We Screw Up Sennheiser and Insult Some Big Guys
Okay. Have any of you guys been to a trade show?
If you have, you’re probably groaning and nodding your head right now. You also may be sheepishly recalling some boozy 4AM nights out, when you knew you had to be in the booth the next morning at 9AM sharp. If that’s the case, skip the next few paragraphs, unless you want a particularly snarky take on what trade shows are actually about.
On Trade Shows
Trade shows are where people come together a meet, face-to-face and in-person, to demonstrate products that are usually targeted at a specific niche. Yes. As in the companies actually fly people from all over the world to get together, swap flu strains, go out to expensive and uncomfortable company dinners, embarrass themselves by drinking too much in front of current and prospective customers, chase union labor trying to find their products and their booth, bribe union labor to make sure they get their stuff first, work like dogs to set up and tear down the exhibits, stand on your feet all day and try not to look miserable as people talk crap about your company as they walk by, clean up after the one guy whose hangover got a little out of hand, lose the briefcase of the new CFO in your booth storage, get new pants when you realize your stuff doesn’t actually work (or blows up in front of your biggest prospect), and be derided by all your co-workers for being chosen to go on such a wonderful vacation on company expense.
Sounds like paradise, doesn’t it? Well, for all the different kinds of shows they have, you wouldn’t think it was so bad. In addition to the big shows that everyone knows about, like CES, ComicCon and the various auto shows, some trade shows include:
- The Natural Food Expo
- The National Work Truck Association
- Conspiracy Con
- The National Coffin Exhibition
- The World Toilet Summit
Now, you might be thinking in this internet-driven, mobile-aware, Amazon-grocery-delivery day and age, trade shows are seeming like, well, a buggy whip shop in the automobile era. But they keep happening, again and again, despite advances in communications, TSA-mediated travel, and economic downturns.
Part of this is the “well, we can’t not be there” theory. As in, “Well, if we don’t show up, people might not think we’re doing so well, and all the competition is going to be there, and we might miss out on something important.” Hint: people know exactly how you’re doing, whether you’re there or not.
Part of this is the “I get to see all my old friends in the business” theory. Yeah, and if your company just flew them all out once a year, it would probably be cheaper than going through all the logistics of a show.
And part of this is the, “Hey, I wanna close some new biz,” theory. And this is still a pretty good theory if you’re on the distribution side of things. Stores and distributors do come to shows, and you may get a chance to meet with them there. You may even close a deal. But if you’re selling direct, that’s not a good bet.
So, let’s get this out of the way: if you’re selling direct and you’re at a trade show, you’d better (a) have something you want the press to see, or (b) really, really like trade shows.
So Why The Hell Did You Go?
So why get into this screed about trade shows? Because Can-Jam is part of the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, which is a trade show. It’s a lot less stressful and insane than being on the main floor at CES, but it’s still a trade show. We knew that going in. Centric has helped tons of companies produce, market, and exhibit at trade shows, from Semicon to SEMA, with budgets ranging into the quarter-million dollar range.
Yes. Read that again. A quarter million dollars. For one show. Audio, we got it easy. Now you see why I say it’d be cheaper to just fly your colleagues out.
And, during the course of my career, I’d been to about a dozen CESes. I’d set up complete systems while epically hung-over. I’d been the idiot wondering what I’d do when I had to get up the next day and talk to customers in a semi-coherent fashion. I’d done all the stupid. And then some.
So why did we go to exhibit with Sennheiser at RMAF Can-Jam that year? Simple:
- It was Sennheiser, like duh.
- We knew it was a smaller show, so how bad could it be?
- I thought I was smarter than those heavy-drinking days past.
- We were still only 4 months old as a company, and thought we might learn a thing or two.
There was one little snag. I was still working full-bore at Centric, and there was a client meeting I couldn’t get out of on Friday, the first day of Can-Jam. I could be there for the weekend, but not on the first, opening day.
No problem, I figured. Rina and I would fly in Saturday morning, but before that, I’d send two boxes—an Asgard and a Valhalla—to the show hotel, attention Sennheiser. They could grab them and set them up Friday, and we’d join them on Saturday.
(It’s funny, because looking back on it, I can only shake my head at all the things we missed—like “What sources would Sennheiser be using? Should we bring one?” and “How about signage?” and “What about literature?” And, and, and… If I’d had our trade show specialist at Centric running the show, she would have strung me up. Hell, she probably still would to this day.)
But hey, it was our first show. Jude was going to be there. The Sennheiser guys had a big outfit behind them. What could possibly go wrong?
Waiting While Rome Burns
As it usually is with such things, our flight was later than expected. Which meant we touched down in Denver International at about 11AM. Getting a rental car and going to the hotel ate another hour. So, all in all, it was about noon when we arrived. We grabbed our badges and headed for the show floor—but we hadn’t even walked into the Can-Jam ballroom before Jude came shooting out of the room, blinking in recognition.
