C.E.S. Wrap-Up: Was 2017 The Final C.E.S.?

Of course C.E.S. 2017 will not be the final C.E.S. for the gadget hawkers and manufacturers of products that upon introduction are born obsolete. The big halls will continue to attract those who traffic in appliances, gadgets, and soon to be commoditized and devalued innovations.

The question on the minds of those in the high performance audio floors in the Venetian Towers, was whether or not this C.E.S. segment will survive.

Attendance last year and this year was clearly down, but more significantly so was industry participation. Almost all of the high performance audio exhibits were found on two floors of the Venetian and even then there were some strangers in our midst: Simmons Mattresses and AARP were both located on our floors.

That makes for easy pickings among cynics who would say our segment is a "snooze fest" populated mostly by "geezers". However, that's simply not true thanks to vinyl, which is re-invigorating high performance audio, especially among young enthusiasts.

Clearly the "softathome" room (a French telecommunications company that also really didn't belong) produced the most snickers, especially among adolescent minds, mine included. How would you like to introduce yourself as working for "softathome" other than to be handed free Viagra and Cialis tabs? Speaking of bad names: Cialis? It should be called Cdick. But I digress.

The upper suite floors were where some of the 'heavier hitters" set up shop but this year very few were up there: LAMM, McIntosh Group and a few others. Otherwise these suite floors were filled with hospitality suites unrelated to audio and to semiconductor companies. It was grim.

I've been attending the Consumer Electronics Show since 1978. Haven't missed a year. I've watched it grow in size, stature and professionalism. Saw it through the car stereo boom, the introduction of the VCR, and then of course the iPod, with Apple, the biggest game-changer MIA.

High Performance Audio has always been an outlier at C.E.S. It began at The Jockey Club, moved to the seedy, moldy, Sahara bungalows and the Riviera. More recently it was exiled to the Alexis Park, a garden apartment-like complex far from the convention center. At the same time T.H.E. Show set up shop next door, not part of C.E.S.

For a few years, this set-up proved ideal for many reasons but a few years ago management moved us to The Venetian. Some liked it better, some didn't. It surely made hall roaming easier and overall most were happy with the inclusion into the show-proper since The Sands Convention Center adjacent and connected to The Venetian was growing in stature as part of C.E.S. The curious could check us out without bussing it across town.

Combine the not so crowded halls, the drop in industry participation and the lack of dealer attendance and it would be easy to claim that C.E.S. is "down for the count"—at least for high performance audio. However, some with whom I spoke said they met with enough dealers and took a sufficient number of orders to make worthwhile the time, expense and hassle of exhibiting.

Speaking of expenses, what's happening to the costs of attending is analogous to what's happening with rents in big cities: the mom and pop stores are being squeezed out by the chains. Our industry is "mom and pop" compared to the big industrial giants that can afford the rents (hotel display rooms and subsidiary charges). In addition the sleeping hotel room rates have been skyrocketing—at least for the first few days of the show. And the airlines have gotten into the avarice act too: I could have flown to Hong Kong for what the flight cost this year from Newark to Las Vegas. They know you gotta go, so they know they can charge whatever they want and they do.

Still, I don't think 2017 will be the final C.E.S.—even for High Performance Audio. However, if the trends continue it will be only a matter of time before Munich takes over completely because that's where it's heading.

Nonetheless once you get there, C.E.S. is fun even if, like me, you leave your bag in a room and suddenly discover you are without it and have to frantically double back to every room to find it, in my case while you are being filmed for a Stereophile feature video! I can't wait to see that one.

Don't expect "best sound at show" awards from me. I think that's a foolish endeavor and a waste of time. Getting good sound at a show is nearly impossible. Most of those 'awards' are really for getting advertising and the cynicism reeks IMO.

The exercise is also excellent for acting out vendettas in print against companies particular reviewers don't like or wish to get back at because the manufacturer dares to not provide "long term permanent loans" of gear. When I retire I'll write a book and name names. I'm sick enough to puke over what goes on.

"Best sound" awards are also an excellent opportunity to excuse companies you favor ("the room had issues") and attack those you don't ("why would anyone use that speaker brand? Their drivers don't cohere") etc.

Nonetheless I did enjoy listening in some rooms including the one pictured at the top. Those are Avante-Garde horn speakers disguised as "box" speakers driven on top by a Bel Canto integrated Class D amplifier similar to the bigger separates i reviewed for Stereophile with analog sourced from a Bergmann turntable.

Another system I particularly liked included ATC speakers and a Prism DAC. Really honest and natural sounding like the ATC system I wrote about at the New York Audio Show. Also, I played in a number of rooms a double LP Taj Mahal set just released by Analogue Productions that I'll shortly review. Overall my favorite rendering of that record was in the Devore Fidelity room.

You'll have to find the Stereophile coverage for the particulars, but it was far from the most expensive system, you can be sure. I find the bigger the speaker, more difficult it is to get good sound at a show. This was the right sized speaker in the right sized room and it made the live to two mic recordings sound "live". You could really hear the acoustics of the room in which it was recorded twenty years ago and first released now.

