Show Reports

The New York Hi Fi Show: A 63-year History that Traces a Complicated Trajectory

For the past six weeks since attending the New York Hi Fi show, I have taken time to reflect how the show has evolved to its current form. I will report on a couple of items at the show, but the real coverage was by Mark Vignola. I have no idea how he could produce so many professional quality pictures and the accompanying annotation one day later:

http://www.hometheaterhifi.com/show-reports/show-reports/the-new-york-audio-show-show-report.html

The New York Hi Fi Show is as old as Hi Fi. 1950 corresponds to the introduction of the LP and availability of magnetic tape recorders for the consumer. It is best told first hand. Below I quote from Stereophile Vol 1 No 2 Nov –Dec 1962 page 3

“12 Years ago, 53 audio manufactures rented some rooms in the Hotel New Yorker … The first Audio Show was, literally a roaring success, and news papers all over the country carried sensational stories about the ear-shattering and strange intense looking characters who stood around for hours gesticulating and arguing in alien argot of decibels, kilocycles, motorcycles and intermodulations”

The New York Times reports the 1963 show had 100 producers showing in excess of $6 million ($46 million in 2013 dollars) of audio equipment on five floors of the New York Trade Show Building. Attendance was reported at 35,000 over 3 days. I need to point out if you went for 3 days you got counted 3 times. That is lower than the 60,000 visitors the NY Times said were expected for the 1959 show over 5 days.

Audio became instant sensation. In the 1962 Stereo/Hi Fi Directory, 2000 products from 176 manufacturers are presented. The back of the directory has a 14-page, single-spaced, 8-point type “complete listing of all US High Fidelity Salons.” Most are individual stores, although many products could be purchased by mail from two catalog companies.

At the top of the price scale in 1962 were without dispute Mcintosh and Marantz. A new Marantz 9 mono block sold for $650 the pair in 1962 or $4900 in todays prices. That’s an order of magnitude less than what they wanted at the 2013 show for power amps.

Top priced speakers were huge, most companies having derived from theater speakers. Long gone from home audio save JBL. The wall to ceiling electrostatic KLH 9 sold for $2,280 in 1962 which would be $17000 today. Holt felt it far and away the best speaker of the day. Again note this most expensive speaker at the time is 20 times less than some sell for today

Ampex demonstrated a “home-entertainment console” with a VCR, television camera, a color TV, audio recorder and a pair of speakers on each side at the 1963 show. It was $30,000 ($292,000 in today’s dollars, roughly the price of a current top-of-the-line home theater). The NY Times reports Ampex predicted the VCR will priced for the average consumer in several years.

In 1965, Stereophile reports AR has produced a new invocation at the show - chairs to sit on. Assemble it yourself “kit” products were increasingly popular introducing the general public to audio electronics as they completed the project.

By 1966 the New York show became so significant that it made the cover of Audio magazine. The magazine lists 57 producers with large ones in multiple rooms. The total room count is 110. No name is absent from the list that was doing significant business at the time. No dealers are listed. The 1967 show room count fell to 90. The number of exhibitors slightly declined, but many used less room. 1968 is similar in size to 1967.

The strange start times of the early shows (4.00pm weekdays and 12.00pm on Saturday) suggests trade/press activity occurred in the morning, but I was only able to confirm this happened in the 70s. CES does not emerge until 1967, and is also centered in NYC. There was no audio at the first CES show as can be seen on this web site with photos of early shows.

http://www.theverge.com/2013/1/4/3828848/ces-photo-history

In 1969, the Hi Fi Show producers think of expanding by moving to the New York Coliseum, a venue that attracted upwards of 250,000 people for other projects such as the annual boat show. One member of the press reported industry insiders thought the show was becoming to insular and not attracting the ‘right kind of customer” … The time was ripe to move into the ‘big time’

The Coliseum had no walls, requiring prefabricated rooms of plywood to be brought to the site. Someone came to their senses and canceled the show.

The 17th NYC show in 1970 shifts to Long Island. A public television station covered the opening for an hour according to the NY Times. The broadcast was simulcast on a radio station in matrix quadrasonic sound. The interviews appear to have been on the upcoming stereo TV broadcast standard and possibly other video topics that were of emerging interest, especially video recorders.

In 1971, CES moves to Chicago and the Hi Fi industry decides it is time to merge into it. There was no NYC show that year.

