Sound & Vision • Introduction

by Roy Gregory | March 9, 2012

The UK show scene has been in decline -- and more recently in disarray, since the demise of the Hi-Fi News-sponsored Heathrow Show. While we can debate the reasons for Heathrow’s fall from grace, it’s an unpalatable fact that none of the alternative offerings has really stepped up to the mark and filled the void left by the autumn show. Whittlebury Hall shows promise as a venue, but now is not the best time or the economic climate in which to be building a new, UK national audio show, no matter what you write on the banners, show guide and website.

Cartoon by Dave Davies.

Yet, despite the trials and tribulations of our national event, the Bristol Sound & Vision Show has taken place every February for the last 25 years, and for the last ten of those it’s been consistently the best-attended event in the UK. Shouldn’t that make it the de facto "national audio show"? If it was only down to numbers, then yes, without a doubt. Unfortunately, life isn’t quite that simple, and understanding both the Bristol Show’s enduring popularity and its issues means looking a little closer at its nature, because it is (now more than ever) a dealer show.

Originally organized by a triumvirate of West Country dealers (Audio Excellence, Radfords and Audio T, each with multiple branches), the event started with a bang as a genuine alternative to the Hi-Fi News show. But over the years, withdrawals, mergers and sell-offs have left Audio T as effectively the last men standing, having consumed their erstwhile partners Audio Excellence and also Practical Hi-Fi along the way. With a grand total of 24 stores spread across England and Wales, that should make them the power in this far-from-large land. But with fifteen stores now trading as Sevenoaks licencees (making them part of a central buying group), the group as a whole has become resolutely middle market. Show sponsor What Hi-Fi? magazine is the UK’s premier electronics buying guide, but the subtitle "Sound and Vision" says it all, with serious hi-fi barely troubling their pages. With a buying guide and the various stores driving the footfall, it’s hardly surprising that not a single serious high-end distributor is listed among the exhibitors. With discounts offered on all sales made at the show, there’s also precious little incentive for anybody to exhibit if their products are not stocked by the Audio T group.

Let’s be clear about this -- the show is organized by Audio T and it is up to them how they run it. They choose to use it as a vehicle to drive sales by the most direct means possible. They don’t choose to put entertainment, education or the creation of a national audio show at the top of their list of priorities -- all of which I completely understand. But if that is what you want from this show, then you are going to be disappointed -- as well as being misguided. Factor in the dismal UK economy and the way the middle market has died without so much as a parting sigh, and the sales imperative has reached a new level of intensity. If you want an instant barometer for the state of hi-fi sales on the UK high street, look no further than the Bristol Show -- and on this evidence, the outlook is sitting somewhere to the stormy side of unsettled.

Add all these things together and anybody anticipating exciting high-end product launches in Bristol was going to be predictably disappointed. But that’s not to say that there weren’t new products to see -- it’s just that the nature of those new products tells its own story.

First and foremost, it was easier to count the companies that weren’t offering some form of media player/streamer/USB DAC solution than those that were. With huge areas given over to the Denon & Marantz Airplay promotion and Naim’s Uniti range, it was hard to miss the point, but every other stand or room seemed to offer its own particular take on the computer-audio theme. Unfortunately, while this demonstrates that the industry has at last recognized the way the wind is blowing, the products on show also indicate that, in time-honored fashion, it’s scrabbling to jump on a bandwagon that has already departed. Elvis, as they say, has already left the building -- and on this showing, the majority of the hi-fi industry hasn’t managed to catch a lift on his coattails.

The second truth universally acknowledged is that the audio world can never have enough speakers. With models from suspects old, new, usual and in some cases unusual too, there was no shortage of unfamiliar boxes on show. Some of them sounded good (notably the diminutive PMC twenty.22 -- and the even smaller Neat IOTA), or offered the sort of technological explanation that demands further attention (the new Dali Epicon 6 or Wilson Benesch Square speakers -- an older model that I missed the first time round). But it was hard to avoid the conclusion that far too many were simply making up the numbers. It was a feeling that extended to the exhibitors themselves, many exuding an air of impending doom, perhaps reflecting that if a dealer does go down, it’s often the manufacturers that end up out of pocket.

The best news is that traffic seemed to be up on last year, and sales definitely were, so even if the UK economy isn’t out of the woods just yet, there are faint glimmers of hope somewhere amongst the gloom. The public is clearly more optimistic than the manufacturers, but then I guess it depends just what you are manufacturing -- and who you’ve been manufacturing it for. Meanwhile, reports that UK dealers are dead might be greatly exaggerated -- I’m just not sure that on this showing I’d move them too far from the ICU.

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