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March 30, 2017

How speakers went from statement furniture to unseen tech

Remember record player credenzas?

In today’s wireless age, most want their sound system to be out of sight and out of mind. “If interior designers had their way,” says Scott Orth, director of electroacoustics at Sound United, owner of the Polk Audio and Definitive Technology speaker brands “there would be no speakers at all.” Orth adds that “the trend amongst average consumers has been go smaller for the last thirty years.”

But there was a time when speakers were as essential a piece of furniture as the sofa: The peak of home hi-fi offered handcrafted teak consoles and towering pairs of floor speakers. Today, small, easily hidden speaker systems are the mainstays of home listening. But how did we get from full cabinetry to speakers not much bigger than a tin can?

The birth of hi-fi and the all-in-one console

Hi-fi, or hi-fidelity—audio jargon for recordings and sound reproduction equipment capable of reproducing stereo or full-frequency recordings—began around 1948, when a slew of new technologies came on the market: reel-to-reel tape recording, the 33 ⅓ RPM long play (LP) record, and FM radio (a huge improvement on existing AM standards).

Consumer electronics technology had to evolve to keep up with the times, so manufacturers began designing cleaner-sounding amplifiers and speaker systems. During this early age of hi-fi, the most popular vehicle of music consumption was the stereo console: an all-in-one record player, radio, amplifier, and speaker system.

The ease and convenience of these systems made them extremely popular up. Ads for consoles touted not only the superior performance but the “finest cabinetry.” These were pieces of furniture to be proudly displayed in your home, a gathering place for the family.

The introduction of stereo and speaker sets

But the biggest reason all-in-one consoles were so popular? Stereo hadn’t been invented yet. In the late 1950s, Westrex invented the stereophonic tape-cutting head, and the era of two speakers was born. Initially, people were suspicious that stereo was just a gimmick devised by manufacturers in order to sell more speakers, but the masses were quickly won over by the clarity and depth found in stereo recording that mono recording just didn’t have.

At this time, the age of rock-and-roll ushered in a desire amongst listeners for bigger sound: that meant bigger speakers and more powerful amplifiers. What was once one piece of furniture was now three pieces of furniture: two loudspeakers and a table or cabinet for amplifiers and record players. The hi-fi had its own corner in the living room, often joined by the television.

Yet, even in this component-driven world, stereo consoles remained popular despite being acoustically obsolete (the all-in-one solution had many downsides, chief of which was poor acoustics due to the speaker enclosure). Whether they were separate speakers and amplifiers or all-in-one consoles, hi-fi setups were viewed by most people as furniture, to be displayed and admired aesthetically as well as sonically. Even speakers during this time took on dramatic shapes and clean, sleek forms inspired by the same midcentury modernism we so admire in a credenza.

Post-stereo, pre-digital

When did speakers stop becoming desirable furniture? The answer lies in components. In the analog world, there were few pieces of equipment available to hook up to a hi-fi system: record players and sometimes televisions. (Radios were often combined with amplifiers in components called receivers.)

In the 1970s, the cassette tape added tape decks to the mix, and the dawn of video recording (Betamax/VCRs) added even more components. CD players joined in the 1980s, and all of these components overpowered the hi-fi systems of old. But the height of the digital era was what eradicated furniture hi-fi.

The black box era

In the 1990s, DVDs became available, and with them came 5.1 surround sound, previously found only in movie theaters. Speakers for 5.1 were smaller and very lightweight since they needed to be hung on the wall for the effect to work.

The attractive receivers of old were replaced by black boxes whose goal was to hold the maximum number of components possible, including six speakers. Unfortunately, the era of the handsome, chrome and wood receiver had come to an end, and the black plastic black box era had begun.

The meticulously designed, attractive amplifiers and speakers of old had limited inputs and outputs since they were really made for the analog world and thus began to disappear. A sound system was no longer a standalone piece of furniture, but now you needed a separate piece of furniture—the media cabinet—to contain it.

The minimalist age of wireless

The iPod and subsequent mobile technologies set off a trend of minimalism in the 2000s that led to in-wall speakers, and later, sound bars, and smart speakers. The fuss of wires and different media formats became unattractive and remains so to this day.

Bluetooth, Play-Fi, and other wireless technologies virtually eliminate the number of necessary components of home theater systems. The trend for manufacturers is to build these components into the sound bar or speaker itself, rather than have them in a separate receiver.

Department Chicago’s HiFi Console, a midcentury-inspired, Bluetooth-equipped stereo system retails for $1,895.
Department Chicago

Combining old and new

The resurgence of midcentury modernism has brought the all-in-one console into the 21st century, and they’ve seen a small burst of popularity in the last few years. Hundreds of vintage media cabinets can be found on Etsy, and companies like Vintedge Co. are dedicated to restoring vintage pieces and outfitting them with the latest technologies.

A handful of contemporary designers and companies—Department Chicago, Scott Cassin, Symbol, and Wrensilva, to name a few)—are creating brand new consoles that wouldn’t look out of place in Don Draper’s apartment, while midcentury-inspired media cabinets can be found at retailers ranging from Target and Ikea to Article and West Elm. What’s old will always find a way to be new again.

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