Prior NYC Hi Fi shows combined the consumer press and trade; other consumer focused Hi Fi shows were presented throughout the country under the name, High Fidelity Music Show Inc. The company began presenting shows in the 1950’s and was contracted to stage the 1972 show in New York. The return of the show, which had a 16 year run in NYC until 1968, was so significant that the Mayor’s office designated if High Fidelity Week.

It was my first show at the age of 14. It was not a good place to start. The industry had grown as stereo LPs, stereo radio, solid state and smaller all in one (turntable and receiver) innovations occurred in rapid succession spaced approximately six years. Quadraphonic sound was the industries next push, but the public had lukewarm interest. Companies found themselves with huge excess inventory and some went out of business.

While I want to stay focused in NYC, I will make one side trip to Philadelphia for the 1973 show. Billboard reports the High Fidelity Dealers association was:

“vehemently opposed to a public hi fi show… In fact it was the hotel type hi-fi show, as this one, that caused the association to be created …it was learned the association had attempted to get the local newspaper to publish a special hi-fi supplement in opposition to the show. However, the papers had already put out the Sunday supplement for the show itself and the association effort failed.”

Do not ask me to explain this. A better solution to hotels has not yet been found with complaints about slow elevators, large crowds and sound bleeding between rooms sighted in some post show reports across time.

Source http://cgim.audiogon.com/i/vs/i/f/1310514936.jpg

The 1974 show introduced the first moderately sized and priced ($800 per pair) high-end speaker, the Dahlquist DQ 10. At age 16 I thought it sounded better than anything near its price and I returned home to await the reviews in the mainstream audio press but they never came. My first issue of Stereophile arrived soon after, had already reviewed the Dahlquist but drats Holt put in class C.

The 1977 show had 80 rooms and 40,000 attendees. Similar attendance was anticipated for 1978, but a newspaper strike left the show with scant pre-event coverage and a few 1000 less came. This is the first show for which I have an exhibitor list since 1968. Dealers are now on the list now. Some are well known chain stores, but five are listed as “specialty audio dealers.” These were not the pricy Manhattan dealers, but new suburban names. They were showing speakers that competed with the DQ 10, like the DCM Time Window at $660.

Above is the show announcement for 1978. New technology at the show was the Advent front projector. Direct to Disc LPs are sold at the 1979 show.

Many of the best selling brands from the period between 1950 and 1969 are gone. They were unable to compete with the Japanese names that still dominate. A new group of American Hi Fi companies started producing preamp – amplifier combos priced under $1000. In contrast to the giant front face plates of the Japanese products with a plethora or controls and switches, the American units were minimal in design on the exterior, and the keep-it-simple approach extended to the internal circuits. For $2000 - $3000, one could assemble a near Class A system with products from value Hi End start-up amplifier and speaker companies. This was the primary business for the new suburban dealers.

Unfortunately, most pioneering value Hi End companies and some of the dealers selling these components vanished before 2000. On the other hand, Mathew Polk, a participant in the shows of the late 1970s would see his small company become the second largest brand of High Fidelity speakers in 2013.

Every NYC shows has at least one room with something totally unexpected. In 1980, and never again, a room held the $3800 Comostatic speaker. It had an omnidirectional radiation pattern combining dynamic and ESL drives. It sounded good to me, at the time, playing a large symphonic work.

Source www.audiocircuit.com/Home-Audio/Cosmostatic/Omnidirectional

Sometimes an unexpected design does make it. Magnipan was first seen in NYC at the 1977 show.

The Laserdisc was introduced at the 1980 show. Hi Fi shows continued throughout into the early 1980s. How long, I cannot tell. My sources from the first three decades no longer reported when the Hi Fi show was in town. The public had lost interest except just after the CD’s introduction in 1983 but I recall Long Island show at that time.

Stereophile’s parent company entered the business of producing shows. Their inaugural NYC shows were in 1987 and 1990. Now, posh Manhattan dealers, including the best known, if not loved, Lyric Hi Fi, attended in 1987 and the number of value Hi End dealers decreased. The show’s size remained at 90 rooms. Eight of the dealers, all of the specialty audio variety, deployed multiple rooms.

