The Biggest Successes in Consumer A/V Electronics in the Last 50 Years
Last month, we took a humorous trip down memory lane and recounted some of the most glorious failures in audio-video history. Some were real clinkers, some were “can’t-miss” inventions that somehow missed anyway, and some were just truly laughable “What could they possibly have been thinking” disasters. From a sure-fire home run that just barely turned into a foul ball at the very last instant to a weak bouncing grounder that never had a chance, it was an entertaining look back at what might have been.
Now, we’re going to shift gears a bit and focus on what went right, not what went wrong. We’re in a great place these days as far as consumer audio/video devices are concerned, so much so that we just take them for granted. They play such a vital role in the moment-to-moment reality of our everyday lives that most of us don’t really think about how we got to where we are now.
We’re going to do that here. We’re going to look at the specific technologies and product categories that have paved the way for the role A/V electronics play in our lives today.
So, in approximate chronological order, here are some of the most important technological stepping stones that enabled us to arrive at today’s destination. This is by no means an all-inclusive list. All of these are important, but there’s no doubt that many readers will have others they feel should also be on the list. Please…. feel free to add your favorites in the Comments section after the article.
Way back when, in your grandfather’s or great-grandfather’s day, people listened to music in their home in mono. “Mono,” of course, means “one,” so a mono system indicates that the music system had one channel. A one-channel tape recorder or a turntable playing a mono record, feeding a single-channel amplifier, connected to a single speaker.
Mono (single channel) music system from 1952
Simple and nice. People were quite pleased with this arrangement for many years: from the 1930’s with all those neat 78 RPM records of the Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw big bands, right through World War II (1939-1945), and well into the post-war 1950’s. During this time period, television became popular and widespread, almost every new car was starting to be equipped with air conditioning and automatic transmission, there was a huge housing boom, suburbs started springing up everywhere, and the so-called “Baby Boom” generation was being born (1946-1964).
That’s the context, the environment from which the next great advancement in home music listening sprang forth: Stereo. 1958. Two channels, with separate content on the left channel and the right channel. Strings on the left. Trumpets on the right. Vocals mixed to seem like they were in the center. It was a whole new dimension in home music listening realism and enjoyment. Recorded music finally had a sense of space and depth, a feel of three-dimensionality to the sound. Sure, some of the early stereo records were pretty gimmicky-sounding, with an exaggerated “ping-pong” effect, but in overall realism, stereo was a huge advancement over mono.
Early 2-channel stereo vinyl LP (around 1960)
The High-Performance Bookshelf Speaker
Two-channel stereo was indeed a great advancement in the realism and enjoyment that could now be attained from a home music system. Unfortunately, the best speakers of the 1950’s were truly huge affairs, bass-reflex or infinite baffle designs, needing enclosures of five or six cubic-foot volume just to get decent bass response down to the 40-50 Hz range. One of these refrigerator-sized monstrosities was difficult enough to squeeze into the typical family room of a 1950’s split-level home on Maple Street. Two (for stereo) would be absolutely out of the question. Impossible.
Refrigerator-sized Bozak Concert Grand speaker
Quite fortunately for us, an enterprising young inventor named Edgar Villchur had an idea for getting solid, extended low-distortion bass from an enclosure barely ¼ the size of the best existing speakers. Villchur’s “acoustic suspension” design made it possible to get truly accurate, powerful bass into the low 30 Hz-range from a cabinet that was only about 1.5 cu ft in volume—only 25 x 14 x 11” deep. Truly a “bookshelf” speaker. Any normal-sized room could easily accommodate two of his AR-1 speakers, and their bass response was superior to those refrigerator-sized dinosaurs—tighter, cleaner, more extended.
AR quickly introduced smaller, less expensive versions of their first model and other companies followed suit, so good-sounding compact speakers that could be used in pairs in any room became available at the same time that stereo electronics began to really take off. If the high-performance bookshelf speaker as pioneered by Villchur’s AR-1 hadn’t been available right at the beginning of the stereo era, the market would likely have developed quite differently.
AR-3 bookshelf loudspeaker from 1958 - image courtesy of Tom Tyson
The Silicon Transistor
When stereo was introduced in 1958, high-fidelity systems were still mostly the purview of middle-class suburban-dwelling audio hobbyists, the so-called “middle-aged GE engineer.” They listened to their systems using tube-powered electronics from H.H. Scott, Fisher, Dynaco, Eico, Knight and others. Tubes were costly, they got hot, they had limited power output and worst of all, they eventually burned out and needed to be replaced, like a lightbulb. All these shortcomings put a definite ceiling on the mass-market saleability of stereo components. Although compact, good-sounding speakers from AR and a few other companies were now widely available (making space-efficient stereo systems feasible in a normal living room), the fact that low-cost, reliable electronic components didn’t yet exist meant that stereo was relegated to niche, hobbyist-only status. In order for stereo to burst into a truly high sales orbit, it needed a game-changing technological breakthrough.
