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Positive Feedback ISSUE 63
september/october 2012


Diary of a Mad Exhibitor: The Third Annual California Audio Show
by Marc Phillips


Have I mentioned that Texas is incredibly hot in the summer, and that "summer" usually lasts about six months? Fortunately I work in the high-end audio industry, and I always have an opportunity to escape the heat about halfway through the season to attend some audio-related event held in cooler climes. Last year I was able to spend my August birthday attending a Music Night at Dave and Carol Clarks' home in Long Beach (an event which was blessed by a welcome chill in the evening air), and Colleen and I followed that up with the Brooks Berdan Memorial service in Monrovia (much warmer, but still far more temperate than drought-ravaged Central Texas circa 2011).

We'd spend early mornings and evenings walking along the shore, Queen Mary in the background, still dressed minimally for the Texas heat, and someone would invariably ask us "Aren't you guys cold?"

"Yes we are!" we'd answer excitedly. "We're soaking it all up and taking it back with us!"

This year Colleen and I had a chance to attend the Third Annual California Audio Show in August, again during my birthday week. (I reached one of those big, ugly round numbers this year.) When we heard it was being held in San Francisco, the decision was immediately made to go and enjoy another week-long respite from yet another triple-digit summer. I kept thinking about that famous Mark Twain quote, the one about summers in the Bay Area, and I told Colleen I couldn't think of a better birthday present.

So far, every trade show for Colleen Cardas Imports has been slightly different in terms of the level of our participation. The California Audio Show, therefore, was the first event where we supported a specific dealer, as opposed to supporting a manufacturer or ourselves. Our San Francisco dealer, AudioVision SF, had booked four rooms for the show, and we represented just one of many brands being demonstrated. Antonio and Randy from AudioVision selected our Unison Research Simply Italy and Unico Secondo integrated amplifiers, as well as our Unico CD Primo CD player, to be used with Kef speakers, a Musical Surroundings phono preamp, a Clearaudio analog rig and Nordost cabling. It sounded simple enough.

Since they already had these pieces in stock, Colleen and I literally just had to show up with our suitcases, a couple of banners and a box full of brochures. We didn't need to stuff our Expedition to the gills with amps, speakers and source components as usual. We didn't need to drive a thousand miles in a day to get to the show on time. By all accounts, it was going to be the easiest show we'd ever done. We just had to show up, look cute and talk to show attendees. (Colleen nailed it; I had to settle for two out of those three.) We did volunteer to help with set-up and tear-down. But do you know how long it takes to unpack and install two integrated amps and a CD player? I think we stretched it out to a half hour just to look absolutely thorough and professional. I even used a spirit level at one point. I'm not sure why, but I did.

We mated our components to the brand spankin' new Kef LS50 monitors, which happened to be having their US debut. Evidently this was a big deal. Once the show opened its doors, I quickly realized everyone was there to see the little Kefs and not our wonderful, visually stunning Italian amplifiers and our beautiful, sexy Italian CD player. Didn't everyone know that the only reason the Kefs sounded so good was that they were being driven by our outstanding electronics? I'd walk over to the Kefs and sneer at them, thinking "You little brats think you're something special, eh?" I kept thinking of Uncle Monty in Withnail and I, and how he hated geraniums with such a passion. "Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is, you'll agree, a certain 'je ne sais quoi' oh so very special about a firm, young carrot."

In many ways, speakers are the tarts of the audio world. No one walks into a show room, listens briefly and then proclaims, "Now that's a great tonearm!" The Kefs, as far as I was concerned, were spoiled, precocious little upstarts. They were receiving way too much attention.

Colleen, of course, already knew all of this would happen. "I represented cables for twenty years," she explained. "Cables get even less respect than amplifiers." She's right. At trade shows, everyone is there to see the speakers. Everyone talks about how great the Wilson Audio Alexandria XLF room is, or the Magico Q7 room, or the YG Acoustics Anat III room. If you told a show attendee to check out the Ypsilon amplifier room, that it was something really special, I'd bet dollars to donuts that they'd ask, "What speakers are they using?"

At the same time, people in the industry often complain that it's really difficult to market speakers, especially when they're from a new company. Colleen and I have been approached to import and distribute a number of new speaker brands, and the solicited advice we usually receive tends to come from the "it's-so-hard-to-do-speakers-these-days" camp. First of all, it's incredibly expensive to ship large speakers all over the world. For the price of sending a large pair of floorstanding speakers from Europe to the US, you can buy a pretty decent pair of US-made bookshelf monitors outright. Second, there are so many speaker brands out there, and these days the vast majority of them sound pretty darned good—or else they wouldn't last in the marketplace. So how does a new speaker manufacturer convince both dealers and retail customers to buy their speaker, and not something from a well-known, established company such as Magnepan or Vandersteen or B&W…or Kef?

It seems that everyone wants to listen to speakers, and no one wants to write the checks for them. A lot of it has to do with the almost infinite amount of variety in speaker design, and how that relates to the sonic results. Is the average retail customer absolutely sure that the Maggie sound or the Wilson sound or the Magico sound is the right sound for them? If they buy something today, will they hear something even better tomorrow? And what will happen if they make a buying decision based upon an actual audition—even if it is at an audio trade show—and their audiophile buddies ridicule them for it? This type of thinking drives dealers and manufacturers absolutely crazy. Audiophiles, indeed, are famous for never buying anything because they want to ensure they've heard everything first. And it all starts with choosing the right speakers.

So maybe I should stop feeling so neglected and ignored when it comes to my amplifiers and CD players. First, the Kef people at the California Audio Show seemed awfully stressed out—it was obvious they had a lot riding on these little speakers. Colleen and I sat back, relaxed, and answered questions about Unison Research. We actually felt the love a couple of times when some industry people told us they were able to hear past the speakers and truly appreciate our products. It really did turn out to be an easy show for us. Second, those little Kefs were really, really good. They're only $1499 a pair. People will buy a great pair of $1499 speakers. In fact, they did—AudioVisions SF pre-booked a few orders in advance of the LS50's September introduction. (Then again, on the final day we sold the Simply Italy integrated amplifier that was used for the show as well.)

Once Colleen and I had absorbed enough cool San Francisco temps to last us through the rest of August, we headed back to Texas. A shipment was waiting for us when we arrived—one that was coincidentally all loudspeakers. One of those boxes contained the very first pair of a new bookshelf speaker we're carrying. I immediately hooked them up and let them break in for a few days. I absolutely loved them. I've already had two people ask me if I prefer them to the new Kefs. I decided not to go there. The Kef people were nice enough, and I'm not going to start a war.

However, I did ask Colleen to set the US price for the little speakers. She smiled and said, "How about $1499 a pair?"

I smiled back and agreed. Business is business.