How To Get The Most From Listening At An Audiophile Show
To say the volume of audiophile dealers or salons has shrunk in the United States in the past 15 years would be to grossly understate the matter. More than a decade ago, there were specialty audio dealers in nearly every large, mid- and many smaller-sized cities in this fine country. The larger cities often had your pick of A-List, B-List and even C-List audiophile dealers. Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1980s and into the early 1990s, we enjoyed the whole spectrum of distribution of fine audiophile products from every corner of the world. On the high end, there were dealers like SoundEx that were nationally prominent (and lived off of selling no-tax sales into New York City to a certain extent) and sold literally every top-level audiophile brand. They sold Krell. They also sold Mark Levinson, Audio Research, and easily a dozen more of the best electronics lines. They sold MartinLogan, as well as Sound Lab, Quad, and more, just in the category of electrostatic speakers. They sold Transparent Audio, plus competing MIT and easily 20 more cable brands. They sold uber-high-end dynamic speakers, including Wilson Audio, Bowers & Wilkins, and everything down to Spica, plus a mind-numbing number of more quirky, audiophile speaker brands. SoundEx had all of the hottest products being raved about in the print magazines at the time, and it was a sight to be seen on a Saturday afternoon, with a store full of people buying up pricy gear. Down the street from SoundEx, in the Philly suburb of Abington, I worked at a store called Bryn Mawr Stereo (it would ultimately be bought by Tweeter). We had more mid-level audio gear, but also plenty of fine brands of the era, be they B&O, Meridian, Forte, KEF, Nakamichi, NAD, Celestion, not to mention a full complement of home theater, car audio and even some era-specific “home automation.”
Other mid-level dealers thrived in Philly at the time, such as HiFi House, which was more at the level of Bryn Mawr Stereo. Sassafras Audio was another place that I worked at located on “The Main Line” (as it ironically and somewhat confusingly dubbed in the town of Bryn Mawr). We sold Adcom, Magnepan, Denon, Marantz, Definitive Audio, Conrad Johnson, Aragon, and many other solid brands from the time. Beyond the A-List and B-List audiophile retailers, there were smaller boutique locations, like the one in the neighborhood that I grew up in, that sold mostly European audio, such as Naim, Linn, and beyond. In downtown Philly, there were other dealers that sold Pass Labs, Audio Research, and B&W. From the confines of some audiophile homes in places like nearby Princeton, New Jersey, other, more obscure brands were displayed and sold in very unassuming venues. Simply put, if you wanted to hear/see/experience really good audio, late 1980s and early 1990s Philadelphia (like many other major cities in the country) was a great place to get a taste of many different brands, technologies and sounds. And make no mistake, Philly wasn’t the only bastion of audiophilia back then. Hell, Circuit City sold Carver and MartinLogan at the time. Good audio gear could be found nearly everywhere, nationwide.
That is simply not the case in 2022.
Nearly every Philadelphia-area store that I described above is long out of business, including national chains like Bryn Mawr/Tweeter, Circuit City and others not named Best Buy. A new generation of audiophiles have sadly not been embraced by the Baby Boomers who invented the hobby. Today’s youth love music, perhaps more than any other generation before, but simply don’t possess the patience or social skills needed to be in an environment without full connection to their devices, social media, and the digital world. Profit margins remain high in the specialty AV business, but the cost of buying into high-performance, specialty audio systems has come down. The performance of $2,000 per pair, floor-standing speakers simply blows away what you could get for your two grand back in the day. A $1,000 Denon (or you pick the brand) receiver can power even difficult loads, offer meaningful digital room correction, full video integration, streaming, wifi-based software, and firmware upgrades. That’s a $1,000 receiver we are taking about. Even if that isn’t the core of your system, it is hard not to be impressed with what the factories in Vietnam are cranking out. I think I am looking at a container ship or two full of them from my balcony here in L.A., as they wait to be docked and unloaded at one of our two big (and massively backed-up) ports.
For people interested in true performance audio, there is still demand for higher-end gear. A big part of buying said products is dreaming of owning them. Why does a 1977 Lamborghini Countach “Periscopo” (with a periscope – how cool!?!) sell for millions of dollars today at auction? Because Gen Xers like me grew up with a poster on the wall of such a car and now, some of us have the money to buy one, even at 25 times or more the retail price. I employed not one but two editors when I ran online high-end AV publications, who both said that it was seeing and hearing the iconic MartinLogan CLS speakers at Circuit City that drew them into the hobby.
Where do people learn about such wild, high-performance, outrageous and lust-worthy products in 2022? The answer, even if hindered by well-justified COVID-19 restrictions, is at the growing number of regional American audiophile shows. Rocky Mountain Audiofest was long a well-received audiophile social and listening event, despite its then-dumpy Marriott location in the “Tech Center” of Denver (they thankfully moved closer to the airport for a new venue). People traveled to hear countless systems, and to foster the hobby at elevation. Years later, many of those same people made the voyage to Munich, Germany for what is considered the global standard for audiophile shows, albeit far from where I live. That’s okay, because there are plenty of audiophile shows within an hour or two by air flight. CES used to be the audiophile granddaddy of them all, but the early January technology show has disappointingly morphed completely out of high-end audio and into more sexy product categories like driver-less cars, AI, and toasters that can burn an image of Sponge Bob into your toast every morning.
