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Sound quality. Which is better…then or now?

Technology has certainly changed over the years, some of which is for the better. This brings us to our latest posting topic. With all of the changes in technology created to help improve sound quality and play-ability, has it really improved? In order to determine this we have to break it down some, so here goes! For the purpose of this posting we are comparing the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s to today. Obviously, with that in mind this will be a rather large post and not just a few quick bullet points to mention. As you read this, feel free to take your time and travel down memory lane with me. For those of you who were not around just yet, enjoy my highlights. May they hopefully be insightful to your understanding of how it once was and how it has come to be what it is today.

1970’s: Records and tapes were big then. The tapes used were eventually expanded up to eight tracks per tape and were appropriately referred to as eight track tapes. Originally they were one track per tape, then two, then four and eventually eight. Separate components were needed to put together a good stereo system. Also very large speakers were manufactured and they needed lots of power to drive them. You either had a “stereo” or with higher end systems, “pre-amps” were used. All connections back then were with RCA cables (including the speaker wires themselves). The speaker cabinets were not typically made of particle board and if they were then rest assured they were made of very thick particle board. I recall speakers being made of actual wood (like mahogany for instance). Higher end systems either had separate knobs (not buttons) to turn (not press) to adjust bass, treble, midrange, and balance. Others used equalizers (sometimes even graphic equalizers) to adjust just how something sounded. Others on the lower end had just a tone knob.

1980’s: Audio cassette tapes were king. Records still had a very strong following. In addition to “stereo’s” and “pre-amps,” “rack systems” came to be. Eventually “rack systems” became the norm. Here you had a cabinet used to contain the receiver, record player, equalizer and cassette decks to play tapes on. Usually at the bottom of the cabinet was storage for the records to fit in. One dramatic improvement came from Dolby Laboratories who kept coming up with better noise filtering systems for cassette decks (“Dolby B,” “Dolby C”, etc.). In addition to cassette tapes for music, VCR’s came to be common. Now you could rent a movie at a movie rental store, and you could also purchase blank VCR tapes to record tv shows and movies aired over tv and watch it later when you wanted to.

1990’s: CD’s came to be. By the end of the decade CD’s were becoming quite common. Tapes were, however, still around. VCRs’ were eventually replaced with DVD players. Before DVD players became the standard there were also Laser disc players. Smaller “rack systems” became common. They were cheaper and usually less powerful and included a record player and usually dual cassette decks (one for recording with). Some even included a CD player (single or sometimes even a 5 disc carousel or a cartridge that could hold 10 or more CD’s). In the 1990’s Dolby Laboratories came out with two surround sounds just for movies at home. First there was “Dolby Pro Logic,” and later there came to be “Dolby Digital.” Both filtered sound to specific speakers (left front, center, right front, right rear, and left front). Having a center channel made a HUGE difference in how movies played. Now for the first time, dialogue and action that should come from directly in front of you while watching a movie actually did it correctly. Before having a center channel you had only two options: use the speaker or speakers built into the TV or if you were lucky add a stereo to the television and send the sound from the TV out to your left and right speakers instead of the speakers built into the TV. Now with the addition of a center channel you had both the left and right speakers for specific sound AND you had the sound that should come from directly in front of you actually playing out of a dedicated speaker just for this purpose. In addition to this sound placement enhancement, the sound actually became clearer. Now you were less likely to have to turn up the volume just to make out what they said because it was either to faint or just inaudible due to too much bass tone from the TV. “Dolby Digital” built onto the foundation that “Dolby Pro Logic” had created by making the right rear and right left speakers be in stereo instead of mono (monotone). Also you could have a dedicated speaker for deep bass called a subwoofer (or sub for short). This was also the beginning of the internet age becoming mainstream.

