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When Was the “Golden Age” of Audio? - 1990's to Present Day

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The 1990’s-Early 2000’s

Commodore AmigaIf technology and culture in the 1980’s was structurally very similar to that in the 1950’s and 60’s, then the 1990’s changed everything. Changed it in a big way, very fast and very permanently. For one thing, the Internet stormed onto the scene. The majority of the middle-class was now “online.” Maybe they were online with dial-up modems using AOL e-mails, but they were online. People communicated by e-mail. It was a paradigm shift in the speed and ability with which people were able to stay in contact.

Cell phones, too, hit their stride. They may have been clunky Samsungs or primitive flip-phones, but they were cell phones. People were calling and talking from their cars, while walking the dog, while shopping.

Personal computers became a standard household possession. Public school kids in the ‘90’s had computers and printers in their houses. They could surf the web, do research and print documents. Parents could find out the “invoice price” of new cars. (Ooooo…..) Wite-Out correction fluid—a staple for high school and college students in the previous decades—became a thing of the past.

These three developments—the Internet, the cell phone and the home computer—arguably changed peoples’ lives more from the 90’s onwards than any other technological advances in the prior 50-100 years.

I remember being at CES in 1998 while I was with Boston Acoustics. We were showing a new prototype speaker that we wanted to keep pretty secret and we had it in a back room (not on display in the main booth area), showing it only to select dealers. The next day full color pics and specs of it were online. The next day. Communications at the speed of the Internet had arrived. It was a new universe. The separation (heck, more like a chasm) between the 1980’s and the 1990’s could not have been greater.

So viewed in the context of this new technological landscape, 2-channel audio as a major area of interest and consumer discretionary spending began to fade into the background. “Stereo” as a hobby didn’t disappear but it certainly diminished to a very large extent.

Home Theater to the Rescue

But just when it seemed like 2-channel audio was going to disappear and the “audio business” was going to go the way of the horse and buggy, a great thing happened: The VCR was invented and it saved the audio business. Yes, the VCR saved the audio business because the VCR gave rise to the emergence of an incredibly important development in audio history: Home Theater.

Here’s how it came about:

In 1976, Sony introduced their Betamax, the first home video recorder. Finally, people could record TV programs and play them back later at their convenience. No more rushing home to catch the program on TV. JVC and Panasonic (Matsushita) countered with their VHS system a year or so later and VHS eventually won the marketplace struggle over Beta in the first of many “competing format” wars that have continuously plagued the consumer electronics business over the last 40 or 50 years.

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1980s-era Panasonic VCR and VHS tape

VCRs are really a technical marvel and an amazing example of clever engineering in the analog age. Compared to recording visual programming like TV, audio recording is simple. 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 higher than audible frequencies. The highest visual frequencies they human eye can perceive in the visible light spectrum are about 700 THz. Such small high-frequency wavelengths were thought to be absolutely impossible to record with an analog system.

The VCR is an analog device. So how do VCRs have enough bandwidth to record it? What’s the trick?

Pretty clever. Someone really had their thinking cap on that day, that’s for sure.

Tape speed is the key. In an analog audio tape recorder, a tape speed of 7 ½ or 15 inches per second is fast enough to capture the full 20kHz audio spectrum without any reduction or attenuation of the highest frequencies. Even a cassette recorder’s tape speed of 1 7/8 inches per second is sufficient to record up to around 14-15kHz with very good fidelity. Certainly good enough for semi-critical listening, such as background music at home or listening in the car.

In a video tape recorder, some engineer came up with the idea to put the recording heads 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” (not merely 7 or 15 as in an audio tape recorder), that a VCR can now easily record those very high visual frequencies.

It was 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 ultra-high visual frequencies correctly (in the MHz range, not kHz!), what do you think it can do with those simple audio/music frequencies that only go up to 20,000 Hz (20kHz)?

Yes! A VCR can record any audio signal better than the best master recording studio tape decks can. Those were only 15 inches per second (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. This was the first incarnation of Home Theater.

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 movie tapes. There were 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 this new Dolby Surround circuitry (later, Dolby Pro Logic) into their receivers.

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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.

