sell more stuff. So, they're more interested in appealing to the writers and reviewers because that is where the money spent to attend the show becomes economical from a business perspective.

If I was a manufacturer, I'd control how my stuff sounded and what music was playing. But, I'd be polite and pleasant about it.

tonykaz's picture

As a manufacturer and as a Importer I've done many shows.

These events cost mega-bucks for us, are carefully planed, scripts are in play, limits are defined, control is maintained.

Far too much money is riding on everything to allow walk-in's random requests.

There isn't much difference in any of the various shows: printing equipment, machine tools, consumer audio, transportation industry, all of em. These are Dog & Pony presentations designed to make things perform better than you'd probably get them to work at your home or installation.

If you attend a show ( and like what you are seeing ) you will meet someone who will schedule a "proper" sales call. I'm suggesting that these Show people are what we industrialists call "Ropers", they locate "sales leads" to be followed up on.
If you are a known "Live-one", a "Whale", an established "Mark" ( and arrive with a voucher person to introduce you properly ) you will be invited to a "Private" showing where these guys will pull-out all the stops and dazzle the hell out of you ( ending with you writing a check ) .

You're just a "Tire-Kicker" if all you want to do is play someones music.

Don't take it personally

Probably the stuff you were trying to audition isn't any better performing than 5 year old stuff, they're probably just showing the new version that costs less to manufacture and ship.

As a Glossy Mag. reviewer you may get insider treatment "if" you promise "good ink" but don't get your hopes up, even Opera got dissed by Hermes in France!

I wish you well,

Tony in Michigan

tonykaz's picture

Show Exhibitors respond to well-dressed & groomed booth visitors.

Dressing like a Taxi Cab driver won't get you far.

Tony in Michigan

tonykaz's picture

Hey, you're guy was at the wrong show. He shoulda been at the AES in California.

Whats he doing?, you're hired Golden Ears guy?, there to assist you in picking apart that crumy Consumer stuff? , bet thats what the Show people were thinking.

Tony in Michigan

tonykaz's picture

Hey, your guy Vad already has the finest stuff on the planet earth, he's already on record for his PMC stuff, phew, thats $150,000 in speakers alone. He's the giant in that room, nobody in the whole state has better stuff than he's used to working with. I'd be scared of him too.
Why is he bothering to do a RMAF?

Get real.

Tony in Michigan

Patrick Butler's picture

I can recall recently playing a piece of consumer requested music in my room at CES which was off the beaten path, but great music that was well received by everyone. Everyone except the well-known reviewer who had just popped in the room to see what was going on. He immediately made his disdain for the music known and stormed off.

Damn. After spending tens of thousands of dollars and months worth of effort to get to the point where we might have the opportunity to get some welcome press coverage, going off-script cost us exactly what we were hoping to achieve at CES.

corrective_unconscious's picture

To anonymously via the net make known which reviewers behave like jerks in person, by having tantrums, by only being in a room for 60 seconds and then writing about the sound, by trying to weasel various, non typical favors. That is also information of value to the high end audio consumer - the credibility of reviewers.

Patrick Butler's picture

It is what it is. In general I've found the journalists who attend shows are receptive to new music (outside of Hip Hop and Rap, which is very popular with consumers but treated with utter disdain by our industry.) There are a few who are quite dogmatic in what they are willing to listen to, but they are still good at what they do- reviewing the rooms they actually engage with. Part of that is aesthetic preference, and part is an inability to gauge what they are hearing unless they listen to familiar content.

daviddever's picture

To Patrick's remark above, I have certainly experienced that situation as a manufacturer / distributor representative, and I think that Jason is missing the point.

In fact, I can think of at least two or three situations where a certain reviewer walked into the room and turned his nose up at the material being played, while everyone else in the room enjoyed the programme material.

There are plenty of music lovers that also happen to be audiophiles (a key distinction), and it's our job to provide the best possible experience for ALL attendees, not just an elite few.

At the end of the day, our industry needs to expand its reach outside a core of aging, white males, and I'd rather encourage that by stepping outside the musical box than worrying about what reviewer X (who wanders into the room with the same standing as every other attendee) might think.

In fact - I'd propose the following: if you (as a hypothetical reviewer) believe that you should be accorded a special audition with your choice of participants as well as your own choice of material, schedule it for the morning of the last day of the show. After all, the equipment will have been in continuous use for a few days, and most of the manufacturer / distributor employees will be relaxed and forthcoming to make your experience worthwhile.

My job is not to impress you (the reviewer) with my choice of music, beverages or interior decorations, but to present (in as best a way as possible) the products as they would be utilized in a typical domestic environment. If I happen to do so in the process, that's great, but it's not the point.

John Atkinson's picture
I can think of at least two or three situations where a certain reviewer walked into the room and turned his nose up at the material being played, while everyone else in the room enjoyed the programme material.

