[SoundStage!]The Y-Files
Back Issue Article

June 2001

Home Entertainment 2001: A Cause for Reflection

Playing out your stack o’ cards

On behalf of our affordable high-performance sister publication GoodSound!, I went to cover new budget gear at Home Entertainment 2001 in New York City. This turned tables on my prior trade-show perspectives of the last ten years. I had always attended as either a retailer or exhibiting manufacturer. We’d always agonized over damaged, late or outright no-show equipment deliveries. We routinely rushed overnight relief packages. We cursed the poor assembly guy at the factory. How could he possibly forget to include spikes with the speakers? Where was that soldering iron to replace the crushed tweeter -- hot-glued inside the speaker? We agonized over setup, with and without tape measure. We’d use torpedo levels, laser alignment tools, bubble gum and the occasional self-invited, pre-show, golden-eared visitors. Picture it. They’d stick their heads into the door to wave hello and quickly undress whatever back-up gear was still unboxed with their penetrating glances. Then they’d walk out just as quickly to bother the next victim down the hall. All we’d be left with were their fading comments. "That sure sounded like crap, and, yeah, that midrange was definitely wired out-of-phase."

There were more pressing concerns, of course.

Q: Yo, Adrian, do you think hotel management could dismount that mirror smack in the center of the left speaker’s first side-wall reflection?

A: Nope, already called them. They’ve permanently bonded the Louis Fourteenth copy to the chintzy wallpaper. To boot, any self-righteous attempts on our end to remove it will instantly forfeit our entire credit-card security deposit.

Q: How about getting a second mirror instead? At the very least we’d be symmetrical. Ya know, stereo mirrors?

This wasn’t to be. Louis the Fourteenth mirror knock-offs were in short supply in Las Vegas that day. Not so for complaints.

Q: Man, did you notice our second-level floor flex sucking up all da bass? Why did we bring the flat-to-20Hz 180-pound behemoths? Wouldn’t the minimonitors have been much more convenient?

A: We’re here to impress people with the biggest, baddest and best sound of the show -- that’s what the boss wants, remember?

And there was always the competition. How about that bloody downstairs neighbor? He must have completed his entire setup the previous afternoon already, set decorator and greensperson included. Disgustingly efficient professional, he. Surely by now he was cruising the strip for some foxy entertainment. Meanwhile, we poor suckers were still stuffing empty boxes behind shower curtains and looking for a cheater plug to remove that annoying ground loop.

Q: Yo, Adrian, how long has that Yello track been playing downstairs?

A: Non-stop since we got here.

Q: Wouldn’t you think his system was cooked to al-dente readiness by now? And man, those friggin’ subwoofers are vibrating the very dust out of our poor air con.

Sure enough. And that with our combined body temperatures already exceeding Death Valley attractions. Was the air conditioning even working properly? A quick call to the front desk would clarify that.

Q: Whad’ya mean use the highest setting? That raises the room’s noise floor, you…you Las Vegas hotelier.

[The hotel operator maintained her obnoxious cool in the face of impertinent guests.]

A: If you want a cool room, sir, I strongly suggest running the air conditioning on high, sir. How else may we be of assistance, sir?

Q: [inaudible of course] Will you buy my bloody speakers and let me get outta here carefree? I want to gamble away my daily allowance and listen to some punk rock while I’m at it.

And then there were the freewheeling makers of obscure accessories. They flatly refuse to pay for their own exhibits. Like leeches, they instead hound the pre-show hallways. They look to transform your paid-for room and the next and the next into their free displays instead. To aggravate matters further, this all occurs exactly while you’re in the midst of lifting your colossal speakers onto unstable flotation devices.

Q: Would you like another of these full-color [read gaudy and we don’t mean Gaudi] pop-up signs for our Proton Flux light-activated interconnect? Doesn’t it sound so much better now, gents? Be sure to point out to all reviewers what really creates this hallowed performance in your room here. Ciao amigos, have a great show!

And that indeed was what all of us manufacturers were most nervous about, never mind the gimmick guru. Each time a reviewer entered our exhibit, we’d exchange furtive glances to support our fledgling telepathy.

Q: Who’s he with?

A: Didn’t see his badge.

Q: Didn’t see his badge? Criminy’s sake, how long were you partying last night anyway? At least what color was the tag?

A: He’s wearing it face-down.

Q: He’s undercover then? This could mean heavyweight publication or amateur audiophile newsletter. Let’s take our chances.

And chances you took. Would this reviewer groove to the slammin’ rap track you’d just cued up for that custom installer? Would he appreciate the testicular fortitude of your speakers’ bass extension, which you demoed to such one-note perfection? Or rather, would this writer want to play his own music and drive everyone else out of the room with a tuba quartet of Bach cantatas? More scarily still, would he rely on your team’s own selections? Time for telepathy again.

Q: Say, isn’t he that famous writer who virulently hates jazz?

A: Dunno, can’t remember. Let’s just grab something and hope for the best.

Q: Damn, dude, are all we have are female jazz vocals?

A: Well bro, cross your fingers.

And while the crossing of fingers and other extremities does sometimes keep evil spirits at bay, it couldn’t prevent the dreaded notebook from surfacing. With our minds shocked to paralysis, we reverted to lip-reading.

Q: Will the reviewer notice if we read over his shoulder?

A: Who can decipher that gnarly shorthand anyway?

Q: Darn, bollocks and double damnation, there are another two reviewers parading in. What now?

