Demo Doubts

As I was going through some old trade show photos earlier this week, it dawned on me that a lot of the products I’d photographed and subsequently reviewed turned out to be quite different from what I’d been led to expect by the demo. Sometimes products that sounded amazing at a show didn’t sound so great when I actually got a real production sample into my home. Sometimes products I had doubts about turned out to be real overachievers. Yet one photo made me realize that certain trade show demos can be accurate predictors of a product’s performance.

The reasons why trade show demos so often don’t reflect how a product really sounds are numerous. Everyone realizes that the acoustics of a trade show demo environment — usually a hotel room or a prefab sound room on a show floor — differ radically from those of a typical home. (Usually the acoustics at a trade show demo are much worse than those of the average living room.) And everyone realizes that the gear at a trade show is set up to its best advantage, and demonstrated with music or movies that show off the product’s strengths and veil its weaknesses.

What you may not realize, though, is that the products demonstrated at trade shows often aren’t as good as the ones you buy in a store. Sometimes the samples of new products you hear at a show are the only ones that exist. Often they’re road-weary, beaten up from repeated shipping. I’ve known of a few instances of manufacturers finishing work on a prototype in the morning and shipping it out for the show that afternoon, then flying out to the show the next day.

Dealer demos — an increasingly rare treat as more and more audio gear is sold online — can also present an inaccurate representation of a product’s capabilities. As at a trade show, the acoustical environment is different, although it’s likely to be a lot better than at a show and — if it’s a top-notch dealer — probably better than in your home. The dealer will certainly at least start the demo with material that flatters the gear he or she is trying to sell you.

But a photo (above) from the CanJam section of the recent Rocky Mountain Audio Fest reminded me that some trade show and dealer demos can give you an accurate portrayal of a product performance. I’m currently in the middle of a test of several over-the-ear headphones for the print version of Sound+Vision, and I’ve been surprised and heartened to hear how closely my impressions of these headphones square with what I heard at RMAF.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, though. Headphones aren’t like speakers and amps; they’re more the product of mass production, and thus harder to piece together at the last minute for a trade show demo. Once you slip those ’phones on, the environment doesn’t much matter. Sure, if you’re listening to open-back headphones, some noise from the show can intrude on your demo, but by and large it’s just your ears and the headphones. (Besides, the floor at CanJam was eerily quiet.) Even if the bozo next to you wants to gab with the manufacturer while you’re listening, it’s not much of a problem.

So while trade show and dealer demos can give you a rough indication of what a product might sound like, you really don’t know until you get it into your home. Unless, of course, it’s a set of headphones.