Forum by Anthony H. Cordesman (Apr. 1987)

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Show Woes

Editor's Snivel: Within the industry, it is well known that Consumer Electronics Shows are the equivalent of Sartre's No Exit or Kafka's The Castle to hi-fi editors. Ordinarily, we simply grin until we are grinning idiots, but this year, over breakfast, we plotted our revenge. Thus, new rules for the next show.-E.P.

For many readers, the idea of wandering the halls of a Consumer Electronics Show or CES may seem to be the spiritual equivalent of a child's visit to a candy factory. In practice, however, we brave reviewers and editors run the grimmest of gamuts to scout out the latest in audio equipment. Far too often, the sound demonstrations are more for "iron ears" than "golden ears" and could stun a half-deaf rock star at 100 meters. Worse, the alternative to a bad demo is often audio politics, which has all the light humor and elfin touch of the Third Reich.

Yes, there are bright spots. A few firms like Audio Research consistently demonstrate real music. Counterpoint once hired a string quartet to entertain the weary. Arnie Nudell of Infinity can never resist showing off his latest top-of-the-line equipment with really good master tapes. Thiel always has pleas ant chamber music or jazz and a de cent glass of wine. Noel Lee of Monster Cable earned the gratitude of everyone attending this year's Las Ve gas show by sponsoring a concert by Amanda McBroom, the First Lady of the High End. Many manufacturers do confine their remarks to their own lines, and each show reveals at least a few exciting new products.

Far too often, however, any real audiophile or music lover is driven right out the door by truly awful sound demonstrations. At least a voting majority of the demonstrations at a CES fall into one of three categories: Unpleasant sound, unpleasant bad-mouthing of the competition or anyone else in the audio business, or both. As a result, the somewhat shell-shocked editor of this magazine has directed me to write a set of rules for future audio shows.

These will be enforced by a carefully chosen band of subjective reviewers, technical testers, and A/B statisticians armed with the power to force contributions to a fund for the performance of live music. You, as audiophiles, should be as aware of these new regulations as manufacturers, reviewers, and dealers:

Entry Requirements: No one may at tend a show who has not heard at least one hour of live acoustic music without artificial amplification in the preceding six months. In order to minimize the shock of coupling hi fi to music, Audio will fund therapy for any established manufacturer, dealer, or reviewer who cannot recover from the experience of hearing live music, naturally reproduced, for the first time.

Alternative Physics: All technical claims for or against audio products and technologies must be made in writing, and submitted for approval six months before the show. Those which are sufficiently weird and unstructured, or which are simply absurd, may be distributed only in the new CES Alter native Physics Room (not to be confused with the Press Room). Proponents of these theories can speak only during working hours and only in this room. They may not corner anyone in the halls.

Urine Testing: All audio designers and reviewers must have their urine tested one week before the show.

Those whose test results indicate they are totally deaf will be precluded from lecturing other attendees on sound quality.

Adult Hours: The periods of 11:00 to 12:00 a.m. and 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. will be reserved for adult listening (not to be confused with Adult Movies). Musical material will be limited to chamber music, small jazz groups, and ballads.

SPL Limits: No audio demonstration will exceed an average level of 95 dB or a peak level of 103 dB, or raise the sound level in any adjoining room by more than 5 dB.

Audio Politics Room: The CES will provide a large, unfurnished room for spreading rumors, attacking other people in the audio industry, and criticizing competing products. This room will be open 24 hours a day. Anyone with compulsive bad manners and taste must use this room for audio politics, and no audio politics can be discussed outside it. Videotaping facilities and foam truncheons will be available.

Unbearable Upper Midrange: All demonstrations must have their upper midrange approved during the day be fore a show. No demonstrations of hard, glaring upper midrange will be tolerated.

Reference Blacklist: A list of the world's most unpleasant audiophile demonstration records will be pre pared before the show, and none may be used at any time. Examples include the Sheffield Drum Record, Reference Recordings' Dafos, and Telarc's digital cannons, but there will be many others.

Boom Time: Demonstrations of deep bass at deafening levels will be limited to the two minutes before the close of the Show each day. In the interest of objectivity, Audio is developing a special CD with a standard "boom" for reference purposes. This CD is being developed in cooperation with the Iran/ Iraq War and a group of audiophiles in the PLO, together with Challenger technicians from NASA's Cape Canaveral facility.

Real Products: All products that are nothing more than shells, or which will not be on the market in the exact form shown at the show within the next three months, must be labeled with the word "Dummy" or "Phony" in 12-inch letters.

All magazine reports will use these words in describing the product.

Real Reviews: To eliminate audio prostitution, there will be a ban on specially arranged "reviews" of prototypes or limited production runs that appear at the show before the product is in final form. The reviewers and their publications will also be banned.

At-Show Reviews: Those who wish to review the sound quality of products at shows will be limited to noting those products that really sound good, with the careful qualification that no one can accurately evaluate the sound of a product in a hotel listening room. No product will be criticized for bad sound, although manufacturers may be criticized for poor demonstrations.

Technology Demonstrations: All "gee whiz" descriptions of technology, particularly future technology, that has not had successful demonstration on a really good high-end system will be qualified with such terms as "undemonstrated," "demonstrated only on a low-quality system," "partially demonstrated," "unheard," or "of unknown potential." All technologies will be assumed guilty until proven innocent, including DAT.

These rules may well take much of the fun out of audio shows-at least for the funnier (funny peculiar) portion of those who attend. On the other hand, the fines involved should pay for a lot of live music and possibly for a few audio shows open to the public.

Such public shows would help unite those who know about, and care about, really good audio equipment and those who love music-a union which trade shows do nothing to pro mote. After all, the point of good audio equipment is not electronic incest between manufacturers, dealers, and reviewers--it is to make good sound available to all who love music.

(adapted from Audio magazine, April 1987)

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