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The Biggest Successes in A/V Consumer Electronics in the Last 50 Years - Continued

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The Walkman

BoomboxWe’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.

sony walkman.jpg

Sony Walkman

Wireless Headphones

Stiller JoggingYou 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

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

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!

CD.jpg


The CD

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.

DVD player.jpg

DVD player

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

5.1 SurroundBecause 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).jpg


Atlantic Technology Pro Logic surround speaker (no tweeter)

Revel 5.1 Surround SystemBut 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 iPod

iPod.jpgThe 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.

Flat-screen TV

Old CRT TV“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.

flat screen TV.jpg

Panasonic flatscreen TV

The Smartphone

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.

iPhone 8.jpg


iPhone 8

Conclusion

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.

 

 

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Recent Forum Posts:

Irvrobinson posts on July 05, 2018 07:27
johndyson10, post: 1256802, member: 83897
(I know this is off topic, so this is my last response)

Some forums are managed very tightly, and off-topic discussions are not allowed, but at Audioholics they're practically an art form. That's also one reason I hang around here. The tightly managed forums tend to be the most boring.
johndyson10 posts on July 05, 2018 07:06
Irvrobinson, post: 1256766, member: 6847
Get back part of which industry, John? Consumer electronics? With the exception of smartphones there just isn't a lot of money in it, so US companies tend to shy away. And I think it's even a worthwhile argument that there isn't much in the way of profits in smartphones for anyone except Apple.
(I know this is off topic, so this is my last response)
Well, I do agree with you from a financial & political standpoint RIGHT NOW things are against middle Americans, but the loss occurred way before the recent times. The damage has been gradual – for example, the loss of telephone production happened in the 1980's and went to Shrieveport LA, then of course, disappeared entirely to China and elsewhere. There were LOTS of middle income jobs disappearing towards underpaid, underunioned (which I do not ascribe to – except for those who really need them), and environmentally destructive places. There has to be a place for the middle income people, and the real cost of American labor is really not all that different (all things equal) when compared with other costs nowadays. It is the small marginal difference that pushes industry away. political/tariff pressure in the other countries, – and the almost nonexistent environmental controls. This bleeding has been happening – and just a small bias back towards the middle will help to bring some GOOD employment back to our middle income people. (I am not speaking for my own advantage, since I have either been at the very top of middle income, or at the lower end of high income for most of my working life. At some times, I have even been at the middle of high income…) I worry about the future fabric of the US.
John
Irvrobinson posts on July 04, 2018 21:20
johndyson10, post: 1256748, member: 83897
Sad… US gotta get at least part of their industry back. THIS IS ALL JUST IN Indy, a relatively middling city…

Get back part of which industry, John? Consumer electronics? With the exception of smartphones there just isn't a lot of money in it, so US companies tend to shy away. And I think it's even a worthwhile argument that there isn't much in the way of profits in smartphones for anyone except Apple.
johndyson10 posts on July 04, 2018 19:44
William Sommerwerck, post: 1245760, member: 74198
My opinion is that the author has a poor knowledge of consumer electronics. There were all-tube stereo receivers long before silicon transistors came around. (Fisher made at least one.) And vacuum tube equipment wasn't particularly unreliable, or expensive. (Remember Dynaco?) At least we weren't subjected to the myth that Sony invented the transistor radio. (Better check. Maybe I missed it.)
WRT the transistor radio – Regency Electronics here in Indianapolis along with TI invented the first commercial transistor radio. (just FYI if you didn't already know :-)). There was a legacy in this area of that kind of thing including the Bearcat scanners. All of the big-time electronics industry is now gone from Indy area (RCA TV stuff, AT&T – the real part of Bell Labs that did telephones, the original picture phone, the coiled cable patent, the single slot pay phone (my bosses boss had that one), and a lot more). The other tech included the Norden Bomb Sight from WWII, and the original Tomahak cruise missile guidance (my boss at NAFI and a few of my co-workers had that patent), along with the early satellite TV projects at Bell Labs (my project there) and a lot of projects like that at Bell Labs in Indy – then finally, my very first technical boss who started/owned WFMS in Indianapolis knew and worked for Thomas A Edison. We have seen and been involved in the periphery of a lot of tech here in Indy – ESSENTIALLY ALL GONE. Practically the last of Technicolors' set top box design is now gone also (I used to work on thata stuff also – essentially the last vestiges of RCA – gone.) Sad… US gotta get at least part of their industry back. THIS IS ALL JUST IN Indy, a relatively middling city…
vqworks posts on May 16, 2018 16:49
Johnny2Bad, post: 1245828, member: 45045
A little trivia for everyone …

The Advent 201 was manufactured in Japan by a little known electronics firm, under contract to engineer the entire product. That company saw the potential of the format, and decided to enter the consumer space.

Nakamichi

You made a good reference to Nakamichi but it was really for the transports they built for the Advent 201's predecessor, the Advent 200. The late Henry Kloss wasn't happy with its quality so he later contracted with Wollensak to build the transport for the Advent 201. Henry revealed this in a 1991 interview with Audio Magazine.

This doesn't mean that Nakamichi was capable of building high quality transports. In fact, they were. But I think Nakamichi and Henry Kloss had a different understanding of the standards that Henry was expecting out of the $260 Advent 200. The transport was built under a cost constraint but Wollensak was able to better meet Henry Kloss' expectations at the same cost.

Nakamichi would later show its capabilities in building transports two years after the Advent 201's introduction by introducing the world to its 1000 at a matching $1000 price tag.
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