Blog No. 10: CES 2016 After the Fact

While CES reports always burst with new hardware, they only indicate productivity. What they do not convey is the mood of the event, nor how it is a litmus test of the health of the hi-fi industry. Some reporters will tell you how grand it was, whether because of optimism, stupidity or some other agenda. CES 2016, for the high end, was a catastrophe.

This are my observations about what is still the most important high-end hi-fi show on the planet. I was there, I have no axe to grind. I paid my own way. I have no affiliation with another show. I owe nothing to anyone. What follows are personal opinions, tempered by remarks from exhibitors who prefer to remain nameless.

Seasoned audiophiles know that CES 1) is trade-only, 2) has been around for a half-century, 3) covers everything electronic from aerials to credit card security wallets, 4) takes place in Las Vegas and 4) has long treated high-end audio abominably. But that may be the high-end’s fault, because it is the least professional segment of the entire industry. And, no, I am not comparing the capabilities of small independents to wealthy multi-nationals: professionalism is a state of mind as much as it is a product of one’s promotional budget.

For too long, ‘specialty audio’, as CES calls it, has been the outsider, the insane uncle to be hidden away. After too many years in an unsuitable motel called the Alexis Park, it moved to the Venetian Casino Hotel.

Although regarded as one of the more luxurious casinos on the Strip, its rooms are oppressively grim due to its faux ‘baroqueness’, decorated in the manner of a <fin de siècle> bordello. For the most part, they do not facilitate great sound. Unless an exhibitor can afford a suite, it will suffer a bedroom with split levels that also make matters less conducive for traffic flow. Still, compared to Alexis Park, it’s heaven.

Why should this matter to you? Simple: As the flagship event in the calendar, CES’ fortunes are indicative of the health of the high-end audio industry as a whole. It is clear that, merely by reading <Hi-Fi News>, you are passionate about audio, so you ought to be concerned about the state of the high-end, even if you have no intention of buying any components in the near future.

If everything that happens is the result of a ‘perfect storm’, that neat shorthand for a confluence of disparate events, then the rapid decline of the high-end’s presence at the Venetian must be the combination of: the demise of hi-fi as a must-own commodity replaced by tablets, smartphones, etc; the drop in the number of retailers; the global economic downturn; yes – the decrease in the size of the small brands’ promotional budgets; and the stellar ascent of Munich’s High End Show.

How sad (yet telling) it is that neither the US nor the UK – the two countries responsible for the creation of the high-end as well as the manufacture of more high-end hardware than <any> others – can field a show to equal it. Before anyone suggests I have an issue with Germany circa the 21st Century, aside from its leader’s ludicrous open-door policy, note that I attend the Munich show every year. I find the people who run it to be, by any measure, among the most professional in the business and it makes a mockery of every other hi-fi show on the planet.

Along with ‘perfect storm’, another term in current usage is a codicil to said storm: ‘unintended consequences’. While I do not suspect for a moment that Germany’s High End Society ever hoped, nor expected that its open-to-the-public show could be anything more than the best in Europe, it has turned into a serious threat to CES as far as high-end audio is concerned. It is a true David-vs-Goliath situation (and, yes, I am aware of the irony of likening Germans to a Hebrew king).

Irrespective of the public attendance figures, the Munich show is now so effective for the trade that numerous manufacturers and distributors now shun CES in preference to it. It’s easy to see why: the Teutonic fest is <only> about audio and a bit of A/V, it takes place at a more convenient time than the week after New Year’s Day, too many people hate Vegas (not me – I love it), and it feels as if hi-fi matters.

At this point, I don’t know if Munich will be even bigger than in 2015, but it has grown annually at rates one can only envy. I do know that many key figures in Europe no longer attend CES (including suppliers of US products) because CES is, despite its internationalism, primarily a US show. The big difference is that the Munich show feels less European and more global every year.

It would be a pity if the high-end at CES contracted further. But, without sparing the hi-fi brands any of the blame, more than one manufacturer wonders why CES has such scant regard for a sector of the industry that was crucial to its founding.

© Ken Kessler 2016