T.H.E. Show Newport 2016: Introduction

All my measurement gear packed up and ready to go.

Though I've been involved with headphones since 1992 when I founded HeadRoom and have advertised to the world of high-end audio enthusiasts in the pages of Stereophile for almost 20 years thereafter, I'd always felt an outsider to the traditional two-channel audio enthusiast world.

Sure, I went to various trade shows over the years, but being a direct to consumer store I never got to know any of the distributors or industry movers and shakers. In the early years especially, evangelizing headphones to audiophiles hell bent on big speaker rigs was rather akin to creating a door in a brick wall with my head.

Fortunately, in another universe (on-line), the headphone hobby grew like gangbusters and soon I found myself with a viable market outside the normal audiophile world channels, complete with it's own shows (meets that eventually became CanJams) and on-line communities. It's there I call home.

Eventually, the headphone enthusiast activity became so large and thriving that the audiophile world began to take note and embrace their little brother...weird though he might be. Evidence? John Atkinson hired me to run InnerFidelity—a headphone enthusiast website in Stereophile's Home Tech group—and Richard Beers and Bob Levy began to include a headphone exhibit area at T.H.E. Show Newport.

For me, the acceptance of headphones into the fold at T.H.E. Show Newport was a milestone; the beginning of a new chapter...maybe. I sure as heck was willing to support it, so I was "in" for this year's sow months in advance. In addition to making plans to attend the show, I also arranged to do some measurements of my head at Harman's research labs.

Unfortunately...very unfortunately...this year marked the passing of Richard Beers, and Bob Levy and crew had their work cut out for them just to carry on without Richard's lion hearted leadership. One of the casualties of this tumult was the headphone component of the show did not happen. I'm not privy to the details, but almost certainly the plethora of headphone events in Souther California last year made yet another headphone event likely to deliver a poorer turn-out than normal.

By the time I learned Newport would not be as rich with headphone vendors as I would have liked, I had already made my arrangements at Harman—which is a project I hold dear. And I'll be damned if I was going to bail on T.H.E. Show Newport...I wanted to show support for Richard and his legacy. So I went regardless.

Professionally speaking, this year's show was disappointing for me. Even the CanLanta regional meet held more interesting headphone displays than Newport. But personally...it was a blessing to my heart. Over the last five year attending T.H.E. Show Newport I've made numerous good friends in the traditional audiophile world. It was lovely to catch up with Scott Hull of The Part-Time Audiophile, Brian Hunter of Audio-Head, Malachi Kenney (who's about to start a new project of his own), and many others. (Though I missed not seeing Johnny Darko of Digital Audio Review who was not present.)

I mention these folks as I talk about feeling an outsider finding a welcoming open door at Newport because I think they—and a number of others—represent a new guard entering the high-end audio world. For too long the traditional audiophile world has been somewhat insular. I think Richard and Bob have done an outstanding job not only by building what seems to me the most fun high-end audio show around, but also building an event the is inclusive and willing to embrace new, young ideas and people into the fold.

I've been hearing about the eventual death by old age of the high-end audiophile world ever since I became aware of the segment two decades ago. T.H.E. Show Newport is pretty clear evidence to the contrary. The high-end as it appears there seems pretty healthy to me. Thank you, Richard and Bob, for bring a whole lot of fun to what otherwise might be just another endless meander through stuffy hallways going from one room to the next.

And thank you, Richard Beers, for carrying one hell of a load as this industry has struggled to survive through difficult times.

Richard Beers
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Richard didn't wear a mask. His face would always show you his true feelings...interpreting it was up to you.

My remembrance of Richard Beers will be weak sauce compared to many others, but I feel I've got to give it a shot. As I said, I'm a bit of an outside in this business, so I didn't know him well. So, I'll keep it short and to the point...something he would have appreciated.

T.H.E. Show in Las Vegas
I've been going to CES for the past 20+ years. As CEO of HeadRoom, a direct sales organisation, we had no need to show our wares to dealers and distributors, so we never exhibited. I went to CES to keep my finger on the pulse of what was happening in the world of audio electronics; to find out what was new and up-coming.

CES is a terrifically expensive show in which to exhibit. New, small, innovative companies have a very hard time affording the show, and high-end audio has quite a few new, small, innovative companies popping up regularly. How in the world can these small firms afford the big bucks of CES to put their wares in front of the press, dealers, and distributors? This is a big hurdle for small companies.

Enter Richard Beers. T.H.E. Show in Las Vegas was held at the same time as CES, in a hotel right next door to the high-end CES exhibitors, but was not officially a part of CES. Some people call this a "scab show." I call it a blessing.