That breakthrough occurred in the late 1960s, in the form of the silicon transistor. The very first transistors that were intended to replace vacuum tubes were germanium transistors. They suffered from poor reliability and were prone to failure and “burnout,” rendering any notion of improvement over tube designs highly questionable at best. But advancements in electronics design happen quickly and soon germanium transistors were superseded by silicon transistors.
In much the same way that the small bookshelf speaker made stereo feasible in a normal-sized room, so too did the silicon transistor make the receiver a viable design approach for components.
As the stereo market exploded in size among college-aged consumers in the ‘60s and ‘70s, solid state receivers became the dominant electronic component, supplanting the tube powered separate preamp/power amp configuration that was most popular among the middle-aged audio enthusiasts who comprised the majority of the market in the ‘50s thru mid-‘60s. Because of the heat generated by tubes, plus their bulk and weight, receivers just weren’t practical until the advent of the space-saving, cool-running, lightweight transistor. The low cost of reliable silicon transistors made the design and manufacture of receivers feasible and popular. By combining three components—the power amplifier, preamplifier, and tuner—onto a single chassis, using a single main power supply and only one cabinet—the manufacturer’s cost of production, shipping and warehousing plummeted.
Vintage Pioneer SX-727 Receiver
Retail pricing could thus be lowered dramatically, and all this technological advancement fortuitously coincided with the emergence of the biggest population group in the country’s history (the Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964) and a sustained economic strong period that lasted almost uninterrupted for decades, from the late ‘40s right through the ‘70s.
The age of the solid-state stereo component was upon us. And what a Golden Age it was. Every year, major manufacturers like Pioneer, Kenwood, Sony, Sansui, McIntosh, Marantz, Phase Linear, Sherwood and many others introduced new and better models, with more features, more power, and lower prices. Stereo music systems were everywhere—in college dorm rooms, in your parents’ den, even at your grandparents’ house (probably in the form of a compact system from KLH or Panasonic rather than a full-blown component system). The silicon transistor made it all possible.
This product is so obvious, so ubiquitous that calling it out and citing it as a worthy accomplishment seems about as misplaced as saying that breathable air is a noteworthy aspect of living on earth. Too obvious, too basic, too much a given.
But it’s not a given. Color TV didn’t become a widespread product until the mid-1960’s! That’s your parents’ time, or at the very least, your grandparents’. It was in the mid-60’s that the broadcast networks started to advertise that their fall line-up would be “all color.” Here’s one stat that will absolutely get your mind spinning: 1972 was the very first year in which the sales of color TVs exceeded the sales of black & white TVs!
In the early days, televisions were not all solid state. Most had a combination of tube and solid-state circuitry. Reliability was spotty; in-home visits by the ‘television repairman’ were commonplace. (Not unlike the doctors of the day who made house calls with their trusty black bag when little Johnny missed three consecutive days of school with a cold and cough.) The most popular screen sizes were 19-inch for 60-lb “portable” televisions and 23- and 25-inch for floorstanding consoles. Watching the NBC peacock unfurl its tail feathers in “living color” was a big deal back then. A very big deal.
Obviously, television technology has advanced light years since those days, but very few people seem to remember that color TV is such a relatively young entity. But it is. While signal delivery methods and devices have come and gone during the ensuing 50 years (over-the-air broadcasts, cable, satellite, VCR, Laserdisc, DVD/Blu-Ray, DVR, etc.), the color TV has remained the central focal point of domestic family entertainment the whole time.
Panasonic 19-inch color television
Dolby Noise Reduction
Dolby Labs, founded by Ray Dolby in the 1960s, developed and introduced a series of tape-recording noise reduction systems that improved the inherently noise-prone recording process of magnetic tape. The first system was called Dolby A, and it was intended mainly for professional recording applications.
But the system that really had the biggest impact on the consumer electronics market was Dolby B. This was a simple but extremely clever “compander” (compression/expansion) system, whereby the signal above around 1kHz would be pre-emphasized (boosted in level) and then de-emphasized back to its correct level upon playback. Since the inherent noise floor of the tape was always there, when the 10dB playback de-emphasis took place, the tape’s residual hiss level was reduced by that 10dB as the original signal was played back at its correct level. It was simple and ingenious and soon became a widespread industry standard.