“Hey, are you Jason?” he asked. “From Schiit?”
I barely had time to nod before Jude added, “Hey, I thought you were bringing some amps for Sennheiser.”
My stomach flipped over. What did he just say?
“I shipped them,” I croaked out.
“To this hotel, to Sennheiser’s attention.”
“Hmm, they didn’t find them.” Jude didn’t seem really upset, but my mind was still in full panic mode. The amps weren’t there? The Sennheiser amps? The ones they needed for the show? That SENNHEISER needed? Needed before half the show was over?
“I’ll go check at the desk,” Rina offered, and took off looking for the amps.
“Well, let’s go to the booth,” Jude said. “We got Sennheiser set up with some loaners, so it’s not the end of the world. I’m glad you guys could come…”
Maybe this would be alright, I thought, half-listening as I followed him into the room. Can-Jam was being held in a giant hotel ballroom. That year, it was set up as a series of tables along all the outer walls, with a few outrigger table clusters. There was also what looked like a band setting up in the large open area.
Jude saw my look. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” he told me. “It’s a set of instruments that play through headphones, so you can play live and not disturb anyone.”
And he was right. Over the next day and a half, people would beat on the drum pads and produce no noise other than an anemic thwack of a stick on a hunk of plastic. But they looked like they were having fun.
The Sennheiser booth was just another single table that year, as were most of the exhibits. The headphone revolution had only really started, and even Sennheiser seemed a little surprised to be there.
Sidenote: It’s really amazing how much the industry has grown up since then. Now, professional banners, backwalls, table graphics, custom tablecloths, and a much more carefully orchestrated presence are the order of the day.
They didn’t have anything other than the show-provided, block-printed SENNHEISER sign up on the black drape behind the table. Two guys stood there, hands behind their backs, in the classic I’m-bored-at-a-tradeshow pose. Another guy was hunched over in one of the two chairs that fronted the table, listening intently to the Sennheiser HD800s. On the table were some acrylic headphone stands holding a set of HD600s, the then-new HD598s, and a pair of wireless headphones—maybe the RS180s, I think. They were being driven by a small amp I didn’t recognize, connected to a massive CD player.
Jude made the introductions, while my mind raced on, full of doom-laden scenarios where the amps had gotten lost in transit, they wouldn’t be at the show, we’d lose even more face in front of Sennheiser, etc. I recall him saying something about how they’d borrowed another amp and the CD player to get them up and running. Disaster, total disaster.
But even then, Jude didn’t seem to think so. He took me over to the Head-fi booth, where an early Schiit fan was demoing an Asgard. That was cool, but all I really wanted was to deliver on what we promised to Sennheiser—a couple of amps. Now that we had the new metal from a different supplier, they were finally looking the way I wanted them to be, and I wanted to show them off, dangit!
That’s when Rina arrived—thankfully carrying a couple of familiar boxes.
“Got em,” she said.
“Great! Let’s get them to Sennheiser!” I double-timed it back over to the Sennheiser booth, where we started the process of swapping out the amps. Luckily, there were no hitches at all—the Asgard worked perfectly, and the Valhalla was soon happily glowing and powering the HD800s. The Sennheiser guys took a listen, nodded and said some nice words, and we were set.
Rina Runs the Company
“So, do you work for Sch…ah…I mean…ah…how do you pronounce it?” the lead Sennheiser guy asked Rina.
“Schiit,” she said. “Schiit Audio.”
Senn guy grinned, a little unsure of how to take it from there. Rina rescued him. “Yep, I make the products,” she told him.
“Make?” he asked, even more off-kilter.
“Yeah, I stuff the boards and solder them,” she said.
“Sometimes with some help,” I said, not wanting to look too small.
“And I print the orders, and do the shipping,” she added.
The other Sennheiser guy laughed. “So you run the company, while he—“ pointing at me—“plays with designs?”
“Pretty much,” she agreed.
They got a good laugh out of that. From there, we lapsed into comfortable show-smalltalk: the traffic seemed slow for a Saturday, it was busier yesterday, where was everyone, etc. A show can be jammed like Comic-Con on opening morning, and show staff will still complain it was slow.
I slowly relaxed. This was more like it. I could do this.
And, to be honest, we had our share of interesting visitors. One was John Broskie, of tubecad.com fame. I was thrilled to meet him, since I’d used his software for some early Valhalla calculations (which Mike dismissed, then checked and pronounced them good—he has a very big case of “not invented here” syndrome, which, given his history in audio, is probably warranted.) Broskie also provided some of the clues that led us to Lyr’s Dynamically Adaptive output stage, but that’s a story for another chapter.
