What If They Gave a CES and Nobody Came?

Last January, in Las Vegas, a record 170,000 people attended the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show. Most of them neither saw nor heard a trace of high-end audio gear. Not only was all mention of what CES calls "high performance audio" absent from the show's official Attendee Guide, but the hallways of the Venetian Tower, which in past CESes were filled with high-end manufacturers, dealers, and distributors, were anything but crowded.

Given the steady decline, in recent years, in CES attendance by high-end audio distributors and dealers, many observers were not surprised by the decreased traffic in rooms, or by seeing fewer familiar faces, or by the relatively short waits for elevators. But even after learning that one well-known high-end company, Parasound, had chosen not to exhibit, and that another, PS Audio, had opted for closed meetings rather than an open demo room, I was unprepared for the shock of discovering numerous well-known high-end companies MIA. Even more astounding: The rooms those companies might have occupied were now filled by a host of technology companies with no relationship to high-end audio.

Equally shocking were the huge increases in the prices of almost everything. My Uber driver, who collected from me a disgusting 5.2x "surgecharge," told me that hotel rooms that had cost $100 the week before were going for $500 during CES. Virtually every industry person with whom I spoke in Las Vegas complained of how the greed was out of control. To quote Carolyn Counnas of Zesto Audio—who, with her husband, George, also chose not to exhibit this year—"I hate being criminally ripped off."

"Exhibiting in CES might have at one time been a reasonable economic proposition for many, but it is no longer," Parasound President Richard Schram wrote in a post-show e-mail. "The money we would spend on CES can be spent far more effectively in other ways . . . In my opinion high-end audio doesn't belong in CES because we can't ever receive the attention, signage, etc. that are appropriate. Most of our companies are small and the least capable of affording inflated hotel prices, and our customers [are] ill-inclined to deal with long taxi lines and crowded restaurants."

Instead of spending over $25,000 to mount a major exhibit, Schram flew to Las Vegas unaccompanied, and met with clients in the Venetian's Grand Lux Cafe. "Preparations for exhibiting at CES formerly diverted my entire staff's attention, and our business was always weaker before and during the show," he reported. "But this year, we did more business in the first week of January than in the first three weeks of any previous January. In my meetings, I received only praise for my decision not to exhibit, and envy from colleagues and friends who will not exhibit in CES 2017."

Again and again, exhibitors cited US visa restrictions as a major impediment to attendance by their Asian distributors and dealers. Folks from Indonesia, it seems, were especially hard hit.

Of the close to 20 industry veterans with whom I discussed the future of CES in my four days at the show, only two said that CES remains their most important US venue for meetings between manufacturers, dealers, and distributors. Instead, many noted that the three major US consumer shows—AXPONA, the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, and T.H.E. Show Newport Beach/Irvine—have supplanted CES as gatherings where they can conduct business in relatively friendly environments.

Virtually everyone also mentioned High End, held each May in Munich and promoted as a consumer destination throughout that city and beyond. Those people told me that, from a business standpoint, it's the most productive show of all. In fact, by the last day of CES 2016, it had become clear that many wandering the hallways, like ghosts from the recent past, had set their sights on High End and the US consumer shows as viable alternatives to CES.

Joe Reynolds of Nordost, one of many who noted that a lot of his company's US dealers had skipped CES this year, called a spade a spade while pointing the way forward: "We are not served by the CTA [the Consumer Technology Association, formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Association and the owner of CES] and never have been," he said. "We should have a North American High End Society that puts on a show comparable to what the industry-run Munich High End organization does in Munich."

Reynolds's idea has already had a trial run in North America. After the Chester Group canceled the 2016 installment of Montreal's once-vital Salon Son et Image—which they had bought, in 2013, from Michel Plante and Sarah Tremblay—SSI's former owners stepped into the gap. The couple quickly formed a new, industry-run, not-for-profit organization, Montreal Salon Audio, and resurrected the show under the new name. Their show, which offered free admission, was so successful that MSA immediately booked Montreal's Hotel Bonaventure for a return engagement during the last weekend of March 2017. According to Plante and Tremblay, what's most significant is that MSA is "a show for the industry, owned by the industry, and organized by the industry." Members of the industry-run board and of the new show's various committees will be announced this summer.

