I attended CES 2020 — probably my last as it seems that Specialty Audio, once the show’s raison d’etre, is really no longer a part of it, at least in any significant way. There are many views as to why this is. Some blame the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), but as a participant in this annual event (once bi-annual) since the early 70s, I feel strongly that the CTA and its CES did not abandon Specialty Audio. Quite the opposite: Specialty Audio abandoned the CES.
The purpose of this piece is not to debate that point, but rather to share some of my fond memories about the show through the years. I attended my first CES when I was a student at Johns Hopkins in the late 60s. It was held at a hotel in New York and I was able to get in because one of my father’s clients was exhibiting. I was like a kid in a candy shop, and my clearest memory was the huge Fisher exhibit. My first CES as an exhibitor was in 1974, when I was just starting Polk Audio along with my friends Matt Polk and George Klopfer. We were actually building speakers for a company in Washington, D.C. under the Audio Project moniker. They had secured space in the basement of McCormick Place and we had cooked up 5 or 6 different loudspeaker models. I remember the drive out to Chicago, excitedly postulating how many thousands of speakers we were going to sell at the show. We sold zero but had excellent traffic in our booth, as it was right next to one featuring a prominent porn star of the time, Marilyn Chambers of Behind the Green Door fame, who was on a swing.
Our first CES as Polk Audio was in 1975, I believe. We did not officially participate, but rather “outboarded” the show as many did in the day and continue to do even today. We had originally planned to show at the Playboy Club Hotel, but there was an issue with our credit card. That year, Specialty Audio in general outboarded the show and were camped out at the Bismarck Hotel, famous for its breakfasts and German Egg Pancakes with lingonberries. At that point we had become quite friendly with Saul Marantz and Jon Dahlquist. I spoke with Saul, and he suggested that we come over and set up shop at the Bismarck along with other Specialty Audio companies of the day like Bozak, McIntosh, and Nakamichi, and that turned out to be very significant for the development of our company. Also, it was thrilling for newbies like us to come down to breakfast and see Saul Marantz, Rudy Bozak, Gordon Gow, and the rest of the gang sitting there.
That was what became known as the Summer CES, after the Winter shows started in 1976, at the Hilton Hotel in Chicago in January. (Yes, there was a Winter CES in Chicago for a short time.) Whew, Chicago in January can be brutal, and that year was extreme even for Chicago. We did not show, but I attended, and made the mistake of staying at the Bismarck because I had so enjoyed it the summer before. The Bismarck was something of a haul from the Hilton, which normally would not have been a problem, but the taxis were not running due to the cold and I had to walk it. Brrrrr!
Sandy Gross, Matthew Polk, and George Klopfer during the early days of Polk Audio.
For some years, the Bismarck became something of the unofficial home for high-end audio at the Summer CES, which was great. I have many interesting stories from the Bismarck. One year we showed the Oasis Fluid Drive Turntable, which we were considering distributing (yes, then as now, I was a crazed audiophile). Another significant memory involved Godehard Guenther of ADS, who was introducing a range of electronics he was having manufactured in Korea. I remember him banging a table and declaring, “This new line will either make me or break me!” ADS was very successful with loudspeakers, but Godehard was correct — the new line broke him. At some point, the Show decided to try to bring high-end audio back into the fold and designated the Pick Congress for the High-End Audio Exhibits. I fondly remember the big banner in the front of the hotel announcing this news. Not too many years before, I attended demonstrations during the Democratic Convention in Grant Park, across the street from the Pick. I took special delight in the fact that High-End Audio was now being heralded boldly on Michigan Avenue, the same street I had run down trying to avoid Chicago cops intent on smashing my head in.
