How to Make a Successful Show System

Looking at the the rooms that sounded good at this years 2008 CES show, one might wonder, if one has the time to wonder about things, if there are any commonalities between the rooms that sounded musical [by which we mean a system that is engaging and has an audiophile performance commensurate with the price].

But, looking at the rooms…

We CAN say that a lot of old wives tales [just who WERE those old wives, anyway?] and rules of thumb are not really rules that people should be paying a whole lot of attention to.

For example:

* Always use small speakers in a small room, and big speakers in a big room.

But the huge Evolution Acoustics speakers sounded just fine thank you in a tiny room, and the Classic Audio Productions horn speakers sounded darn good in the Atma-sphere room, and similarly the Hansens [though this year they did bring a somewhat smaller speaker]. Now, mind you, they didn’t try and turn the systems all The WAy UP – not while I was there – and I am sure they could overload the room just fine. But that capability can also be a real plus when you think about certain genres of music that can use a little volume. On the other hand, the Cessaro speakers in the Zanden room did feel a little too large – that the room was impacting too much on the music.

It seems much more true that small speakers in a large room do not fill the room satisfactorily – though the little Magicos can do well [you just need to drive the poop out of them] and many small speakers in the best of show rooms filled their side of the room quite nicely indeed.

OK, what other rules can we throw away 🙂

* It costs a lot of money to make a great sounding system

This one is easy. It takes a lot of money to make a great PERFORMING system, one that is at the leading edge of humanity’s ability to reproduce music, one that has all of the audiophile attributes associated with the ‘high-end’. But if someone just wants to enjoy listening to music on a system that sounds good – that is not embarrassingly offensive – that was not built by people just trying to put out product without any thought to the performance that CAN be achieved at their asking price – then this is possible at all price points.


And then there are rules that do seem to always apply [it is so like life to have some rules that work and some that are more flaky].

* Its hard to make a system sound good when the source equipment is severely compromised with respect to the rest of the equipment.

Many rooms had problems associated with source equipment that was almost an insult to the listeners – almost a ‘no one cares about how it is going to sound’ attitude. They used everything from DVD players to CD carousel players to iPods to laptops with cheap soundcards. EEEEwwwwww!!! They sounded… how shall we put it…. severely compromised.

This rule really is: Source components won’t Make a system, but they Can break it.

* Things like cables, equipment racks, power cords, etc. rarely make or break a system.

These are really ways to refine a system and get the most out of it as one can. But at a show – this level of attention to detail is appreciated, but systems can sound good at shows with cables and racks that we would not be caught dead using here.

* It is the amp / speaker combo that determines in large part what the system will sound like. This is what Makes a system.

If this ain’t right – well, might as well go home. Luckily a lot of combinations do work.

Sure would be nice though for some exhibitors to realize that their combo does Not work and try something different one of these years.


Shows are one great laboratory where one has a lot of experiments running at once – about 233+ of them.

OK, I’ll add to this list if we come up with some more lessons learned. A lot of the lessons have to do with training the ear – learning how things sound… low efficiency speakers, different kinds of solid-state amps, different kinds of speaker cabinets, different kinds of cables and… on and on.

The thing, for me, at this years show was being able to tell if the exhibitors paid attention to the details of system configuration. No, I probably couldn’t do this blind, but with the help of looking at a system, I think I can now hear how there are fewer problems in some systems, that they played with things enough, optimized things to a point where a lot of the things wrong with other people’s systems – things that one just accepts at a show like room problems, vibration-induced congestion, etc. were reduced quite a bit if the exhibitors spent some time on system setup.

Again, this didn’t Make or Break the system, perhaps, not going to turn a sleeper system into a Standout, but it did make the systems more enjoyable – and more likely to get on the Best of Show list when perhaps otherwise they would otherwise just be mediocre and kind of annoying.