People would ask for it by name, even if they had no actual technical understanding of its function: “Does it have Dolby?” “I want Dolby.” “This is good, it has Dolby.” When people ask for a specific technology by name and base their buying decision on whether or not the product has that technology, that is the dictionary definition of market impact.
The Cassette Tape
Back in the days before portable audio was commonplace, the dominant playback formats were the vinyl LP and reel-to-reel tape. Both were perfectly acceptable playback media, with good fidelity and reasonably wide-range sound. Vinyl LPs were a bit restricted as far as their ultimate low-frequency extension was concerned (deeper bass meant wider grooves, which reduced the playing time that could be fit onto a record), and LPs had their well-known signal-to-noise issues, especially in regard to surface noise, pops, clicks, etc.
Open reel tape was far superior in terms of ultimate fidelity but was incredibly cumbersome and inconvenient to use in the home, and the medium did not lend itself at all to selling pre-recorded, finished material.
Obviously, neither format could be used in the car or carried as personal take-along music.
In the mid-1960s, Phillips developed and introduced a miniature tape recording system called the Compact Cassette. Using a very narrow magnetic tape (about 1/8-inch wide, whereas most good reel-to-reel tapes were at least ½-inch wide), it was housed in a plastic shell that could simply be popped into the player—no actual handling or threading of the tape was required. It was incredibly simple to use and quite small—roughly the size of another 1960s icon, a pack of cigarettes. When it was introduced, Phillips intended it strictly as a low-fi medium, for dictation and other non-critical uses. Wide-range frequency response and impressive signal-to-noise ratio were not design considerations.
However, good marketing people always have their eyes open for the next big opportunity. People immediately recognized that the cassette (no one used “Compact”) had tremendous potential as a viable, simple-to-use home recording format and also as a format for automotive use. The only potential roadblock was its terrible sound. Other than that, as they say, it was perfect.
Now, enter clever, intelligent engineering to go along with that good marketing. Tape manufacturers came up with a new formulation called CrO2 or chromium dioxide. “Chrome tape,” as it was called, had markedly better recording properties than standard tape. High frequencies were vastly superior, distortion was much lower.
Advent Corporation of Cambridge MA introduced a cassette deck in 1971 that combined these new technologies—Dolby B noise reduction and chrome tape capability—into a brand-new model, the famous Advent 201 cassette deck. With the ability to make truly high-fidelity, great-sounding tape recordings combined with the small size and convenience of the cassette’s form factor, the 201 ushered in a new chapter in home audio. High-quality cassette units soon followed from all the major manufacturers and the cassette became a major fixture in consumer electronics—in the home, the car and in portable devices like the Walkman and the boombox— for at least the next two decades. Even today, there are millions of cassette-equipped cars still on the road, satisfying their drivers with surprisingly good sound.
The Advent 201 cassette deck with Dolby noise reduction
Television has always been the centerpiece of home A/V entertainment. From the time TV was invented, people always wanted to control what they saw and when. They wanted to be in control of the content and schedule rather than being at the mercy of the broadcast channels. No one wanted to have to rush home on Sunday night in order to watch Bonanza at 8:00 PM.
In 1976, Sony finally did something about it: They introduced their Betamax, the first home video recorder. Finally, people could record TV programs and play them back at their convenience. late 1970’s. That’s when the VCR (video cassette recorder) hit the scene. That would soon have a major impact on both the video and audio world. Both. And its existence would create entirely new industries.
1980s-era Panasonic VCR and VHS tape
First, a very, very brief primer on how a VCR works:
All tape recorders, whether audio or video, work like a sponge (the recording tape) being passed under a running faucet (the water is the signal that needs to be recorded). The limiting factor in tape recording is what’s known as “tape saturation.” That’s when the tape can’t absorb any more signal. It’s full. No more room. No vacancy.
The sponge/running water analogy works perfectly: If you hold the sponge under the water too long, the sponge saturates with water and the water begins to overflow off the sponge.
But……suppose instead of holding the sponge under the running water too long, you ran it by the water stream really fast. It would never saturate, right? So imagine that the recording tape is a very, very long sponge, like 400 feet long (but 3 inches wide and 1 inch high like a normal sponge) and you move it very slowly under the water.
No good, right? The sponge will saturate. But if you move that sponge quickly, all is good. Ok, now you’ve got the concept of tape speed down.