2000’s: CD’s were the norm and then came MP3’s. Records took on a resurgence as well. Also came the ability to back up data (including audio) to flash drives (a.k.a. thumb drives) which could be played back on computers, some receivers and some streaming devices, as well as some car stereos. It became more common to see smaller speakers being made (8’s for example instead of 10’s and 12’s). At this time home theatre  (or home theater) came to be a common option in more homes. Finally, you could have sound effects similiar to how it was at the movie theater. What a convenience! Towards the end of the decade surround sound at home was much more common and speakers had become even smaller! Now instead of an 8″ speaker it would be a 6″, or 5.25″. Also powered subwoofers became extremely popular as a way to get the impact of deep bass in a movie and music while having satellite speakers (typically 3.50″ or 4″ speakers) in your living room which saved a tremendous amount of floor space. This saved floor space not only because they were smaller, but because they could be mounted on a stand or on the wall or ceiling. At this point “Dolby Digital” became the norm and “Dolby Pro Logic” faded away. “DTS,” a competitor to “Dolby Laboratories” came out with their own surround sounds too at this point. At this point movie rental stores were becoming less and less easy to find. They were being replaced with online movie rental options since the internet was very common in most households at this point. By now RCA speaker connectors were a thing of the past and so were for the most part RCA wires for pretty much anything. In came lots of other types of speaker connectors and audio and video type cables for connecting the components together. In came digital sound capable cables such as Toslink (A.K.A. Digital Optical), Digital Coax, USB and HDMI.

Today: Now with internet being pretty much a most have in most homes, more apps are being generated to make it easier to find, record and play back your music over the internet. The size of speakers being used for music and movies and greater portability of music are quite different from how they were in the past. Now most people are using home theater in a box solutions or sound bars or satellite speakers instead of the book shelf speakers and big floor standing speakers. Also, how we get our music has changed drastically. Even how we go about watching movies at home has completely changed.  Now most people don’t buy the record or the CD instead they download the songs they want online and only pay for those tracks. As I am writing this TV’s have become much lighter and thinner then just 10 or so years ago. Also the picture quality is down right amazing! However, this is no longer the only way to watch your TV or movies. Now we have options….we can play it on our computers (desktops and laptops), play it on our smartphones and even do it with tablets. Personally I think portability is great for most things, however when I choose to watch a movie it has to be on the big screen at home, otherwise the surround sound that makes you forget about what’s going on and instead makes you feel as if you are right in the middle of the action is lost. I do not enjoy a movie without surround sound. Watching a show on a tablet is just fine with me, just not my movies.

In summary a lot has changed as would be expected over many decades. The question still remains about if this is actually better or not. To this I say yes and no….

Yes, because we have internet, better picture quality on our tv’s, we have portability and we have surround sound. Yes, because although we have really good sound out of most small speakers today and they require less power to drive the smaller speakers since they are more efficient and the recievers therefore need less power in them.

No, because with less power needed to drive these smaller, lighter, speakers comes a loss of sound. The sound out of these speakers has improved, but they will NEVER replace the sound of a really good big floor standing speaker. Perhaps they can match most book shelf speakers (not all), but they cannot replace the sound of a really good big floor standing speaker. If they could then why do we need a powered subwoofer for anything other than just movies? No, because the less powerful receivers are not as clean sounding. Most people will not realize this since they probably don’t have big floor standing speakers to test with. If they did, they would find that they cannot get these speakers to dish out any bass. Also, smaller speakers are almost always two-way speakers and so they loose an entire range of sound referred to as “mid-range.” Where is the clarity then? New receivers, unlike separate components such as pre-amps and equalizers, are not going to sound as rich in tone quality even if you turn them up. The good news is you don’t have to scour the internet looking for an old school pre-amp or receiver just to listen to music with and hope you can repair it when it breaks since most places will not know how to fix something without a computer in it. The good news is you can simply add an equalizer to your existing receiver to improve sound dramatically. Once you do this you will come to agree with me that you need bigger speakers if you are using smaller modern ones. If you have big speakers you will be pleasantly surprised to find that the speakers were not the problem it was the receiver not being powerful enough!

YES and NO, because although we have cables capable of digital sound quality, this is not always better. Older music needs to be played on equipment designed in that era to fully appreciate the sound the way it was recorded and meant to be heard. Playing music from the 80’s or earlier doesn’t sound right with digital cables. Granted playing a CD is ok, but using a Toslink cable draws attention to flaws in the sound. Playing it the natural way with RCA cables makes it sound better. Using an equalizer with 8″ or larger speakers and a modern receiver is ok, but playing it on a pre-amp is even better! This is the same reason why records have been making a comeback over CD’s….the sound is natural with a vinyl and unnatural and flawed on CD. Progress is typically regarded as making dramatic change to improve something. I guess you could say we have succeeded, at least in some ways! Let us know what you think about this topic.