Your Show of Shows

There's something happening here, and what it is is exactly clear. It's a revolution of sorts—a new paradigm for the High End. Despite pessimistic proclamations of the impending death of high-end audio, an unprecedented number of new high-end consumer shows have emerged in North America. Filling the gap left by the demise of Stereophile's Home Entertainment Show in 2007, these seven (!) shows—two new in 2011, two in expanded versions following successful launches in 2010—are reaching out to people of all ages, sexes, and format preferences (footnote 1).

The High End has been crying for these shows for years. With the decline in the numbers of specialty of audio retailers, veterans and newcomers alike find it harder to audition equipment before buying. Sometimes we drive hundreds of miles to hear components we're interested in. The all-important need to compare the sounds of candidates and cross some off our lists before taking the time to audition the finalists at home has gone increasingly unmet.

Equally dismaying, the lack of visibility of high-performance audio has created a ghetto mentality. As seasoned audiophiles continue to read Stereophile, scores of young people surround them, listening to music on their iWhatevers, it's hard not to feel invisible—especially when, for all intents and purposes, you are.

We already know that many music-devouring, vinyl-grooving young people will embrace better sound if only they know about it and are given an opportunity to hear the difference. But those opportunities are severely limited. Short of distributing to big-box stores—a strategy that Bowers & Wilkins has been the latest company to embrace—or local dealerships undertaking large-scale, capital-draining outreach to younger generations, regional audio shows are the answer to audiophiles' prayers for salvation.

The promoters of these shows are fully aware of their importance to the future of the High End. In 2010, dealer Steve Davis decided to follow up on suggestions made by reps and manufacturers, and founded the Audio Expo of North America (Axpona), which held its premiere in Jacksonville, Florida last March. At the end of July 2010, in the Bay Area, Constantine Soo of webzine organized last year's first California Audio Show after manufacturers, importers, and local dealers encouraged him to do so. Most recently, Richard Beers, who runs the outboarding T.H.E. Show in Las Vegas during CES, responded to a plea from Bob Levi of the Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society to found next June's The Home Entertainment (T.H.E.) Show/Newport in southern California. North of the border, the Montreal Salon Son et Image's Michel Plante, with Suave Kajko (Publisher of CANADA HiFi magazine), and Simon Au (owner of Audiyo Inc.), has created the Toronto Audio Video Entertainment Show (TAVES).

Show organizers are spending a lot of money and going to great effort to attract more young people to the fold. Marjorie Baumert and the late Al Stiefel, cofounders of the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF), have for years reached out to college campuses with ads and free passes. Beers plans to rely heavily on social media to contact the younger of southern California's 24.2 million residents. Soo overspent on advertising his first year, but drew a slew of knowledgeable, enthused young people. Plante distributes free tickets to universities, and makes use of websites and media that speak to a younger demographic. "Fifty percent of my outreach is directed toward younger people and women," he says. "I'm even working with an interior designer on a strategy to bring more women in."

Shows for every season . . .
2011 kicks off with two of the tried and true. An expanded T.H.E. Show/Las Vegas, scheduled for January 6–9 in the Flamingo Hotel, two blocks from the Consumer Electronics Show's high-performance exhibits in the Venetian, is open to members of audio societies as well as the industry. Spring ushers in Canada's Salon Son et Image (SSI). Scheduled for April 1–3 (March 31 is trade only) in the Hilton Bonaventure Montréal, SSI is the first of the year's shows sponsored by Stereophile.

Then come the newbies. Now in the beautiful, fully equipped Sheraton Atlanta, Axpona, cosponsored by Stereophile and Goldmine magazines, takes place April 14–16. Then there's T.H.E. Show/Newport, scheduled for June 3–5 in the Hilton Irvine, adjacent to Orange County's John Wayne Airport, with Stereophile among the sponsors.

The California Audio Show takes place July 15–17 in Burlingame, south of San Francisco, sponsored by It's followed by the premiere of TAVES—cosponsored by Stereophile, Home Theater, and Canada HiFi magazines—in Toronto's King Edward Le Meridien, September 30–October 2. Finally comes the biggest consumer-audio show in the US that's open to the public, the RMAF, October 15–17 in the Denver Marriott Tech Center, mounted in partnership with the Colorado Audio Society.

. . . and every audiophile
Both Canadian shows are in reasonable proximity to New York, Chicago, and the northeastern US. The two California shows draw from participants in the seventh-largest economy in the world, and beckon folks from surrounding states as well as Asia.

The RMAF, in Colorado, addresses everyone west of the Mississippi, and by incorporating Jude Mansilla's CanJam, it draws headphone enthusiasts nationwide. Axpona, in Atlanta, Georgia, the nation's seventh-largest city, serves folks on the East Coast and in the South, and its special Goldmine Showcase promises to draw into the audiophile fold large numbers of collectors of vinyl and digital audio, music collectibles, and memorabilia.

Challenges and opportunities
Setting up a demo system overnight in a hotel room is, of course, fraught with peril. Faced with multiple challenges to the achievement of good sound, as well as system- and participant-induced noise from within and without the room, attendees are adopting a new approach to listening and evaluation that includes relegating conversation to the hallways. For excellent advice on how to get the most out of attending an audio show, see my RMAF report and the reader comments.

If you want to hear the best the High End offers, attending an audio show is the way to go. Traffic is usually lightest on a show's final day, so plan to stick around.—Jason Victor Serinus

Footnote 1: We inadvertently omitted three other shows from the print version of this piece. The second Capital Audiofest is scheduled for July 8–10, 2011. The Lone Star Audio Fest ("the Woodstock of high-end audio shows") takes place May 11–13 in Dallas, Texas. And while we don't yet know if the Michigan-based AKFest is confirmed for 2011, we believe that it might be taking place the weekend of April 30–May 1.—John Atkinson