The faster the tape speed, the better the recording quality. Tape speed used to be measured in Inches per Second. That was the measure of how fast the tape recorder would move the tape “under the faucet.” Cassettes that you played in your car were 1 7/8 inches per second (IPS). Master tapes done in a recording studio were 15 IPS. Far better. The faster the tape speed, the higher in frequency you can record. That’s why studio master tapes have a crisp, lifelike quality and cassettes have a somewhat dull quality by comparison. Cassettes can’t record the high frequencies anywhere near as well as a master open-reel professional recording tape deck can.
Cassette tape deck (1 7/8 IPS) Studio tape recorder (15 IPS)
High frequencies. Those are the key.
The highest audible frequencies in music or speech are around 15,000 Hertz. Women and children can probably hear up to 20,000 Hz. Your grandfather can’t get much past 4000 Hz, which is why he’s always saying, “What? What’d ya say?”
But visual frequencies are much, much, much higher than audible frequencies. The highest visual frequencies they human eye can perceive in the visible light spectrum are about 700 THz. That’s 700 trillion Hertz, compared to 20 thousand Hertz. Trillions compared to thousands.
Like we said earlier, the faster the tape speed, the higher the frequency you can record. But trust me, you can’t move the sponge under the water fast enough to record with enough high frequency bandwidth to do video. No way. Well, we aren't actually recording up to the limits of the visible light spectrum. In fact, standard play VHS video cassette recorders offered about 3 MHz luminance bandwidth (150X the bandwith of a typical casette recorder) by recording the signal on an FM carrier.
So how do VCRs record with enough bandwidth to do it? What’s the trick?
Pretty clever. Someone really had their thinking cap on that day, that’s for sure.
What if you could move the faucet as well as the sponge? Instead of a moving sponge passing under a fixed faucet, you put the faucet in motion one way while the sponge moves the other way. Now the effective speed relative to the two is immeasurably faster.
That’s how a VCR works. Instead of the tape moving past a fixed recording head (the “faucet”) as it does in an audio tape recorder, in a video tape recorder the recording heads are placed on a spinning wheel, spinning at 1000’s of RPMs. The combination of the tape moving past these recording heads spinning at incredibly fast speed results in an effective “tape speed” that is so high—so many thousands of “Inches per Second,” that a VCR can easily record those very high visual frequencies.
It’s so clever. Such good, common-sense engineering. And thus, the Era of Home Video Recording was born. Now people could time-shift their TV to record their favorite programs for later viewing and rent movies to watch at home.
But put 2 + 2 together: If a VCR can record 3MHz correctly, what do you think it can do with those simple audio/music frequencies that only go up to 20,000 Hz (20kHz)?
You got it: a VCR can record any audio signal better than the best master recording studio tape decks can. Those were only 15 IPS. A VCR is 1000’s of IPS.
So pretty soon people were connecting the Audio Outputs of their VCRs to their stereo systems to play the audio soundtracks of their rented movies. They sounded great, really great: You’d see the picture on your nice 27” Sony Trinitron TV and you’d hear the dialogue and soundtrack through your killer stereo system. Home theater, baby!
Then another engineering milestone took place, one that in conjunction with the Hi-Fi VCR, marked yet another turning point in the history of home A/V evolution. In the early 1990’s, the folks at Dolby Laboratories figured out how to extract some additional signal content off of stereo VHS tapes. Some “hidden” signals that they could manipulate and turn into the so-called “surround” and “center” channels of a home theater system. They sold this circuitry to Sony, Denon, Pioneer, etc., and before you knew it, all the receiver manufacturers were putting the new Dolby Surround circuitry (later, Dolby Pro Logic) into their receivers.
Early 1990’s Technics Multi-Channel Pro Logic Surround Sound receiver
The customer hooked their VCR’s audio outputs into their surround receiver, put a speaker on top of their TV, two additional surround speakers in the rear of the room, and voilà! Surround Sound movies in your home.
There were movie rental places springing up all over the map. Blockbuster was born and thrived. Renting a movie on the way home from work on a Friday night became a 1990’s American ritual. And most of those were played on a hi-fi VCR surround system.
Early 1990’s VHS tape with surround sound encoding
The VCR (poor Sony—they invented consumer video recording with their Betamax and ended up getting their clock cleaned by the Panasonic/JVC VHS system) was an incredible success, arguably one of the most significant inventions in the history of consumer A/V. It changed the public’s TV viewing habits forever. It gave rise to the entire industry of rental movies. And its high-fidelity audio capability was the catalyst for the birth of the home theater industry. All those multi-channel receivers, subwoofers, dipole surround speakers, home theater seating and lighting systems, room treatment accessories and the theater-driven late 20th-century home-improvement boom, much of it was a result of the VCR.