The posh dealers showed the ultra high-end for the first time with products from Audio Research, Mark Levinson, and Wilson. The wall-to-ceiling two-box Infinity IRS was demonstrated, as was a similarly sized Sound Lab ESL. Long lines formed to hear a 10 minute demo. But products at the price range were an exception rather than the rule. Many new value products appeared at this show. The ones still active included Energy, Monitor Audio, NAD, NHT, PSB, Rotel and Vandersteen. Manufacturers of equipment focused on mass market were mostly still at the show, but it was the young bloods, with equipment affordable to an audiophile, who dominated the show. Companies that produced DIY kits were long gone as the public lost interest in this activity.

By coincidence, the AES convention occurred on the same day as the 1987 show. I was running around the Hi Fi show with an AES bag when Gordon Holt stopped me in the hall to ask what was going on at AES. The first I spoke with him. The 1987 show occurred just before the stock-market crash on "Black Monday," in which the Dow Jones experienced its worst one-day percentage loss in history of -22.6%.

The mainstream magazine, High Fidelity, was gone in 1989, having produced about 1,800 pages, at its peak, in 1956. In contrast, Stereophile continued to grow, publishing 2,896 pages in 1994 with a circulation of 92,000 readers.

The next Stereophile show in 1996 was the largest of any NYC show, approaching CES size with 120 rooms on 10 floors. The show spanned five days with two of these exclusive to the trade and press. Stereophile coverage of the show required two issues. The significant home theater component was also covered in what is now Home Theater magazine.

In 1994, the Chicago CES ended. By that time, there were semiannual CES shows; the winter show quickly departed Chicago for Las Vegas. Plans for a summer CES show in Philadelphia were considered for 1995, but did not come to fruition.

The 1996 Stereophile show was an attempt at a simultaneous Spring trade and consumer show. John Atkinson reported to me:

“Stereophile had collaborated with CEA in running public days in one of the final Chicago CESes and we felt that with the demise of the summer CES, our show should incorporate trade days.”

Companies known for video products made seminar presentations during the trade days. CEDIA presented a whole day seminar. The show attracted CES-like numbers of press (450). With the trade at 2850, not much deal making was going on. The public attendance was 11,500, for the best show NYC would ever see, which can only speak to problems of reaching a broader market through coverage from the now disinterested newspapers and NYC oriented magazines.

By 1996, I was a qualified member of the press and had done CES a few times. The magic of attending an NYC show was gone; this was now work. My first editor told me this would happen, but I did not believe him. A cautionary tale for those of you who wish you were a reviewer.

In 1996, stores catering to wealthy clients increased their presence at the show while the stores selling affordable equipment decreased. Even so, value products were well represented on the floor. NHT and Joseph Audio were first timers and Sixth Avenue Electronics, a mass market NJ Chain store with a few audiophile value product lines, also attended.

From 2001 – 2007 NYC shows produced by Stereophile’s parent company (they skipped NYC in 2003 and 2006) would shrink back to 80 rooms and four days. At the 2001 show, Sony rolled out SACD to the public. Attempts to introduce Home Theater continued, but far fewer video companies attended the show. CEDIA was at the 2001 show with a shorter seminar. Most US-based producers of value Hi End electronics are gone now, but the appearance of Outlaw audio in 2001 and Aperion in 2004 signals the emergence of direct sales as a channel for purchasing affordable Hi End products. Attendance at the 2004 show was reported to be 15000, down modestly to 13000 in 2005. Press was at 610 in 2004 reflecting the growth of the Internet.

Value Hi Fi speaker brands survived into the new century, but fewer attended the shows. Value brands from the UK became more prominent. The NJ based, 6th Avenue Electronics returned in 2004, running close to $300 million dollars of business in 2010. The chain folded in 2011. Electronics Expo was at the 2005 show, running $150 million dollars of business in 2011, but also shuttered in 2012.

A highlight of the last show in 2007 were two identical rooms, one with $2000 of passive acoustic treatment and one with nothing. Produced by Rives Audio, the demonstration was highly effective.

The NJ based Harvey Electronics was exhibiting from the early 70s to 2004 but was bankrupt at the end of 2007. 2007 also marks the bankruptcy of Tweeter Home Entertainment, the large East coast chain emphasized brands that positioned Tweeter above Best Buy and Circuit City, on one end of the spectrum, and below the posh Manhattan stores, on the other end. Tower Records had gone under six months earlier.

In New Jersey, many smaller Hi Fi stores have shut their doors or closed up the demo room, and remade themselves as CEDIA dealers that come to the house for the sale. With the recent loss of 6th Avenue (2011) and Electronics Expo (2012), many Hi End value brands must be purchased via the internet or a very long drive is required to find a store in New Jersey.

