Too Many Audio Shows?

In the wrap-up of his coverage of the 2013 Salon Son & Image show in Montreal, which took place at the end of March, Robert Deutsch asked if there were too many audio shows. The Chicago AXPONA show was held two weeks before SSI, the second New York Audio Show followed less than three weeks later. In May, there was the humongous High End 2013, in Munich, followed two weeks later by the third T.H.E. Show Newport Beach, followed by: the Capital AudioFest, in Washington, DC (July 26–28); the fourth California Audio Show, in the Bay Area (August 8–11); the tenth Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (October 11–13); and TAVES in Toronto (November 1–3).

While this is no more shows than took place in 2011 or 2012, many exhibitors, manufacturers and distributors alike, to whom I talked at the spring events felt that the high-end audio industry is suffering from an overload of audio shows.

I'm certainly feeling the overload—in addition to the spring shows, I represented Stereophile at the "Music Matters" retailer evenings promoted by Seattle's Definitive Audio at the end of February, by Denver's Listen-Up in mid-April, and by Atlanta's Audio Alternative at the end of April. In between the shows and dealer events, I gave presentations to California's Central Coast Audiophile Society, the Connecticut Audiophile Society, and New York's The Audiophile Society.

Don't get me wrong. I am not complaining about the amount of traveling I'm doing. Shows, dealer evenings, audiophile-society meetings—all pump enthusiasm into the audiophile world, and I leave these events charged with renewed energy. But Stereophile, like most high-end companies, is a relatively small operation, and taking part in such events is an extracurricular activity that must take second place to our putting out a magazine every month and posting content on our website.

Manufacturers, of course, get a more immediate benefit than does a magazine for participating in shows. If they do their job right, sales of their products should increase. (See Jason Victor Serinus's April "As We See It" for ways in which many do not do it right.) But as Robert Deutsch pointed out, if you add to the cost of the exhibit space the costs of shipping, transportation, hotel rooms, meals, and staff, participating in shows is an expensive endeavor. "The benefits," he wrote, "in terms of additional business, while real, are difficult to measure."

So why are there so many audio shows?

Before 1986, when I joined Stereophile, I had been involved in starting a show at London's Heathrow Airport, promoted by the UK magazine I used to edit, Hi-Fi News. It seemed a natural expansion of Stereophile's business, therefore, to get into shows, which we did first in Santa Monica, in spring 1987. Shows followed in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago, and by the time of our 1996 New York Show, at the Waldorf=Astoria, what was generally referred to as "the Stereophile show" featured 144 rooms with 468 exhibiting retailers, distributors, and brands (footnote 1). (There were 70 brands whose names began with the letter A alone.) In less than 10 years, therefore, the Stereophile show had grown to become a national event, and remained so for another 11 years, culminating in 2007 with our final show, at Manhattan's Grand Hyatt.

By contrast, the modern shows are smaller, regional events. Looking at the spring shows, the Chicago AXPONA was the largest, with 86 rooms and 264 exhibiting brands (footnote 2), followed by SSI with 70 rooms and 370 brands. The New York Audio Show had 47 rooms and 253 brands. And there's nothing wrong with regional shows. While attending this many shows has become burdensome for exhibitors and magazines alike, as far as attendees are concerned, a show in Chicago is not in competition with a show in New York. A show in Southern California is not in competition with a show in northern California, or Denver, or Toronto, or Montreal, or Washington, DC. And as I noted in a video interview at AXPONA, the attendees at these shows were enthusiastic, and even included women and young people!

Every one of these shows can justify its existence on the grounds that it is giving audiophiles in its catchment area the opportunity to audition not only the best, cost-no-object audio equipment but also the bread-and-butter products that are bought by ordinary people. Because, as was argued by one of the readers who commented on Bob Deutsch's SSI wrap-up, "For consumers there is no better way to sample a variety of audio products." Another reader added that "these shows are partly the result of failed brick-and-mortar stores. They serve a similar function, where the public [can] go and see, smell, and hear (hopefully). So it's a shift in financial expenditure back to the manufacturer. And to the customer, who must pay just to window shop." This sentiment was echoed by an e-mail from an industry figure who wished to remain anonymous: "These regional shows are popping up everywhere because brick-and-mortar stores are going out of business. . . . At this rate, the only place you will be able to see hi-fi is going to be at a regional show, and customers will be buying directly from the manufacturer. In the end, this marginalizes our industry even more and leaves customers with a raw deal."

