The evolution of in-car audio
There’s a great sense of enjoyment that comes from listening to our favorite music while driving. Cranking the tunes and looking at the open road before us gives us a feeling of immense freedom.
Building a playlist before a road trip, and naming it for that road trip, allows us to listen to the playlist later and instantly bring back the nostalgic feelings from that trip. It’s a very powerful way to reminisce.
However, the ability to personalize our music choices in our cars is a fairly recent phenononom. In fact, for about 20 years after the first Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1908, there were no options at all for listening to music while driving.
Then in 1930, the first commercially available car radio was introduced by a company that eventually became Motorola Inc. This radio sold for about $130. Given the average cost of a new car at the time was only about $640, this radio was a very expensive addition. At the time listening to music was considered by many as a distraction while driving.
AM radio remained basically the only choice until FM radio was introduced by Blaupunkt in the early 1950s. Radios that offered both AM and FM soon became available and are still available to this day.
For a few years in the late 1950s Chrysler offered an in-car “record player” called the Highway Hi-Fi. It skipped with every bump in the road and was discontinued very quickly.
Then in the early ’60s the first tape player, the Autostereo emerged. This was the first time drivers had some control over the music they listened to in their car. This four track system evolved into the 8-track and it was widely available by the mid-sixties. The affordability of the 8-track made it very popular. Quadraphonic 8-track systems were close to what we know as surround sound today. It may sound like they were a little ahead of their time, but then those of us old enough, will remember the “chuk chok chuk” sound it made switching from one track to another. Sometimes, right in the middle of our favorite song.
The cassette player, introduced by Philips, also became available in the mid-’60s. The cassette had betterm sound, was more customizable, and was also offered with home stereo systems. These qualities allowed it to eventually take over the market. On long trips it seemed like we were always flipping the tape. It was a pretty cool thing when cassette decks that automatically flipped the tape came out. Young people today may never know the connection between a cassette tape and a pen.
Stereo systems offering AM-FM radio and cassette, continually improved in quality throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Tuners, multiple speakers, boosters, surround sound and other aftermarket advancements offered something for every budget. Absurd amounts of money were spent on these systems.
Philips and Sony had developed compact disc technology in the ’70s but Pioneer offered it in cars in the early ’80s. The quality of sound and ability to skip to songs made it a very popular choice. No more fast forward or rewinding to find your favorite song. Soon decks that could hold multiple CDs — sometimes as many as 10 — were available. CDs also took up less space in our cars allowing us to bring more music with us.
Satellite Radio became available in around 2000. It allowed us to choose from hundreds of specific genres of music and talk radio. Today satellite radio has over 30 million subscribers and is offered in most new vehicles. Some dealers now even offer six-month free trials on used vehicle purchases.
The release of the iPod in 2001 and the iPhone in 2007, along with other MP3 players and smartphones, gave us the ability to listen to our digital music libraries in our cars and allowing us to build the playlists we talked about at the beginning of this article.
First we were only able to connect our iPods and iPhones via the auxiliary or USB jack in our cars. Now most new cars come equipped with a Bluetooth technology, allowing us to connect our phones and media players hands-free. As a note though, Bluetooth uses a lot of battery power, so it’s still advisable to plug in your phone when you get in the car, and use driving as a chance to recharge your phone.
But it’s not going to stop there. Streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music and others are already becoming available in new cars. Spotify and Uber have developed a partnership that will allow you to link your Uber and Spotify accounts so you can listen to your choice of music while riding to your destination with them.
Automotive manufacturer systems like Ford’s SYNC and Chevy’s MyLink, allow hands-free control of our sound systems and other on board apps and services.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto allow us to integrate our smart phones with our car’s built in display. Giving us access to directions, messages, music, and hundreds of other apps, all while staying focused on the road.
Pioneer is now offering aftermarket systems with Apple CarPlay, allowing us to upgrade cars we already own with smartphone connectivity.
There’s no telling where technology will take us, but stay tuned, and turn it up.