Then came Las Vegas. In a bold and obviously successful move, the CES fathers (Jack Wayman et al.) decided to move the winter show to Las Vegas in 1976. The first year, I again outboarded. I had reserved a suite at the Royal Las Vegas, and hauled in a pair of speakers, an amp, and a Thorens turntable as I recall. But when I got to the hotel, I was informed that they did not have my suite. Apparently, one of the owners of Threshold had connections with the hotel and had taken my suite away. Oh well! I set up in a room and made the best of it. One fond memory of that first year was meeting Paul McGowan of PS Audio, who has been a lifelong friend. I remember sitting out by the pool with Paul, sampling some Polk Special Blend.
The Winter Show grew and grew. In a move to cater to high-end audio (and although many disagree, they have always been supportive), the CES at some point made the Jockey Club a dedicated high-end audio venue. I remember one interesting encounter at the Jockey Club which speaks to the very special and unique nature of some high-end audio companies. Going down the elevator, I bumped into an acquaintance who started an amplifier company and had just received a terrific review in Audio magazine. As we descended, he asked for my advice with a problem. “Sandy, I have had two dealers approach me to buy and sell my amplifier, but I don’t know if I can actually build it. What should I do?”
One tradition that I started at Polk, and then continued after I left, was massive dealer dinners. Someone had mentioned at some point that they were jealous of the big stores that always got taken out to dinner at the shows, so I came up with the idea of inviting all of our dealers to dinner, which started out small, but grew to enormous proportions over the years. I remember in the beginning I had the concept of going to a different restaurant every night. Clearly a mistake, however in Chicago we finally settled on Biggs, an old mansion-style French restaurant, taking over the entire place for several nights.
Definitive Technology BP 10 launch at Chicago summer CES, 1990. Left to right: Sandy Gross, Anne Conaway, and Murray Zeligman.
I had many interesting experiences at Biggs, but one of the most unique occurred one evening when I saw several guests that looked a little different than our normal group. Since I did not recognize them, I approached and asked what dealer they were with. They said that they were not with a dealer but had met a young lady from one of our dealers who had invited them to the party. I nicely informed them that this was a private party and asked them to leave. After they left, one of my friends came up to me and said, “Sandy, do you know who that was?” I said,”No.” He then told me, “That was John Holmes.” John was a very popular, and apparently famous, porn star of the day. In fact, the CES used to include a porn convention, and the initial success of the VCR was to play porn.
During that period, we chose Chateau Vegas for our dinners at the Las Vegas Show and, as with Biggs, many remember it well to this day. Huge heaping platters of duck, lamb, beef, chicken, lobster, and more served family style and enough to feed twice as many people as were there. I think the idea was that the help at Chateau Vegas took home what we didn’t eat, and there was always plenty left. I also began my tradition of opening night at Piero’s, a Rat Pack-era dark Italian restaurant &dashj; probably once with Mafia connections — back when it was one of the few good spots in town. Sinatra and Deano apparently agreed. In the early days of the show, everyone was there opening night. I remember Bernie Mitchell, President of Pioneer in its heyday, holding court there. This year, as always, I was at Piero’s for the opening night of CES.
I left Polk in 1988, ostensibly to make movies, but then returned to the industry to launch a new loudspeaker company, Definitive Technology, in 1990. It’s my opinion that the CES is a gift to our industry and has always presented fledgling companies like mine with a tremendous opportunity. It’s been very significant to the success of all three of my companies.
We launched Definitive at the Summer CES in a suite at the McCormick Inn Hotel in 1990. As with Polk in 1974, we drove out to Chicago with a van filled with gear, including our prototype BP 10 loudspeakers. Anne Conaway was part of the launch, along with Murray Zeligman, who had worked on the prototypes. I remember that we were using some huge tube amps, along with a prototype turntable that a friend of ours, Frank Rizzello, had designed. Luckily, we brought a spare solid-state amp, as at some point one of the tube amps blew up, shooting pieces of the molten exploding tubes up at the ceiling. Unlike my first showing back in 1974, that year we signed up 50 dealers right out of the gate. (I remember hearing that one of our competitors remarked to a dealer, “My speaker is much better than Sandy’s and dealers are just taking it on because they had done business with Sandy for so many years.”) Years later, GoldenEar Technology had similar success at our debut showing, although now with much more advanced speaker designs.
