With well over a century in the making, the home stereo has brought tantalizing airwaves into households for everyone to enjoy while sitting on the couch, providing ambiance to an otherwise mundane gathering, and even fueling spontaneous dance parties. Certainly with technological advances the music quality has dramatically increased along with accessibility and the design of home stereos. But the radio, CD, cassette, and Bluetooth sorcery wouldn’t have come to be without the evolution of the record player.
Turn the dial back to 1877 to when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. It was more like a recorder than a player, but it did have playback capabilities. The sound was recorded on a tinfoil sheet wrapped around a cylinder that could eventually be played back through a horn-shaped speaker, similar to how a player piano ghostly plays the keys. In 1895 the phonograph was updated to play sound from flat discs that we now call vinyl, and the design took close shape to the modern record player. This was the point in history when records became a necessity for sound and leisure listening. The popularity of the record player grew right along with music culture, booming in the ‘20s, spinning through the blues, and eventually falling into the hands of the ‘80s/’90s DJs and their manipulative powers. And now in 2019, the record player and/or turntable is finding its way back into homes across the globe with artists choosing to release new music on vinyl, audiophiles claiming the purest sounds come from the grooved discs, and the revolution of hipsters deciding the record player was cool — again.
As the world continued to evolve, the 1920’s radio waves proved to be a source of information and household entertainment. Families would gather in the den or living room, huddled around initially large vacuum tubes to listen to news broadcasts, weekly Thursday night concerts, and variety shows like the Prairie Home Companion or Abbot and Costello. And just as Napster proved to be a huge thorn in the music industry, the radio was thought to kill off the record player and cut into sales and profits because radio was a free medium that allowed the public to listen to music. The home radio was also revolutionary in quickly relaying critical information, simultaneously making entertainment and music available to millions, and in the humblest way, bringing families and friends together around a big ole box.
Introduced around the 1970s and generally paired with a Hi-Fi system or Component Stereo, the cassette tape was next in line for aural pleasure. It was smaller than vinyl and the 8-track while offering hi-fi sound, the option to fast forward or rewind, and the capability of recording your very own mixtape. Similar to the radio, the cassette tape eventually became handheld and found its way into cars, but at home, it was a modern marvel amplifying sound quality and offering almost instantaneous song selection. The cassette’s playback time was far superior to earlier music platforms and allowed the listener to indulge for hours. And to say you never made a mixtape of your own or for that special someone, well that’s simply preposterous.
Born in the ‘90s and living through the mid-2000s, the forefather to the digital music age was the compact disc. It was intended to be the successor to vinyl but proved to change the framework of the music industry as we know it. Using laser technology to digitally store music on the disc, the CD delivered better sound quality than all predecessors. Collections became staples of home decor accompanied by bigger speakers and surround sound. The CD’s music quality pushed speaker technology to catch up and monumental home stereo consoles became just as important as the original projector big-screen TVs. The single-disc player became the multi-disc, the multi-disc became the 6-disc player and with the added technology of skipping from track to track, the CD stereo became the first truly personal audio device. If it wasn’t your jam, it wasn’t played.
Y2K brought fear, disappointment, and the MP3 player. The revolutionary digitally formatted players came in an assortment of colors, sizes, and a bounty of favorable names. The RIO, Zen, and iPod were just a handful of the options, but when connected to your stereo receiver, you became the DJ. Never before had the music selection been yours, with days of playback, and customizable playlists that assured aural pleasure. The MP3 players could be carried in your pocket and once you made it back home to the after-party, all you had to do was find the AUX cord and any stereo was now a personal jukebox.
Nowadays the home stereo is wherever you are. Speakers are placed around the house, carried in your pack, and even turned on by the sound of your voice. And where does the music come from, generally from your ever-present smartphone with Bluetooth connection and one of the many audio streaming services. The turntable, cassette, and CD all can still be a part of your stereo system but unlike previous decades, everything is connected wirelessly. With platforms like SONOS, the ECHO, and Spotify you can almost seamlessly walk from room to room with your music following your every footstep. You can play Dr. Dre and Biggie in the kitchen while Janis Joplin and Toots and the Maytals serenade the living room, all with the simplicity of a finger’s touch.
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