2012 marks the first Chester run NYC audio show (35 rooms over two floors instead of the previous four or five floors). Without a press day, the 2012 show was more of a 2.5 day event. No attendance figures were released for 2012 and I was one of the missing.

2013 grew to 45 rooms on five floors and the press day was back. At the end of the press time rooms filled quickly as people took off from work to attend. With only half the number of rooms as deployed in 2007, the show grew unbearably crowded.

I have skipped CES for the last 5 years. CES has downsized to about 150 High End rooms, mostly on a pair of floors of the Venetian Hotel. Gone are the days when audio was on the main convention floor of CES and filled most of the bottom of the South Hall. Many companies have picked CEDIA to demo, as have I to attend. The NYC show in 2013 gave me the opportunity to hear products by companies not in attendance at CEDIA.

2013 was dominated by the posh Hi End stores of Manhattan or the higher income suburbs of New Jersey. Despite the extraordinarily high prices of the equipment, stores booked rooms to make sales.

Steven R. Rochlin of the Enjoy The Music website wrote in his show report: Everyone seemed very happy and the foot traffic was quite good. One thing I have noticed at shows recently is the quality of attendees is up and the time sucking lookey-loos grabbing-literature-and-go guys are down.

In 63 years the show has transitioned from one aiming at introducing Hi Fi to as many people as possible to a show for the cognoscenti and a bank account from which a six-figure check will not bounce. Even the press is all in.

I did take pleasure in finding one of these extremely expensive rooms demonstrating with the channels reversed three hours into the show. If all these tweak things are audible, how could this go undetected?

Martin Logan had a room with affordable equipment, as did KEF. KEF had been attending since 1979 and Martin Logan 1987. Both companies survived by adapting with Martan Logan at some Best Buy stores and KEF looking to the Internet.

Long time value company Music Hall was out in a booth only able to show products but not play them as they did from 1990 to 2007 when the had a hotel room. The New Jersey dealer, Audio Doctor, promotes lower-priced products in its advertisements, but was running a very expensive system at the show around the KEF Blade. A giant turntable was the only source unit in the room.

Joseph Audio displayed its top of the line speakers in another room with vinyl, which put it low on my list since I could not use my material. When I finally poked my head into the room I was shocked to see they were running with a center channel as stereo was originally intended to be heard. The center channel signal was produced using a 1960 Harman Kardon Citation 1 preamp (hidden in this photo) with a derived center channel output. The HK room would have mirrored this at the 1960 show. How it sounded, I cannot tell you. Press hours had ended and the room was filled. I find center channels markedly improve sound quality improvement so this room may have had the best sound, but you will need to look to another reporter to find out.

For the first time at an NYC show I made 15 minute appointments during press time to hear a few of the rooms with a compilation of music samples that form the core of what I use for a speaker review. I had been running around the NYC shows with a press badge for 17 years but this the first time I did what would be standard practice at CES and it produced fascinating results.

At CES I only needed a CD-R but when I booked time with Joseph Audio, I was warned by Jeff Joseph that I needed to rip the tracks to a USB memory stick for his other room. Computer audio had arrived in a big way at this show and I was out of sync. I spent a good deal of time, just before the show, figuring out how to use the Coral program I used to make CD-Rs to produce the USB stick. Fortunately, it worked in the 2nd Joseph room. My test material began with a piano trio and ran through string quartets, woodwind and brass quartets, solo piano, small string orchestra with two solo voices, and the larger full orchestral material. In fifteen minutes, I have a first-order idea of the speaker’s sound quality, though room issues and acoustics might obscure matters.

Joseph shared the room with Channel D, which makes inexpensive software for computer audio. The photo shows the panel display for operating Pure Music software selling at only $130. It took seconds after pointing to the screen to create sound from the Joseph’s speakers.

This year’s room with something totally unexpected is shown below.