The Summer Show did not last too much longer, but the Winter Show in Las Vegas certainly picked up steam. Specialty Audio at that point was housed at the Riviera, and then later there were two venues: the Hilton Convention Center (later moved to South Hall) for Home Theater, and the Alexis Park for Specialty High-End Audio. At that point in time I was on the CES Advisory Committee, which met once a year in New York. I remember the meetings well, as they were old-style with a full bar at lunch. There were excited debates regarding the possibility of moving CES to New York, which was simply a logistical impossibility, as well as a heated debate about the CES building freestanding sound rooms on the show floor for demos. I particularly remember Bill Johnson of Audio Research getting up and leaving in a huff, declaring the impossibility of achieving good sound in these freestanding rooms. Honestly, I never had a problem. I have to admit that I was the one responsible for suggesting the addition of a fifth day to the show, which did not last long.
My favorite story from this era is one involving Jim Bongiorno (Bongo Jim as he was lovingly known) of Ampzilla fame. Jim required that we sign a confidential non-disclosure agreement before meeting with us one evening after the show had closed in our demo room at the Hilton. He had a concept for what he thought would be a revolutionary product that he wanted us to build and market. His concept was that different speaker positions were ideal for different music, and he conceived of building a complicated track system that would be installed in one’s listening room and programmed by the user for their music to automatically move a pair of speakers around the room to ideal positions for each different track. I could not keep a straight face, nor stop laughing. It was as funny as when an “inventor” once called up suggesting that we build speakers for coffins to entertain the departed in their afterlife. We eventually set up our CES dinners at the Mayflower, sometimes hosting over 150 people a night, and the food was always terrific. Theresa, Tony, and their mom later moved to a higher-end location at the Palazzo, and finally opened Fu at the Hard Rock, which will be closing in February. I got to dine there twice this year at CES, and the food was as good as ever.
Sandy Gross and daughter Wendi at the Venetian in Las Vegas.
I never showed at the Alexis Park. Since Definitive Technology was a larger company, we showed at the South Hall (built over the former location of Chateau Vegas). One exciting year was when they erected our sound room with the wrong orientation and had to tear it down and rebuild it. This caused a major delay and we were up all night before the show opened attempting to set up…aargh. In 2007, Specialty High-End Audio moved to the Venetian hotel, and I thought this was absolutely terrific. As I have said and will say again, CTA (known as CEA back then) has always gone out of its way to cater to our market segment. The Venetian was a class act, with terrific suites where we could achieve terrific sound, at least from my perspective. When we successfully launched GoldenEar Technology in 2010, we took a suite at the Venetian for a closed-door, invitation-only peek at what we were thinking of doing. Response was fantastic, and the following year we were back at the Venetian, amps glowing and speakers singing sweetly. Similar to when we launched Polk, dealers and distributors instantly signed up and away we went. At that time, CES at the Venetian was the world’s premier showplace for High-End Audio, and dealers and distributors from all over the world flocked there to see and hear the latest and greatest. GoldenEar continued to actively show at the Venetian until 2017, and we still had suites in 2018 and 2019. This year, after our acquisition by AudioQuest, we were back again making music. But few audio companies remained.
What happened? As I mentioned, many blame the organizers of CES, but I disagree. Basically, the skyrocketing hotel costs kept many dealers away. This was really not the fault of the organizers, unless you blame them for creating a show that became so successful that hotels could charge whatever they wanted. I always thought that what they provided us with was first-class and fairly priced. The other issue that hurt the show from the Specialty Audio perspective was the rise of the High-End Show in Munich, Germany. That show is now one where distributors from all over the world go rather than Vegas. When the dealers and distributors stopped coming, so did the manufacturers. Sigh….But CES was a great run and great fun while it lasted.