Re-Tales #3: The Risks and Rewards of Audio Shows

Several audio shows have been canceled or postponed since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in early 2020: Munich, AXPONA, RMAF, Montreal, and the 2021 Florida Audio Expo, among others. The next scheduled show is the Finest Audio Show, slated for January 9–10 in Zurich. The next one in the Americas is the inaugural Seattle Audio Fest, planned for July 30–August 1. AXPONA, America's biggest show, near Chicago, was recently postponed for the second time until late August. Depending on how the pandemic evolves, it's possible those shows will not be able to take place as planned, either (footnote 1).

Audio shows play an important role in the hi-fi industry, helping manufacturers find distributors, distributors and manufacturers find dealers, and dealers find customers. They're also fun. In a pandemic, though, they're risky: People—often older people, at increased risk from COVID-19—come from all over the country and the world, sitting near strangers on airplanes and sharing recirculated air, to congregate in other enclosed spaces sharing more recirculated air. They then climb back on those airplanes and fly home, potentially carrying the virus back to their families and communities.

Once the pandemic is brought under control, shows will surely start back up, in some form—that much seems clear. But it could take months or years for things return to what we used to think of as normal.

How much do shows matter? And what does the future hold for shows? I spoke with dealers and distributors about audio shows, their importance to the industry, how they are adapting, and about possible ways forward.

Nearly everyone I spoke with agreed that audio shows are the best way to introduce new products, particularly at the higher end. Ozan Turan, president of High End by Oz, a dealer and distributor based in Los Angeles, believes that audio shows are critical for customers, dealers, and critics—everyone in the industry really—to experience new products. He cites a European brand that received unprecedented attention from press and customers after he introduced it at a show. Without a show, that wouldn't have happened, he said.

"You can always find something [at a show] that will blow you away," Turan said. "The shows must go on." Arturo Manzano, of LA-based distributor Axiss Audio, agreed that shows have always been important, especially when introducing new equipment. "With the COVID thing right now, I've intensified my contact with dealers," he said. "I've been sending them promo information on my new products so they can stay up-to-date."

Those dealers also participate in shows, but for them, shows are a very different value proposition. For all their benefits, they're costly, labor-intensive, and time-consuming. Some dealers had already become more selective about which shows they exhibit at even before the pandemic.

Doug White, president of Philadelphia-area dealership The Voice That Is, says that shows are important for distributors, manufacturers, and the industry at large, but "the return on investment for dealers can be questionable," especially for the big national shows. He and Aaron Sherrick, founder of Now Listen Here in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, both stressed the importance of regional shows, which make shipping and travel easier and cheaper for local dealers. A couple of East Coast dealers I spoke to told me they probably will exhibit at just one show in 2021 and perhaps attend one other, pandemic permitting. Even after the pandemic, they expect to stick to that pattern as they explore other marketing approaches.

White has already tried some atypical approaches to marketing, including a planned sponsorship deal with the Berks Jazz Fest on its 30th anniversary: He had planned to host a listening experience at a hotel to coincide with the Pennsylvania live-music festival in April 2020, but it, too, was canceled. Sherrick also tried something new, recently, and it worked out well. He held a free, reservation-only listening event—he called it a "microshow"—at the Hyatt House in Philadelphia's King of Prussia suburb in late September. Jeff Joseph of Joseph Audio and Mat Weisfeld, president of VPI Industries, were on hand to demonstrate products: Joseph, the Pearl 20/20 Graphene speakers, and VPI, the company's flagship Vanquish turntable. Products from Fyne Audio, Chord Electronics, Jeff Rowland, Transparent Cable, and Sonore were also on demo or display.

Pennsylvania COVID-19 restrictions limit gatherings to 25 people, so Sherrick registered attendees in two-hour time slots. Temperatures were taken at the door, and masks were required for entry. Social distancing measures were in place. Attendees spent an hour in each of two 1000-square-foot demo rooms and toured a third (with occupancy restrictions) with components on static display.

Attendees, Sherrick said, were "super respectful" about wearing their masks properly, and attendance was good. "People just seemed thrilled that there was an event to go to."