No, it is not a plasma TV, but the Dupuy Acoustique Daisy Reflector $995. This unit is designed to attenuate back wall reflections. Details are on the company’s website. In an ideal setting, Dupuy should have demonstrated with it in and out of the room to isolate its effect. Show conditions would not have permitted the comparison. The speakers are also from Dupuy

I listened to my music samples in the Innovative Audio room, which included the Wilson Sasha W/P speaker. I have heard Wilson speakers several times at these shows and CES over the years in filled rooms with their custom recording. Now, with the pre-arranged appointment, I was in the prime position in a properly-sized room for this speaker with the only other person in the room Innovative staff member Scott Haggart running the equipment. I have listed all the equipment used for the demo but my hearing is not sensitive to differences in electronics unless something is very wrong with them. Stereophile measurements show the amp, preamp and CD player are clean. Those are the prices of the cables. I cut and pasted this from an email for Innovative:

Wilson Sasha W/P $ 27,900 /pair
Lamm M1.2 Reference hybrid monoblocks $ 24,190 /pair
VTL TL-7.5 Series III Reference preamp $ 20,000
Naim CDX2 CD player $ 6,195
Transparent Reference MM2 speaker cables $ 20,995 /pair
Transparent Reference MM2 balanced interconnects $ 13,160 /pair
Transparent Reference MM2 RCA interconnects $ 7,685 /pair

I handed Scott Haggart of my CD-R with my prime test material expecting dreadful sound because Wilson speakers underwhelm in measured tests at the huge NRC Anechoic Chamber in Canada. The tweeter has significant in-band resonances. The vertical and horizontal radiation patterns have nothing to do with the on-axis response, which is far from flat. Now I could reveal the emperor had no clothes.

It all backfired. I liked the product. I would deny the whole experience except Scott Haggart was a witness. I cannot speak in terms of spectral differences to how my test material sounds relative to speakers that excel on NRC tests, including several I heard with this material at the show. At least, on this anecdotal 15 minute test, I could not identify a voicing trick. Perhaps, the best description is that the recording was more enjoyable to listen to. Not closer to live, but I was bothered less by the small deficiencies of each track at least to 200Hz. Below 200Hz, it could have used passive or electronic room correction also missing from other rooms at the show save one.

This was one of the top 3 peak experiences over the years I attended the NYC Hi Fi show but what does the mean? My conclusion is anecdotal listening is not reliable. I have been taught never to evaluate a speaker without a matched level single-mono presentation, preferably blind and using Romex for cables. I will not get a chance to undertake the experiment with a Wilson, which may be a good thing because if the Wilson came out better under those conditions, I would have no fundamental explanation.

Ciamara Audio specializes in high-resolution digital audio and carries almost every higher-priced product in that space. It is a relatively new store run is run by Sanjay Patel who let me use my test CD-R with a system featuring the TAD Labs speaker. Unlike the Wilson speakers the TADs have excellent on axis response and excellent radiation patterns in part from the coaxial driver. The resultant sound quality was what I expected from my test tracks. No significant differences from what I was expecting unlike Wilson’s. TAD speakers have very wide dynamic range, neutral tonality and have no coloration normality associated with a coaxial driver although I am again reporting without a known reference in the room.

Andrew Jones who runs the TAD Labs division of Pioneer was at the show and I asked when the technology might be available at significantly lower prices. He has a track record of producing value Hi End equipment like the $379 Pioneer 5.1 system reviewed on this site. Much to my disappointment, there were no near-term plans of this nature.

Given Ciamara’s specialization in high-resolution digital, I left thinking that I heard only 80% of what the TAD drivers could do given the passive crossover. In the era of computer audio it should have been tri-amped driven by DSP crossovers but the coefficients would have to come for TAD.

I could find no speakers using DSP at the 2013 show. Active speakers with analog crossovers were in the SimpliFi Audio room, but these looked expensive for what you got, perhaps due to hefty importation charges associated with bringing these small brands from the EU to the States. The DSPeaker Dual Core room correction was in use in this room, but the demonstrator had the room gain dialed in way too high. It looked to be 6dB maximum. A high tech way to do what a loudness button would have done in the 50s.

The DSPeaker Dual Core, which was declared totally transparent, by a reviewer in a very high-end print magazine, only runs at 48 samples / sec. This is a shame given the Weiss high resolution DAC box also in the room, which has state-of-the-art measured performance.

PMC, a company well known to the professional community was showing a large analog based active speaker looking identical to the pro product except for the wood veneer. PMC has produced home speakers for a while but I believe this is the first active speaker they have produced for consumers. A seminar called overcoming the Pro and Audiophile divide was presented in a room which had these speakers, but I could not attend. PMC speakers were used in this room.

I thank CEA Hall of Fame technical journalist Ivan Berger for providing references for the HI Fi shows in the 1960s, including some of his own work. John Atkinson supplied material on the 1990s shows.