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According to the computer I'm typing this on, it is 11.03am. This is grossly at odds with the time bits of my nervous system are absolutely convinced it is the small hours of the morning. I'm back from CES 2017 and in many senses of the word, I have a Vegas hangover.
CES should be a celebration. It's still the largest gathering of manufacturers of audio and related industries anywhere on the planet as part of an even larger gathering of companies that make pretty much everything that has a plug attached to it. Neither was the tone of the event in any way depressing. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, CES was in a bullish mood with an air of confidence that I'm told has been lacking in recent years. Companies seemed assured enough to release some serious products too. If you happen to be sitting on a huge pile of cash currently doing nothing at the moment, the industry has some minor works of art at your disposal.
As an industry, we're even making slow but reasonable progress toward the radical notion that women might also be customers rather than a sort of organic point of sale. The section of CES devoted to hifi at the Venetian Hotel was free of promo girls or the sort of posters that bring to mind a hair metal album cover and make my teeth itch. I'm not going to pretend for a second that we don't still have a way to travel but compared to many other sections of the show, hifi looked pretty good.
Why then have I returned from Las Vegas feeling somewhat unfulfilled? Part of it is the place itself. I've found the self-styled capital of fun to be a very different vision of pleasure to my own and there's something about the enforced gaiety of the place- the same sort of determination that New Year’s Eve be wild or Valentine's Day automatically romantic—that gets to you after a while. Nor does this seem to be a view held only by myself. I maintain it would be possible to stroll across the vast gaming floor of the Venetian handing out ten dollar bills to every patron that actually looked like they were enjoying themselves and still have change from a hundred at the end of it.
More realistically, these feelings stem from the increasing sense of resignation that the wider industry is still at a loss as to how to benefit from the swathes of people who have become interested in hifi—either from a nascent interest in vinyl or from taking a greater interest in the playback of digital material or indeed, both. There doesn't seem to be any movement on the process of talking to these people about the high end. In their place, new companies are showing how this should be done.
This means that CES feels like a car show with only the concept cars and flagships present. The bridge between the equipment you might assemble for your first serious system and the bulk of the equipment on display is hopelessly and uselessly vast. I have touched on this disconnect before but it has rarely felt as pronounced as it does here. It is perfectly possible to argue that with space at a premium and exhibiting costs as high as they are that manufacturers will only bring their most deluxe equipment but doing so provides no sense of what anyone starting out with their equipment ought to be doing.
This leaves me exasperated because I have a foot in both camps. I am fortunate that my occupation grants me access to equipment that my bank balance would otherwise allow me nowhere near while at the same time, I am repeatedly asked to consider more sanely priced solutions both professionally and by friends and acquaintances. I walked the halls of the Venetian as someone able to describe a $12,000 speaker as "good value" with a straight face (because in light of its abilities, you can spend much more and to no benefit) but at the same time, I was painfully aware that confronted with the telephone number style pricing of the equipment on display, most sane individuals would have retreated to the gaming floor to order a $9 beer and consider the vivid horror of a Big Bang Theory slot machine.
Now, it is only fair to point out that CES is trade only. Many exhibitors would argue it isn't the role of this particular show to be completely representative of what companies produce. This seems to ignore that the products at the show are reported on across the world and will leave a lasting impression with readers about what that company is about. And what it seems to be about currently is taking an ever-declining circle of customers ever-higher up the ladder while watching the lower rungs rot out. The moment that a dealer listening to a piece of equipment I was attempting to take some pictures of referred to customers as 'civilians' as if the sale of high end audio equipment was some sort of all-out war, I realised there were unlikely to be any truly epoch-making insights into the future of stereo here.
I had desperately wanted to return from this show with a positive message—if nothing else to offer a counterpoint to Tyler's dismal experiences at a different show last year but while I don't consider it a complete disaster because I picked through the whole thing and found things to be optimistic about, I'm not sure I can muster a huge amount of enthusiasm for the wider event. CES was a group of people who having survived the near extinction of their industry seem hell bent on ignoring the people who might just stave off disaster again.
What makes this doubly frustrating is that in Europe, there are signs that the message is sinking in. The High End Show, held in Munich every May, is (despite the name) rapidly becoming an event that covers audio at pretty much every price point going and welcomes serious numbers of people—both trade and public—through its doors. In the upper rooms, you will find temples of audio as ornate, if not more so, than anything that CES had to offer but you can stroll downstairs to the open plan area and see what the same manufacturers are offering for people unwilling to sell organs to fund an audio habit. I'm going this year and I hope to report back with good news.
In the meantime, I leave CES and Vegas feeling much the same way about the event and its host. Both are world famous, both can involve truly incredible sums of money and when ultimately pressed, both fail to produce a huge amount in the way of substance behind the veneer of consumption and excess. Right now, I can't help but feel that audio could do with leaving the desert and finding pastures new.
Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.
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