I always ask the exhibitor to play their music. Not only is their choice useful information - it tells me what they think the strengths of their products are - I often discover new music.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Patrick Butler's picture

You've always been great to have in the audience.

Gordon Rankin's picture


These shows are hectic enough that we really don't want to play anything other than what was on our hard drives already. But we do sometimes and every one of the tracks is terrible. The experience is never good.

First you really have to move the track to the hard drive. This presents the obvious problem that we do not own the track. I usually put these in a folder which I delete at the end of the show.

Last year we had several reviewers who wanted to hear particular DSD tracks. One was totally pathetic, these take time to rip in Pure Music because they are fooling DSD tracks into Apple Lossless formating. After the 5 minute rip we played the track which was a lot of kids running around laughing in the rain with 2 guys in a tent playing acoustic guitars. Really?

Another one was heavy metal?

Really it has been hardly ever in my 30 years of doing shows something that after the show I bought and used again.


Patrick Butler's picture

Montreal is the only city where I have done shows where consumers regularly bring great music with high production values. I also make sure my systems have bass with weight and speed. Helps with the music that is a bit zippier.

volvic's picture

I concur Patrick, people from my former home town always brought great music with them at the Mtl hi-fi show, even with my CD's exhibitors were always writing down what CD I had brought and played, even better the conversations would continue outside the room on other alternate versions. One exhibitor after saying he would only play 3 minutes of a Barenboim/Dupre - Brahms Cello sonatas CD thanked me for bringing it. I too have asked people what CD they brought after listening to it at the show. One of the most memorable was a Musica Nuda CD which everyone rushed to see. This is why I always enjoyed the Mtl HiFi show, and still love visiting it and its exhibitors.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I had no idea that my AWSI had been posted until JA told me last night, when I saw him at Music Matters in Seattle. Apologies for not responding sooner.

I hear you, Gordon. I carry lots of USB sticks with me to shows, but after the first show or two when I asked exhibitors if they could play something on them, and then discovered myself sitting there for five minutes while they tried to rip it, I gave up. So, the sticks are still with me, but I rarely offer them up at shows.

Similarly, unless someone asks me if I have some music I want to play, or they are taking requests, I usually go with what's on the system. (And even when they ask me if I want to hear something, I often go with what's on.) In doing so, however, I'm aware that the exhibitor may have very well chosen tracks that show the system's good points and mask flaws, or that a visitor's music may not be well-recorded. I'm also well aware that the music may not be to my taste. Oh well.

A year or two ago, I wrote an AWSI, "There's No Business Without Show Business," that also addressed some of the problems associated with music at shows. To this day, when I go into a room and ask an exhibitor to play me something that they think really shows off their system, any number of them greet my request with blank stares. I give them carte blanche, and they don't know what to do.

I'm afraid that some commenters here are simply missing one of the many points of this tale. Jack was carrying superbly recorded music with him. There were specific speakers and components that he was eager to hear and understand. The exhibitors all allowed him to offer up his music; he did not force it on them. But once it started to play, they all got scared of the fact that his music exposed the weak points of their systems. He basically found himself dismissed. That, in my opinion, is not the way to treat anyone. At the least, if you're going to turn off someone's music, tell them why.

BTW, the picture shown above was taken in the Music Lovers Wilson Audio/VTL/Musical Surroundings room at the California Audio Show several years ago.

Anon2's picture

I attended a show a couple of years ago. Only in one room, a representative from a very prominent company allowed an attendee’s disc to play on his products briefly. It was short, slightly reluctant, but kindly carried out request. The requestor’s CD, an aria from a great operatic performance, sounded great on the high-end speakers forming the focal point of the room. Otherwise, no requests were taken that I could see at that show two years ago.

In the same show, last year, a few exhibitors came out and said: “does anyone have anything they would like for me to play?” I think everyone: requestor, exhibitor, and 3rd parties in the rooms found the requests to be enlightening. It seemed that taking requests added value to everyone’s experience (even when a great system showed the flaws in some of the lower quality tracks). In any event, almost all rooms I visited I went to more than once. So I had time to hear the requestor’s music and then, later, the exhibitor’s tracks.

I can understand that this could get out of control. I understand that much thought goes into track selection for meticulously constructed systems. I can understand that making a request may be OK if there are no other guests in a room, but a not so good idea if there is a full-room. But a few requests honored, particularly at slower times, can leave all parties enlightened.

