The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly From CES 2013

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The global event known as The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is over for 2013. New technology was on display for the nearly 150,000 attendees to see, as well as for the media from every corner of the world to write about. At HomeTheaterReview.com, we have full 6,000-word coverage, with a comprehensive image slideshow of everything audiophile and videophile from CES 2013, as Andrew Robinson went to town on the show, with me tagging along. In this post here at AudiophileReview.com, I want to get into some of the tastier audiophile specifics: dealing with the good, the bad and the ugly of CES 2013.

The Good
• High-performance audiophile components from many A-list and emerging companies are getting more affordable. Krell was of specific note, as the company's president Bill McKiegan, former president of ReQuest Media, is back and changing Krell's product landscape nicely. Out are options of silver and black. In are cost savings and new industrial design for Krell's Foundation line, which includes a media server with bad-ass DACs, a strong analog stage and the Krell pedigree for $2,500 to $3,500. The new $6,500 AV preamp in the same Foundation product line also undercuts the prices of the competition from Anthem, Classe, and others. I expect more Krell products to be redone with the company's new direction in the coming months and years. It's smarter high-end.
David Salz at Wireworld is taking a scientific approach to winning the argument that all HDMI and USB cables do not sound the same. His new white paper, which he is presenting to the Audio Engineering Society, is compelling, as it includes a new way to test any audio component regarding its effect within the signal path. David has been invited to do a non-product-promotional article here on AudiophileReview.com in the future to get into specifics that will make his case to you the audiophile that not all HDMI and USB cables are created equal.
• There is some new blood in the audiophile industry and some modest signs of rebirth. With Jim Thiel deceased, his wife, longtime CEA Audio Board member Kathy Gornik, has sold controlling interests in THIEL, the Kentucky-based audiophile speaker company in the past few months. Kathy is one of the most successful women in audiophile history (behind perhaps only Karen Sumner at Transparent Audio), but the company seems re-energized under the new leadership. With some of the most stunningly beautiful wood finishes around and a legendary sound, I am compelled to see what THIEL can do for us audiophiles going forward.
• After being dropped from the best distribution channel in the United States aka: Magnolia in favor of Bowers & Wilkins, it's heartening to see Vienna Acoustics building a meaningful, specialty audio dealer base back in the United States. The company's products are stellar-sounding, offer gorgeous finishes and tout very modest footprints that allow for easy integration into both dedicated music rooms and more lifestyle-oriented rooms looking for audiophile sound. They are also a pretty strong audiophile value when you compare them to other dynamic speakers in their price range.
• God bless Wisdom Audio for taking the time, effort and energy to show that a $1,300 pair of frameless in-walls can hang in the audiophile world. When they ship (which will be very soon), they are going to be game-changers for real people in real homes who want audiophile music everywhere. Too many other in-walls don't have the technology, dynamics or sheer soul to make meaningful music - Wisdoms are among a small list of others (Noble Fidelity, B&W, MartinLogan, Meridian and others) who can hang out in the category. With that said, nobody's show demo is better than Wisdom's.
• I am seeing some encouraging new growth in audiophile dealers nationally. The Audio Salon in Santa Monica and Sunny Components in Covina, California are local examples. Other, more established dealers like Don Krassen's Krystal Clear Audio in Texas have reinvented their business models, as I reported in my Audiophile Ice Cream Man story in HomeTheaterReview.com. This isn't enough new growth, as every audiophile company in the business quietly (or openly) wishes there was a dealer like Washington's Definitive Audio in every major city in America. Hint, hint, private equity guys. There's room for this model if you do it right, and no, Tweeter didn't even come close to doing it right. Instead, that company ate up all of the good regional dealers and left nothing but bankruptcy sales in its wake.

The Bad
• I am sorry, but when you spend the money to rent a huge room and install Wilson Audio XLFs and rig them up with ungodly expensive single-ended tube gear and then play opera music at lower-than-realistic levels, you've effectively offered the show attendees a test drive in a Ferrari - in reverse. If your amps can't power real-world platinum-selling albums on your chosen $250,000 speakers, then they aren't worth the cost of a C Class Mercedes. I know what big Wilsons can sound like and the types of dynamics that they can reproduce. Sadly, we didn't get to hear that at CES, which made for a wasted opportunity.
• The trend of just-raise-the-price-to-stupid sadly continues in the audiophile world. Single components costing $20,000, $30,000 and $50,000 are increasingly in vogue when there are a limited number of people with a) the money, b) the interest and c) the space to invest in them. Talk to truly wealthy people and ask them where they are more likely to spend $50,000 - on a Marquis Jet card, on a country club membership or a stereo preamp. Moreover, a number of the companies selling such obscenely expensive audio components respectfully don't have the track record to sell such products, so the value of such an "investment" can drop like a dotcom stock, circa fall of 2000. My advice is: if you are going big, be sure to go A-list with your choice, unless you have the kind of cash to be able to eat a 60 percent or larger loss in the first few years.
• Too many audiophile dealers are increasingly risk averse, meaning they will not invest in the newest, best products on display at CES. Audiophilia is a hobby built by Baby Boomers, and the majority of the remaining stores are owned by Boomers. They demand very high margins, do little to no innovative marketing and advertising outside of reaching other 60-plus-year-olds in the same old audiophile print magazines, while demanding high profit margins and free demo gear for their stores. How does this affect you, the audiophile? Right at the pump, with higher prices for good gear.

The Ugly
• The logistics of the CES 2013 show are just brutal. The addition of a monorail system has helped shuttle people from the awful-smelling Venetian Hotel (I think they pump ozone into the air) to the Las Vegas Convention Center, but when the monorail breaks, you have a catastrophe on your hands. Elevator lines at the Venetian can be 45 minutes or longer to get to the exhibit booths. The CES should look to move to a better venue, like Mandalay Bay. There is more exhibit space, more room and better space for such a show.
• Other than T.H.E. Show hosted off-site, consumers don't really get a chance to see and hear the magic of CES. It would almost be worth opening up the show to a limited number of consumers for an extra day (the exhibitors are about to kill me - I can feel it now), so real-world people can see and hear what they are doing outside of their televisions and the Internet.
• My personal "ugly" is the phone call or email I will undoubtedly get from a client or prospect whose feelings are fatally hurt that they didn't make our 6,000 words of coverage of CES 2013 that will go live 90 days sooner than any enthusiast print magazine, which will not have anywhere near the scope of coverage or the number of photos. It's literally no-win and it's no fun for me. Simply put, just because we (I) missed you at CES doesn't mean that we don't love you. It means that it's a huge show and literally impossible to cover everything. We'll get you next time around at CEDIA, AXPONA, Rocky Mountain or CES 2014.
• The single worst, ugliest part of the Consumer Electronics Show is the fact that it has become the world's best place to contract the God awful flu. With 150,000 people from every remote corner of the world converging on Las Vegas to see gear and technology, an additional benefit is that they help share strains of the flu virus that you may or may not be able to fight off. Personally, I caught the flu, resulting in 103-plus-degree fevers three years in a row. So far this year, I am doing all right, despite the worst flu season in ten years, according to some reports. I wish I could say the same for head blogger here at AudiophileReview.com. Chicken soup and Tamiflu, Steven. Feel better, buddy!

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