Thoughts from the 1980 Winter CES

Editor's Note: We are republishing this report from the 1980 CES both because many of the themes strike resonances 35 years later, and because it emphasizes the hard time high-end audio was having at the end of the 1970s. The LP had been eclipsed by the cassette and 8-track cartridge as the primary massmarket media for recorded music and the decade-long hi-fi boom that had been fueled by the entry of Japanese brands was running out of steam. Ironically, it was the launch of Compact Disc three years later (footnote 1) that was to reinvigorate the audio business.John Atkinson

The 1980 Winter CES (footnote 2), held in Las Vegas in January 1980, came on the heels of the worst business year the audio field has seen in almost a decade. So-called high-end audio, in particular, had distressing sales declines during the last year of the 1970s, with some dealers (who had not yet gone out of business) predicting that their books for 1979 would probably show as much as a 30% loss in sales from the previous year. Dealer turnout in the Las Vegas Jockey Club, where most of the high-end manufacturers were showing their wares, was nonetheless surprisingly good, although makers of the highest-priced exotica were not as ecstatic about the turnout as were those exhibiting more-affordable gear. One high-end entrepreneur was heard to say (to one of his associates), "It doesn't look any better for this year than last."

But that was the private side of CES. For the benefit of the visitors, the audio industry was putting on a grand display of bravado, with various distinguished spokesmen predicting "the biggest year yet" and "an anticipated upswing for 1980" and the "opening of as-yet-untapped markets." These "untapped markets," it turned out, were the kids who wanted stereos in their vans and an estimated multi-million souls who—God knows how—have somehow not been "introduced to" the pleasures and rewards (!) of stereo high fidelity.

The only people who were smiling all the while were the makers of "alternate" home products—the myriads of pocket calculators, LED watches, fuzz busters, video equipment and CB gear, whose exploding sales during the past few years offer a clue as to where all those hi-fi dollars have been going. Generally, the theme of this year's CES was little different from previous ones: "Our stuff will make you more bucks." Since CES is, after all, primarily a humongous showcase from which dealers choose what they'll stock in coming months, we were not surprised by the high-pressure emphasis on more sales and higher margins, but we found it hard to get used to the blatant crassness of some of those appeals to the profit incentive. The ad reproduced above, which appeared in one of the special CES handout–promo publications, is typical.

By comparison, the displays at the Jockey Club, where the high-end manufacturers congregated to do business, seemed as garish as a Trappist funeral. Actually, "display" hardly seemed the proper word here, because most of the high-end exhibits were so poorly lit I wished I'd brought along a flashlight. Most exhibitors were at least making up for this by playing their systems, but a couple didn't even go that far. For example, Audio Research, having a plushier laurel than most to lie on, was content to show how lovely their equipment looked, and to take dealer orders.

As usual, many high-enders didn't bother to bring their own carefully selected "associated components" to use with their products, secure in the knowledge that there were plenty of other manufacturers eager to loan them the necessary accouterments in exchange for the promotion value of their being seen around the show. (At one time, many years ago, the omnipresence of the Gonad Audio Corp. Carbuncle IV amplifier at a show meant that a lot of manufacturers had chosen it above all else to drive their latest SOTA speakers. Today, it means Gonad Audio happened to have a room down the hall and brought a few extra Carbuncles with them.)

But in a few cases, exhibitors who had borrowed other exhibitors' products were pleased enough with them that they called visitors' attention to those products (after having exhausted the pitch for their own). Among these were the monstrous and monstrously expensive ($3800) Threshold Stasis I mono power amplifiers and the Bedini power amps. (He and Streliof have parted company.)

The sound at the show was, with a few exceptions noted elsewhere in this issue, unexceptional. Practically every exhibit was boasting overblown, boomy bass. This was invariably blamed on the rooms, except by the few who were producing superb bass in identical rooms. Press releases to the contrary, there were no revolutionary developments, trend-setting innovations, or technological breakthroughs in evidence among the audio exhibits, although there were obviously visible trends. To wit: Tubed components were even more in evidence than last year, there were several new electrostatic devices, there were far more modestly priced amplifying components in the high-end division, and—thanks mainly to Telarc Records—I was once again hearing more symphonic music at an audio show than rock/pop fare. (So I'm biased towards orchestras. We all have our weaknesses.)

All in all, the 1980 CES reflected more steady progress in audio than any great leaps forward. While prices on the farthest-out products pushed higher than ever before, there were many signs that the design sophistication that has been narrowing the gap between tubed and solid-state sound is also starting to yield more reasonably priced equipment that sacrifices less in sound quality. There will still be audible differences between these, as we will be reporting as we test some of the many whose review loans we arranged for at the show, but we suspect that the choice of truly listenable, affordable components is going to be much wider in 1980 than it has been to date. On the other hand, maybe it won't...

Here We Go Again!
It has been over four years since last we raised the price of a subscription to Stereophile. We're gonna hafta do it again. While our rates stayed the same, the costs of producing this estimable rag rose by almost 30%. Our growing circulation allowed us to absorb much of the loss for a while, but no longer. As of the April 1980 issue, the price for a 3rd-Class Mail subscription goes up to $16 and 1st-Class to $20. We're sorry, but that's the way it has to be.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 1: Gordon Holt was an early supporter of digital technology and CD, writing in the August 1982 issue that digital "is a helluva lot more-nearly perfect than any analog record/playback recording and playback shows up analog disc reproduction for the primitive mechanical process it is."—John Atkinson

Footnote 2: Since "CES" stands for Consumer Electronics Show, it is redundant to call it the "CES Show," as is oft done.—J. Gordon Holt

JRT's picture

Not on the subject of high end audio, but on the subject of big changes in consumer audio electronics, 1980 was the year Sony introduced their Walkman portable cassette player to the US market, and I would expect that was likely showcased at 1980 CES.

tonykaz's picture

About then Ivor at Linn was launching the LP12-Ittok-Asak which seems like the start of High-End Audio, I'm thinking.

Before 1980 Stereo was kinda aimed at Hugh Hefner wanna-be types. Shops were promoting those big reel to reel tape machines, dolby noise systems, big speakers, 100 Wpc Receivers, Equalizers and "Record Changers".

I remember going to a Linn LP12 demo where these guys were playing against any old record player. Wow what a difference.

That was the parting of the ways for Audiophiles, we took to the Turntable and haven't looked back.

Any minute now another Ivor will arrive with a break thru DAC, something to compare everything else to and we'll be off on the next chapter of music reproduction.

That original LP12 was about $400 here in the States, seems the Linn went to about $1,000 with the Ittok & Asak. That was in 1980, today it's about $10,000, 10X more money.

All things being equal suggests we audiophiles are prepared to pay about $10,000 for a good Front End.

I'm ready for it, I still love my music but the dealer networks are mostly gone, can't quite audition properly over the internet.

Thanks for being there and trying,

Tony in Michigan

ps. annnd thanks for Tyll, he's a light in a rather dark tunnel