Rarely, if ever, has a single electronic device had such an amazing impact across so many sectors of the American culture and economy over so long a period of time. The VCR may be the single most influential and positively disruptive A/V success story of all.
The Biggest Successes in A/V Consumer Electronics in the Last 50 Years - Continued
We’ve looked at Dolby noise reduction and the cassette tape, but early on, these were mainly for home audio systems and automotive use. There was no really good system for delivering high-quality music on an individual level, from a personal-sized device. Boomboxes had come into being in the late 1970s and they provided decent sound from cassettes and radio, but they were big and bulky, requiring 6 or 8 batteries just to eke out a few hours of play. They were group-oriented devices, providing music to anyone within earshot (whether you actually wanted to be within earshot or not!). The boombox was primarily youth-oriented, intended to provide music when a group of city/suburban kids or young adults gathered together. Because of their urban popularity, they were often called by the derisive term, “Third World Briefcases.”
Boomboxes were mostly about being loud and brash, not delivering subtle, accurate audio quality. Dolby NR was a no-show on virtually every boombox and it seemed as if bigger and gaudier was better.
Popular legend has it that the head of Sony wanted a small cassette player with legitimate high-fidelity sound to use on his frequent air travel. Such a device would use lightweight high-quality headphones (no external speaker—headphones only, for private listening) and the cassette unit itself would be similarly capable of delivering excellent audio quality. Further design goals were to keep the unit as small and lightweight as possible for easy portability and have a very low power drain in order to maximize battery life.
That vision begat the Walkman (amusingly, its initial name in America was “Soundabout”), introduced with much fanfare to the U.S. market in late summer 1980. If anyone was around at that time, they will remember the Walkman’s arrival on scene produced something of a feeding frenzy, a buying craze unmatched by virtually any consumer A/V product until some recent Apple products. Nothing in the 20th century A/V market created the excitement of that initial Walkman introduction.
The excitement was well-deserved. Compact, lightweight and great-sounding, the Walkman fulfilled its design intent perfectly and created a brand-new product category: High-Quality Personal Audio. It had staying power, remaining a significant market force for over a decade, with a wide variety of models from several different companies, offering all manner of features at various price points. There is no question that the Walkman paved the way for the iPod hysteria that followed in the early 2000s and the wireless headphone frenzy we see today.
You can't mention the Walkman without also discussing the impact headphones have had on consumer electronics. Over the years, manufacturers successfully developed compact, lightweight headphones that delivered excellent sound quality and made the portable music player a legitimate high-fidelity device.
Wireless headphones were a natural next step in portable playback technology. It may have taken decades to perfect, but we are now at the point where wireless headphones offer sound quality on par with similar wired models (thanks to advancements in Bluetooth codecs and ever-improving miniature transducer designs), but with the convenience of cutting the cord. Now millions of people can enjoy high-quality stereo and even surround sound in their own personal listening space without bugging their nearby neighbors. Best of all, there’s no cumbersome cord to interfere with your movement or become damaged over time. Some models even offer active noise cancellation, so you can listen with pristine clarity even in noisy environments like an airplane or auditorium.
Because of the meteoric growth in the past decade of portable music/media players (including smartphones), the sales of headphones have eclipsed those of traditional home loudspeakers. Wireless technology makes possible all manner of information/entertainment activity, and wireless headphones are a central—and expected—part of the wireless universe.
The time when traditional wired speakers and headphones were the norm has passed. Listening to music on a portable device is far more prevalent these days than listening at home to a conventional stationary music system. Headphones have surpassed box speakers in sales and wireless headphones are the new normal.
The CD’s importance in the history of consumer electronics can’t really be overstated. Its introduction was the watershed moment, the pivot point, the line of demarcation as to how program material was produced and delivered to the listener.
Before the CD, everything was analog, Records, tapes, radio broadcasts—they were all analog formats. The CD launched the digital age and once that occurred, software production and delivery changed forever. Background noise, pops, clicks, static, hiss, restricted dynamic range, limited bass extension and all manner of other, shall we say, “distractions” were effectively reduced to the point of insignificance.
