The History of Hi-Fi: The 1950s


By Greg Kennelty, June 7, 2018



The 1950s gave the world The Mickey Mouse Club, Davy Crockett, Elvis Presley, poodle skirts, and other cultural phenomena that are still referenced today.


Another invention of the era that has resurfaced in recent years is the vinyl LP. The format was introduced in 1948, and by 1952 accounted for 17% of music sales and 26% of the overall income from music sales. During this time there were two separate vinyl formats that resulted in what was dubbed the "Battle Of the Speeds" - the RCA-created 7" 45 RPM record and Columbia Records' 12" 33 1/3 RPM LP. The formats eventually fell into their own categories, with the 12" being used for longer jazz and classical music while the 7" was used for shorter pop singles. The concept of a full-length album from rock and pop artists wouldn't be introduced until the 1960s, but the format brought markedly better sound quality to the masses over the previously dominant 78 RPM phonograph records.


Coinciding with the major improvement in audio quality from vinyl records was the ascendance of FM radio. Hundreds of FM radio stations began cropping up in the early 1950s as AM radio broadcast companies began to subsidize them. Between the two, consumers became aware of how much better music could sound and the hi-fi industry was born. The term "high fidelity" was coined to describe sound systems and listening set-ups that accurately produced the way music sounded in the studio. Consumers began buying separate components for sound systems, such as turntables, radio tuners, amplifiers, and loudspeakers.


Stereo sound had been used in movie theaters since the 1930s, but the technology would slowly begin to creep into homes in the mid- to late-1950s. Bell Labs had been developing stereo sound throughout the 1940s and in 1952, Emory Cook designed the two-channel vinyl grooves that brought stereo to vinyl records.


In 1954, Acoustic Research rolled out their AR-1 bookshelf speaker, which became the first hi-fi mainstream speaker to break through in America. Companies like Acoustic Research and KLH were also the first to explore the concept of having denser material for their outer shells and for designing for a flat frequency response. This flat response introduced the idea of audio accuracy and "uncolored" audio to the masses, and the bookshelf speaker quickly became viewed as the new standard for listening.


Next month we’ll take a look at the advances in hi-fi in the 1960s, but in the meantime, here's some photographic evidence of the ancient hi-fi-days... 



1950s Console Stereo

A vintage console stereo from the late 1950s / early 1960s. Note the reel-to-reel deck and radio tuner.


Hi-Fi Shop

Nothing beat the smell of the vacuum tubes and heated-up transformers in the coolest place in town - the Hi-Fi Shop.


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