10 Most Important Developments in Audio

By John Strohbeen • Ohm Speakers • Monday, December 29, 2014

This time of year is traditionally a time of reflection and for many, list making. Think Oscars and “10 Best.” Well, we’re not immune. The music reproduction business – audio – has seen a lot of important developments over its century or so. Each list is highly personal, ours is no exception.

Below, I’ve listed – in chronological order – what I consider to be the most important developments in audio since its inception and given my reasons for the selection. In looking over the list, I see that it is clearly weighted toward speakers and their components. Well, Ohm is a speaker company and I admit to a bias…

Mechanical reproduction – 1857, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville described a system to record sound and another inventor, Charles Cros, in 1877 described a system to mechanically reproduce sound from those recordings. Thomas Edison in 1878 made a commercially successful design. This is the basis of all modern music reproduction. It is the process of transcribing a sound wave and putting it into a medium where it can be reproduced. Edison’s first medium was a wax cylinder; now, the medium can be disc, tape or other kind of storage. Prior to this, all music was live and only heard by the people near the performers.

Amplifiers –In 1909 Lee De Forest invented the triode vacuum tube and the amp was born. Amplifiers allowed the signal to be increased and sent over wires. With amplifiers, sound created in one location could be heard in another, even very distant, location. Of course, you needed speakers and they came later. Whether it’s a tubed model or one using transistors (a subject we also addressed in detail earlier), amplifiers provide a crucial link in our enjoyment of music – and they’ve gotten markedly better over the years.

Dynamic Drivers –In 1921 by C.W. Rice and E.W. Kellogg created the first “dynamic” loudspeaker driver. Earlier the component through which sound was heard was just a simple horn. The most common form is the cone speaker that takes electrical energy, and through a voice coil, moves a cone to produce a recreation of the original sound wave. This allowed a phono pick-up’s signal to be amplified and played back at high sound levels or even over telephone wires.

Tape Recording – In 1935 by engineers at AEG realized that tape with a magnetic side could be used to store sound. And magnetic tape replaced wire as a medium on which to record sound. This made an enormous difference in the art of audio reproduction. Not only was the fidelity better, but manipulation – editing – became an easier process and multi-track recording opened artistic frontiers. The second phase of tape’s utility came with the advent of Ray Dolby’s “Dolby Noise Reduction” system – basically a compression/expansion – compansion – system that lowered the noise floor of tape and increased its ultimate frequency response. Dolby Noise Reduction Type A was first used for professional, studio, recording and then Dolby B brought a version of the technology to the consumer market – and made the cassette more than a toy.

Electrostatic Drivers –In 1953, Arthur Janszen received a US patent and went on to make midrange/tweeters and develop the KLH Nine. The development of using electrostatically charged plates to move air and create sound was a significant development in audio and ushered in an age where transient response and phase became significant specs. Quad ESL 63’s supplemented with in-time di-pole subwoofers were my personal sonic standard (listening in their sweet-point) for many years.

Acoustic Suspension Speakers – In 1956, Edgar Villchur received his US patent. We have covered acoustic suspension speaker design in detail. Suffice it to say here that the design made it possible to deliver astoundingly deep and accurate bass from relatively small-cabinet speakers.

Walsh Drivers – Well, yes, we are partial to the Walsh design. Lincoln Walsh developed and in 1964 patented the “Coherent Wave Transmission Line Driver.” It provided full 360-degree dispersion as well as the entire – 20 to 20,000 Hz – audible range without the use of multiple drivers or crossovers. It is the basic Walsh design that inspires Ohm speakers today and my refined version is employed in most of our models.

Multi-Channel Reproduction –Clément Ader demonstrated the first two-channel audio system in Paris in 1881 and 2-channel stereo was patented by British engineer Alan Blumlein 1931. The popularity of stereo LP’s in the 1950s changed audio reproduction forever. More than the “standard” stereo, multi-channel was first used to “move” listeners from their homes to the recording space in the late 1960s, and we now commonly find five or more discrete channels of musical information enriching our enjoyment. This was a subject we also covered in greater detail earlier in http://www.ohmspeaker.com/news/so-many-channels-so-few-ears/.

CD Laser Technology – In 1970, James T. Russell received his US patent for an optical recording and playback system using lasers. Phillips and Sony licensed the technology and the Compact Disc is available in 1979. Lasers have changed many games over the years, from helping homebuilders to keep lines straight, to surgery, to making CDs and DVDs possible. The beam of light is a gift that keeps giving.

Electrical Digital Storage – CDs and DVDs are a mechanical storage system read by a laser. The memory used in Apple’s iPod in 2001 used memory directly from computers offering “1000 songs in your pocket.” In audio’s early days, the “coding” for sound was the trace of a sound wave on a wax cylinder. Today, it is a series of Os and 1s the digital “doppelganger” of what enters our ears and our consciousness. Again, the revolution has made it easier to store and to manipulate the music.

So, there’s my list. As I wrote at the outset, it’s subjective. If you want to try your hand at your own, I’d be more than curious to see your selections – and your reasoning.

For now,

Enjoy & Good Listening!

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