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History of Car Audio


How Sound Has Evolved Through the Decades

When people take a look back at history, some things stick out more than others. We remember what was happening in the country, defining moments in sports, the fashion, and especially the music. If someone mentions 90’s music, big names such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers immediately come to mind. Not only is history defined by the music, but by the technology we used to play the music. We’re all digital now for the most part, but nearly a century ago it was a very different story. As soon as the automobile was invented, it wasn’t long before engineers were trying to figure out how to get it to crank out tunes. Up until the 1930’s, car rides had no soundtrack – only conversation and the sound of the road.

To give you a little history lesson, we’re breaking down all the major breakthroughs as they relate to car audio.

1930s – The First AM Radio

Joseph and Paul Galvin were the two brothers responsible for the very first car radio, which they developed way back in 1930. Their system operated using vacuum tubes that ran on battery power, which was ingenious considering the technology they had available to them. In the event that the car was close enough to a radio tower to pick up reception, people could enjoy music’s top hits using the AM frequency.

The Galvin brothers called their iteration of the radio the Motorola, a combination of the words “automotive” and “Victrola.” For the next two decades, Motorola would dominate the automobile market.

1950s – The Next Phase in Radios

It wouldn’t be until 1952 that the Motorola would finally get some competition that would challenge it. This came in a one-two punch – the first one landing in 1952 with the introduction of the very first FM radio. This would be immediately followed up the very next year by Becker’s Mexico radio, which had the capability to capture both AM and FM stations. It also had an automatic search button which drivers loved. These radios officially knocked the Motorola out of the car audio game.

1956 – The Chrysler Highway Hi-Fi

The challenge with radio is that listeners had no way of selecting the music. If they wanted to hear something specifically, they had to hope their local DJ at the radio station played it. Chrysler had the bright idea giving drivers the ability to play their own music. However, they didn’t fully think through the logistics of it.

In 1956, Chrysler released a line of cars with a phonograph installed in the dash. They called it the Highway Hi-Fi, and it would allow drivers to play 7” records while they were in the car. There was just one little problem: anytime the car drove over a bump or rough patch, the record would start to skip and scratch. The only time the Highway Hi-Fi worked properly was if the car was at a standstill. As you can probably guess, the Highway Hi-Fi didn’t last long on the market.

1960s – 4-Track and 8-Track Players

If there’s one good thing that came out of the Highway Hi-Fi it’s that it taught engineers that records won’t work in cars. If people were ever going to be able to play their own music, it would require new technology.

That technology would come along in the 1960’s with the invention of the 4-track, a large plastic cartridge that contained tape. The new design eliminated the skipping issue, but 4-tracks were big and clunky and didn’t hold very much. This design was only slightly improved by the 8-track, which doubled the amount of music the 4-track held. Music could now be reliably played in cars, and the 8-track remained at the top of the car audio heap for the next two decades.

1970s and 80s – Cassette Tapes

People tolerated the 8-track player because they didn’t really know any better. As it turns out, a leaner and meaner technology had been sitting on the back burner since the 1960’s. It was the cassette tape, a much smaller version of the 8-track that held more music. As soon as automakers got wind that cassettes were catching on with consumers, they started phasing out 8-track players from their vehicles.

1980s and 90s – Compact Discs

CDs changed the entire musical landscape and the way that consumers could listen to music. First of all, there was an obvious elevation in quality. CDs sounded crystal clear compared to tapes. Second, CDs were constructed to have more longevity about them whereas tapes would eventually wear out or warp. But perhaps the thing people loved most was being able to skip around on the album and repeat tracks.

Pioneer developed the first ever car CD player entitled the CDX-1, which would go on to become a smash success with consumers. People demanded that cars switched over to CDs from tapes and automakers obliged for the most part. The last vehicles to be manufactured that featured tape decks were in 2010 (from Lexus and Crown Vic).

The 2000s – MP3/MP4 and Streaming

Anyone who was around for the release of the original iPod remembers what a big deal it was. Here was a little device that allowed users to store a few hundred songs conveniently in a player the size of a deck of cards. One adaptor later and people could hook up their MP3 player to their stereo, which opened up a world of possibility with car audio.

Things only got better with the introduction of Bluetooth technology, satellite radio, and streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify. Listeners now have the ability to listen to virtually anything in their automobiles.

Upgrade Your Car Audio at Stereo Depot

Now that you know the history of car audio, maybe now is a good time to think about stepping up your own car audio game. Stereo Depot has some of the largest stock and widest selection of aftermarket car stereos and car speakers in California. If you’ve been searching terms like “car audio near me” or “car audio installation” – look no further than Stereo Depot. We can outfit any truck, car, or SUV with the latest in car stereo system technology with features like Bluetooth and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto.

We have two convenient locations – one in San Diego and one in El Cajon. Feel free to stop by either with your vehicle and we’ll be happy to show you our best stereos, speakers, subs, and accessories. If you want to set an appointment or send us an email, use the contact form on our website.


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