Ironically, our experience in the 20 years that Stereophile put on shows was that for a show to be successful, it needed: 1) a sufficiently large number of attendees within driving distance, and 2) a host city with a critical number of retailers. As well as exhibiting, those retailers give logistical support to exhibiting manufacturers. We found that the cities where success was probable comprised a list of the usual suspects: Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Montreal, Denver, and Toronto, each of which has a good number of still-healthy retailers.

I have always felt that the continued success of the high-end industry depends on the existence of well-run specialty retailers. This is why I applaud the retailers mentioned above, as well as all the others who do something similar, for promoting such events as the "Music Matters" evenings. Even more than audio shows, these events are where our community's grass-roots enthusiasm for listening to music coincides with the industry's need to expose its products to potential customers. To survive, audio retailers need to be farmers preparing for the next crop, not fishermen.

Footnote 1: The statistics for all audio shows mentioned were taken from the published show guides.

Footnote 2: T.H.E. Show Newport Beach, which took place after this essay had gone to press, surpassed the Chicago Axpona: there were 312 brands exhibiting in 137 rooms, which made it the largest North American show so far in 2013.

John Atkinson's picture

Responses to this essay from almost all the organizers of the shows mentioned will be posted shortly, in the order in which I received them.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

sommovigo's picture

Hi John!

So - on this subject. I think the growing interest in regional shows is healthy for the industry, but it is a slog for sure. However, no one is obligated to support every single one of them. But it's not all that much when you look at teh schedule for home shows throughout the year in the USA. You've got folks that are trying to hit all these shows with their widgets because that's how they're putting bread on the table. Check out this schedule for just one of the Home Show organizers:

How many Magic Bullet blenders does one have to sell in order to fully monetize every one of these? ;-)

With that in mind we also have to acknowledge that a fair chunk of the market is developing in direct sales, especially when it comes to headphone concerns, and that these regional shows will do more to help promote brand and sell product than more traditional marketing investments might. Nothing beats face-to-face, and these shows are an excellent way to create the kind of social setting that makes it easy and fun to meet the people behind the products - as well as meet the people behind the opinions!

As these shows prolifrate, they will continue to bridge the gap between traditional retail and direct-sale brands, effectively creating a 3-day pop-up storefront for any brand interested in plying their trade directly to the consumer. And while I'd like to see them spaced more evenly throughout the year, I think that regional shows are HiFi's best chance to create relevance among those who might be interested in what it is that we do - but who might not be familiar with it, or might be intimidated by the kinds of prices they see published within any of the myriad HiFi publications from around the world.

Let's face it ... while there are a significant number of people who might think that spending $30,000.00 on a kitchen upgrade is reasonable, there are at least as many who think that spending $3,000.00 on a pair of loudspeakers is outrageous. The enthusiasm that we indulge in may be both specialized and intimidating, however regional shows offer a fairly close look and listen, and might provide the otherwise-intimidated person an opportunity to judge these things on their own merit ... and not just based on a picture and a price in a magazine.

Et Quelle's picture

Too many show is an imposibility. It might be burdensome to the workers but not attendees. To them, there is only 1 show!
But I love electronics, I would love working it too. Im in Nevada, I can see 2 cali shows and the one here which is small
due to CES. People with whatever budget might not go in for a private listening with salesmen 3:1. But thousands: hundreds
is more comfortable. The wife isn't as mad when you buy because it was part of the trip.

jgossman's picture

If at every show you notice it's the same people there, it's just industry showing off and selling to one another.  That's okay, look at the hot rod auto business.  From high end 30's American to high end Italian auto's, if you notice all you do is go to shows, it's industry looking for lots and lots of opportunities to sell to itself.  Because that's the only people with the money to afford what is essentially only marginally better (start the flame war..... NOW) than the mearly great but still affordable high end.  Why do you think there are shows every weekend showing off used and classic Ferrari's and Hot Rods every summer, but only a handful of new car shows showing of the latest midsized car tech from Ford or Honda.