If people in the US high-end audio industry were to form an education-oriented, not-for-profit organization to mount one or more annual, industry-sponsored shows, they could do so at considerably lower cost to exhibitors than is presently possible at the Consumer Electronics Show. The money saved could be used to reach out to new constituencies and create a consumer-friendly destination event that, in time, could become eagerly anticipated and well attended. Out of the ashes of the high-performance audio segment of CES might arise a new show that serves consumers and industry alike.—Jason Victor Serinus


bornie's picture

many years ago b/c of the high price of everything, the frustration of waiting for cabs and jammed restaurants. I much prefer, RMAF, Axpona and The Show. Much more relaxed and attendee friendly!

dalethorn's picture

I liked Vegas in the 80's when we went to Comdex - not so crowded, got hotel rooms for $60/night or less, it was November and cool, we ate sandwiches in the day, a small meal in the evening, a $2 breakfast after midnight in certain hotel casinos, drank some. The strip was casinos then, very little accomodation for kids. Downtown was not real "safe" like the Strip, but it was lit up like the 4th of July, and fun to hang out there.

christophervalle's picture

Whatever happened to that? I see Google results from mid-90s to 2004, then nothing. Did it die with Harry Pearson?

John Atkinson's picture
christophervalle wrote:
Whatever happened to that?

It shut up shop in 2004. See www.stereophile.com/asweseeit/1198awsi/index.html.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Bill Leebens's picture

And several subsequent attempts to form industry associations have come and gone. I was involved in them all, and even I can't remember all their names!

Audio_Visionary's picture

The failings of the high end exhibitors at CES are not due to the people who pay the bills - the high end manufacturers and distributors, but to CES itself. First they pick almost the worst week of the year to hold the event - they get excellent rates from the Convention Center but they do not pass these low rates on to the actual exhibitors who have to pay the outrageous fees. Then they never think of looking to see when NAMM is being held - I could attend both events but CES is too early in January and there is too much time between the two trade events - sometimes as much as 2.5 weeks. Once again, the rich get richer in the US and the rest of us just pay the bills. Retailers have just gone through the busiest time of the year - Nov/Dec and if the event was in late January we could also add a few vacation days to the trip - and get a short break. Won't be there next year - I think there are options - Bristol, Munich, Warsaw, Milano, - if Drumpf is pres, there will be many cancellations.

audiocaptain's picture

I believe there is a misconception about some shows. Munich is a very popular show and also the most expensive, by far, of any mentioned in this article. €20,000 for exhibit space is the norm for that event so it should be clear that it takes significant revenue to promote a show properly. AXPONA has a serious and dedicated staff and a long term vision to offer just what's been suggested in this article.

jimtavegia's picture

Really, a 5.2X surcharge for Uber? That said it all about too many trade shows. I have attended your dealer shows which are excellent and great way to meet and greet as are the more active Audio Clubs like the one here in Atlanta that held the headphone gig.

It is very hard to be a high end manufacturer these days and get the word out about your product, let alone a chance for a customer to hear it. For most of us the great brick and mortar stores are often too far away to go to frequently. I am glad to see many manufacturers taking a stand against the crazy money it takes to attend these shows and find other ways to market their products.

findcount's picture

there's been no audio show here in Singapore for 5-6 years at least.......hardly any retailer can afford to waste their money on exhibiting.......now just waiting for the final demise of the audio industry over here......LOL

mrvco's picture

I attended CES this year for the first time and it was the most bloated and listless trade show that I've attended since the latter days of COMDEX.

I'd suggest starting RMAF on Wednesday and designating Wednesday and Thursday as "industry only" days, with the standard Friday, Saturday and Sunday remaining open to the public.

hifijohn's picture

high end audio is its own worst enemy,$20k this, $10k that, do we really need another 20w $20k tube amplifier???Imagine if the auto industry was run this way, all cars would be very expensive high end automobiles manufactured by a 100 very small auto companies selling a few 100 cars a year. you have no choice pay $150 for car with little trunk space and 8mpg fuel economy or learn to ride the bus!!! how long do you think the auto industry would last ?????My last high end audio show was in the mid 90's and it was already dying back then, personally im surprised it has lasted as long as it has.

garyyac's picture

I find it odd when I hear my colleagues in the audio world complaining about CES. We are an audio manufacturer who exhibits in the Venetian Towers and I think it is an awesome investment. I'd do it just for the press we get alone, but our schedule is filled with domestic and international dealer meetings as well. Several of our most important partnerships began with a conversation at CES.

I also think the resentment of the other tech that is represented at CES (drones, wearables, etc.) is a bit silly. Must all of us who love audio take pride in our irrelevance to the rest of the tech world? As for me, I'd like to see us fight the good fight for relevance to the technology world at large and CES is a great place to do that.