As though he was an invisible ghost, you noticed that the newcomers didn’t greet the first reviewer. Maybe he was an impostor after all, covering the show for a group of 14 subscribers to a South Dakota audiophile ring letter? There just went 15 valuable minutes wasted on a propeller head. Maybe not. Surely these new guys were from a different mag. They looked sharp and ready to kill with their pointed pens cocked behind their ears. They also appeared in a hurry. If we didn’t accommodate them right then, they’d never be back. More lip-reading.

Q: Is this guy done yet?

A: You see how he’s tapping his booties? That dude is enjoying himself. Don’t spoil his session, he might think us rude hillbillies from Virginia or what.

Q: Meaning no mention in his show report? Let’s better not piss him off.

A: Hey, does his rag even publish their report before August? [Remember we were in January. That was a perfectly fair question to consider. Time for a real voice-once-over.]

Q: Would you care for some classic rock now, sir, served chilled on a bed of endives?

The joker

Forward to present time. At Home Entertainment 2001, I no longer share these fictitious but very probable dilemmas. Now I am suddenly one of them. I arrive in town only within hours of the show's opening. My pants are pressed with a razor-sharp crease. My shirt doesn’t show the faintest of wrinkles. I am fresh as the morning dew and voracious for good sound. I pick up my press pass at the allotted hour. It now identifies me as one of dem writers, sharpened pencil and notepad in his pocket and a slowly but surely bulging bag on his sloping shoulder. These things turn laudable professionals into literature-heavy bag ladies as the show unwinds -- but that’s the breaks.

As are all press members, I am invited to a free press luncheon in the ballroom. Time to set down that bag and munch on virtual chicken steak while Gary Shapiro of CEA pronounces the industry alive and kicking. Truly famous writers sit at neighboring tables and exchange tips on who is going to write for whom shortly. Does being privy to all that insider stuff signify I am truly one of them now? I quickly sprout little exploratory wings just to try on the assumption for size. My head balloons to a size 20, and my baseball cap is relegated to instant freebie duty in a proper trash receptacle.

Onward ho into the hallways. Let’s put this new persona to scary use. A fine European-bred gentleman instantly recognizes the saintly halo of a size 20 head but mistakes me for another. He pins me correctly for a SoundStager but does confuse me with the actual writer of his amplifier review that received our coveted Reviewers' Choice. Never mind, he won’t believe me if I pointed it out. He brusquely brushes a showgoer out of his lone front seat and bids me to park my cheeks in the sweet spot instead. Boy am I embarrassed. At least my host doesn’t roll out the red carpet and announce to everyone present who I am: the same schmuck I’ve been since birth and always will be.

For chrissakes -- I want to shake him by his collar -- the last five years had me as manufacturer just like you. I was in your very shoes. No need to tremble now or assume I’ve changed. Yes, I just switched sides. But that’s merely appearances. Does this now make me into one of those cool spy-story moles that share top-secret audio information with the hated Pygmies? I want to assure the gent to relax, man, it’s cool, I can sit in the back and hear just fine what’s going on. To no avail. He won’t have it. To him, I am the most important person in that room right now. He insists on treating me like royalty.

Food for thought and appearance

A popular axiom claims that you are what you eat. With a press pass at a show -- and if you aren’t careful -- you can quickly turn into what people think you are. I’ve been at the receiving end many times. Certain reviewers don’t mind throwing their weight around. They seem to positively wallow in your projections of what you assume they’re thinking. Really, they may just be taking a sensory-overload break in your room while you interpret their relative disinterest in your musical selection as bad marks on your tally sheet. But they won’t let on. They’d rather see you wiggle on the hook and see you stew in his own juices. So yes, some reviewers appear haughty and self-important and somewhat heavy-handed. Others instead are paragons of impeccable courtesy that would do professional limousine drivers proud in New York’s heaviest rush hour.

On the spot, I make a silent promise to myself, right then and there. No matter what, I’d stick to being my usual self, press badge be damned. I know too well what it’s like "on the other side." Even if certain rooms didn’t sound as good as they might have, I can well imagine all the last-minute efforts that went into making it sound at least this good. If certain manufacturers insisted on overtly controlled demos, on the half-hour and structured like investment bids, I can truly relate. Better to know what you’re cueing up than playing dice with CD requests. If others seemed a bit tense, I know that the significant cost of being there always looks beyond immediately impressive attendance figures. It attempts to assess whether, on a business level, the show was successful enough to amortize the expense of exhibiting.

Are you wondering about this cost, imagining yourself an exhibitor proudly displaying to one and all the latest and greatest loudspeaker mousetrap in history? Here’s what else you’d need besides your contraption: the substantial cost of the base-level exhibit room, $120 per 100 pounds of freight to get the union to deliver your goods to your room, about $185 per night for personal accommodations in frugal Manhattan, airfare to and fro, shipping your display goods to the central holding warehouse in the first place, meals and many last-minute phone calls, overnight FedEx deliveries, and various sundries. A show like Home Entertainment 2001 isn’t a trade show, but rather consumer event. You most likely won’t generate direct sales from it. At least that’s according to any manufacturer I’ve ever questioned on the subject. You attend simply to meet your prospective and existing customers. You attend to be part of the glory of it all.

And you attend to show the press what you’ve got, schmucks like yours truly included.

Now where’s my baseball hat? After all these confessions, my head’s shrunk back to regular size. (It now fits on a stick). Seriously, though, multiple hats off to all exhibitors. Thanks for being there for us press folks and, more importantly, the consumers who are the lifeblood of this industry we love to work for. See you all next year!

...Srajan Ebaen


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