Because even though you the audiophile may hate to admit it, the difference in great and sublime is a PRICE not worth COST.  Because the cost of going from GREAT to SUBLIME isn't worth the PRICE of a very nice house in the midwest.  And the to most people, what we consider mearly great, IS truely sublime.

It's really pretty simple.  Don't overthink it.  Start making better gear, more reliable, and easy to use, then charge a price that doesn't set off bullshit fllters.  You see the "little guy" is simple, not stupid.

Bill Leebens's picture

I understand JA's concerns, and those of the show organizers and exhibitors, as well. Having worked on all sides of Show Biz--with manufacturers, with the media, and as a show organizer-- I think the primary concern of all those involved is cost-effectiveness: simple bang-for-buck, ROI.  Such concern is understandable and warranted, but unfortunately is often reduced to unrealistic expectations of immediate sales, rather than steady, long-term development of the market and customer base.

There is a tendency, during a  down-market, to want to carefully sequester and protect one's own piece of the pie, whether it's miniscule or major. As public awareness of the audio industry has diminished, there has been a tendency for those in the industry to become increasingly guarded and wary of  forces perceived as threats to their share of the remaining market. Those "threats" in the past have included the internet and the iPod; two forces which present huge opportunities for the audio biz, if handled properly.

Similarly, too many shows? Rather than applaud the fact that the industry is experiencing public outreach unlike any seen in the past 30 years, the audio industry focuses on the strain on resources in personnel and capital.

I get it. Times are tough-- but rather than make them tougher with whining and internecine back-biting, can we please celebrate the new opportunities presented to us, and just freaking get ON with it?


DoggyDaddy's picture

To me one simple fact limits the usefulness of shows (and ok, I've only been to 1, as I'm a newbie).  It's that you can't listen to equipment at a show the way you would at home.  There's too much noise, too many people.  For generating brand awareness, fine, as well as networking w/ colleagues/competitors.  But it's no environment for listening musically.  For one thing - and this alone would make shows almost useless for actual auditioning - the equipment is usually played too loud.  There seems to be a sort of macho simplistic attitude: see how loud we are!  No one for whom the gear is a means to a musical end (as opposed to the end of showing off your fancy setup) would buy on the basis of a show demo, IMO.

AJ's picture

I doubt there are many (or any) retailers that have 50-100 rooms with 300+ brands of equipment.

As such, these shows are a unique opportunity for consumers to get to hear (not, read about, channel,  imagine, etc.) a much broader variety of products than one ever would in retail stores. The two are incomparable.

For a manufacturer like myself, it's an opportunity to present my product in what most would consider a tough environment, a hotel room. That tends to seperate the wheat from the chaff of sensible acoustic design (something quite often foreign to the "High End", where "bling" and "street cred" tends to rule).

Win win as I see it....and if it cost me an arm and a leg to exhibit, well, perhaps that's the price to pay in todays market.

DoggyDaddy, what is amazing, is how few people bring their own (reference) music, much less ask for a private audition with it, free from the crowds.



Soundfield Audio (USA)

spyder1's picture

I don't think there are too many audio shows. I believe that the existing audio shows can be schedualed with 1 to 2 months downtime in between shows. I believe the audio shows are a great way to inform the consumer about new and inovative products, and teach the next generation of Audiophiles, that their future looks amazing!

Pro-Audio-Tech's picture

The high end audio dealers / showrooms are becoming a thing of the past, so how is this equipment to be sold? If there weren't all these new shows how would people listen before they buy? I believe we need to support these shows or we will see this hobby become smaller than it already is! Remember smaller hobby = fewer advertisers, (-$).