The Audio Cynic

    I am So Over CES

    Issue 1

    I remember the first time I was called a cynic. At least I think I do; past the 40-year mark, it's hard to separate self-delusion from reality.

    Anyway, it was 1968 or '69. I was in 8th grade at Lincoln Junior High, Carbondale, Illinois. During a Student Council meeting, I rolled my eyes and made a disparaging comment about a particularly egregious proposal before the Council. Given the general meaninglessness of all we did, it must've been a real stinker.

    Mrs. Dillard---the always-upbeat advisor who also coached cheerleaders--- got a look on her face like a storm cloud, and spat out, "BILL LEEBENS---you're SUCH a CYNIC!!"

    Ever-defensive, I shot back, "I AM NOT!!"

    Really, is there any better place for a cynic than in the audiophile world? Introspective, antisocial misanthropes angst endlessly online over picayune distinctions between various versions of mediocre music. I'm NOT one of those guys—but, boy, can I MOCK them....

    And yet: God help me, the dysfunctional family of music-lovers and audio geeks are my people. Like my own family, they may make me want to commit violent acts, they may drive me to drink, but by GOD, nobody from the outside better give them crap. Then I get angry. And you wouldn't like me when I'm angry.

    Which brings me to CES.

    I first attended CES in Chicago, the summer of 1989. I was a UPS driver with a side-business in audio, so imagine what it was like for one whose contacts in that world had mostly been by long-distance or as a pen-pal, to enter a hotel full of the cranky and irreverent geniuses of the high-end audio world. To use a creepy contemporary parallel, imagine a lonely sci-fi geek from the middle of nowhere, stumbling into Comic-Con.

    Not to sound too fanboy, but that's what my first CES was like. David Manley, Bud Fried, Matthew Polk (thanks for that fabulous lunch!), and many more of the glitterati, all wisecracking, all smoking; it was the '80's, after all. After years of isolation, I felt I'd come home.
    In the decades since, I've eagerly anticipated CES...but not any more.

    Why? That requires some explanation. Back at that summer CES in Chicago, the "Specialty Audio" exhibitors, as they were then called, were all in one hotel. Exhibitors came from other areas to take notes and steal ideas---not to mock, or to gape in horror at stratospheric price tags. CES was the place where audio brands broke out, where new products were launched. It was not just significant, it was vital.

    In the years since then, all that has changed, and not for the better. Let's look at the number of High Performance Audio (in CES-speak) exhibitors. Going back a few years to when such exhibits moved from the casino-free Alexis Park to the top floors of the Venetian hotel (and casino) in 2007, the outrider THE Show was adjacent to the Alexis, and both shows could easily be covered by press.

    At that point, floors 29-31 of the Venetian were nearly filled with purely audio exhibits, and additional exhibits were in ground-floor ballrooms and in large suites on 34 and 35.

    The Venetian tower is configured like a Mercedes star, with three wings to each floor. Floors 29-31 each had about 90 exhibit rooms, with 15-20 on each of 34 and 35, and perhaps another dozen down below. Add in the 40-80 rooms at THE, and you get around 350-400 exhibit rooms.

    It's been downhill from there. CEA---which, in my hearing referred to THE Show and other off-site exhibitors as "parasitic bloodsuckers" --- may have moved the HPA exhibits in order to discourage exhibits at THE, which ended up even farther away at the Flamingo.

    Where are we now? Back in 2013, I worked in an exhibit room on the Venetian's 29th floor. Allied with a number of other exhibitors, we tried to track the volume and type of traffic through our rooms. At the end of the show, we concluded that about 2,500 people had walked through the audio exhibits. That's less than one can expect at any reasonable regional show in the US, these days. And Munich is a whole 'nother story.

    That was admittedly, a SWAG--- a scientific, wild-ass guess. But even more significant than the number of visitors was the type of visitor. In past years, most visitors wore badges labeled BUYER, DISTRIBUTOR or RETAILER. What we saw in 2013, and which has only worsened since, was that an overwhelming percentage of our visitors wore EXHIBITOR badges. They appeared to mostly be guys (and yes, 99% were male) working at booths over at the main convention center for Intel, HP, or other megacompanies, and had come through our domain for amusement. While it's nice to have pros in other fields aware of our work---unlike the Good Old Days, they didn't seem to be there to steal ideas. They were simply there as a hoot.

    Let's also look at the number of High Performance Audio exhibitors at the 2016 CES. Remember, less than a decade ago there were 300 exhibitors, filling up floors 29-31, with more on 34 and 35, and a dozen downstairs in ballrooms. This year, floor 31 was completely given over to tech-y, non-audio exhibitors, mostly software providers. Floors 29 and 30 had significant holes and non-audio OEMs; there were 136 audio rooms on those two floors. 34 and 35 had a total of 18 audio rooms. Downstairs? Aside from B&O, maybe a handful. Let's say 5.

    All told, that makes 159 audio exhibit rooms---about half the number of just 8 or 9 years ago. THE Show no longer exists in Las Vegas; organizer Richard Beers focuses on the highly-successful THE Show in Newport Beach, California. So in total, we're down well over 200 rooms, compared to 2007-ish. There are still additional offsite exhibits, as there were back then, mostly at the Mirage—but that number has stayed stable, around 20.

    THE Show was the cut-rate alternative to CES; companies that used to exhibit there are nearly all absent from CES. They can't afford it. For those who do exhibit at CES, the ROI is under close scrutiny. Add up the cost of a basic room at the Venetian, sleeping rooms for crew, meals for same, wining and dining dealers and distributors...$20,000 goes pretty quickly, with many companies spending far more.

    That doesn't sound like much in today's business-world, but remember: most of these companies are under $5M/year, and that expenditure may define the knife-edge between red and black. Or, it'd pay for a lot of visits to dealers.

    I've heard from several veteran audio companies that 2016 will be their last CES.

    I'll likely be there for at least part of the 2017 show, happy to see friends, colleagues and media. I'll likely end up exhausted and sick as a dog; after all, that is part of the CES experience.

    For me, CES is now like a girlfriend who once broke my heart: nice to see, with lots of wistful, nostalgic overtones...but no longer a big part of my life.

    Bill Leebens is Editor of Copper and Director of Marketing at PS Audio. He has been in and out of the audio business for over 40 years. Each time he returns to it, he becomes more cynical. He does not intend to go quietly.

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