Show(s) Me The Money!

All good stuff – the problems start when you figure out what’s necessary to make it happen. The first and most important stumbling block is the requirement for a neutral organising body – normally a professional trade organisation of some kind. To date, the audio industry has, nationally or internationally, proved utterly incapable of establishing any such body. It’s no coincidence that the nearest thing is the German Hi-End Society, a group of major players (manufacturers and distributors) set up decades ago to establish the Frankfurt show. The nature of the group means that, although it has to operate with some consensus, it’s also far from commercially neutral. Thus, when the show was forced to leave its Frankfurt location after the hotel finally got fed up with the disruption caused (a particularly wet May was the final straw, with exhibitors intent on a rapid exit driving across the manicured lawns to avoid the lifts and instead access the many pedestrian exits from the sprawling complex) the Society also took the opportunity to change the rules. In Frankfurt, the show’s actual organiser – employed by the Society for that purpose – had always insisted on rotating access to the limited number of large rooms. That didn’t go over well with the heavy-hitting organisers. In Munich it’s a case of dead man’s shoes. You take a room one year, you get first option on it the next, an arrangement that keeps those companies with plum locations firmly in place, while also serving to strangle up-and-coming exhibitors trying to expand. On the one hand, the existence of a stable, core organising group has enabled the German show to survive and flourish. On the other, it still isn’t what you’d call a level playing field – although realistically speaking, it’s about as close as we’re going to get.

By now, you might well be wondering why all this matters and what it has to do with you? The hi-fi industry is not a self-perpetuating organism. It’s shrinking. In some market sectors/price brackets, it’s almost ceased to exist. If it is going to survive and if you want continued access to the equipment and services it offers, then it needs to attract more customers and new customers. Shows are (or should/could be) a big part of that effort. Besides which, they’re fun. It’s great to see familiar faces, it’s great for customers to get up close and personal with new equipment and the people who design and build it. Who doesn’t enjoy the opportunity to talk turkey with the guys that built your pride and joy? But most of all, shows should be an almost quasi-religious experience. They’re not about choosing equipment: They’re about confirming or reaffirming ones interest and faith in the pursuit itself. Better systems deliver better sound and more music – and that difference matters…

Which is where this train well and truly leaves the tracks!

As much as show organisers, exhibitors and visitors want to experience great sound, the cold hard truth is that shows consistently fail to meet that expectation. I keep saying it, but the only justification for the prices charged for high-end audio equipment is the performance – the MUSICAL performance – that it delivers. We don’t wear it, it doesn’t make us look good and, for the most part, we are the only people it really impresses. If audio shows are going to perform their fundamental function, they need to deliver decent sound quality. They need to show newbies what’s possible and they need to convince the already committed that there’s still some way they can go. The problem is – they don’t succeed on either count. Even a massive show like Munich is bedevilled by mediocre sound that most of us wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) put up with at home. There are a whole host of reasons that most show systems sound so bad, from lousy AC and an RFI polluted environment, to hopelessly crowded (or empty) rooms and noisy lights, air-con or neighbours. But it’s also impossible to ignore the fact that a small number of companies consistently produce great results, irrespective of the venue or the exact system they’re using. The simple fact is, they try that much harder, on every level, from selecting system components to actual system set-up. But whether bad sound is down to a poor situation a poor system or the laziness or inability of the people who set it up, it’s not a good look. Walk the corridors at any show, tot up the price-tags and the inevitable question soon becomes, “Is this REALLY as good as it gets?”