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Early 1990’s VHS tape with surround sound encoding

Just as it seemed like 2-channel home audio was on the way out, like it was a favored pastime from another era, the age of Home Theater gave the audio business a shot in the arm. More like a jet-assisted take-off with afterburners! Home audio had a new lease on life, a new mission, a new reason to appeal to an entirely new generation of consumers. Homes all over the country started to have dedicated “theater rooms.”  Basements were being remodeled in record numbers. Furniture makers came out with “theater seating.” Homebuilders offered theater rooms in new construction.

Speaker manufacturers introduced all manner of center channel and ambient surround speakers in response to the demand for specialized models. The speaker business was good—what used to be a 2-unit sale per system was now a 5-speaker sale. And a new kind of speaker component—the powered subwoofer—became a mainstay of these new theater systems.

Home theater was really strong for about 15 years or so, right up until the big economic downturn of 2008. That really put the kibosh on the housing and employment market and the home theater boom that characterized those wild 90’s and early 2000’s gave way to subdued social reluctance. Many major electronics retailers, like Tweeter Etc, Hi Fi Buys and others, went out of business during this time. A grand period in audio retailing was gone forever.

Around 2010 Through Today

Pure audio is a pretty lonely hobby these days. There remains very little brick-and-mortar retail for display and demonstration. Even brands that used to sell their products only through so-called “authorized retailers” now sell direct to the end user right from their website. 

I’m very good friends with one of the engineers I worked with at Atlantic Technology. Jason was in his mid-20’s when I met him, green, wet behind the ears but as enthusiastic and as “into it” as anyone could possibly be. He was ex-Army and all the soldiers he served with had great stereo systems that they’d purchased through the Army’s exchanges. He was super interested in music, gear and he was an EE. Just the right combination. As Jason grew into his position at Atlantic he absorbed info and experience like a sponge from his own discoveries and from our head engineer (whose personal history stretched back to the “old days” doing things the “right way”), constantly peppering him with questions and “show me’s.” Jason also worked his butt off, taking additional courses on his own.

By time I left Atlantic in 2012, Jason had blossomed into one of the flat-out best speaker engineers I’ve ever known (and I’ve known a lot!). Not just crossover design and voicing, but driver design, cabinet construction and bracing methods (he’s investigated the causes and audibility of cabinet vibration and he’s invented the most novel and effective methods of bracing/vibration suppression I’ve ever seen) and installation/system setup. Quite the well-rounded individual. We meet for dinner on a fairly regular basis and talk audio, every manner of audio. It’s great fun, but that degree of interest in pure hobbyist audio is definitely a rarity these days among people Jason’s age.

The enthusiast magazines have also really fallen by the wayside: Stereophile magazine used to be a 300-page monthly affair. Now it’s barely over 150 pages. Sound & Vision is still around, but it seems irrelevant, like no one is paying attention anymore.

The importance of separate audio components (electronics, speakers, source units) makes a difference only to what appears to be the most die-hard home theater or 2-channel audio aficionado, that segment of the market that has always owned a “component” audio or home theater system. Brand new component audio enthusiasts don’t seem to be being created any longer. The under-30-ish crowd doesn’t even think in terms of acquiring separate audio gear. To them, “audio” is not something separate and apart from everything else; instead, the notion of “audio” is not thought of at all. It’s simply, automatically part of something else. Alexa comes with its own little speaker and amplification built-in. The thought of “customizing” it and replacing its audio portion with something different is not even a fleeting consideration.

Which is a shame, when you think of it. Good audio is easily discerned by anyone, even so-called novices. I have a really good 2-channel audio system: Big tower 4-way speakers with multiple 12-inch woofers, 400 watts RMS per side, a really SOTA CD player, acoustically-treated walls, and the room itself has nearly ideal dimensions that do not impart annoying resonances on the sound. It’s a great system in a great-sounding room.

I have a very wide range of good music on CD: jazz, classical, popular, rock, rap, you name it. Invariably, guests will ask to hear my system. I say, “What kind of music do you like?” If it’s someone older than, say 40-50, they’ll usually pick some classic rock/pop (maybe like Steely Dan or EWF or Michael Jackson, something like that) and I’ll pop in a disc and hit ‘play.’

That crashing sound you hear is the sound of their jaw hitting the floor. Truly great audio has a stunning effect on people, because they never knew that that kind of sound was possible, that that kind of experience could be had.

That experience is what’s missing from the vast majority of today’s audio. It makes noise, it delivers dialogue, weather, a recognizable tune, familiar lyrics. But regular audio today does not deliver an experience. Regardless of the delivery format, most people these days don’t even think about sound quality, other than the very basics of it being clearly discernable and free from gross obvious distortions.

