Sitting on a shelf in my home office is a collection of old electronic gadgets that were, in their day, state-of-the-art: a Sony Sport Cassette Walkman in bright yellow that’s guaranteed to be waterproof, a Motorola StarTAC flip phone that weighs close to a pound, an HD Radio still in its plastic packaging, a Seiko portable CD player, a Hitachi laptop with Windows 3.11 installed.
While they may still be in working condition — although I doubt the StarTAC could connect to anything anymore — they’re totally useless.
But I can’t bear to part with them. I have a soft spot for old, obsolete technology, especially the kind used to listen to music.
Most people are familiar with the standard progression of physical music formats. Wax cylinder gave way to the rotating discs of the phonograph and the gramophones, which eventually standardized into 10-inch, 78 RPM discs. Then came 33-1/3 long-playing albums, seven-inch 45 RPM singles, the eight-track, cassettes and the CD. We could also throw in reel-to-reel tapes, the MiniDisc and digital audio tape (DAT).
But this only scratches the surface of music devices that were marketed over the years. How many of these failures have you heard of?
1. Highway Hi-Fi
Before 1956, the only source for music while driving was the radio. Chrysler/Dodge/DeSoto tried to change that with the introduction of an under-dash turntable that played special 16-2/3 RPM records. Theoretically, your passenger could play DJ whilst you were on the road, but rough roads and bad shocks made for skipping records. Besides, there were only 50 or so records manufactured, all of which had to be purchased at your local dealer. The Highway Hi-Fi disappeared by 1959.
2. The RCA Sound Tape cartridge
Some early adopters of high-fidelity home audio systems bought large, open reel-to-reel tape machines, units that wouldn’t look out of place in a professional recording studio. But they were big and fiddly, which is why, in 1958, RCA tried to market a tape format that promised to be easier to use. Cartridges were about three times the size of the compact cassettes that were still yet to be invented. RCA withdrew the product by 1964 because no one else was interested in manufacturing players for the new format.
3. The Stereo-Pak
Two years before the eight-track was introduced, a used car salesman named Earl “Madman” Muntz adopted a closed-loop tape format used by radio stations for consumer use. He managed to interest a few record labels in the technology, including the massive Columbia Records. Unfortunately, due to its infinite loop construction, it couldn’t be rewound. Even fast-forwarding risked causing an unsolvable tape jam. And even though Stereo-Paks sounded pretty good, they were soon overtaken by their descendant, the eight-track.
4. The Voice Letter
Several manufacturers thought it would be cool if they created a format that users could send through the post. The BASF Tape Letter, the EMI Voice Letter, the Smith-Corona Mail Call Letterpack and the Scotch One Five Special were all designed to be used with a standard reel-to-reel tape recorder. The idea was to record a voice message (up to 10 minutes’ worth of audio), place the tape in the special mail-friendly packaging and send it off to someone. You could find such tapes until the early ’70s.
5. The mini-cassette and micro-cassette
These looked like standard cassettes, except small enough to be a choking hazard. In the case of the mini-cassette, they were used mainly for dictation machines, although there was some experimentation with micro-cassettes for storing music. If you remember the movie A Clockwork Orange, young Alex listens to Beethoven’s Ninth on a micro-cassette.
6. The Trimicron EP
While standard LP records provided excellent playback quality, they had a capacity problem. Every 20 minutes, you had to get up and either change sides or records. The French-designed Trimicron LP could hold up to 60 minutes of music per side while still being compatible with regular turntables. How? By eliminating the gap between the walls of the individual grooves. On the downside, they didn’t have very good dynamic range and also had a reduced playback volume. Only about 30 classical pieces were ever released in this format.
7. Quadraphonic Sound
From the time stereo records were introduced in 1958, engineers worked on adding more channels to the listening experience. Quadraphonic (four-channel) audio was all the rage for early adopter audiophiles beginning in about 1972. While the audio was good, few people were keen on having to buy two more speakers, a special cartridge for the turntable and an amplifier capable of decoding the quad single. Special quadraphonic albums were available for much of the decade, but the selection was limited and quad died by 1978. Still, this was the forerunner to today’s 5.1 (and above) home theatre sound.
8. The Elcaset
The pre-digital days were obsessed with removing noise and hiss from recordings. Sony, thinking it could get hardcore music enthusiasts to upgrade to a new tape format, introduced the Elcaset, a larger version of the standard cassette that ran at twice the speed in a specially designed recorder/player. Outside of Finland (Why? No one knows), the project was a failure. Remaining units were sold off by 1980.
CDs are nothing more than a place to store any kind of digital data. After they started taking off in the mid-’80s, engineers pondered what other sorts of data they could include on CDs. One idea was the CD+G, which stood for CD+Graphics. Some albums were released in this format — I have a Talking Heads album like this — that allowed users to see low-res graphics and lyrics. The problem is that you needed a special CD player to unlock its capabilities. While labels stopped releasing CD+G records by the early ’90s, the technology lives on in karaoke machines. How do you think they get the lyrics up on the screen?
Even as the music industry was being ravaged by piracy thanks to peer-to-peer file sharing, there were those who believed the solution was yet another physical music format. DataPlay discs were a little bigger than a loonie (32 millimetres) and could hold about 500 megabytes of music. A few labels took a shot at releasing albums this way — Avril Lavigne’s Let Go was available as a DataPlay disc — but the format was only around for about three years.
There are plenty more such casualties. The Hip-Pocket Record. Cassingles. The dbx disc. Three-inch CDs. If you want to delve deeper into this fascinating junkyard of forgotten audio devices, check out ObsoleteMedia.org.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107 and a commentator for Global News.