THE AUDIO LONDON SHOW 2016: Observed from a different perspective.

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A few extracts:

  • There were no outlandish claims made but interestingly - and for the first time in my experience – somebody or some organisation had seen an opportunity to do something innovative. Innovative in a way that only others had previously talked about and until now had never metamorphosed into reality, at least not in the UK.
  • ..... they wanted to promote the appeal of real hi-fi to the MP3/ iPod generation.
  • ..... I’m very pleased I did but not necessarily for the reasons you might expect.
  • I sensed a different spirit, a different level of vitality with exhibitors many told me that they had been inspired by the idea of something practical to broaden the market.
  • ..... exhibitors were there maybe because they felt they should be rather they wanted to be
  • In previous London shows when I had asked a similar question, quite a few exhibitors weren’t prepared to even start thinking about returning
  • I do believe that I observed a turning point in the industry.

So anyway …..

The invitation to the Audio London Show (under the ‘umbrella’ brand of The London Indulgence Show 2016) arrived and I thought, well, why not? I didn’t have particularly high expectations and I suppose that when it comes to shows ….. well, I’m a bit of a cynic.

43 years ago I attended my first show. I was a ‘civilian’. In 1976 I entered the industry as a retailer and from time to time became an exhibitor too. I’m not claiming I've seen in all, but I have seen a lot!

I saw attendance at this show as an opportunity to indulge my curiosity, meet some friends and meet some acquaintances and I don’t confuse the two!

The press release material that came from the organisers was initially - and this is entirely my fault – not of much interest. I must confess, I was initially looking at the materiel superficially.

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Above:  Two images in the Dali room. Note brilliant use of the vast hanging background image. Clever or what?

Fortunately ….

I delved a little deeper into what was on offer and was pleased to discover an intention to provide a somewhat more radical approach to hi-fi exhibitions than hitherto.

There were no outlandish claims made but interestingly - and for the first time in my experience – somebody or some organisation had seen an opportunity to do something innovative. Innovative in a way that others had only previously talked about and, until now, had never metamorphosed into reality, at least not in the UK.

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Above: TEAC - playing it very low key. There was nobody on hand to explain why!

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QUAD - utterly professional and a magnificent sound. I found it hard to leave the room - for all the right reasons.

The organizer’s objective

As I understand it, they wanted to promote the joy of real hi-fi to the MP3/ iPod generation. They did this somewhat cleverly I feel by incorporating under the umbrella term of ‘Indulgence’ other areas of interest that might appeal to those who felt that  hi-fi shows were boring and irrelevant.

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Above: Leema Acoustics

Considerable space was given to peripheral - but arguably - relevant interests. Tesla cars were there, one of which was on display. Organisations involved in the production of music and all the associated equipment as indeed were people demonstrating guitars were all present.

There was a superb photographic exhibition of rock stars, and a live music recreation of the legendary Marquee club. And so, cynicism notwithstanding I thought I’d give it ago. And frankly I’m very pleased I did ..... but not necessarily for the reasons you might expect.

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Above: Musical Fidelity - one of the few rooms I returned to.

Scope – just so you know

I’m hoping that elsewhere there will be a sufficient number of both professional and happy amateur reviews of the various rooms with some reasonably decent photographs too. I’m not trying to trump any of that.

What you’re not going to read here are detailed observations of each and every demonstration, nor what it sounded like and all of the other usual material.

My ‘lens’ was to look at the show in terms of:

  • What it means for the survival of the industry; it's too early to even think of industry growth.
  • The attitude of exhibitors to this show in comparison to previous London shows and to …..
  • Try and identify if the primary objective of drawing a wider audience was achieved.

That said I did hear some truly wonderful sounds and my overall impression is that a lot more attention to detail had been paid by exhibitors than hitherto. By and large, the rooms were more suitable, more appropriate if you will, to demonstrating equipment with state-of-the-art aspirations.

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Above: Origin Live ..... and friends.

Spirit

I sensed a different spirit, a higher level of vitality from exhibitors; quite a few of whom I’m acquainted with on a personal level. This is useful because I can ask questions, sometimes impertinent ones such as “so far, has it been worth the investment?” and “what chance of you coming back next year?” and so on. I get candid answers, usually with good humour too.

I visited roughly 70% of the rooms. I apologise to those exhibitors whose rooms I didn’t visit. It was either the brands didn’t interest me, or that the sound coming out was so dismal (not because of the music, but because of the equipment set-up I suspect) or that there was music playing and there was no one in attendance. And of course there wasn’t enough time.

Fortunately …

Fortunately one of the benefits of having had 40 years of experience in the industry is that it doesn’t take long to know what you’re hearing - even if you’re totally unfamiliar with the music - is of a very good quality, or mediocre or somewhere in between.

