Where We Are and How We Got Here

As another Consumer Electronics Show rolls around, we are seeing some interesting and not-entirely encouraging things taking place in the audio field. The people for whom high fidelity was originally intended—so-called serious music listeners —have abandoned audio almost completely, leaving the pursuit of perfect music reproduction to a group of hobbyists who have more interest in hardware than in music. This, plus the recession, has almost killed middle-fi, which is now flailing out in all directions looking for a new market. Here's how it all came to pass:

1877: A Frenchman named Charles Cros hands a paper describing how to record and reproduce sound to the Academy of Sciences. Approximately four months later, an American named Thomas Edison makes a similar discovery. Naturally, Edison is given historical credit for being first.

1887: An American, Emile Berliner invents the laterally modulated, flat-disc gramophone.

1899: Valdemar Poulsen, a Dane, invents magnetic recording, using steel wire.

1902: Eminent opera singers begin recording for commercial distribution.

1909: The first recordings of a full orchestra are issued, in England.

1925: The first electrical recordings and phonographs are produced in the US. Music-lovers decry the new recordings as unmusical.

1931: RCA Victor introduces the first 33 1/3rpm disc for home use. Unfortunately, they neglect to introduce a machine to play it on. It lays an egg.

1944: English Decca releases the first Full-Frequency-Range Recordings (ffrr) , boasting a hitherto unheard of span of 40Hz to 10kHz. Music lovers declare the new records to be unmusical.

1947: Magnetic tape recording, perfected by Germany during WWII, comes into use for delayed radio broadcasts in the US. The German tapes were so good that US Intelligence thought Hitler was broadcasting from where he wasn't. Bing Crosby is the first American to use tape for all his radio shows.

1948: Columbia Records unleashes the long-playing microgroove record and, having learned from RCA's earlier mistake, also supplies suitable players for it. Music-lovers denounce the LP as unmusical.

1949: RCA unveils their big gun: the 45-rpm disc, whose only advantage over the 12" is lower distortion. Since most hi-fi enthusiasts listen to classical music, where selections run to 20 minutes or more, they choose the LP over the 45. Fidelity, shmidelity! This is the last time the classical buyer will ever have a visible effect on the American record market.

1950: RCA grudgingly admits that LPs are better for classics and starts issuing them. The 45 remains the speed of choice for pop singles.

1951: Noticing that all the classiest people—doctors, lawyers, pop artists—have component systems, the public at large discovers that hi-fi has status value and wants it too—at lower cost, of course.

1952: Low-fi phonographs, bearing labels which proclaim then to be "High-Fidelity," are marketed to a gullible public.

1953: Record manufacturers discover that adding shrillness and boom to their records will make them sound more hi-fi on the average phonograph. Published record critics with low-fi phonographs applaud the unprecedented "brilliance" of these hyped-up recordings, thus contributiÒg to the incipient debasement of hi-fi on domestic recordings.

1957: Ampex introduces the first home stereo tape player, using 2- track 7.5ips tape.

1958: Telefunken/Decca demo a stereo disc using vertical/lateral modulation. Critics declare it to be (1) incompatible and (2) unlikely to yield equal fidelity from both channels. Westrex demos a 45/45 system which is both compatible and symmetrical. Amazingly, the Westrex is adopted.

1959: Prerecorded tape switches from 2-track to 4-track (2 per direction), pulling the rug out from under 2-track collectors who thought that the medium was so good it would be around for a while. The prerecorded music market becomes divided between tape and disc adherents.

1960: Classical record listeners, wooed until now as the major hi-fi market, are abandoned in favor of the rock-oriented "youth market"—the people whom one producer who had made millions from called "the snot-nosed kids." Mentions of concert halls, great masters, immortal performances, and other appeals to adult snobbery vanish from audio advertising. Rock stars rather than conductors endorse products.

1967: Tape cassettes and 8-track tape cartridges are promoted for people who care more about portability than fidelity.

1968: Four-channel "quadraphonic" is set loose on a skeptical and unresponsive public. Originally conceived as a way of reproducing hall ambience—"Let's prod the classical listener. He may not be dead after all."—it is instead hyped as a source of sounds—from-all-directions. Critics adulate, classical listeners retch, pop listeners couldn't care less. And with four different and incompatible systems, quad's demise is foreordained. It is a dead horse by 1974.

1970: Component manufacturers begin to suspect that there is no limit to the money a perfectionist will pay for the promise of nirvana. As prices escalate, classical listeners give up in disgust, turning the field over to hardware enthusiasts who have little interest in music.

1971: Dolby-B noise reduction makes true high fidelity possible from cassettes and 8-track tapes. Cassettes adopt it, 8-track doesn't. Sales of open-reel tapes start to decline, as collectors have the rug pulled out from under them again.

1975: Audio loses its status value. Audiophilia and good music become even more estranged as component audio becomes increasingly equated with over-amplified dreck and the drug "culture" or lack thereof.

1976: Arnold Schwartz has a 17-lb preemie at Zion Community hospital. Audio takes a breathing spell.

1977: The first digitally-mastered analog discs start appearing. Audiophiles denounce them as machinations of the devil. Record critics hail them as the third coming. (The second was LP.)

1977: The 8-track tape cartridge starts to go into a decline, probably because Stereophile predicted its demise 7 years earlier.

1978: Recession and inflation put a damper on consumer spending. Oddly, the highest-priced and lowest-priced component sales are relatively unaffected, but the bottom drops out of the middle-fi market. Home computers and component video compete for electronic hobbyists' dollars.

1978–1979: The most earth-shaking development during this period is the concept of dealer inventory as volume rather than area. The cause of fidelity benefits imperceptibly.

1980: After that hiatus, all Hell breaks loose. Several disc and tape noise-reduction systems are introduced, their incompatibility virtually guaranteeing the standardization of none. IMF in England introduces Ambisonic sound. ("Omigod, not another quad system!") Philips unveils a laser-digital disc system, which will obsolete all existing playback systems. Millions of collectors envision rugs under great tension. Myriads of "underground" magazines disagree about everything. The general public gives up in disgust, while dedicated audiophiles argue in circles as to how many samples and bits it takes to put a hot album on the head of a pin. Most of then have never sampled bits.

1981: Ambisonics lays a lead egg in the US. The audio industry regards the shambles of its house and asks "Where did we go wrong?"

1982: The audio industry answers its own question. "We overlooked the auto hi-fi market." Unh huh!