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Smart speakers—2019

Sometimes, there is a very minor “step-up” in sound quality—people may opt for a basic soundbar-type add-on when purchasing a new flat screen television (maybe even with a small shoebox-sized subwoofer, perhaps wireless)—but for the most part, younger electronics customers are not assembling full-fledged component home theater systems.

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Vizio Soundbar

Today Should be the Golden Age of Audio

That’s really too bad. If ever there was a “golden age” of audio, this is it. Right now. Today! The sheer excellence and ultra-high performance of today’s best components is almost beyond belief. For those enthusiasts who have the knowledge, interest, skill and wherewithal to assemble and set up a really good dedicated theater or music system in their home, their diligence is more than richly rewarded.

Speakers like the current offerings from companies like Revel, Legacy and RBH Sound deliver a wide-range, effortless audio performance the likes of which would seem like utter science fiction to designers from the 1960’s or 70’s. One can’t even contemplate comparing a JBL Century 100 from 1973 to a modern mid- to high-end speaker.

Modern theater electronics with their multi-channel object-based Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and Auro-3D decoding/spacial systems deliver a lifelike three-dimensional soundscape that, combined with today’s large-screen high-definition video, makes for a truly convincing, immersive experience. Anthem, Emotiva, the better Denons, Marantzs, Parasounds, Outlaws and the like are amplifiers that stand above the very best from any era. There is no way to even begin to say that a Phase Linear 400 from 1974 is on the same level as a Parasound Halo JC5.

What is beyond “Golden?” Platinum? Diamond? From a pure performance, build, UI and aesthetic standpoint, today’s better audio equipment—not even the very best, just the ‘better’ models—are so far ahead of anything that has come before that the current era, right now, has as strong a claim on the title of “Golden Era of Audio” as any time period from the past.

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Modern speakers and electronics from RBH (SVTR tower), Denon (X8500 13.2 HT multi-format receiver) and Anthem (super high-performance 2-ch integrated STR amplifier)

There are two things that prevent the modern era from claiming the prize outright:

  1. Lack of nostalgia for the current goods. It’s highly doubtful, as I mentioned earlier, that anyone 50 years from now will be Jonesin’ for an RBH SV-6500R tower, and
  2. The almost total absence of widespread marketplace demand for today’s component audio products. High-performance component audio is a niche product, appealing to an ever-dwindling narrow slice of the market. I followed in my Dad’s footsteps in liking and wanting a component stereo system. No one, however, is following me. That’s not what they want. They want other stuff.

Conclusion: Which Era Wins?

Yamaha DSP-A1So there you have it. Decide for yourself. Every era has its appeal and undeniable charms. Beautiful, old-world craftsmanship, made in the USA? Amazing, rugged construction, bulletproof into low impedance loads? The almost perfect melding of great sound and beautiful looks, approaching ‘absolute’ in terms of low distortion and accurate reproduction? Incredible, lifelike performance, unquestionably “better” than live concerts or movie theaters in terms of wide frequency range and intelligibility?

I think every era is a great era, because for me, they’re all “mine.” Most people have a hard time fully appreciating the attractions and emotional appeal of time periods before their own. I’d venture a guess and say that most 40-ish and younger audiophiles today view 1970’s audio with a mixture of unserious amusement and dismissal. I’d further guess that most audiophiles above, say, 60-65 look at today’s 13.2 or 7.4 systems as flashy and gimmicky, with the emphasis on bells and whistles instead of on the tonally accurate reproduction of real music as played on real instruments.

Both groups are right and both groups are wrong. The legitimate appeal of home audio has lasted for more than 60 years, and deservedly so. Very few technical equipment-based hobbies can say the same. It’s one long golden era, in my view, and I hope it lasts forever.

