The Death of High-Performance Audio at CES and 8K Musings
According to Knott, the drop in Hi-Fi audio’s presence is driven by several factors: a declining interest in audiophile gear, integrators opting not to attend the show, European vendors choosing to stay put and attend larger shows across the pond (such as ISE in Amsterdam), and exorbitant hotel fees in Vegas during CES. I can certainly attest to that last point, as a decent hotel room within a mile of the action can easily cost $500 to $900 a night (nothing that a $30 breakfast and a $10 espresso won’t cure). And setting up shop a dollar-saving distance away introduces commuting unpleasantries because CES traffic is synonymous with three-mile Uber rides that can take 35 minutes during peak hours of the day.
This year, high-performance audio sparsely occupied one floor the Venetian, with unclaimed rooms filled by companies from completely unrelated sectors. Tucked away like a hidden gem, guarded by a difficult to find elevator bank and site attendants claiming that floor-to-floor stair access wasn’t possible (it was), audio’s 29th Floor was a quiet place. And that’s truly unfortunate. As you’ll read in my forthcoming audio show coverage, quite a few crowd favorites where there, including SVS, GoldenEar, Emotiva, PSB and NAD, Onkyo, Sound United, along with the likes of Wolf Cinema, Seymour-Screens, AudioControl, and more. But the general vibe was grim. And it’s not that vendors weren’t putting on a good show (they were), bodies simply weren’t there to enjoy it.
At least two high-profile companies told me they’d tried to backout of this year’s show, only to be denied refunds. And a heap confidently stated they were officially done lugging their gear to Vegas. Then there’s the chatter among audio-focused media folks, many of whom say a 2020 return is unlikely (mentally, I’m on the fence).
Last year Jason Knott thought it was the end of high-performance audio at CES. It looks like he was correct, plus one last gasp of breath.
With that bit of depressing news out of the way, let’s move on to my personal and rather surprising reaction to the tsunami-like tech wave created by the massive (and I mean MASSIVE) 8K show-of-force delivered by Samsung, Sony, LG, and the rest of the heavy-hitter gang. Cutting right to the chase: it left me feeling rather unenthused.
Yes, I said it: unenthused.
Don’t get me wrong, these companies delivered 8K demos on larger-than-life displays that hardly seemed real. Jaw-dropping and stunning. But it all felt a tad forced and unnecessary, leaving me to wonder: who is watching out for the average US consumer that’s bought into 4K?
The Convention Center was nothing short of a videophile’s delight. But I question why it’s all necessary right now, especially considering that US-based content providers have yet to consistently deliver quality 4K content to all of the expensive 4K TVs that currently grace our homes. And in some cases, experiencing good 4K playback with certain expensive gear (I’m looking at you, projectors) is something that most buyers will never achieve because it requires advanced knowledge and expertise. And let’s be honest, the average buyer isn’t tech-savvy nor do they know they have to be. Want proof? I present to you our good friend, Tom Cruise. Just weeks ago, he used his celebrity to tell millions of fans that motion interpolation is a bad thing. Think about that for a minute. We’re in 2019 and that basic message still isn’t common knowledge to buyers that plop down quality coin on soon-to-be old hat 4K TVs. Want more proof? Just tune your cable-bound 4K TV to the NFL on FOX on any given Sunday, and you’ll be treated to an upconverted semi-HD viewing experience that appears to be 10 years ancient (because it probably is).
So, what’s the end game here? Why are we frantically racing forward when we’ve yet to properly feed what we already have? And while some new and interesting 4K tech (like Samsung’s new take on micro-LEDs) is exciting, I’d much rather have companies devising ways to streamline finely-tuned 4K content delivery. Or how about easy-to-use calibration technologies that integrate with TVs?
Think about that latter point for a second. This year’s crop of TVs will ship with advanced AI, Internet connectivity, streaming capabilities, voice control, and display tech that literally blows the mind, yet the engineers haven’t figured out how to integrate simple set-up and calibration tools. How is this possible?
Of course, I’m not ignorant to the fact that new and better tech is what we – enthusiasts – thirst for. And I also recognize that CES is meant to be a showcase of the future. But I believe the industry owes us, the paying customer, the courtesy of perfecting a video experience with the gear we have. If anything, they owe it to mother Earth, who is already bearing the burden of junked TVs and gear that’s no longer current. At the end of the day, CES left me with a building fear that 4K TVs (and boatload of related gear) are about to get jumped and left in the dust without ever having been properly purposed and fed.
I had dinner with a few other industry folks last night and I shared my thoughts with one of them. Granted he might have thought I’d lost my mind, but he summarized my thoughts by saying the 8K wave feels like it’s happening “because it can, not because it should.” I liked that summary. Of course, I reserve the right to wake up tomorrow with a renewed perspective and a changed mind (and I’ll probably regret ever cementing these words on the Internet), but I sincerely hope the industry machine slows down, takes a breath, and puts the paying customer first on multiple fronts.