Sony CDP-101 Compact Disc Player
The CD was an instant smash success. The buying public recognized its attributes right away and sales of both CD players and the discs themselves simply took off. In so many ways, the CD was the ideal transition from the LP, the perfect way for consumers to be comfortable moving from one format to another. The CD resembled the LP—it was circular, the playback device spun the disc (somewhat similar to a turntable spinning an LP, thus easy to conceptualize) and it was removed from its “jacket” and placed in the player (again, similar to the LP). It even carried the same caution, in that the user should refrain from touching the playing surface of the disc, much like you weren’t supposed to put your greasy fingers on the LP’s grooves.
In many ways, the CD was really just the vinyl LP with all the downsides removed:
- Unlike LPs, CDs didn’t wear out.
- Their playback devices weren’t prone to skipping, unlike the combination of a heavy foot and springy floor coupled with a sensitive turntable/tonearm.
- They didn’t require periodic replacement of the actual groove-reading element (the CD’s laser is essentially permanent—easily more than 20 years—whereas the stylus of a turntable’s cartridge needed replacing at least once a year. Not an inexpensive proposition for a top-of-the-line cartridge: easily over $100, and that’s in 1980 dollars!
- CDs could be played in the car, something the LP obviously couldn’t do.
- Unlike LPs, CDs offered up to 70 minutes of uninterrupted playing time. LPs were 18-25 minutes per “side.”
- They retained the enjoyable ‘album cover/liner notes’ aspect of LPs. You could hold it, read the title of the upcoming track, see who wrote the tune, who the personnel was, when the recording was made. Sure, the type was doll-house small, but all the info was still there. Nice.
- Being digital, CDs didn’t fall victim to analog-based recording limitations: dynamic range (the difference in loudness between the loudest and softest parts of the music) was far greater—on a CD, ‘soft’ was as soft as a whisper, and ‘loud’ was as loud as real life. The CD produced much deeper, stronger bass than an LP and the background noise (hiss, pops, clicks and static) that everyone just accepted as normal on an LP was gone, gone, gone on the CD.
The CD kept all the good things about LP’s and corrected all the ills. For most musicophiles/audiophiles, the CD was a dream come true. Sure, some early CDs were accused of being a bit bright-sounding and harsh, but that was corrected soon enough, as recording engineers got more familiar with the particular ins and outs of working with the new digital medium.
And yes, there will always be the fringe, fanatical contingent of analog disciples who will swear up and down that analog records sound “warmer” and “more organic” than CDs, because (as they will be only too quick to tell you) chopping music up into 1000’s of digital bits of 1’s and 0’s, then attempting to reassemble them into a whole entity, Star Trek transporter-style, just isn’t natural. We will always be able to hear the difference. The analog fanatics are at least partly right: They will always be able to hear the difference. Imagined or not.
For more info, see: Vinyl vs CD Comparison
However, this is not that discussion. Rather, this is the recognition that once the CD arrived, we were headed inexorably in the digital direction. There was no turning back. CD is just now beginning to fade from its position atop the music delivery format heap. Major brick-and-mortar retailers are beginning to drop the CD from their floor displays since downloaded music and satellite delivery are overtaking the CD as the primary music medium. Nonetheless, from its introduction to the U.S. market in 1982 through 2018—36 years—the CD has proven to be an exceptionally successful and durable (both figuratively and literally) format. And as the old saying goes, “It ain’t dead yet, Jack!”
The DVD (including the Blu-ray Disc)
The parallels between the analog LP being replaced by the digital CD and analog VHS tape being replaced by the digital DVD are almost perfect.
When introduced, DVDs wowed the market with similar advantages over analog VHS tape that the CD had over the analog LP: far superior signal quality, greatly enhanced durability, quick scan/access to a particular point in the program and smaller, easier to handle/store size.
The one advantage that analog VHS tape had over the DVD when DVD was introduced was the recording capability of VHS tape. You could record and time-shift on a VHS recorder, but DVD units were playback-only devices.
As it turned out, that didn’t matter at all to the vast majority of the market. The manufacturers of video tape recorders worked feverishly in the 1980’s to add greater and greater recording options and flexibility to their units (first it was one program in a week’s time, then 4 programs in 14 days, then 8 programs in 21 days, then they added One Button Fast Record, and so on and so on), but it seemed like all anyone ever did with a VHS machine was play rented movies. The “flashing 12:00” became a cultural icon of the 1980’s, an undeniable testament to the consumer’s absolute unwillingness to learn how to set up and program their VCR for scheduled recording.
Further proof of the unimportance of timed recording capability came when the manufacturers finally came out with programmable recording DVD machines: The market ignored them with bored indifference and they soon faded into obscurity. The vast majority of customers wanted to play movies, not record Law and Order and then Survivor a week from Tuesday.