Even with all those precautions, and plenty of hand sanitizer, Sherrick was concerned about health risks and legal liability. "Obviously, in this country, you always have that in the back of your mind," Sherrick said. "We certainly did our best to make sure we were following the letter of the law and going above and beyond that."

"Time will tell if it will prove successful financially, but it was fun."

What will it take to bring people back to shows? The answer is obvious. "It's going to take the security of being able to go where you want to go, like anywhere else, without as strong a threat of getting sick," White said. Manzano believes it will also take courage. "How much do I [have to] love my audio to risk going and listening to a demo?" he asked with a laugh. Audiophiles do love their gear, so there's hope.

Footnote 1: Munich High End announced in mid-November that the 2021 show will be held September 9–12.—Editor

Juerg's picture

The Finest Audio Show in Zurich Switzerland (January 9th and 10th) is cancelled as well.
Hoping to visit an audioshow soon.

Julie Mullins's picture

Yes, the Finest Audio Show in Zurich, which as of the time of this column's writing had been scheduled for Jan. 9–10, 2021, has now been canceled.

tonykaz's picture

...need the Shows ( I certainly did back in the 1980s ).


All the High End Audio Dealers in my Greater Detroit area are Looooooonnnnnnnggggg Gone. ( except the wonderful little ARC Magnapan Audio Dimensions & the Great Harry Francis ).

After one year of shut-down, who will have the serious money that visiting a Show consumes. ( going there to pick up a product line with one to Show and 2 to Go -- considering the price of desirable gear in todays prices ) Phew & Ouch!!

I see Stereophile presenting important & desirable product offerings but I don't get the feeling that anyone but Schiit & PS Audio are being built in repeating "Production" levels or consistency. No reviewer seems to ask any manufacturer for the popularity of any product or the number of units already out in the field being happily owned & cherished. Does "Transparency" mean that we should be able to see right thru this product reporting?

I'm a manufacturer, for me, a product is important if it sells well. ( like all the Schiit gear ) .

For me, a consumer, an Audio Show is a Social Event sponsored by our Favourite Manufacturers and a Learning experience. RMAF with it's Seminars is the Greatest of all Audio Shows.

As a Manufacturer, Audio Shows are agony unless we have a Show Stopper Product under Promotion. It will always be a frightful expense and an almost necessary evil.

Overall, A Show will never Make a Year Great but it can consume a very narrow margin of profit.

Still, like an addict, I'll have to go the the next BIG one.

Tony in Venice

tonykaz's picture

A possible/promising vaccine --- A definite Maybe

Comprehensive hygiene and infection protection "concept". much lower loss of life ?

Sudden increase in Cases Worldwide. Hmm

Strict travel and quarantine requirements not having a formally announced end date.

Munich's Show Director Dreischarf is "convinced" ( "Convinced" is pretty strong ) that there is every reason to believe ( Believe mind you ---- Believe ! ) that immunisation will be much more prominent. Who want's to bet their life ? , who wants to ask their customers to risk lives?

That Munich Show just might kill off the Customer base in one fell swoop by contaminating our dwindling supply of Audiophiles.

Special thanks to Michael Fremer for this important information.

Tony in Venice

jmsent's picture

...we see Axpona scheduled for Aug. 27-29, Munich for Sept. 10-12, and RMAF for Oct 8-10. Three major shows over 2 continents in a little over a month. The logistics of this are absurd, and will only result in cannibalization of one show by the other. If any one of those shows actually succeeds in happening, I'd anticipate highly diminished attendance by exhibitors and the general public. There are far too many uncertainties that would have to be quickly resolved in a very short period of time. The "ifs and whens" of vaccine distribution, the extent to which the virus is brought under control, the status of the airline and travel industry,......the list goes on and on. I personally think 2021 is a bust for shows. Let's hope for 2022.

Julie Mullins's picture

You're correct in that due to pandemic postponements many shows are stacking up later in the year. It will be interesting to see how—and how soon—the vaccine could change things. Also, the Finest Audio Show in Zurich, which as of the time of this column's writing had been scheduled for Jan. 9–10, 2021, has now been canceled.

Anton's picture

For consumers, these things are perfect.

A chance to check out scads of gear, meet dealers and manufacturers, and commune with our fellow enthusiasts!

I’m hoping to be able to attend the Pacific Audio Fest in late summer.