Considering all the COVID-19 restrictions lifted and effective vaccines, we are now safely able to meet again and listen to some new audio gear. With that said, it is essential that we all temper our high-end audio listening expectations accordingly. Audiophile shows are good for introducing new products, brands, components, and sonic flavors (if you will). Audiophile shows, often having companies inappropriately jamming too much AV gear into a tiny, reconfigured hotel room (rarely a suite), thus creating less-than-perfect listening environments. For example, if a cool but oddball speaker brand is showing their reference speaker in a 250-square-foot hotel room, that’s a good thing. In the event that they have nine other pairs of their speakers also resonating with the music in the room, you’ve got an acoustical disaster on your hands, especially if you are trying to make final audiophile judgments in said hotel room.
Another factor that always pissed somebody off when CES was relevant was talking in the room. Background noise is the fastest way to make a truly great, modern high-end audio system have the emotional impact of listening to some blown JBLs from 1972 powered by a dully-lit Sansui receiver playing a scratchy vinyl copy of Jazz at The Pawnshop. People talking organically creates a lot of background noise. People bustling around in the hotel hallway also creates background noise in audiophile hotel rooms. Badly needed (please shower before shows, people – you know who I am talking to) air conditioning creates background noise. There is no way around high levels of background noise at an audiophile show. You need to temper your judgements accordingly, as shows are good for opening possibilities more than drawing final audiophile conclusions.
Another factor in the bigger demonstrations at audiophile shows is that nearly zero audiophiles have a listening room with the volume of a hotel conference room. Count for me the number of audiophiles that you know who have a 1,500- to 2,000-square-foot listening room with 20-foot ceilings, their speakers placed carefully a mere 15 feet from the side walls and 11 feet in front of the back wall? That gigantic internal space as part of a co-op on Park Avenue in New York or in a new-construction modern home in San Francisco would cost $2,000,000. That’s two million for the room – not the house. It is very important to consider these factors when listening at an audiophile show, in that 2,000 watts monoblock power amps on $500,000 speakers in a voluminous room should sound pretty great. Just don’t forget that, even if you pop for such a system (or even parts of it), your room is likely much more real-world, unless you are doing audiophile-grade construction from the start (a great idea that very few audiophiles ever seem to put into practice).
Working Deals at Trade Shows
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is to be wary of others. This will remain the case when this pandemic is not “pan” anymore. If you enter a display room and there is something that you really want to explore, talk with the people who run the room. If you are a little more serious than a tire-kicker, they might allow you to come back towards the end of the show and do some private listening. Find out who the local dealer is from the manufacturer, and open a relationship if you don’t have one already. They will love sending you as a “lead” to their dealer, and you can continue to do more specific listening in a better environment, perhaps even in your home. You think that AV company wants to take back “open box” inventory to their distribution? They hate it. The shipping costs are insane, more so today than ever. They’d much rather send it to your dealer or your house – but don’t jerk the manufacturer or local dealer around. Gently ask for these types of favors only if it seems like there’s more than a 50/50 chance that you’ll make an investment.
Lastly, it is important to dream. Hear components WAY out of your budget if you have the time. It is important to get blown away by the state of the art of audio, even if you and I couldn’t afford it even if we sold much of our bodies off to science. The experience, like that of a master sommelier who has tasted many strange and exotic varieties and vintages of wine, makes you more of an expert. Reading audiophile publications like Audioholics.com will make more sense when you can relate to more of what us wackos are talking about.
I look forward to returning to trade shows to check out the latest and greatest in hi-fi gear and enjoy super-cool, high-end audio en masse. I would suggest that you, the forward-thinking audiophile, find a few younger people who love music and technology to bring with you. Imagine what the future of audio would look like if we had some 20-somethings have their “MartinLogan CLS moment” in 2022? We could plant seeds for a next generation of audiophiles, which, as proven by the failure of the Philly retailers earlier, is in peril. You can change that. We all can change that.
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Recent Forum Posts:
highfigh, post: 1551154, member: 36433Why on earth would anyone bother to sit in one of that arrogant crackpot's seminars? Im sure he would prostitute himself and peddle all sorts of expense cables etc like dimestore hooker.
You don't want to go to "Michael Fremer's Internationally Renowned Turntable Set-up Seminar"?
highfigh, post: 1551163, member: 36433
How deep was the BS when you were there? I have lost all patience for that.
Certainly no deeper than a lot of the topics talked about on audio forums ! Besides it's easy to walk away …..
highfigh, post: 1551153, member: 36433Some exhibitors did that, but not all. But yes, no matter what, it is always fatiguing on the ears at the end of the day.
I assume that you have been to Axpona before- do all of the displaying companies try to compete for SLP the way they did at CES? I hated going because of that. By 2PM, I just wanted to go home and I was wearing hearing protection unless I was in a place where I could actually listen, rather than be bombarded by high decibel crap.