My practice visiting CES has always been to:

  • Visit the main convention center first to see what the headphone manufacturers are doing. These are typically big companies that play to the wider consuming public, so they end up in the chaos of the big halls. Better to get this out of the way while you're fresh.
  • Then I'd go to the main high-end audio section the see what the bigger players are up to. For a long, long, long time, there was nothing about headphones to see here. That's begun to change...but only a little.
  • Then, saving best for last, I'd go visit T.H.E. Show. Because it was less expensive for exhibitors, you never knew what was going to show up. It was here that I first started seeing high-end headphone stuff appear...and all sorts of other new and interesting things.

It's my opinion that T.H.E. Show Las Vegas was a linch-pin event that boosted small, hungry companies over the hump to get exposure in a cost effective manner. I would have loved to hear Richard's thoughts about it, but I feel he, almost single-handedly, floated the boat of small innovative companies by hosting this event. To my eyes, T.H.E. Show Las Vegas was glue to hold the high-end together at CES. With its exit from CES last year, I worry about CES remaining relevant to high-end audio.

I'm not the only one, you can read more in Bill Leebens' article in PS Audio's Copper, "I am so Over CES."

My one personal story about Richard
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It was the first year of T.H.E. Show Newport in 2011 when I got a call from Bob Levy about 4 months prior to the show. He asked me if I'd come cover T.H.E. Show Newport for InnerFidelity.com, and sit on a headphone panel they were working on. I told him I was unsure if it would be a good fit with InnerFidelity readers as it wasn't really a headphone show. He said they wanted to be inclusive and would endeavor to make it attractive to headphone enthusiasts, and my presence would help in that regard. I came back with uncertainty and a tight budget. He responded with "certainty is partly in your hands" and screw your budget, we'll pay for your travel. I acquiesced.

Shortly thereafter, I got a call from Richard. Where did I live? ("Montana! Who the hell lives in Montana?) What time of day and which days do you want to fly? (I had him add a few days at either end so I could visit some other companies in L.A.) Do you want a room in the nice hotel, or do you want to be in the older one where the cool kids hang out...and where you can smoke on your balcony? Um...I'll stay with the cool kids. Ticket and hotel confirmations arrived shortly.

I started scrounging around for visits to other companies in L.A. and ended up with a pretty good list: DTS on Headphone:X; Harman to chat about there current effort to develop a headphone target response curve; Audeze to get some lessons on planar magnetic circuits; and one or two more.

Plans slowly shaped up and I had a schedule together about three weeks prior to the event...and then I started to think: "How the heck was I going to get all around L.A. for these visits?" Taxi cabs, I suppose, but I've lived in L.A. before and knew that would be an expensive and logistically difficult. I dawned on me that with L.A.'s lane splitting laws, my motorcycle would be a much faster and less expensive mode of transport.

Shit. I bet Richard would be unable to cancel the ticket. Ergh. I called him and spoke about my dilemma. It was indeed a non-refundable ticket. I didn't know what to say. Then Richard spoke...

"Look Tyll, I get it, your bike would be a much better way to get around. Don't worry about the ticket, I'll take care of it. You just get your ass here and do what you do."

And that was it; problem solved. Didn't make me feel good about screwing him over for a plane ticket, but now I had a workable plan.

The moment I arrived at T.H.E. Show Newport I hunted Richard down to apologize. When he saw me he glanced down, scruched up his face a bit and shook his head, and then looked me square in the eyes. I apologized. He paused a moment pursing his lips, and then a crooked smile and a twinkle in his eyes appeared.

"You knucklehead, you need to plan ahead better next time."

"You bet I will, Richard."

"Yes, I bet you will. (A momentary raised eyebrow and stare to warm the back of my eyeballs.) Now, go to the office and get your meal and drink tickets from Lucette. Then have fun, take lots of pictures, and do a good job."

"Yes, sir!" (My 2011 T.H.E. Show Newport report.)

And with a wink and a nod he was on to the next minor crisis.

In the years since I've had the opportunity to chat with Richard numerous times. I'm really not a fan of bullshit, blowhards, and artifice...which is to say, I really enjoyed my times with Richard. He was about as cuddly as bag of razor blades, but he was the no shit real deal. A rich/complex/imperfect human doing his double-damned best working with others to make our industry work, and trying to deliver a good time as well...because if you're not having fun while you work then why bother?

I missed him a great deal this year.

For much better remembrances see T.H.E. Show's remembrance (the comments make me teary-eyed), Scott Hull's Part-time Audiophile post, and Bill Leebens' Audio Cynic remembrance.

Rest in Peace, Richard.