Car CD Players – A Short History
Car CD players have come a long way from their humble beginnings in the dim and distant analog 80s, when Sony first unveiled their ground-breaking CD technology and politely informed the world that the future of music was digital.
In-car CD players rapidly gained popularity and quickly replaced the old 8-track and analog cassette systems that had completely dominated the in-car entertainment market for so long. Originally, car CD players were only fitted to high-end and luxury vehicles as they were extremely expensive pieces of technology. However, as always seems to be the case with new technology, production ramped up, prices began to fall, and the audio quality of in-car units began to significantly improve.
Early car CD players tended to suffer from vibration issues. Driving over a rough surface could easily confuse the early laser tracking mechanisms and the music would often skip around as the logic systems struggled to re-align the laser head. This problem with vibration sensitivity also bedeviled the early designs of portable CD players. Joggers and commuters quickly learned that the early CD Walkman was not as robust as the old tape-driven units that they replaced.
It was this problem that led to the first major upgrade for CD players. To alleviate the “joggers jump” issue, portable CD players were fitted with extra solid-state RAM memory. The RAM was used as a system buffer and this allowed the upgraded players to keep a constantly updated store of music in memory (30 seconds of storage was typical for this era) and, whenever the portable player was disturbed and the laser tracking systems needed time to recover, the buffer would be used to maintain a constant and uninterrupted flow of music during the period when the tracking system was trying to get its act together.
This innovation was immediately incorporated into the design of car CD players and, when combined with the falling prices of individual units, allowed CD players to be fitted to a much wider range of cars. However, despite these leaps forward in both affordability and performance, car CD players remained something of a niche market and many drivers opted to keep their in-car cassette players. There were many reasons for this: the audio cassette was a staggeringly successful world-wide product, and that kind of market penetration creates a kind of consumer inertia that argues “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”; the old tape systems were also very cheap, freely available and they were reasonably reliable. However, crucially, audio tapes were also recordable.
This really was audio tape’s “killer app” – it was fully recordable. This was a golden age for record companies because music was both expensive and hugely popular. CDs were, quite simply, the golden egg that Sony’s digital goose just kept on laying. Re-releasing albums that had originally been released on vinyl was both quick and inexpensive. However, demand was phenomenal so prices (and profits) remained very high. Because of this, consumers perceived CD albums as high value products and there was a certain reluctance to condemn them to a short life in the rugged environment of the family car.
Once a CD had been banished to family car they would often have to face the hazards of kids, coffee, cola and, during the summer months, risked being baked to death on the dashboard of parked cars. “No”, reasoned the average car user- “it would make much more sense if I recorded my CDs onto tape for use in the car, and I can then keep my expensive CDs safe and sound for use at home”. Crucially, audio tapes also allowed consumers to create their own compilations of favorite tracks and artists. This was a convenience that a CD simply could not offer- you bought the album, you played the album, and that was pretty much it. However, the rapacious demands of the computer industry was about to change all that.
In 1997, driven by the demands of computer users for ever-greater levels of recordable storage; the world was introduced to the delights of the CD-RW- a recordable CD that allowed consumers to make a perfect digital copy of a perfect digital copy. The music industry was appalled, but consumers were delighted. It was just what the car CD player market needed. Consumers could make copies and compilations for the car, and it didn’t really matter if little Johnny covered it with any kind of crud because, in the age of very expensive albums but very cheap recordable CDs, you could always burn another copy.
It was during this period that the adoption of car audio players really took off. Their popularity soared and the sales of traditional car tape players started to fall sharply. Cheap car CD players were now available in a wide variety of styles, from the simplest in-dash stereo replacement for an old factory-fitted radio cassette, through to sophisticated, high-end, surround-sound units with remote multi-disc storage (often stored in the trunk) and separate pre and power amp units. An in car CD player could now rival the convenience, sophistication and audio quality of home hi-fi, and their popularity soared.
The next big leap forward for car audio CD players was again driven by developments in the world of computing and owes its creation to some groundbreaking work that was carried out at the AT&T-Bell laboratories in the late 1970s. The “psycho-acoustic masking codec” that the people at AT&T-Bell outlined in 1979, was eventually unleashed upon the world in 1993 as the “Moving Pictures Experts Group-1 Audio Layer 3 Compression Codec”. This was not the world’s catchiest title and it was quickly shortened to MP3. Once again, the music industry was appalled and consumers were delighted. MP3 audio compression allowed users to cram far more music onto a single CD, and the technology was quickly embraced by a whole new generation of music fans.
Manufacturers of car CD players were quick to take note and CD players that could decode and play MP3s were soon available as mass market devices. For the very first time, a single CD could (depending on the compression rate used and the audio quality desired) hold hours of music- it was perfect for the in-car environment and car CD players that cannot decode MP3s are now becoming increasingly rare.
The development of MP3 compression was also the start of the car CD player’s journey from simple cars CD player to in-car entertainment and information hub. They are no longer car audio players: the latest units have USB connectivity, to accept a data feed from solid state memory sticks; they are compatible with SD, Mini-SD and Micro-SD memory cards; solid state and optical drive MP3 players simply plug and play, and many are fully integrated with satellite navigation systems so that speech or music will be automatically muted to allow the announcement of an off-ramp that needs to be negotiated or hazards that need to be avoided.
Car audio CD players have come a long way from their early rather clunky and temperamental beginnings. From simple players of CDs, they have evolved to become the heart of the sophisticated multimedia systems that we see installed today. Car CD players are now the world’s de facto mobile entertainment standard. It has proved to be an incredibly flexible medium and shows no sign of giving up its crown just yet.
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