Dennis Burger is a native Alabamian whose passion for AV began sometime before the age of seven, when he dismantled his parents' brand new 25-inch solid-state Zenith console TV and exclaimed--to the amusement of no one except the delivery guy--that it was missing all of its vacuum tubes. He has since contributed to Home Theater Magazine, Wirecutter, Cineluxe, Electronic House, and more. His specialties include high-end audio, home theater receivers, advanced home automation, and video codecs.
I'll never forget my first CES, nearly a decade and a half ago. The Las Vegas Convention Center that housed the show was, quite frankly, unimaginably large to this Alabama boy. How on earth we would see everything packed into its 1.9 million square feet of exhibition space was beyond me. So imagine my surprise when I discovered there was even more to be seen just down Paradise Road at Alexis Park Resort: a veritable wonderland of high-end audio, packed to the gills with amazing demos and amazing conversation. If anything, it was a celebration, and it turned this formerly video-centric tech geek into an unabashed lover of audiophilic esoterica.
Needless to say, a lot has changed since then. The unimaginably gigantic Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) is now but a small part of the CES experience, and the high-end audio exhibits long ago moved from Alexis Park to the suites at The Venetian Hotel. And for years to follow, getting up to those suites was an epic journey in and of itself. Totally worth it, mind you, but I've spent many a half-hour waiting impatiently for the elevator to take me up to the 30th floor of The Venetian, and many a lunchtime fighting through hunger pangs because it just wasn't worth it to fight back down to the casino level for a bite to eat, only to wait in line again to ascend to all of that audio bliss.
Those long lines? They're mostly gone these days. So, too, are the sneaky explorations into the hidden hallways of The Venetian, looking for a freight elevator to make the journey to the top quicker. Hallways that used to be infuriatingly (but heartwarmingly) congested are now mostly empty. Exhibits that used to take a couple of days to fully explore can now be thoroughly knocked out in half a day.
Put simply, the presence of high-end audio at CES has diminished. Pathetically so. But don't blame the exhibitors. There's still passion to be found within those suites. There are still amazing demos of amazing gear ... and amazing people to talk to about all of it. There's still GoldenEar's Sandy Gross, wowing listeners with his newest creation. There's still Andrew Jones, showing off either some exotically high-end beast of a speaker or some ridiculously affordable offering--or something in between those two extremes. There's still Paradigm and MartinLogan with their unique mix of the attainable and the aspirational. And it's not as if there's no innovation, either. We saw a number of manufacturers at this year's show wholeheartedly embracing the future of content distribution, including several that are hopping aboard the Amazon Alexa train.
So why does it feel like high-end audio is dying a slow, pitiful death at the largest consumer electronics show in the world? I have two hypotheses.
Hypothesis the First: The show has simply become so large and so unnavigable that the high-end audio suites are starved for oxygen. Back when the Venetian suites first became a thing, it's not as if they were terribly convenient, mind you. But they were still a significant piece of the CES pie. Attendees split their time between the LVCC and The Venetian, as well as a few hallways down near The Sands. The only other thing down in that direction was the Adult Entertainment Expo, and who had time for that?
But as the porn show shifted to another week on the calendar and CES started to fill the Sands Expo with other exhibits (more so this year than any other), the suites in The Venetian seemed farther and farther away from the action. Heck, these days there really isn't any center to the action, as CES encompasses not only the LVCC and Sands Expo, but also Aria, the Wynn, Encore, and the Cosmopolitan, not to mention numerous off-site locations like the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
If the show were laid out with anything resembling logic or organization, it would be one thing. After all, most tech journalists only cover a category or three. So, if we could (for example) spend most of our time at the show in a single ZIP code, the utter scale wouldn't be so daunting. But we can't. Check out this handy-dandy chart, which points to just how spread out everything is. The neatness of this grid, by the way, does little to convey the actual chaos on the ground.
Hypothesis the Second: The high-end audio suites are just a canary in the coalmine, and CES itself is collapsing under its own gargantuan weight. On the surface, this may seem ridiculous. After all, this year's CES was attended by northwards of 175,000 people. The halls of the Sands Expo and LVCC were wall-to-wall humanity. If anything, it seems to be growing, as evidenced by announcements of further expansion of the LVCC.
All the same, I heard far too many people proclaim this CES to be their last. Not just journalists, but major electronics manufacturers. If this becomes a trend, then CES could quickly go the way of COMDEX. (Remember it? The largest tradeshow in the world ... until it wasn't.) Yes, CES is well attended. But who are those attendees? Fewer and fewer of them are the journalists, retailers, and distributors that manufacturers want to get in front of, at least in the higher-end audio realm.
What could be done about all of this? Well, it sort of depends on which of my hypotheses (if either) is correct. If it's the first, the Consumer Technology Association needs to consolidate the show a bit better and bring the high-end audio exhibits down from The Venetian and closer to the center of the action.
If it's the second? Well, I'd still recommend the above strategy for the time being, but I also think CES needs to be broken up into at least two (possibly three or four) different shows. There's a lot overlap, of course, between those who write about AV and, say, smart home technology. But is there any publication that covers these subjects, as well as drones and wearables and teledildonics?
Granted, all of the above is just one curmudgeon's opinion. So, for a different perspective, I reached out to a representative of one of the largest high-end audio manufacturers (who wished to remain unnamed for obvious reasons), trying to gauge their perception of the current state of CES and whether they think high-performance audio has a future at the show.
"Personally, I think high-end audio at CES has changed significantly over the last 20 years, and the focus on high-end audio has seen a decline," my contact told me in an email exchange. "The time of year, the location, and the expense of participating in CES have become increasingly challenging. We recognize the significance of participating in the world's biggest CE-focused tradeshow, and the great opportunity and recognition the show offers for brands to showcase their stories and innovations. But what we as an industry need to figure out is how to drive the very large number of people who attend CES to the high-end experience at The Venetian. While many high-end manufacturers are looking for ways to withdraw from the show, we should all instead be focused on how to drive this audience back to the high-end exhibitors at what is the largest tradeshow in the U.S."
Of course, none of this is to imply that high-end audio is in any trouble, even if it loses its war of attrition for recognition and relevance at CES. The state of high-performance audio is pretty great, and shows like Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, High End Munich, and even CEDIA prove that there's still a thriving audience for audio.
"In the last few years, the industry is seeing many more regional and consumer-focused events," my contact told me. "It seems to me that everyone in the industry is looking forward to CEDIA in San Diego, and the Newport/Anaheim show, New York Audio Show, AXPONA, and others that I'm probably forgetting. And the European and Asian shows seem to grow bigger every year."
It's true that these shows may be serving the purpose that the high-end audio exhibitions at CES used to serve. Still, it's a shame that the show where my passion for high-performance sound was originally kindled is becoming increasingly (perhaps irreparably) irrelevant as it pertains to this incredibly important category of consumer electronics. Because what we need right now is an electronics industry that puts all of its offerings on equal footing as part of a larger home entertainment and control ecosystem. CES needs high-end audio as much as high-end audio needs CES, in my opinion. But these days I feel like part of an ever-shrinking demographic of people who believe that.