 

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Recent Forum Posts:

TLS Guy posts on February 06, 2022 17:28
dvaid, post: 1537742, member: 98024
I would say the 80s because the introduction of the first CD players caused all manufacturers to raise their game with regard to the quality. However, I must say the 1970s was the decade I grew up in with my first pieces of equipment and listening experiences. Carrying home a pair of AR6 loudspeakers on the London Tube (I was a strapping lad but my arms hurt!) the Philips 212 electronic turntable and 521 “fish eye” amplifier (10% discount courtesy of an aunt who worked at the Philips Showrooms in Conquest House Shaftesbury Avenue West End) and records records records, library and ordered through local (YES YES YES!) Record Shops the big ones in West End like EMG Soho Square. Much of what thrilled me then we're the great recordings from the golden age of stereo in the late fifties and sixties. I:ve come to the conclusion now in 2022 that virtually all the great performances have already been set down and the really great recordings made, and most of what I hear to day is many levels below the best in the past and just an inferior effort to sound different. I don't think that's old age. I believe it is true. Does anybody sing Schubert like Fischer-Dieskau or conduct like Karajan or play the piano like Michelangeli?

I must be a little older than you and live in the US now. I remember going to Henry's on the Tottenham Court road, and especially Sterns Radio on Fleet street. I bought kits mainly back then. I used to go the Leicester Square London, to get cheap army surplus components.

I think the big difference back then was the ethics. The owners, and I would site especially Peter Walker of Quad, really wanted high quality and especially reliable gear from their companies. Peter Walker regarded any failure of a Quad amp, or tuner a personal affront to be made good to the customer.

I would not say that you can't get good equipment now, but I do think reliability is an issue. But as always you have to pick your equipment carefully.

As far as artists, we only remember the really great ones. We still do have great artists before the public today, and I would venture to suggest in greater numbers than previously. I have been listening to quite a few vintage recordings of late, and I think the technical standards of the recoding have actually dropped. I think the art of the recording and balance engineers has moved from art to just a job. When streaming in AV you far too often see a bunch of mics thrown about the place with little if any thought given to it.
dvaid posts on February 06, 2022 16:44
I would say the 80s because the introduction of the first CD players caused all manufacturers to raise their game with regard to the quality. However, I must say the 1970s was the decade I grew up in with my first pieces of equipment and listening experiences. Carrying home a pair of AR6 loudspeakers on the London Tube (I was a strapping lad but my arms hurt!) the Philips 212 electronic turntable and 521 “fish eye” amplifier (10% discount courtesy of an aunt who worked at the Philips Showrooms in Conquest House Shaftesbury Avenue West End) and records records records, library and ordered through local (YES YES YES!) Record Shops the big ones in West End like EMG Soho Square. Much of what thrilled me then we're the great recordings from the golden age of stereo in the late fifties and sixties. I:ve come to the conclusion now in 2022 that virtually all the great performances have already been set down and the really great recordings made, and most of what I hear to day is many levels below the best in the past and just an inferior effort to sound different. I don't think that's old age. I believe it is true. Does anybody sing Schubert like Fischer-Dieskau or conduct like Karajan or play the piano like Michelangeli?
dvaid posts on February 06, 2022 16:30
It's hard not to blame digital for the total degradation of the music industry as well as hi fi. However probably shifts in consumer spending and tastes plus a global shift of manufacturing to the Far East and the remorseless price Warfare and cost cutting probably counted more. It is a shame that decent quality domestic music has been subsumed in plasticky all digital television sound systems with poor amplification and even poorer quality speakers Coming back from Central London I waxed lyrical about Tottenham Court Road in the 70s or 80s where you could spend half a day going from one audio shop to another ogling the latest products some affordable, some distantly attainable and others completely beyond one's wallet. Those were the days. Now… endless coffee and cake. Utterly boring.
Sal1950 posts on May 12, 2020 12:47
Kingnoob, post: 1390123, member: 89775
Ruining audio world , Siri spy speakers always recording audio .
I gotta laugh, people have fought for decades against the government or whoever putting bugging devices in their homes. Now they're paying monthly to put them in the house themselves with no thought to who might be listening on the other side. No Thanks to the spybots.
Kingnoob posts on May 11, 2020 13:59
shadyJ, post: 1385050, member: 20472
Very good article, Steve. It's a shame and an irony that as hi-fi audio has evolved to such amazing levels of performance and sound quality, interest has increasingly waned. Nowadays it's basically a niche market and a hobby for a small fraction of the populace, even though the price of entry for amazing sound systems is lower than ever before. The highest selling loudspeakers are those dreadful blue tooth things, and monoaural sound is the new hotness.

Yeah Bluetooth speakers , soundbars a audio travesty . Ruining audio world , Siri spy speakers always recording audio .
I vote the 70s for golden age or audio .

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