Mondo Audio: CES Chicago 1995

Public relations types develop incredible methods for being economical with the truth: they employ unbridled chutzpah. They demonstrate a nervelessness, an arrogance and a method of full-frontal attack that leaves the observer breathless. In some cases, they leave us impressed with their sheer boldness.

One master of the craft is so good at it that he can turn the worst reviews into rave quotes, merely by using ellipsis. For instance: one of his products was once damned with a remark along the lines of, “The XXXX is so bad that it’s unbelievable.” When an ad for this product appeared, the pulled quote read, “The XXXX is…unbelievable!”

You get the picture.

And now the Electronics Industries Association’ Consumer Electronics Group, the organizers of the Consumer Electronics Shows, has resorted to bravado to cover up what must be the biggest fiasco in hi-fi show history. Without resorting to my own use of ellipsis, here’s a direct quote from the EIA’s press release issued during the aftermath of the 1995 CES Specialty Audio & Home Theater gathering in June:

“The Electronics Industries Associations’ Consumer Electronics Group launched another successful trade show over the weekend at Chicago’s Palmer House. Manufacturers representing the finest in specialty audio and home theater products gathered here to show off their new product lines to more than 2,833 attendees, including retailers and distributors who came from all over the United States and from 34 countries.”

Let’s analyse this seemingly innocuous yet mildly boastful paragraph. Firstly, the word “successful” can be deemed as relative and/or subjective. Is a show with 2,833 visitors — all trade or otherwise — a success? Forget the suspect grammar of “more than 2,833 attendees”; how can the author of this missive be so precise with the number 2,833, but preface it with “more than”? Whatever, fewer than 3,000 visitors at a CES is sort of like 3,000 people turning up to the Super Bowl, or a Bon Jovi gig in a stadium. Heads would roll.

Success being relative, you — the hi-fi buying public which is precluded from attending the trade-only CES — should know that a normal CES attracts 70,000-plus visitors. And I seem to recall Las Vegas breaking the 100,000 mark on occasion. To put the sub-3000 figure further into perspective, the smallest hi-fi shows in Europe, dealer-sponsored shows in Great Britain and any funeral in Hollywood would be deemed a complete and therefore terminal disaster with attendance of the same low number.

But is it wrong to judge the CES on numbers of attendees? In a sense, yes…if you’re not an exhibitor. For the visitors, it can be a very different story. The press can and should judge a show according to newsworthiness. Journalists need only gather enough new product information to fill their page allocations, and even this catastrophe — with only 119 exhibitors — yielded enough new product to make it worth visiting.

For distributors and retailers attending the show, the success can be measured by how much was accomplished. “Did I see any of the brands I stock and/or import?” is all the trade visitor needs to ask. But that’s not the entire story: retailers and distributors also attend shows to find new lines. And a spread of 119 exhibitors is hardly an overwhelming selection.

So what about the exhibitors? If a brand has 100 dealers in the US and even 20 of them turn up, the exhibitor could argue that the weekend allowed his staff to deal with 20 percent of their accounts in one convenient spot. But it’s doubtful that anyone scored that highly. So divide the cost of exhibiting by the number of people who visited the rooms.

At a guess, the cost of booking a room, paying for transportation and housing for two or more staff (and few exhibitors are based in Chicago), feeding them for three or four days, shipping demonstration equipment and brochures to and from the show, and the rest of the hidden costs must set back even the most modest exhibitor a cool $8-$10,000. If every single alleged attendee visited every room, then it cost the exhibitor around $3.50 a head to reach these people. Not good value when a healthy CES would cost the exhibitor ten cents a head.

One other benefit of attending a show is the press coverage it might produce. While the US audio press core was there in full, I could only count four or five European and Asian scribes, so it’s doubtful that the show will generate as many column inches as would a normal CES.

So what went wrong? Why was the Chicago CES allowed to degenerate into a hint of a show, a facsimile of a show? No, make that a shadow of a show. To understand the problem, you have to ask a number of questions, and you have to understand what’s involved in running a hi-fi exhibition. And the questions range from the cost of printing show guides to dealing with unions to ensuring that the hotel has a decent AC supply. But the bigger questions are: should a hi-fi show be trade-only, public-only or open to both? Where should it take place? When should it be held? Most importantly, who should sponsor and/or organize it?

Unfortunately, the CES — which, quite properly is a trade-only show and which remains for many around the world as THE trade-only show — allowed itself to become embroiled in high-end audio politics/stupidity/game-playing. In a climate where everyone has an opinion and nobody has an answer, you get self-interest groups spoiling everything for the industry at large. What California-based manufacturer wouldn’t prefer to have a CES on the West Coast? What Florida-based manufacturer wouldn’t push for Miami? I’m just pleased that the high-end manufacturers in my native state haven’t had the gall to push for a CES in Portland, Maine.