Andrew Jones demoed some not quite finished but impressive sounding (what else is new?) ELAC stand mount speakers that will sell for around $2500 a pair. The performance was more in line with his work for TAD, while the price was ELAC-friendly.

Also sounding good are the rooms pictured here but again for complete show coverage of these and other rooms please go to Stereophile.com, which had a team of writers fanning out across the show, whereas I alone covered only analog for this site and so skipped the details:

The DS Audio Musical Surroundings room featuring Rockport speakers

The Nagra room with Wilson Alexx speakers (currently under review here. Guess what? They sounded okay at the Mirage but much better at home).

The big Lamm amps driving these big Kharma speakers in a big room sounded great.

And finally the big, new four box YG Acoustics speakers driven by Audionet amplifiers with a Kronos turntable front end set up a spacious, full bodied sound stage with effortless dynamics.

Now I'm putting to bed C.E.S. 2017 and getting back to work!

Anton D's picture

Great show coverage.

I miss those old 'wild west' CES shows.

I recall meeting Julian Hirsch in 1986 in the Sahara halls. I had just seen a big-ass tube amp blow up while trying to drive some Apogee speakers (Full Range?) and the tweeter ribbon was actually smoking. As I left the room, I bumped right into Mr. Hirsch and said, "Oh! It's you!"

He replied, "Who were you expecting?" he spent a few minutes chatting and was quite charming.

Somewhere in the early part of the century, I got to go to a Stereophile party at a now long gone lounge at the Venetian and got to glimpse Mr. Fremer surrounded by indescribably beautiful women and I got to go chat with Wes.

There have been good sounds and lousy sounds, but the people have made CES and THE the fond experience I cherish.

I even have a pic of me with Mr. Fremer!

It will definitely be tough for the future to compete with the past...my hunch is that the regional shows and Munich will win the day.

ashandger's picture

Hello Michael, many thanks for sharing your thoughts on the CES. Would it be possible for you to expand a bit on your comments on how the Alexx/Nagra system was lacking compared to what you are hearing at home....I appreciate you can't say much as the review is in the pipeline. Just some feedback on which areas were lacking? Any feedback would be much appreciated. When will your review of the Alexx get published and are you using any other amps apart from your Darts? Many thanks

Hummer's picture

Mikey your coverage and enthusiastic style has been great,indeed some of the best I have seen round the net, especially your video sessions. I am now looking forward to your coverage of the Munich show which I believe is heading to be the Premier HIFI show on the planet. Looking forward to more analog wonders and vinyl magic!

Fsonicsmith's picture

I hope you don't retire any time soon. That said, I am going to send you a post card strapped to a dollar bill so that we have good and valid consideration for your promise, "When I retire I'll write a book and name names. I'm sick enough to puke over what goes on." In the meantime, without naming names, please explain how you are privy to this BS. Do the scumbags at issue make these requests/demands of the dealer/distributor/manufacturer right in front of you? Or, as I imagine is more likely, do the dealers/distributors/manufacturers tell you about their suffering while the reptile is slithering out the door?

rgaines's picture

Hi Michael,
I think it is a small detail, but worth noting:
The Avant Garde you show is the Zero 1, an active, self powered speaker.
Not sure how an external Bel Canto amplifier would drive them?

Michael Fremer's picture
I believe only the woofer is powered. And if not, it's bi-ampable and they are using the Bel Canto on top....
Rudy's picture

I've heard from others who said attendance at the high-end exhibits at CES 2016 was down, and that 2017 was down even more. I am just an outsider, but it seems like CES is clinging more towards the smartphone and home automation industries since they are "hot." Yes, they are "consumer electronics," but the days of tons of mass-market audio products has long passed. They were even making a fuss here in Detroit since we are supposed to be one of the premier auto shows in the country, and yet some exhibitors bailed, or held off their product announcements, for CES. Yes, CES is all about cars, especially since that self-driving car nonsense is something everyone is obsessed with.

I have to say that I did enjoy AXPONA last year, but felt misled. Their list of "exhibitors" was really just a list of "whatever crap the dealer decided to bring," no matter how remotely. I was disappointed quite a few manufacturers had no presence at all, and others were there-but-not-really-there. Like OPPO. I was hoping to see some of their products, try their three headphones, etc., but all they had was a BDP-105 as a media player in some surround exhibit in one of the ballrooms, and a pair of headphones out in the lobby so they could shill some audiophile music. I blame that on AXPONA's organizers--OPPO's logo was up there, but they were not in a sense "exhibiting." No factory rep, not a single word spoken about the product.

And that is but one example. I could name more.

In a way, I hope that the Vegas CES high-end show does taper off, and the presence gets stronger at the regional events...where it matters. That is where you have industry folks and the consumers that actually buy these products mixing and mingling. As consumers, we appreciate the chance to speak with factory reps and get a feel for the company behind the product.