From Hi-Fi to Ultra-High End

A Historical Overview of the Development of Home Audio and Loudspeakers

From Hi-Fi to Ultra-High End

The High-Fidelity Era: 1945–1970
If the pioneering epoch of loudspeaker design was driven by the motion picture and broadcast industries, the subsequent “high-fidelity era” was more centered on home entertainment and, in particular, on Columbia Records’ marvelous invention—the long-playing (twelve-inch) 33rpm vinyl record. Announced at an NYC press conference on June 21, 1948, the first LP, Nathan Milstein performing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto accompanied by Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic, appeared in record shops a week later—and was an instant success. 

Not only did the LP mean that an entire symphony could be listened to on a single record (as opposed to the multiple sides of the five-record 78rpm sets that preceded it), it was cheaper than a box of 78s and purportedly more durable. Almost immediately record companies worldwide switched over to the LP—even Columbia’s chief rival, RCA, which held out for its seven-inch 45rpm alternative format for almost two years, threw in the towel in January, 1950.

The introduction of the LP wouldn’t be important if its advent hadn’t been accompanied by another change. From Edison and Berliner on, recording companies had been claiming that the sound of their cylinders/discs was so close to the real thing that even a trained musician couldn’t tell the difference. And the truth is that amateur and experienced listeners alike were, at first, wowed with each new advance in recording technology. But with the LP recorded sound made a genuine leap forward, due in equal parts to the new condenser microphones coming from Germany (particularly the Neumann U47, M49, and M50—the numbers being the year in the twentieth century when each microphone was introduced), the 30ips dual-track tube-powered reel-to-reel tape recorder (another German invention, brought back to the U.S. after the war and championed by none other than Bing Crosby), and advances in record cutting and pressing equipment (notably the Westrex cutting head and Scully lathe). Thanks to variable groove-spacing, LPs could not only offer twenty-two or more minutes of music per side, they could also offer that music in genuine “high fidelity”—with a bandwidth that, theoretically at least, comprised the gamut, from the lowest notes that listeners could hear (or feel) to the highest. 

Around 1954, this windfall for music lovers was almost literally doubled when the stereophonic reproduction of sound (introduced in motion picture theaters well before it found its way into homes—1940’s Fantasia, for instance, could be heard in a handful of select theaters in multichannel sound) became a reality. By 1955 home audio enthusiasts could buy pre-recorded stereo tapes for 7.5ips decks with “in-line” or “stacked” playback heads, and in 1957–58 the first stereo LP (Audio Fidelity’s A Study in Hi Fidelity Sound) was marketed, followed by a flood of stereophonic recordings from all the major recording companies.

The advances in higher-fidelity sources (recorded and playback) coincided with several other changes in the market and in society as a whole. The birth of rock ’n’ roll, for instance, in the early-to-mid-50s was to have an incalculable effect on the record-buying public. At the same time, the mid-50s marked one of the high points in classical recorded music, with most of the great artists from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s still at or very near the peak of their abilities. Add to this the expansion of the middle class following the war, the low-fidelity (and sparse musical offerings) of 50s television and AM radio, the growth of higher-fidelity FM radio, and the general feeling (as old as the bourgeoisie) that listening to music in your home made you officially “classier” than your neighbor, and you ended up with a lot more records (and tuners) being sold and played in people’s living rooms—as well a whole new subculture of (mainly) guys who spent their leisure hours and more plentiful extra dollars on the latest higher-fidelity gear and recordings. While the birth of high fidelity couldn’t exactly be called the birth of the audiophile—there have been “hi-fi nuts” in every generation—the 50s did mark a wholesale expansion of the audiophile sub-class.

To keep pace with all these musical, technological, and socio-economic changes, the loudspeaker industry changed too. While the pioneering efforts in high-fidelity playback and recording were made by research scientists at large labs in response to the advent of the “talking” motion picture, those of the post-World War II “high-fidelity era” were tailored to a public that was consuming music in its homes. And homes, by definition, are shared spaces. In other words, hi-fi manufacturers had to find a size and style that would meet with an entire family’s approval. Though giant horn speakers were ideal for huge auditoriums and motion-picture theaters, they were never “at home” in a living room. And one of the first trends you see in 50s loudspeakers is the domestic downsizing of transducers. The “bookshelf speakers” from Acoustic Research and KLH weren’t called “bookshelf” without good reason. They were designed to better blend with home décor—to call less attention to themselves than the giants that preceded them—and to do all this while at the same time delivering the much higher fidelity that 50s LPs, tapes, and FM broadcasts were capable of.

Though the AR-3 and the KLH Model 6 weren’t born in a research lab, both speakers had immaculate pedigrees. The father of the AR-3, Edgar Villchur, taught a night course (the first university course, actually) in the reproduction of sound at NYU; the father of the KLH Model 6, Henry Kloss, was Villchur’s prize pupil. Neither Villchur nor Kloss was a research scientist per se, as almost all of the innovators of the pioneer era had been. Though academically trained, Villchur did not have a degree in electrical or mechanical engineering. He was, like so many others of this period, a self-taught mix of hard science, hard work, careful calculation, and sheer inspiration, what you might call an extremely gifted amateur—so gifted that he came up with two of the most important ideas of the high-fidelity era: the acoustic-suspension woofer and the dome tweeter. Though not unproblematic, both of these brilliant innovations made full-range high-fidelity playback possible in a much smaller package within a much smaller listening space. The same thing could be said about Peter Walker’s original Quad, which was not only a technical stroke-of-genius (the first “full-range”—or, at least, “fuller-range” electrostat) but which was also specifically designed for home playback. 

Although the market for the horn loudspeaker—the king of transducers throughout the 20s, 30s, and 40s—shrank as a result of these innovations, the horn speaker didn’t disappear. It too became more domesticated—shedding inches and pounds, slimming down to more “living-room-friendly” proportions (especially in certain JBL iterations), and in one famous instance being cleverly designed to be placed in a corner (i.e., “out of the way”). However, there was a technical limit to how small a horn could get without compromising its sound. (A horn has to be a certain size to work as intended.) By the beginning of the 70s horn-loaded loudspeakers (with their “horn colorations”) looked like they were on their way out, but then heavy-metal rock ’n’ roll happened, innovators began experimenting, and the ultra-dynamic horn speaker found new life.

Toward the end of the “high-fidelity” era, when the computer was just beginning to cross over from the scientific/military world into the business community (and a decade or so later into the home), it found its way into loudspeaker design. British companies like KEF were among the first to apply computer-modeling and computer-testing to loudspeaker and driver design. This more rigorously scientific approach was complemented by a superb sense of industrial design that led to speakers, from Bowers & Wilkins notably, that not only measured extraordinarily well and sounded great, but also looked fantastic. The trend toward computer-assisted engineering and industrial design would also bear fruit in the “high-end era” and, notably, in today’s generation of beautifully sculpted, computer-optimized dynamic loudspeakers.