How technology saved the home stereo
The year is 1998 and you've just stumbled across your friend's older brother's room when returning from the guest bathroom. You can hear the stereophonic thumping of music behind the barely cracked door and push it open slowly. What could be creating such Earth-shaking sounds?
The widening crack reveals half a dozen speakers strung together by conspicuous wires. Some are screwed to the wall and others are stacked imposingly by his desk. Racks of CDs and tapes cover the remaining wall space. It's kind of a mess.
In the living room sit wood-paneled speakers as large as bookshelves. They look as if they haven't been dusted since Reagan was president. It's a home stereo system. It's old. It's big. There are also wires everywhere and the immobility of it all dominates the space.
Long before Spotify or Apple Music, or smart speakers produced by Sonos or Amazon, playing music on large component stereo systems was often the only option. The bulky hi-fi systems would travel from old home to new home, and then from the living room to the basement, and finally, to the garage sale.
Music was more often heard from clunky desktop PC speakers in the 2000s. The home stereo system had much disappeared as mp3s took over. Then something fantastic happened.
The invention of Bluetooth and smart, programmable, wifi-connected speakers saved us from the likelihood of hearing the latest digital music from tinny-sounding laptop speakers, or relying on the aux cable. Here's how it happened.
THE ORIGIN — The home stereo seemed to be suck stuck in mid-century style, long after the period had passed. They were (and are) beautiful to look at, but fall short when it comes to portability and practicality. They eventually did give way to mass-produced component bookshelf stereos as you see below. The component stereo continued to build steam into the '90s, but their days were numbered.
Peer-to-peer file-sharing services like Napster launched in the early 2000s, and with them, smaller, portable devices with larger media capacity had arrived, (the iPod debuted on October 23, 2001).
Both the P2P services (Kazaa, Limewire, Soulseek, in addition to Napster) and players (Microsoft Zune, the iPod, other cheaply made ones) saw rapid adoption. But you still often had to listen to that music in your headphones, as famous early iPod ads showed:
THE TROUBLE — Soon, bookshelf stereo systems were traded in for iPod docks, TV soundbars, or even worse, built-in laptop speakers. But while these devices did a job decently, they weren't providing the same controlled, surround sound that we used to achieve with a component system.
In 2013, Todd Leopold, a culture reporter at CNN, declared the stereo system was dead. The collections of speakers, tapes, and CD players, in their heyday, were more than a hobby -- for many, they were an identity:
You moved into your dorm room or new apartment. You started unpacking the car. And the first thing you set up in your new place was the stereo system: receiver, turntable or CD player, tape deck and speakers. The wires could get tangled, and sometimes you had to make shelving out of a stack of milk crates. But only when the music was playing on those handpicked CDs, mixtapes or (geezer alert!) vinyl records did you move in the rest of your stuff.
The emergence of Bluetooth and wifi-connected smart speakers would soon herald a new era and return the home stereo system to glory.
HOW TECH SAVED THE HOME STEREO — Bluetooth -- a technology that allows devices to speak to each other across short distances without physical connection -- was created in the early 1990s in Denmark and named after a violent Danish conquerer, King Harald Blatand. The technology has little competition and has quickly risen over the past few decades to become as ubiquitous as wifi when it comes to wireless computing.
Larger than the sum of its parts, Bluetooth and wifi have ushered in the components stereo's successor, wireless speakers, with a warm welcome. In 2014, Statistica reported that factory sales of component audio systems and wireless speakers were roughly the same -- both between $1-$2 billion in sales. But in 2018, the number of sales for wireless speakers skyrocketed to nearly $6 billion, while component systems rose only modestly to $2.5 billion.
The smart speaker market as a whole is predicted to grow by another $17.6 billion by 2025, according to a trend report released last year.
Leaders in the smart speaker world include Amazon's Alexa and the Sonos brand of speakers. The Amazon Echo line topped the already high smart speaker sales charts in 2019, selling 10.4 million cho speakers at the end of 2019, accounting for just over a third of the market. Sonos, which was founded in 2002, has seen interest rise in recent years too, with nearly 500 million dollars in sales in the first quarter of 2019 alone. There's also competition from Apple with its Homepod, and the Google Home Max:
Like the component speaker before them, Sonos and Echo speakers are designed to be collected and meticulously set-up in your home for a customizable sound experience. But unlike their predecessors, this sound isn't restricted to a single room and can follow wherever you go.
"What’s different for us is we’ve built the system. As you guys know and have probably seen, you can add another Sonos to that system," Sonos CEO, Patrick Spence said on the Too Embarrassed to Ask podcast. What happens every time we bring out a new product like Playbar or Playbass or the Sonos One, we see a big chunk of our customers going back and buying it. Even when we don’t introduce a new product, every year consistently, the entire five years I’ve been at the company, it’s steady that 30 percent of our sales are coming from that group of people."
Matching one, two, or a dozen Sonos speakers is part of their design and something that the company believes is important to how customers listen to music.
THE FUTURE — If these past few decades of music have taught us anything, it's that while how we listen to music might change, the reasons why we listen don't.
While the look and capability of today's smart speakers have changed, they still recall the same goals of the component speaker -- to enjoy your music, and do it loudly.
The future is already being realized today, as a network wifi-connected smart speakers homes can play the same song all over your house, simultaneously. The past might have kept music limited to one room, but the future in-home music is all about mobility.
"How Tech Saved" is an occasional series from Inverse that explores how technology saved something that's great. Have a suggestion for a future How Tech Saved story? Let us know here using this form