The Hub: CES 2010: Was it fun? Yes. Was it hard work? Yes.

When you were a kid and the teacher asked you what you wanted to do when you grew up, did you say, "I want to listen to music all day, and play with cool toys"?? Probably not. Even at an early age, odds are that you already had the sense that a job was, after all, A JOB, and it shouldn't sound TOO much like playtime. Mom and dad probably did their part in quashing those hopes of frivolous fun as well, with those "you think money grows on TREES??" lectures. I assume I wasn't the only recipient of those talks.

Luckily, there are a number of thick-skulled individuals who weren't deterred by those lectures. They (or should I say, "we"??) are the passionate geeks who are the heart and soul of the High End, and I saw and spoke with a whole lot of them in Las Vegas recently.

As this CEA press release verifies, my fears of a CES ghost town were a waste of angst. Attendance was still down compared to 2008, but roughly 120,000 attended the big show this year, compared to 113,000 in 2009. Oddly, the number of total exhibitors dropped about 7%, from 2,700 to about 2,500; similarly, the number of audio exhibitors dropped about 5% from last year.

What was most striking and immediately apparent compared to last year, was the change in mood at CES. 2009's show was like attending a funeral, minus the fun part of reminiscing and celebrating. The audio industry as a whole seemed to be waiting for the other shoe to drop; and as we all know, the other shoe dropped in a major way last fall. The mood in the hallways of this year's audio exhibits seemed to be the exhilaration of survival: those who could afford to attend had survived the worst of things. Those who didn't, simply stayed home.

I rush to point out that such is my simplistic take on things, and I can point to no press release or statistics to back up my pronouncements. Take it or leave it, but that's how it felt to me.

Something that's rarely pointed out in show-reports is that the business of CES is indeed BUSINESS, not just who can put on the biggest show or have the best sound. Exhibitors are there in order to meet with their current dealers or distributors, and to try and pick up new ones. Because of that, exhibitors often spend all but a few hours on duty in their room, and may have little chance to see other exhibits. I've been there and can vouch for the fact that it's frustrating, rather like being within sight and scent of a five-star restaurant while having to make do with a granola bar, a banana, and bottled water--all of which happen to be common fare during show-duty.

Those of us not chained to a single room have a different problem: how on earth can you see everyone, and get a sense of which new products deserve further attention? Between CES, THE and off-site exhibitors at the Mirage and elsewhere, Audiogon Amy and I had nearly 400 rooms to visit. Did we get to them all? Almost, but not quite. Did we sit and luxuriate in exquisite sound and superb performances in every room?

Are you insane? The pace required reminded me of my days as a UPS driver. Visiting 400 rooms in the four days of the shows required hitting 100 per day, and even with the 10 hours per day which was common, that meant changing rooms EVERY SIX MINUTES. Factor in transit time and the occasional meal other than a granola bar, and you can forget about lounging around with Diana Krall. You can also forget about hearing every room, much less hearing every room at its best. There's a reason why show-reportage is assembled from the reports of a bunch of folks: no single person could do it, much less do it well.

Despite the manic pace, this year's trip to Vegas had some remarkable moments for me. In the next installment (or two, or three...we'll see) I'll quit bellyaching, and talk about those moments, and what it is that makes working in high end audio worthwhile.