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Above: A few of the many interesting items in the Chord Electronics Room

For civilians, I realise this may be hard to believe but I and many of my colleagues probably know whether it’s worth hanging around within 5 to 10 seconds and I mean this quite literally.

That said, there was one occasion (I'll return to this later ) where my 'skill' - if you can call it that - was called into question. Anyway .... if you’re curious then in no particular order of merit I found myself returning to the following rooms simply to the pleasure of listening to music.

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These included Arcam, Dynaudio, Musical Fidelity, CAD (Computer Audio Design) QUAD Dali, PMC, and a few more.

In particular, the Arcam demonstration impressed me because the ‘competition’ were systems which in a few cases exceeded £100k. Arcam’s combined system (Solo Music) with music source, subwoofer and satellite speakers for round £2.5k punched well above it’s weight. I couldn’t help being impressed.

A ‘buzz’

Anyway, to get to the point of this article (and thank you for bearing with me so far) what were the pleasant surprises for me, given my admitted cynicism?

Well, for a start, I sensed a buzz in a way that hadn’t previously experienced in UK exhibitions probably since the mid 70s. I had experienced it in US shows and every year that I've attended the Munich show but sad to report (actually not that sad when you come to think of it) rarely in the UK – until now.

In many cases enthusiasm had returned. I was curious about this and asked the exhibitors why.

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Above: Dynaudio. Cool in every positive sense of the word.

Inspired

Many exhibitors told me that they'd been inspired by the idea of something practical to broaden the market.

Yes, for the heavy-hitters the rooms were considerably more expensive than in previous London shows but, and it’s a big but, they felt the rooms would provide greater scope to demonstrate what they knew their systems could do. And in the main, the rooms delivered on the 'promise.'

It wasn’t just that the rooms were bigger but - of course - this does help. That said, some great sounds I heard were in rooms which were acoustically, unhelpful. In particular one stands out from me . They achieved outstanding results in a near cubic room (I kid you not) and it was of course ..... CAD / Computer audio design.

I say 'of course' because their expertise never, in my direct personal experience, ever failed to deliver.

The ever-genial and infectiously happy Scott Berry and his charming wife had gone to a lot of effort to get the very best under the circumstances. This typifies a can-do approach that had not previously been apparent to me in recent years. And the Brinkmann monobloc amps certainly helped.

A long overdue change in attitude

By this I mean that in many London shows previously attended by me, exhibitors were there maybe because they felt they should be rather they wanted to be.

Maybe it was because they felt they’d be missing out if they weren’t there? This was typified by what until recently seemed a 'cultural' disengagement between the exhibitor and the public. This time though ..... the public didn't seem like an unwelcome intrusion!

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Above: PMC - utterly professional in every respect

The majority of exhibitors (Mission loudspeakers notwithstanding) were making a real effort to engage with the public.

Behind the scenes

Talking to the exhibitors achieving great sounds, clearly and without exception, considerable work had taken place before opening time to get the systems to work with the room. By this I mean they were using the room to the system's advantage (I’m talking acoustically here) rather than engaging in the futility of fighting the room.

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Above: Sound Fowndations. I'm so pleased I revisited after a discouraging first visit!

This meant many hours, before the opening, positioning equipment to give the best possible sound. The days of just turning up a few hours before, planting the equipment down and hoping for the best seems to be in retreat.

Having said this, I don’t suppose the majority of listeners, visitors or civilians - if you prefer - give a stuff about the effort that these exhibitors have gone to put on a good show.

Anyway ... I felt such a difference in approach to what I had previously perceived as a disregard towards the target audience by some exhibitors at many shows.

This is what exhibitors told me

First, no one said "but this must be off the record, Howard" - which is an unexpected and pleasant change.

The majority, and I’m talking here about Friday where attendance inevitably would be lower than the weekend said “it was likely” that they would return if the show returned next year.

Don’t take this the wrong way. I'm not implying that there is some question of the show returning or not. I have no idea and quite possibly neither do the exhibitors. Probably too early to say. The point being that this cross-section of exhibitors must be very satisfied with what had happened so far to even consider returning.

In previous London shows where I asked a similar question, quite a few exhibitors weren’t prepared to even start thinking about returning - so miserable had their experiences been.  So in this respect the organisers of this show had got it sufficiently right. Not totally right but certainly a lot better than hitherto.

Now then ..... the ‘anointed’

Some exhibitors told me they resided outside of the traditional clique of the ‘anointed.’ They saw themselves as outsiders and were delighted that there was now a viable alternative to other UK shows.

