Quibbles and Bits

Hi-Fi Shows

I was tasked by Editor Leebs to cover my local high-end audio show, whose formal name is “Salon Audio Montréal Audio Fest”, a name only a mother could love.  The show has just ended, and you’ll find my take on it elsewhere in this issue.  But in the meantime, the task of writing that report has prompted me to contemplate my long and varied history with audio shows.

Like most readers of Copper, that history began as an ordinary man-in-the-street consumer.  OK, so some of you are women-in-the-street, while today’s sensibilities require that we also recognize LGBTQs-in-the-street.  FWIW, all were in evidence at this year’s “Salon Audio Montréal Audio Fest”, which wouldn’t normally merit a mention except to observe that it wouldn’t have been the case not so many years ago, when the audience would have been something like 90% old men and 9% less-old men.  Meanwhile, as a less-welcome sign of progress, I find myself having transitioned inexorably from the less-old group to the plain-old group.

More recently, I have been attending this and other shows as an exhibitor, either in our own BitPerfect room, or helping out in another manufacturer’s or dealer’s room.  Now, finally, I find myself pen-in-hand, with a photographer in tow (my son), missing only a natty fedora with a press card stuck jauntily in the hat band.  And at the end of it all, the thought struck home quite forcefully that one’s approach to an audio show is significantly different, depending on which hat you’re wearing.  I had expected that attending the show as a reporter would be no different from attending as a consumer … I’d just have to write it up afterwards.  But it’s not so simple, and it seemed to me that my thoughts on that warranted a Copper column all of its own.

With my Joe Consumer hat on, prowling the show used to be quite easy.  If you liked the sound in a particular room, you’d stay awhile, and just enjoy the music.  Maybe you’d ask the room’s host to play something more to your taste.  And if you didn’t like the sound … well, you’d just mosey on over to the next room.

But now, all of a sudden, I find that I’m Clark Kent, the earnest young cub reporter, and, much to my disappointment, we no longer have phone booths in 2018 from which to emerge and heroically fix a crappy sound.  Did you ever notice that Clark Kent never actually wrote any normal everyday man-bites-dog stories?  No, whenever he needed to make like a journalist he’d just pop into a phone booth, and all of a sudden Superman shows up and saves the planet with yet another hold-the-front-page tale of derring-do.  But this isn’t happening for me.  I’m in a room where a seriously expensive system is delivering a sound that just isn’t getting my mojo going.  I’m supposed to write about it, and I’m not sure what to do.  Maybe I’ll just mosey on along.  Where’s that dratted phone box when you really need it?

Let’s talk a bit about the music.  Back in my good old Joe Consumer days I don’t suppose I ever gave a thought about what music was being played.  Mostly it all sounded so much better than my own system that I was happy just to sit back and listen, and fantasize about winning the lottery.  Back in the day, if you were really keen you would bring your own plastic bag of LPs, or ones you just bought at the show and were dying to hear.  As LP gave way to CD, you would bring your own bag of CDs.  And since you could fit a lot more CDs in a bag than LPs, people would turn up to an audio show lugging half their entire music collections with them.  Bottom line is, if you didn’t like what was playing you could ask them to play something more to your taste.  And mostly they would oblige.

Then, in 2012, CD players vanished from audio shows as though they’d been outed as Bill Cosby fans. Every room was powered by a computer audio source.  And if you were smart, and sufficiently au courant, you could bring your tracks of choice on a USB memory stick.  So you still didn’t care much what was being played.  And last year we went so far as to bring a Mac Laptop containing a substantial music library, our own software to play it, and an audiophile-grade USB cable to connect it straight to the system’s DAC!  One way or another, we had the option to audition equipment using our own music.

This year’s Montreal Audio Fest surprised the hell out of me.  Just about everybody was using a turntable as their audio source of choice.  It’s like when the gas station at the corner of the street puts their price up.  Before you know what’s hit you, every gas station within 20 miles has put their own price up.  That’s what apparently happened here.  A stone tablet fell from a mountaintop someplace, bearing the commandment thou shalt source thine demo with a turntable.  And so it was.  High-end – even ultra-high-end – turntables were absolutely everywhere.  Consequently, since nobody has come to an audio show with a bag full of LPs in over 30 years, it became all but impossible to get your own music played.  A few hopefuls could be seen toting CDs or memory sticks, and in most rooms they’d be mostly out of luck.  But even so, if the show’s apparent overriding message, that a vinyl resurgence is the happening thing, how come nobody had brought more than a milk-crate’s worth of LPs as their source material for the entire show?

