Listening to music can be considered in this day and age one of the world’s favourite pastimes. Whether it be something we permanently carry around with us, or the tracks we listen to in the privacy of our own homes, engaging with music has come a long way since commercial recordings first became available in the mid-20th century.
Think back to throwing away our old boxy televisions and replacing them with those new sleek flat screens, just like the process of getting rid of large pieces of sound technology – with excessive wires connecting boxes running throughout the room – to where we are now with small and wireless Bluetooth portable speakers.
Technology gets better with every invention, and thankfully, it also has got a lot smaller at the same time. But how did we get here? When did the journey towards such a personal relationship with music begin? We’re not just talking here of HiFi systems with speakers: what about the speakers in our telephones and cinema halls? Perhaps, the sounds we engage with daily have more curious origins than we normally give them credit for.
The world began to utilise the very first piece of music technology when Joham Philipp Reis developed a concept of a speaker to enhance his telephone conversations in 1816. The next major step was when Alexander Graham Bell developed an electric loudspeaker in 1877, followed in 1899 by Thomas Edison’s British patented horn with a compressed air amplifying mechanism. There were several intelligent and knowledgeable scientists trying to patent and develop their versions of loudspeakers. And then Chester Rice and Edward Kellogg patented the moving coil principle – which was used until relatively recently.
With companies like Bell Telephone Laboratories and Siemens, audio amplifiers first came into the picture, which created a requirement for loudspeakers to go with them. However, the first speakers were designed by telephone engineers and were basically loud-speaking receivers for telephones, and as such they lacked the sensitivity required for high-quality sound.
Did you know that the first feature-length movie with synchronised sounds came out in 1927? Before that, motion films were entirely visual. Theatre owners hired a pianist or organist or, in large urban theatres, a full orchestra to play the music that fit the mood of the film at any given moment, to somewhat leave the viewers with more than just the audible turbulence of the projector for a ‘soundtrack’. But by the 1930’s. all movies started to incorporate synchronised sound and dialogue.
The next step was to bring clarity and quality to the sound experience. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, more popularly known as MGM, began in the 1930’s to combine two or three sound drivers to increase frequency response and sound pressure. And came up with the first film industry-standard loudspeaker system, calling it the Shearer Horn.
In the 1950s, with the development of Kodak 8mm film and a portable movie projector with a portable screen – often without sound – we saw the earliest forms of what we now call home theatre. However, these were seen almost solely in the houses of the very affluent, particularly those in the film industry. Portable home cinemas improved over time with colour film, Kodak Super 8mm film cartridges, and monaural sound, but remained unpolished and fairly rare.
The following period, nevertheless, saw huge growth and many changes within the industry. Take, for example, the story of the Spendor speaker: Mr Spencer Hughes worked for the BBC’s sound engineering department and developed the first monitor speakers in the 1960s. He went on to make his own loudspeaker and called it the BC1. This game-changing design quickly became the monitor of choice for broadcasters and recording studios worldwide.
With evolving tech, radio, and better amplifier designs 20th Century Fox Film Corporation became masters of high-fidelity sound systems. A man named Ray Dolby in London, patented a Noise Reduction System in 1969 and Dolby Laboratories first emerged onto the scene.
In the 1970s, the VCR or Videocassette recorder, as the name suggests, recorded audio and video onto a removable magnetic tape, and became extremely popular. It became more important to develop better audio for both cinemas and home systems, which began a revolution in the quality of movie sound.
George Lucas teamed up with Dolby Laboratories, and together they engineered what would be the first in a line of hugely significant collaborations – Dolby Stereo. For the first time, sound effects were emitted from four channels. Dolby Stereo is one of the first innovations in a long line that now includes Dolby Digital 5.1 and many other worthy contributions to the audio industry.
You must have heard about cassette players and boomboxes, or perhaps you even still own a CD and DVD player at your home? However, another era of home theatre started with the DVD-video format, the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound system and large TV sets. These have now changed to flat-screen 3D-TV sets with high-resolution Blu-ray discs and Dolby’s fantastic surround sound systems into the 1990s and beyond.
It is at that this point in the story, that we find ourselves in the 21st century.
It has been a long yet remarkably fruitful journey to where we are now. These are just a few small steps that have brought us where we are today, with the excellent quality of sound we can now achieve within the comforts of our own home.
Indeed, we do not usually acknowledge the full story, or the gifts of design and science that lie behind our daily use of technology. We now think of the future, with AI and Chatbots granting us instantaneous knowledge from all around the world on a little transportable speaker in our houses, where our forefathers struggled even to have a telephone call.
VIZIO, the American-based electronics company, largely known for their Smart TV sets, concluded rightly that consumers weren’t satisfied with their TVs’ tiny speakers, and wanted more. So, it has come up with a series of vastly superior options that are as impressive for their affordability as they are for the vast scale of their improvement over an ordinary TV’s sound.
Once again, audio pioneers Dolby Labs have a part to play in this story: Just like VIZIO, Dolby is based in San Francisco, and the two companies work closely together to develop the best possible implementation of Dolby’s latest and most 21st century of sonic innovations – Dolby Atmos.
Atmos is another incredible technological upgrade, adding ‘height channels’ to standard Dolby Digital surround sound, creating for the first time a totally 100% immersive three-dimensional ‘sound-field’ in which you can hear sounds and objects move with incredible precision.
Dolby launched Atmos in 2012. But until now, sound systems that can carry the dynamism of Atmos haven’t been available at low-cost. Now, however, VIZIO has created the 36in 5.1.2 Soundbar System with Dolby Atmos, an all-in-one, completely immersive Dolby Atmos home audio system for just £599.
Where normally you’d have to drop at least a grand on a system of this spec, the VIZIO Soundbar System features a subwoofer and two compact rear speakers, together with a powerful Chromecast-enabled soundbar that pumps out new fewer than five channels of powerful, dynamic and crystal-clear sound.
For a more straightforward option – and surely one of the tech bargains of 2019 – the more basic 36in 2.1 All-in-One Soundbar is a simple, one-box soundbar that generates an enormous sound with the help of two integrated 3-inch subwoofers along with two full-range drivers, and is the perfect simple solution to sit beneath your TV – all for just £149.
These new soundbar products from VIZIO bring you a fantastic quality listening experience at the most affordable cost. They are astonishingly brilliant in design, the sleek bar covered in lovely black fabric, while the simple design extends directly to the white LED lights, which run vertically on the left side of the bar. They act as volume indicators with a minimalist look, making the soundbar look more costly than it actually is.
Music and technology have been prolific creative partners for over a century, and in that time they have transformed our lives beyond reckoning. Is it possible to imagine what another few decades of this fertile technological evolution will do to develop the ways in which we are moved by the strange, beautiful phenomenon of organised sound waves moving through the air and entering our ears? Probably not, but one thing is certain. It’ll sound amazing.