Another aside: want to get into audio? Start hanging out in places like DIYaudio.com and reading sites like tubecad.com and Nelson Pass’ DIY site. The leading edge of audio is really at places like these—usually not fully worked out, sometimes completely unrealizable, buried in tons of other cruft and bitching—but it is there. Then, start building stuff. You’ll quickly learn what works and what doesn’t, at least in a seat-of-the-pants manner. It’ll also be immensely helpful to understand the basics of analog (and digital) design, focusing on control theory. Then get yourself a QuantAsylum QA400 or some other inexpensive analyzer and start seeing how your designs actually do on the measurement side. Then try to break them, loan them to friends and see what they say, and start figuring out what separates a “consumer-friendly” product from a hobby product, if you want to produce it. But again, I’m getting ahead of myself…
Broskie seemed astounded by our products—in that they were quite inexpensive, and made in the USA. He wrote about them in his blog, and comes back every year to see what we’ve come up with. I certainly hope he’s amused by our growing show presence, relative to that first sketchy year.
And, of course, we met the press. Some seemed skeptical, some seemed impressed. By the next day (no late nights for me these days, thank you very much—we are insanely boring at shows) I had the “inexpensive, made in USA” spiel down pretty good. And it looked like it was going down pretty well. Back then, we were really the vanguard of inexpensive, made-in-USA product, so it was really surprising for a lot of people to hear. Another Chinese-made inexpensive tube amp? Meh. Made here? Hmm, maybe there’s something to this.
The First Ragnarok…Was Lyr
That Can-Jam is also where we met Audeze for the first time. It was funny, really, because they were the first company that wasn’t really impressed by the staggering 1W power output of the Asgard. “Four watts is more like it,” they told me. “And our driver will take 15 watts.”
That was the eye-opener that led to Lyr, just a few months later. I’d been playing with higher-power designs, truly insane stuff by headphone standards (you know, like 6-8W), but I hadn’t really planned on selling them, except as a stunt. Like “this thing has so much power, you have to take off the protective sticker with the disclaimer that you might blow up your headphones if you use it.”
So—there you go—the truth is, Lyr was originally going to be our Ragnarok. An insanely powerful amp that people would buy simply because it was nuts.
And then Audeze happened, and changed our plans. That’s why we accelerated the development of Lyr—because of the orthodynamic revolution.
The Anonymous Guy
And then there was the one incident, with the company CEO that shall remain nameless. Like I said, the “inexpensive, made in USA” spiel was going very well. Most everyone who heard it seemed thrilled that we were trying to bring back affordable, high-end products. So it kinda threw me for a loop when someone didn’t seem so pleased about it.
Late in the day on Sunday, a guy came up to the Sennheiser booth. His nametag was flipped around, so I didn’t know who he was (note, this probably wasn’t a deliberate thing—nametags have a habit of doing that.) If I was less green, I probably would have recognized him from another show, or from his company’s press materials. But that day, he was just another anonymous dude.
Anonymous dude picks up the Asgard roughly and squints into the vent-holes in the top, as if trying to read tea leaves. And from his expression, he didn’t like the fortune he saw. He turned it over and over, ran his hand along the grain, and twiddled the volume pot, all the while his expression getting more and more grim.
“How can you make this for this price in the USA?” he barked out, finally putting the Asgard down, then moving on to inspect the Valhalla.
And—it’s funny—nobody had asked me that yet. So I took this as a chance to show off, and be a little snippy.
“I think it’s because most manufacturers are lazy,” I said. “They don’t even try to make things here anymore. It’s easier to just throw up your hands and say, ‘well, just make it in China, because everyone else is doing it,’ than to actually do the research, find the vendors here that are doing inexpensive quality work, and make it yourself.”
This didn’t improve Anonymous Guy’s mood. His brows furrowed even more deeply as he scowled at the Valhalla.
“That’s it, huh?” he asked, as if in challenge.
“And,” I added, throwing gasoline happily on the bonfire, “A lot of companies are really bad at production engineering—it takes a lot of work to make something simple and inexpensive, but if you go to China, you can simply throw parts at it until it works.”
Anonymous guy glared at me. His jaw worked, as if he wanted to say something, but couldn’t get it out. Finally he just shook his head and walked away.
“Who was that?” Rina asked.
“Hell if I know,” I told her. Not really caring. There are always some angry guys around. Who could he possibly be?
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I saw Anonymous Guy’s picture, and found out what company he worked for. And the light came on. Because not only was that company manufacturing product in China, they were also selling their own expertise in helping other companies move their own manufacturing to China. So, it was like I’d peed in his Cheerios and then kicked him in the nuts for good measure. No wonder he’d looked less than happy.
To this day, he doesn’t speak to us.