So, for the duration of the show, we were treated to girl-with-guitar music and intimate, small-combo, jazz, all on vinyl.  It was a perfect storm.  There I was, having to listen carefully to everything I heard with a view to presenting an informed critique.  But the music being played just didn’t allow me to get a decent handle on the overall capabilities of the systems.  And there wasn’t much in the way of options to hear different selections of music.  Hearing nothing but audiophile-approved dross in room after room, with very little in the way of respite, is rather soul-destroying, regardless of how good the equipment is.

The problem is really quite a simple one.  Manufacturers want to demonstrate their systems in the best possible light.  A warts-and-all approach doesn’t interest them.  They want you to hear the things their products do well, and not the things they don’t.  And frankly, bottom line, it’s hard to fuck up Shelby Lynne.  So you’re going to hear your fill of Shelby Lynne (a term I use in a generic sense to cover the whole “audiophile voices” repertoire), all day long.  But who can blame them?  I imagine if there was a school for selling audio equipment, that would be lesson one on day one.  There were photocopies of the classic Charles Rodrigues cartoons, familiar to Copper readers, taped to the walls up and down the hallways, and I’m sure one of them somewhere must have lampooned this very issue. [Checking…and unlike those content-thieves, we pay for the right to reprint them!—Ed.]

I believe in a different philosophy.  Whenever BitPerfect exhibits at a trade show we have a diametrically different approach.  We want people to hear what the music they normally listen to sounds like.  I don’t want them listening only to what I want them to hear.  So I play both good recordings and bad recordings.  But always recordings that someone in the room – even if that someone is only me – likes to play for their own listening pleasure.  We are a digital audio company, so all of our music lives on a NAS, and it is relatively trivial to bring the NAS to the show and use it to power the system.  I have about 40,000 tracks on it, and so there is a pretty good chance there’s something in there for everyone.  My goal – one I sadly cannot come close to fulfilling – is always to try to ask every person who comes into the room “what can I play for you?” and whatever that is, I’ll do my darnedest to play it.

For example, I have 10,000 Days by Tool.  Why?  Because somebody went to the trouble of bringing it to the show because he wanted to hear it played on a $50,000 system.  It took 3 minutes to rip it to my NAS so we could play his track of choice.  It’s still there, although I don’t believe I’ve played it since.  I think that kid was happy, even if the room cleared pretty quickly.  Then, later, we had quite a crowd who sat through Leonard Bernstein’s legendary 1959 recording of The Rite Of Spring (we just played Part II).  It may not be the world’s finest recording, but it is arguably one of the world’s finest recorded performances, and our amazing system had the audience transfixed for a short while.  Then there was the time I played a track of Bowser and Blue, a politically incorrect Anglophone comedy act from Quebec, to a staunchly francophone audience, threatening to provoke a re-enactment of the Richard Riot (Google it), but in the end most of them stayed and listened.  And laughed along.  It sounds like it was recorded on a Walkman.  And at the end of the day, here in Montreal if you want to fill your room to the rafters, all you have to do is play Crime Of The Century.  Loud.  Works without fail, every time.  Yet nobody seemed to have it in their milk-crate of LPs.

So the talking point is this.  What is your objective, as an exhibitor, having paid out upwards of $2,000 for the privilege of exhibiting at a high-end audio show?  Do you want to play the role of the cynical salesman (I use the term salesman pointedly, since saleswomen are seldom cynical), and only let your audience hear what you want them to hear?  Or do you want to work with audience, find out what it is they want from a system, and show them how well your product can deliver that?  Put me in the latter camp.

And then you need to add the reporter to the mix.  The reporter will sit down as you cue up your own implementation of the Shelby Lynne playlist, and you’ll know that, deep inside, another part of him just died.  Even if your system really is well and truly awesome.