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Positive Feedback ISSUE 6
april/may 2003


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Auroville 14
by Srajan Ebaen

The Home Entertainment Show 2003 is looming on the horizon. Many manufacturers are gearing up. Others are parked in neutral. Were Hamlet alive today, he’d ask, "To go or not to go, that’s the question." Not at all philosophical but rather purely practical, it’s plainly not aimed at consumers (by all means, go if you can) but at the makers of the exotic components showgoers hope to see and hear.

Repeat anything often enough and it acquires a life of its own. The "Stereophile Show", as it is informally known, has morphed into one such habit. And in confidence, many manufacturers are wondering whether it’s a good or bad habit.

The main problems? The high cost of attendance, significantly dearer than CES; the perception of one’s fiscal health and loyalty to the magazine if one didn’t show; the sheer expense of valuable time involved in handling all the necessary arrangements; the challenge of what to show that hasn’t already been shown 6 moons ago at CES.

The first—exorbitant cost—can be diluted by sharing rooms with other manufacturers. But even here, dastardly share fees compound. And did I mention drayage and Union fees to get stuff to and from your display suites? One manufacturer reports $4,000 alone for the privilege of getting his goods to town and into the hotel this year. Naturally, room costs and travel/expense fees are extra. "Sir, do you have another credit card? This one was just declined." If you wore a trench coat, perhaps you could sneak a half-sized DAC into your own room. But anything approaching regular gear is greedy fodder for the Union goons—to deliver your property to your room for which you’ve been seriously overcharged already. Capitalist arithmetic at its finest.

Now, if one had a high-profile dealer in town, such dealers often book showcase rooms themselves to romance the local audience, establish themselves as the go-to retail destination and plant seeds for post-show sales. Manufacturers carefully selected from such stores’ lineups are then often invited to participate. This solves manpower issues and heightens the chances of later sales to recoup some of the costs. After all, except for certain software and accessory items, hawking stuff at the show proper is verboten. Though like the speed limit that just asks to be transcended, savvy manufacturer have long since figured ways to sell off display samples—ship 'em straight to the buyers afterwards, call in their credit card with the home office.

The second—is Amp-of-the-Year in trouble because they didn’t attend—is, if you think about it, a pretty lousy reverse reason to attend. It’s like being called upon the podium to speak when you have nothing to say right then. Why should a smaller manufacturer feel imposed upon to prove himself in that fashion? This balancing act falls into the same category as asking for your product back after a review has published. It’s clearly well within your right and should be standard operating procedure but it’s equally well known that many manufacturers hesitate to avoid real or imaginary consequences.

The third—the post/pre-show disruption of business-as-usual, especially for a smaller manufacturer up to his eyeballs in back-orders—can only be appreciated by insiders who know how far beyond the visible few days of the actual show the preparatory and follow-up efforts extend. Throwing a good party isn’t unlike a fancy dinner. It takes minutes to eat, hours, days or weeks to organize. And the party parallel is less farfetched than you may assume. As a consumer show without actual sales being conducted, the Home Entertainment affair is a good-will publicity effort, an opportunity to show off, mingle with actual end users, reinvigorate relationships, conduct some press-related business. Without any tangible tie-ins to sales as, say, setting aside $1,000 to host a dealer-sponsored manufacturer’s showcase with the local dealer, the benefits of show attendance, for one’s business’ bottom line, are nebulous at best. Though that depends on whom you talk to. Some manufacturers report strong post-show sales directly related to attendance, others report zero results.

The forth—what to show that’s new and hence a real attraction rather than a rerun—is tricky. Consumer shows are regional by nature. Out-of-the-area dealers, on a whole, don’t attend. Ditto for reps or foreign distributors. Premiering something for a necessarily limited audience is like premature ejaculation. Showing something old—well, it’s not a really good reason to shoulder the associated costs and efforts, especially if you have a local dealer that can, likely, do much better-sounding demos all year 'round to serve your local clientele.

If you add all of this up, it doesn’t quite—add up. For the manufacturers. Hence, if you don’t spot your favorite maker of audio goodies in San Francisco, don’t immediately jump to conclusions. Instead, consider the ramifications of their reality. Somebody’s making a bundle on this show—but it ain’t the audio firms, and, at $35 for a three-day pass and $25 for a day pass, even the consumers are getting scalped. Still, having participated in the last SF show as a manufacturer, I remember the St. Francis as a solidly-built structure with relatively good-sounding rooms and, of course, the usual elevator pipeline that was never designed with the kind of visitor load in mind that a show attracts to a regular hotel.

If you and your significant other can afford the $100 it’ll take for downtown parking, chow and getting into the show, you’ll surely have a good time. The stout manufacturers present will see to it. That’s why they’re there—to throw a party in the hopes to impress you with good sound, something notoriously difficult in such environs, especially with the state-of-the-art full-range speakers music lovers are keen on hearing.

Home Entertainment 2003—good or bad habit? Where’s psychotic old Hamlet when you need him?

Visit Srajan at his site