Market acceptance and penetration of the DVD was impressively fast and wide-ranging, however. Players soon found their way into homes at a faster rate than almost any previous consumer electronic playback device before it. The small, high-quality discs and the utter ease of connection and use of the DVD players guaranteed their quick adoption. The fact that DVD players could also play audio CDs only added to their appeal. Rentals of DVD movies became immensely popular, especially at such unlikely locations as supermarkets and drug stores, with Red Box rental kiosks making it quick and painless. Pick a movie, swipe your card and instant entertainment was in store for the evening.
The DVD’s digital architecture brought with it an incredibly important new benefit, arguably something that was even more important and influential than just the DVD format’s many improvements over analog VHS tape:
5.1 Digital Surround
Because the DVD was a true, discrete digital format, movie soundtracks—for the first time—could be produced with five totally independent, full frequency-range channels and a completely separate “.1” subwoofer Low-Frequency Effects (LFE) channel.
The previous generation of VHS analog movies in Dolby Pro Logic were really only 4-channel affairs: Left, Center, Right and Surround. The L and R surround channels carried identical signals—it was a single mono signal, split and then sent to the two surround speakers. That’s why dipole surrounds were popular for analog surround: By putting half of each surround speaker’s output out of phase with itself (dipole as opposed to bipole), the surround channel took on a bit of differentiation and non-localization that somewhat made up for the fact that the two surround speakers carried the exact same signal.
The subwoofer was not a separate channel—it was a summed L + R signal and the subwoofer’s onboard crossover took care of filtering out the unwanted higher frequencies. In analog surround, there was no “bass management.”
Furthermore, in analog Dolby Surround, only the Left and Right fronts were full frequency-range signals. The front Center was only 100-20kHz and the mono surrounds were 100-7kHz. That’s why so many early Dolby Surround rear speakers were small-driver, tweeterless designs, oftentimes with just two angled 3 ½-inch full-range drivers. No real woofer, no tweeter.
Atlantic Technology Pro Logic surround speaker (no tweeter)
But now in 5.1 digital surround, with five full-frequency-range channels and a dedicated subwoofer channel (the Low-Frequency Effects channel) carrying powerful, sub-20Hz material, the electronics and speaker manufacturers had completely new marching orders. Entire lines of new, higher-performance equipment were needed to fulfill the new demands of the digital 5.1 DVD. Starting in the late 1990’s, new equipment from dozens of manufacturers flooded the market, buoying the financial fortunes of many struggling hardware companies and strengthening the home theater market in general.
Movies at home on large flat-screen TVs (see below) with full-theater-like digital surround sound were exciting and popular. Home theater became a huge force in leisure-time activity. Magazines like Home Theater and Widescreen Review sprang into existence while industry stalwart Stereo Review morphed into Sound & Vision. Coupled with a good national economy, the easy availability of low-interest home equity loans for remodeling basements into theater rooms, the home theater boom was on in full force. These were some of the very best times in consumer electronics and the invention of the 5.1 digital surround on DVD was a major contributor.
The Walkman had tapped into a very basic desire on the part of the music-listening consumer: the desire to listen to music privately on headphones, shutting out the rest of the world, with no distractions, alone in your own musical reality, immersed in high-quality, lifelike, detailed sound.
But the various Walkman and Discman models were somewhat unsatisfying, partway measures at best. After the initial novelty of the very first units wore off, people became unhappy that the players themselves were bigger and heavier than ideal. They were prone to skipping as the user moved around or jogged, meaning the music would stop for a moment while the W-DMan tried to regain its footing. Very annoying. The ‘buffering’ memory that was later built into the better Discmen to avoid audible music interruptions, although a good example of clever problem-solving engineering, reduced the overall playback quality and was a classic example of “cure,” not “prevention.”
Battery life was limited and once your AA Copper Tops wore out, the show was over unless you had a spare set on you.
Worst of all, these tape and disc based personal portable players required that the user bring their software with them. You might be enjoying the music from a reasonably compact player, but unless you wanted to hear Steely Dan- Aja six times that afternoon, you also had to lug around one of those soft cassette or CD cases that held a dozen or so extra albums. An imperfect solution, to be sure.
It’s 2001. Apple to the rescue. Recognizing the experience that people wanted (listening to their favorite music on the go), aware of the current limitations (too large/heavy, limited battery life, having to bring tapes and CDs with you), Apple introduced the iPod portable mp3 solid-state music player. It had no moving parts, no mechanical transport to skip or jam. To the average consumer, it seemed like magic, a futuristic dream come true.
