“Coming Around Again…”

The Bristol Hi-Fi Show, 24th-26th February, 2023

By Roy Gregory

Like the post-CES United States, the UK hasn’t had a national audio show (no matter what optimistic organisers dub their events) since the demise of the various Heathrow shows. But the longest running (and best attended) alternative is the well-established Bristol Show, taking place each February since the mid-80s. If such things were decided by numbers alone Bristol might well have assumed the National crown, but as with all things audio, those thing’s ain’t quite as clear as they might seem. Now back, after the Covid hiatus, the Bristol Show is a timely way of taking the UK industry’s temperature…

The state of play…

Originally set up by a collective of three local dealers, the Bristol Show has remained firmly under the control of the retail sector, especially the growing Audio-T chain, the dominant audio distribution network in the West of England and South Wales. That has had a fairly obvious editorial influence on the exhibitor list. The organisers offer show related discounts (a blanket 15% on sales over £100 made through their show sales desks) and/or special offers, a practice that has become so embedded in the local audio consciousness that many a purchase or upgrade is ‘held over’ until the February show in order to take advantage of the savings. There’s also a marked reluctance to give space to the retail competition, while the value to manufacturers whose products aren’t stocked by the organiser’s stores is highly questionable. Clearly, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of that – unless you are expecting a broad-based event that offers you the chance to see and hear more than what’s stocked in your local store. Nor am I complaining about what is a consistently well-organised, attended and promoted event. I’m just observing the position that the Bristol Show occupies in the UK audio landscape – and what stops it becoming a true, national event (not, I suspect, that the organisers are so inclined). The real question is what it tells us about the post-Covid market place and the relative health of the industry.

On the face of things, everything in the garden is rosy, with the traditional long, pre-opening lines stretching right around the show hotel. However, look closely and the cracks were definitely there to see. After over three decades the show and its exhibitors have fallen into a familiar pattern, with every nook and cranny occupied by a recognisable face and company name. Except that this year, many of the larger stands in open areas had expanded to fill vacant lots, while many of the small traders were absent. Head upstairs and the room count was well down on previous years, leaving visitors with less to see and less to hear, especially when it came to the new, unseen and unheralded. Just as the trade has got to know the show’s roadmap, so has the visiting public, so a reduction in rooms and stands becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly. The result was a steady stream of early departures as people started to run out of things to hold their attention.