Entirely independent of CES, the high-end hi-fi show sponsored by Stereophile magazine has established itself as an ideal event for dealing with the kind of hi-fi equipment which the CES has until only recently treated as a necessary evil. Positioned inbetween the January and June CESes, the Stereophile show alternates coasts from year to year and it’s open to the public. The spring event in Los Angeles attracted three times as many visitors as the June show — admittedly non-trade attendees — but Stereophile hasn’t yet established itself as a trade event. Yet it could with the EIA’s co-operation.

But there’s a problem. The EIA makes money from its shows and it doesn’t want to lose any of them or share them, even if the shows have died off because of natural selection. As Chicago did. The corpse they tried to revive in June was supposed to give the high-end its own trade show…a little over a month after Stereophile’s far more successful exhibition. For trade and public.

So why wouldn’t the EIA collaborate with Stereophile? Think “Machiavelli”. Think “paranoia”. Think “unbridled egotism”. One wag told me that certain manufacturers are mightily “pissed off” with the hi-fi press and see no reason to imbue it with more power, so they lobbied for a continued presence in Chicago with EIA sponsorship. And at the mopst recent meeting of the one organization capable of sponsoring a truly independent high-end trade show, the discussions dissolved into excuse-making and buck-passing.

The Academy For the Advancement of High End Audio is the only industry group in the world which exists for promoting the high end. Because its membership is made up of individuals from all parts of the high-end community (but mainly American), it should be the ultimate forum. Alas, far too many companies and individuals have chosen not to join, so they would argue that they’re not represented by AAHEA policy. Be that as it may, AAHEA could easily sponsor a show, open to all high-end manufacturers whether or not any their personnel are AAHEA members. But, no, the semi-official response was that it needs the organizing abilities of a body like the EIA. So many excuses were offered for not doing it and so self-defeating were the attitudes that I thought I must have walked into a gathering of the heads of the Japanese mass-market electronics industry. They couldn’t have created a better form of sabotage if they tried.

Excuses ranged from the monetary to such absurdities as the impossiblity of finding a suitable hotel at such short notice. To which Dan D’Agostino of Krell replied by marching downstairs to the Palmer House lobby, finding the concierge and confirming that 200 rooms could be booked on the spot. The rest of the whingers merely waffled and passed the buck. Why not resort to the inevitable? Why not just have a virtual CES and have everyone attend via modem? You could, as one pundit suggested, send .WAV-files downline so we’d know how the stuff sounded…

So what does the EIA do to flex its atrophying muscles? Stereophile had already announced months earlier that its 1996 show would take place in New York City the following spring; the EIA announces Orlando with dates a couple of weeks later. Yeah, like this is gonna win it lots of friends in the high-end community.

Can you believe that this is the response of an industry which knows that it only needs one general and one high-end show per year? An industry that’s been clamoring for the demise of extraneous shows? What is it with the US hi-fi industry? Do the powers that be not realize what a burden it is to coerce manufacturers into attending so many expensive and needless events? Kafka would be proud.

I’d love to tell you that I came back from CES awash with press releases of major new goodies. But I didn’t. Only a few new non-home theater items captured my attention long enough to burn their images in my retinae. Pioneer launched the PDR-99 recordable CD machine at $2000, halving the cost of CD-R at a stroke. Marantz unveiled the battery-driven SC-5 pre–amp, housed in a non-ferrous aluminium case with a copper-plated die-cast alloy chassis. It sits on top of the BB-5 DC power supply, which converts AC mains into the pure DC stored in high-capacity, internal battery packs.


Snell made good its promise to produce a workable room compensation system, the long-awaited RCS1000 processor utilizing six channels of digital room correction, adjusting for magnitude and phase response, including excess phase. Resolution is said to be better than 4Hz at low frequencies. Price? A coy $17,999. Counterpoint released the DA-12 HDCD® CD player noteworthy for its user-upgradeable DACs through plug-in cards. The choices range from the Analog Devices AD1862 to the UltraAnalog; the HDCD® filter can be installed at any time.

Celestion launched the Kingston loudspeaker, featuring a cabinet fashioned from a dense, acoustically inert polymer called AlphaCrystal. Fitted to the integral, sculpted baffle are a 6.5in Cobex woofer and a 1.25in aluminum dome tweeter. The cabinet was as dead as the show itself. Another unusual enclosure is the radical and ever-evolving Wilson-Benesch A.C.T. One loudspeaker with carbon-fibre cabinet construction. Thiel hosted a press breakfast for the debut of the SCS2 mini-monitor. Like the original SCS, it uses the Thiel-designed coaxial two-way speaker, which incorporates a 6.5in woofer and a 1in tweeter with aluminium diaphragms.

There were other highlights, of course, but the show was too small to host anything groundbreaking. And while it was nice to see friends, nice (if bad in cholesterol terms) to eat the ribs at Miller’s Pub five nights in a row, nice to shop at Rose’s Records and nice to add to my collection of frequent flyer miles, I’ve got to say that I only barely managed to produce 5000 words for my report for Hi-Fi News back in the UK.

Let’s put it another way, for those who prefer to look on the bright side of things: it was the first hi-fi show I’ve ever attended where everyone could take their time and linger.

Even if it was by necessity rather than choice.

(Audio, 1995)