Smaller, thinner and lighter than the smallest Walkman, a 10-hour-rechargeable battery life with no requirement of user replaceable batteries and capable of holding 1000 songs (about 100 albums!), the first iPod was a terrific product for its intended market. As its compatibility widened from Mac-only to the PC platform as well (around 2004), sales really took off. Each succeeding generation of the iPod was smaller and lighter, with greater song storage capacity. It seemed like everyone had one. The sales and notoriety of the iPod transformed Apple from a cool, but niche, computer maker into perhaps the premier consumer products brand powerhouse in the world. Apple changed the music industry with this device and downloadable iTunes database to follow. Whether it was for the better or worse is up for debate.
Apple’s ongoing success lies in satisfying the desire for an experience on the part of their customer, not in explaining the technical process by which that experience is delivered. The iPod is the prototypical example of that philosophy. There is no widespread publication and advertisement by Apple of things like sample rates, compression algorithms, impedance, and the like. An analysis of the technical specs misses the point completely. For Apple and their customers, it’s the experience of hassle-free portable music that counts. That’s what the iPod delivered, and rarely has a consumer electronics device reached as many people and changed the fortunes of a company as dramatically and quickly as Apple’s personal music player.
“The TV that you can hang on the wall like a picture” has been the dream of the consumer since the first days those grainy black-and-white televisions enjoyed widespread popularity in the 1950s. From science-fiction movies to cartoons like the Jetsons, the flat TV was a fixture, the ultimate symbol of the unattainable, fantasy-only futuristic gadget that would never be a reality. We could envision airliners flying from NY to London in 3 hours, the early Mercury and Sputnik space vehicles showed us that space travel to distant worlds might actually happen one day and in 1967, the transplant of the first human heart showed us that the era of medical miracles was truly upon us. Still, Jetsons-like flat television seemed like a distant 100-year-away phenomenon.
The prognosticators were way off. Panasonic was selling reasonably-priced plasma flat-screen TVs by around the year 2000—a mere 33 years after the Jetsons TV show. By about 2006, sales of flatscreen TV (primarily plasma and LCD at that time) outsold traditional CRT television, and flatscreen has never looked back.
Larger screen sizes were possible and practical with flatscreen technology to a degree never possible with CRT. A traditional picture-tube set was limited to a maximum of about 35-40-inch screen size, primarily because CRTs were so heavy and expensive. 32-inch sets became the default practical maximum screen size for CRT. Anything bigger was just too unwieldy and costly for widespread manufacture and popularity.
In contrast, flatscreens, particularly LCD and LED, have proven to be so easy to manufacture economically on a large scale that 42-inch sets routinely sell for under $300 these days, compared to a typical 25-inch CRT console from the mid-80’s selling for over $700—in 1985 dollars! That would be around $1500 today, adjusted for inflation.
With larger-sized television being so much more economical to buy and with so many more placement options in the home—including the previously ‘dream-only’ on-the-wall option—home TV viewing has undergone a fundamental transformation. It’s hard to imagine the wide availability of today’s home viewing options like satellite, Roku, Hulu, Netflix, and Apple TV having anywhere near the impact and significance they’ve had on our viewing habits if it was all being played through a 19-inch CRT. Younger enthusiasts may think of a 42-inch TV as a secondary set, a bedroom set, but as recently as 30 years ago, the “bedroom” set was a 12-inch Panasonic black & white receiving over-the-air broadcasts of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson.
Panasonic flatscreen TV
The smartphone, as epitomized by the original iPhone of 2007, is an entirely different kettle of fish compared to all the various technologies and products that came before. The smartphone single-handedly rendered the iPod’s music storage/playback capabilities superfluous, introduced the concept and convenience of wireless streaming and hands-free voice assistance, made any previously home-based-only video programming available on the run, anywhere, directed our cars to their destination, and has made full-video phone calls a commonplace reality. No one needs to have all the smartphone’s capabilities and innovations listed out for them. Those capabilities are staggering and growing every day. The smartphone is in an entirely different category of technology and impact and is being included here simply as a nod to its indispensable incredibleness. But you already know that.
So that’s our list of some of the most significant and successful CE technologies and products over the last 60 years. As we said, we’re sure you’ll think of others, but there is no question that every entry on this list deserves to be there. These are the ones that defined electronics in their day and paved the way for the innovations that followed. A tip of the hat goes out to all the intrepid entrepreneurs, engineers and marketing/sales people whose creative vision and tireless efforts gave us these life-changing inventions.
How do you like our list? If you feel other product types and categories should also be included, please share them with us on the related forum thread below.