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CAD / Computer Audio Design including the exceptional Brinkmann mono power amps

Taken at face value, you might think that the exhibitors at this show would not be appearing at the other October show. This however would be incorrect in as much as a few are appearing at both, But not as many as I had assumed.

So what areas could be improved?

Well for start, signage. The images below show you the path from the local tube station to the exhibition site. There's no signage whatsoever. I wasn’t the only one wandering around the vast building site (both literally and metaphorically ) looking for The Entrance or indeed any entrance.

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So you come out of the Underground station, turn right, cross a very busy road and, here is the building. Note - no sign!

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You then find the main entrance. Still no signs!

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Ah yes, a few signs - but none to the audio exhibition. Clever!

I really don’t think that the organisers had stopped to consider this particular issue but, on the other hand, they probably had so much else to deal with that although this was unfortunate, it’s certainly not unforgivable. No doubt next year it’ll be improved

Signage within the venue could be improved.

If you were visiting the Tesla car area or the musical instruments exhibitors then there was only feeble signage to point you towards the state-of-the-art audio equipment on the upper floors. Moreover - but I suppose it’s understandable - there was nothing I could see in the way of directing visitors on the upper floors to where some very interesting additional exhibits were elsewhere in the building.

A turning point? I think it might be

I do believe that I observed a turning point in the industry. A small one but for me, a significant one. It's a start. Only now do I realise how insular all the other UK shows are; preaching only to the converted who, in a literal sense, are dying.

The ideal audio exhibition -  by common consent - in Europe is Munich. There’s a level of professionalism there and a can-do attitude from exhibitors and attendance levels which effortlessly make it the European exhibition benchmark.

My perception is that this particular London show  got closer to Munich in terms of spirit and engagement with the public than any seen in the UK to date.

I congratulate the organisers and the courage of the exhibitors who paid ‘big bucks’. Let’s be realistic here, what I experienced is certainly not Munich, but the potential is there and that’s probably the most compelling memory that I've taken away.

A schism perhaps?

I sensed a schism between the ‘anointed. who by implication were not out in force in this show and the others who were. If I’m correct, and I fervently hope I’m not, then it’s unhelpful in terms of promoting the industry as a whole . Inconvenient and avoidable but far from fatal.

I believe there is room for two major south of England shows and possibly one more in mid-year. That said, it’s not my money.

As I write this, it’s not clear if the target attendance levels were met or exceeded or fell short. I guess that from an organiser's perspective, that's the primary determinant about one in 2017.

Will the print-magazines write about this show?

I suspect that none of the print based magazines will give much publicity, if any.

I might be wrong but, truth be told, this industry is infested with behind-the-scenes intrigue, alliances and other unfortunate characteristics and I’m not confident they will offer any editorial support at all. I’d like to be proved wrong.

I do hope that the print magazines will recognise that there was considerably more going on here than merely a higher proportion of ‘good sounds’ than usual. By this I mean that at this show there were the signs a growing industry confidence. How many editors care though? Not enough, probably.

For the first time as far as I can recall, an organiser has sought to engage with the MP3 ‘mobile is good enough’ market rather than just talking down to them. This takes courage.

Humble pie

I take  back to an observation I made about my 40 years experience and the ability to know within seconds if you want to hang around in the room irrespective of the music and how, that confidence of mine was shaken. I put my head around the door of the Sound Fowndations room. DS Audio, IsoTek, ClearAudio and Gamut. I really didn’t like the music and so I left.

This was a mistake on my part and symptomatic of my over-confidence.

I've always believed that a good system really can demonstrate its worth even with music you don’t like. By and large ......  it’s stood me well for many years. However, I sensed a degree of discomfort about this. And so I happened to be walking past their room again couple of hours later and there was fine sound coming out. Yes of course the music this time was more to my taste. And so I sat down, And I stayed, And I chatted, And I listened. It was a great sound, No doubt about it.

I mentioned this to the exhibitors who were sincerely friendly as best I can judge, Interested in my observations plus no attempt to defend their initial choice of music; I liked that confidence; it being assertive rather than aggressive!  Well done gentlemen.

What can I sensibly conclude from this?

Well …. experience is all very well and invaluable but is not ubiquitous and it’s not the be-all and end-all of determining equipment under similar circumstances.

So in future, I’m going to spend more time at a show and irrespective of my initial impressions, I'll return to all the rooms just to confirm or confound my initial impressions.

Thank you.

Howard Popeck.

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  • Scott

    Hello Howard,

    Thank you for the kind words.

    I agree, I really enjoyed The Indulgence Show. I saw (and heard) some real enthusiasm at the show from both the visitors and the exhibitors.

    It was the first year for this show and I would definitely like to thank the organizers for all their hard work and doing a great job.

    Best Regards,

    Scott Berry
    http://www.computeraudiodesign.com