SoundStage! UKRather than the anticipated miserable, soul-destroying post-mortem to the catastrophe that was the high end at CES 2019, it’s worth recounting some of the optimistic notes that prevailed. But that is not my way. I haven’t been this depressed since 1970. Still, there was one positive note: bizarrely, amidst the palpable gloom of the Venetian, where the whole of the high end wouldn’t have filled even one corridor -- let alone a floor -- I chanced upon a well-placed individual with the ear of the CEA or CTA, or whatever they are called.

I do not claim to have the bosses of the CTA on my speed dial, nor am I on theirs. I’m just one of the many thousands of members of the press who cover the event. Over 35 years, I have watched our sector shrivel from brands numbered in the thousands, via exhibitors totalling in the hundreds, to this year’s 20 or so. As such, there is no longer any reason for me to attend, especially as half had nothing new because they were saving it for Munich in May, and I live in the UK so the trip costs me a couple of grand, which I can no longer recoup in articles.

Ken Kessler

(For those of you who think that hi-fi hacks are flown in, housed, and wined-and-dined at the expense of the industry, think again. Most of us are freelancers who pay our own way, with the exception of shows where we’re compensated for our presence by undertaking demos, lectures, etc. I just thought I’d get that out of the way before the Twitter trolls among you start grumbling about how pampered we are.)

So there I am, greeting an industry veteran, who lets slip that there are -- circa 2019 -- talks with the CTA about how to revive the high-end presence at CES. It took a few seconds to register, as I still believe that the CTA considers audiophiles to be somewhere on the scale below lepers. After I dismissed the words “horse,” “bolt,” “stable doors,” and “open” from my mind, and completely disregarded any thoughts of “Better late than never,” I also resisted any observations like a cynical “Good luck with that” or snorts of derision.

VTLAlthough it was the smallest CES for hi-fi ever, VTL still showed with Wilson Audio and Nordost

Instead, I wished him well, while realising that the high-end audio industry had already moved on so successfully -- vis-à-vis hi-fi shows -- that CES is no longer needed, whatever noble-if-belated efforts are being made to recall the high-end exhibitors. Simply put, they have discovered alternatives, and -- with two exceptions to what should be a happy state of affairs -- most seem content with the world.

To understand any current bliss, or mere relief, you need to assess hi-fi shows with the following considerations: (1) Why do they exist? Answer: to display new wares. (2) Who are the shows for? Answer: public and trade, ideally both. With this in mind, the world’s most important shows have settled nicely into the following grooves, obviating any need for CES, which remains strictly a trade show, and for US retailers at that. Munich has, for some time now, satisfied the global trade visitors, with more and more American dealers preferring it to Las Vegas.

OK, so these American distributors and retailers have to travel farther, and I get that, but all of the trade personnel throughout Europe are within a three-hour flight from Munich, while Russian, Middle Eastern, and Asian visitors also find it more convenient to attend. Sure, some love the idea of a few days in Las Vegas, but even with the relatively high cost of hotels and restaurants in Europe, Munich is still a bargain compared to Las Vegas during a convention. As for the public, they love Munich.

Rogue AudioThe Rogue Audio Cronus integrated amplifier proves tubes are still popular

Warsaw’s show is the autumn response to Munich in May, and it is growing at an unprecedented rate. While its focus is more on the public visitors than trade, the latter have embraced it. As for AXPONA, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and other more regional shows, the public is well-served, while the trade is incidental. All in all, then, the world of hi-fi has matured into a nice balance of shows, blessedly a far cry from the days when there was a show somewhere in the world every weekend of the year.

Which brings us to the two exceptions. Sadly, these are undeniable aspects of High-End Audio Circa 2019 and, like Brexit, seemingly insoluble issues, but they do force a reality check upon the industry which, I fear, too many wish to ignore. No. 1 is the demise of traditional high-end retailers. Numbers are way down, and many major cities can no longer boast even one store able to sell decent separates.

DohmannFrom Australia, the Döhmann Helix One turntable on display

This, of course, applies to all forms of retail, and we are not alone in this aspect of the evolution of commerce. Online shopping has been the key factor, despite hi-fi -- more than any purchases including clothing -- justifying hands-on purchasing and the benefits of a skilled retailer’s guidance. But few people are prepared to pay the premium, which is why you can find discounted high-end gear all over the web.

That leads us to Exception No. 2, which is also a key cause of Exception No. 1: the decline in the number of those who actually want to buy hi-fi separates. I don’t care what spin you put on it, but customer numbers are dwindling at a perilous rate. The hoped-for boost in sales due to the revival of vinyl hasn’t happened. The demographic keeps aging and technology like streaming is only going to further dilute the appeal of true high-end sound.

EveAnna Ken JoeKen Kessler (center) at his final CES dinner with Manley Laboratories’ EveAnna Manley (left) and AudioQuest’s Joe Harley

Mea culpa: I am as guilty as any in failing to proselytize for high-end audio, despite years of promoting it in mainstream publications. I have no idea if my articles in lifestyle magazines or national newspapers sold even one fucking phono plug to a newbie. But I have tried, and even one-on-one, it’s the same incredulous response: how much did you say it costs?

What’s so heartbreaking is that there appears to be no means of re-educating en masse those with sufficient disposable income, who purport to love music but who insist on satisfying their entertainment requirements with voice-activated plastic shit. There will never be a TV program about high-end audio to match The Wine Show or a few dozen about luxury cars. So, unless these remaining hi-fi shows manage to spread their wings and start pulling in new faces, this industry is doomed.

. . . Ken Kessler