In the Land of the Surreal, Is Realism Relevant?

Written by Bill Leebens

I despise dogma—especially when it comes from me. So when I find that pretty much everything I say regarding CES has become strident and predictable—it worries me. Enough so that I may have to say, “I was wrong”.

I can’t say I despise doing that as much as I despise dogma, but it does require a concerted push to get that statement out.

Let’s review: Back at the dawn of tech-time, 1967, the first Consumer Electronics Show was held in two New York City hotels, to the tune of around 100 exhibitors and 17,500 attendees. Home entertainment products—which at that point in time meant stereo equipment and TVs— were the focus, with a strong presence of Japanese manufacturers. By the next year the show had expanded to three hotels, and showed such marvels as a wrist communicator (calling Dick Tracy!) and a portable phone ($2000, 19 pounds, FCC license needed).

In 1971, the show moved to Chicago—and by the late ’70s, it had expanded to a summer show (SCES) in Chicago and a winter show (WCES) in Las Vegas. By 1995, the Chicago shows had waned in popularity, and a traveling summer show was tried, with feeble results. In 1998, the winter show in Las Vegas became the sole CES, and so it remains today.

During  the last decade, the scope of the show broadened remarkably, resulting in changes to the fine print: the official name of the show was changed to “CES”, which now meant absolutely nothing, but was the first step in expanding the show beyond just electronics. Meaningless or no, “CES” was by then  widely recognized as “that thing in Vegas with the cool stuff”. More recently, the organizing body changed its name from CEA (the Consumer Electronics Association) to CTA (the Consumer Technology Association), allowing a massive influx of automotive manufacturers, drones, and pretty much anything technological sold to consumers—or which might be, someday.

So what about hi-fi and CES? As stated, it was a core element of the show in the beginning. By the time I attended my first CES in Chicago, 1989, it was still a big part of the show—but there was more and more square footage devoted to computers, video games, VCRs, even a big hall devoted to car stereo demos. The introduction of the DVD in 1995 prompted an even greater focus on big-screen TVs, and audio became more and more an add-on, as an element of home theater systems…rather than a thing unto itself.

In 2007, CES audio and home theater exhibits were moved from the resort-like Alexis Park to the upper floors of the Venetian hotel—the “attic” where remaining audio exhibitors still reside. Many thought the move was to discourage parallel attendance at THE Show, the less-expensive unsanctioned home entertainment show held nearby at the St. Tropez hotel, concurrent with  CES.

CEA clearly disliked THE Show; in a conversation with me way back then, an association official once referred to THE as “parasitic bloodsuckers”.

By 2010, the Venetian exhibits still covered the 29th and 30th floor, with pieces of 31 and a handful of big suites on 34 and 35. Adding in the 60+ rooms at THE,  the were over 300 rooms to cover.  As the number of exhibitors declined at both shows, THE organizer Richard Beers sought greener pastures in California, and the first Newport show was held in 2010. After a couple years, Beers killed THE Show-Las Vegas altogether to focus on the booming Newport show.

Without the “parasitic bloodsuckers” siphoning off exhibitors, did the audio exhibits at CES flourish?  Nope. The nadir was seemingly reached last year, when audio exhibitors on 29 and 30 were interspersed with non-audio exhibitors like AARP and Simmons mattress.

No, they wouldn’t let you take a nap—I checked.

Long story short: unbelievably, inexplicably, this year was…better.

Exhibitors were all contained on 29, save for two up in the rarefied air of 35, literally the high roller suites. Those 29ers were busy, and all those I spoke with, were —unbelievably, inexplicably: happy.


At this point, I detach from all expectations, all pissy comments. If it works for someone, more power to them.

It ain’t the show I loved 30 years ago. But then: what has gone unchanged, unaffected over the last 30 years?

Judging by my thinning gray hair and gimpy knees—nothing.

So…more power to ya. Maybe I’ll see you next year.

Stranger things have happened.


Kathleen Thomas of ELAC at CES. No relevance, but she always makes me smile. Mea culpa.

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