Jeff FritzI’ve attended 11 of the last 12 Consumer Electronics Shows in Las Vegas, Nevada. I’ve been to Germany’s High End show (formerly in Frankfurt, now in Munich) for ten years running. I’ve done Rocky Mountain, Montreal, and I enjoyed several of the Stereophile shows way back in the day. I know audio shows pretty well. 

But I didn’t realize how much politics is involved in the systems heard at shows until I started planning the first The World’s Best Audio System event in 2008. I’ve just finalized the companies and products that will make up TWBAS 2012, which gave me another opportunity to ponder how high-end politics work. 

Super systems, of which there are usually five or six at each CES, are the most interesting to examine. In a perfect world, the assembly of a super audio system -- which, by definition, is cost-no-object -- for a trade or consumer show would seem to be straightforward: If you’re a manufacturer, you pick the absolute best ancillary components you can find that will best show off your product. 

The reality is not so simple. One issue is that manufacturers often need to share the cost of a room, and therefore must go hunting for partners only months before an important show. If a small company can’t afford a room of its own, partnering with two or three other companies is often the only way it can have a presence at the show. Finding a partner(s) that will help pay for the room and have people on location to help with setup is crucial. It should not be a surprise that, sometimes, cost realities and the need for a reliable partner trump system synergy. 

Sometimes, the cost of the room is no problem at all for a manufacturer because a distributor is involved that will share the cost. This is not a bad thing per se; if a distributor handles a certain loudspeaker brand, the hope is that it also distributes electronics and cables that will allow those speakers to be shown in the best possible light. But even if a distributor isn’t the best fit -- or the worst -- politics will affect the outcome: The distributor will look after its own brands first -- and who could blame it? Sometimes, the cost of a room is subsidized by all the companies the distributor represents; in such cases, the system is a fait accompli. In short, the system is basically set by preexisting business relationships, not by system synergy. 

Preexisting relationships can be an issue in other, less direct ways. I know of one case where an electronics manufacturer wanted to show its equipment with a certain speaker maker. The speaker company, relatively new, was doing quite well at the time -- its products were considered hot -- and the electronics firm rightly wanted to use a buzz-worthy product to draw attention to its own wares. The problem was that the electronics maker also shared several dealers with another, competing speaker company. When the competing company got wind of the potential pairing at an upcoming trade show, they had a straight-up hissy fit. Suffice it to say that, in this case, a preexisting relationship dictated what the electronics company’s show system would consist of -- and it did not include those hot new speakers. 

Fortunately for me -- and for the authenticity of the TWBAS 2012 project -- I didn’t need to take into account any relationships that may have existed among the makers of the products I was considering. I just did what I think any audiophile with an unlimited budget would do: I developed a shortlist based on what I thought would be the absolute best performers in each product category, then made my final decisions, having considered, among other things, which components I thought would sound best together. 

TWBAS 2012 is making for some odd bedfellows. First, two cable companies are represented in the system; both are very successful, and they naturally fiercely compete with each other. In TWBAS 2012 they are being asked to work together; fortunately, both are good sports, and agreed. Second, anyone who has ever assembled a high-end system knows that the pairing of amplifier(s) and loudspeakers is critical. Before now, the makers of the speakers and amplifiers that will be used in TWBAS 2012 had never worked together. But in my opinion, they should -- my chosen speakers and amps seem to be made for one another, at least based on my reasoning and experience. 

I’m not declaring that TWBAS 2012 is somehow inherently superior to any of the super systems at CES that you’ve heard or read about, but I do think the process of choosing the TWBAS 2012 companies is a bit broader and, ultimately, somewhat purer. You’ll be able to judge for yourself come January 8, when, live from CES 2012, we announce the system on SoundStage! Global. Hope you can join us for the fun. 

. . . Jeff Fritz