Three rooms indulged me and played the first track from the SACD that appears below. A common response from exhibitors and audience alike was: “wow, that is a great recording, thanks for bringing it in.” I even think that one room wanted to borrow the SACD from me.

amudhen's picture

I and my wife have attended almost all the RMAF shows and have never been denied an opportunity to play our own music by an exibitor, once the exhibitor has asked the audience for specific requests or for their own music. We always wait for the exhibitor to make the request. If it isn't forthcoming, we just assume that we will just listen to whatever is playing. If we do not like it or it sounds bad, we move on. We also do not tolerate BS sessions in a room where others are trying to listen; take the chitchat outside the room and be courteous to your listeners who may be potential buyers. This is, and has been, my biggest complaint about RMAF, next to playing music way too loud. We are usually content with music the exhibitor offers and discover new music this way. By the way, the West Side Story music from the SFO is simply incredible, both the recording and the performance. I can't imagine any knowledgable exhibitor not wanting to hear a movement or two on their system, unless it was simply too inconvenient to play it due to the system setup.

audiocaptain's picture

I tried something completely different this year at one of the shows. I have a fairly good recording studio in my home using Neumann mics for voice and guitar and some excellent acoustic instruments such as Martin, Guild, Breedlove and Gardner. I recorded a live performance of myself and a violinist as well as solo music with two tracks, one for guitar and one for voice, and saved them to a memory stick as flac files at 24/96. They were recorded at either 24/96 or 24/192 originally.
My biggest fear was that the exhibitors would run for the hills or the attendees would flee in a mad panic but just the opposite happened. In every case the exhibitors ask me to leave the music play and that it sounded very natural and musical and several wanted to have copies. The attendees seemed to enjoy it as well and I didn't see any running with fingers in ears.
What this tells me is that complex music with many instruments or overmixing, loaded with effects, even by top notch players and top engineers, is not as pleasing as a simple song recorded without the embellishments.
I'll be doing this for all shows in the future just to see if it was just anomaly.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Hi Steve,

I would suggest another possible explanation for your experience. Solo and duo tracks pose less of a challenge to systems to reproduce faithfully. They're not necessarily more pleasing; they're just more pleasing on systems that can't handle more complex material. But unless someone is buying components with the goal of never playing more than solo or duo tracks, your tracks will only reveal so much about a system.

audiocaptain's picture

The two systems I played this music on were both top notch with some of the finest equipment available. I'm referring to the enjoyment of listening. It is a bit like multitasking. If you try to concertrate on two many parts or instruments the circuit becomes shorted out, this causes fatigue. A really great recording is whole as a piece and can be listened to without overtaxing the system and the brain.

xyzip's picture

For the life of me I can't understand why people don't stay around for more than a couple minutes of my cdr compilations. After all, wire-recorder tracks of regular people in the 30s singing "Happy Birthday" in Arkansas-- must be pretty rare, no ?

Surely this whole audiophile thing isn't prone to turning up its nose at genuine historical recording with a few artifacts, a little noisefloor ? Surely, as EVERY SINGLE AUDIOPHILE will tell you, repeatedly, it's "all about the music" . . . right ?
Isn't that it ?

dalethorn's picture

If an exhibitor feels their system is set up almost ideally for best sound, then under the right circumstances they shouldn't fear anything reasonable. But for those who will take requests, setting aside specific time slots for requests with appropriate signage (to warn visitors about the ad-hoc music, and also warn them to sit or stand still and be very quiet) might work if they experiment to find the best times to carry it out.

Audiophiles are by nature sensitive people - some very sensitive, and injecting request music randomly into the presentation would naturally upset most visitors.

Raceingreen's picture

Vlad’s recordings always sound like the SFO in Davies Symphony Hall. I can recognize that sonic signature.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Richard Schram of Parasound has invited me to append the following commentary:

Hi Jason,
Your article "To Play or Not to Play" about Jack Vad and RMAF was very interesting, and the subsequent conversation is lively. I'd like to weigh in.

Jack Vad and I speak several times a week on a wide range of topics, and I always make time for these conversations because Jack is one of the most interesting and engaging people I know. He is fascinated and curious about residential audio gear that might do justice to his (or anyone else's) quality recordings.

RMAF was Jack's first consumer audio show; he came to listen to audiophile equipment and to observe audiophiles. He told me that he expected to demo West Side Story in as many rooms as he could and I told him not to get his hopes up. It's tempting to be critical of exhibitors who play only music they believe (often mistakenly, in my opinion) best shows off their products and is "safe."* However, I think many exhibitors simply prefer to play material that is familiar and provides them with an opportunity to make their demos more substantial and engaging by suggesting what people might listen for and discuss after each demo.

The part of your report that dismayed me was the indifference with which Jack and his San Francisco Symphony badge was received by a number of exhibitors. Jack is personable and respectful and I can't imagine why audio manufacturers would squander a valuable, and perhaps once in a career opportunity to have their products auditioned by someone who is at the nexus of the capture and reproduction of one of the world's great orchestras and guest performers? Might this not be a priceless opportunity to learn something?

I'm grateful to Jack for presenting West Side Story in Parasound's room for the last hour each day. It was a personal honor for me to have Jack's tech talks and demos in our room and our audiences paid rapt attention. Jack was also a seminar panelist at RMAF 2014 and Stereophile readers might enjoy viewing the video.