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The History of Car Audio

A look back at how far we’ve come

Ever since the automobile was first envisioned, the accompanying audio system has always been an important part of the package. It’s interesting to consider how far car audio systems have come and how often they’ve been reinvented over the past 90-odd years.

The 1930s - The first car radios

The earliest car audio systems are attributed to brothers Joseph and Paul Galvin. They named their $130 car radio the Motorola. Yes, their company went on to become the telecommunications behemoth we know today.

Bear in mind that $130 back then is equivalent to around $1,500 today, so the system was considered more of an expensive oddity than a necessity by drivers. The vacuum tube radio was powered by a single battery and required quite a powerful nearby AM signal for you to pick up the hits of the day.

The 1950s - The phonograph

The Motorola worked solely on AM radio waves, which were never perfect for sound quality. It wasn’t until 1952 when an FM stereo for the car was invented by German company Blaupunkt, followed by an AM/FM radio in 1953. This dual-purpose radio would continue to be the standard on vehicles for decades, and even today most cars feature an AM/FM radio.

It wasn’t particularly clear for manufacturers of car audio systems where to go from there. Chrysler introduced an in-car phonograph for playing records in 1956 and went into partnership with Columbia Records to produce 7-inch records that could be played from a turntable that slid out from the dash. While innovative, it was somewhat impractical as the records would skip while the vehicle was in motion.

The 1960s - The 4-track and 8-track cartridge

The problem of skipping records was solved in the early sixties by engineer Earl Muntz. The Stereo-Pak, as it was first known, was a cartridge technology that allowed music to be stored on media that wouldn’t skip when a car was in motion. Muntz was quick to realize the applications for car audio.

The 4-track and variants like the Autostereo and 8-track went on to great success, powering the sound of swingers in the sixties. The cartridge system was the first real technology for choosing the music you want to hear while driving on the road, and it continued to be a staple of vehicles for many years.

1970-1980 - Cassettes rule the roost

Though cassettes were first introduced in 1964, it took at least a decade for them to begin replacing the 8-track in vehicles. The biggest leap came in 1979 when the Sony Walkman was released, which cemented the audio cassette as the standard media of choice.

The late 70s also saw major improvements in sound. You could buy high-quality aftermarket speakers, but as there was no standard across vehicles they were relatively difficult to install. But manufacturers eventually realized the importance of great car audio systems to the in-cab experience, and multi-speaker systems with amplifiers were born.

1980-1990 - Compact disc players

Cassettes, while compact, have issues with sound quality. Sony and Philips both pushed CD players as the replacement, as the sound quality was crystal clear and properly cared for CDs didn’t degrade over time like cassettes.

1982 saw the first CD player for the home, and 1984 saw the first CD player for the car: the CDX-1. It was an instant hit, and manufacturers began selling vehicles with built-in CD players. By the 90s, you could purchase multi-CD systems so you could switch between multiple CDs without having to swap them manually.

The 2000s - MP3 players

By 2000, MP3 players in vehicles were overtaking physical media. Using an onboard hard drive, one could keep hundreds or thousands of movie files and choose between them at will. As cell phone disk space grew, it became more common to simply plug in your phone via USB or connect to the in-car system wirelessly using Bluetooth.

The 2010s - Streaming media

For car audio near me in the modern age, your main car stereo system will typically work by streaming media. Instead of buying physical media or even downloading MP3s, the ubiquity of wireless internet access means most people simply stream their media on the fly from providers like Spotify and Pandora.

It’s great to see how car audio has constantly been at the forefront of technological advancement in vehicles. Car audio installation now offers the best we’ve ever had, and it will be interesting to see how car audio in New Orleans can possibly improve in the future.

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