When Was Hi-Fi Invented?
The term Hi-Fi was first coined in the 1940s, but work was carried out in the preceding decade to produce methods of sound recording and reproduction that had as faithful a representation of the original source as possible. This is where the "Fi" in Hi-Fi comes from: reproducing sound with high fidelity to the original sound.
From a whisper to a scream
The first drivers in this new Hi-Fi sound were the movie studios, with MGM and 20th Century Fox making advances in using optical sound film to capture multitrack recordings in the late 1930s and early 1940s, each hoping to excite the audiences of their motion pictures with their amazing new sound technologies with far greater dynamic ranges, allowing the quietest whispers to be heard and the loudest sound effects to thrill.
In the early '40s, RCA Victor began to use optical sound technologies to create higher-fidelity masters of orchestral recordings that were to be distributed on 78rpm discs. Of course, one problem here is that the equipment available in recording studios and movie theaters was not yet common in the home, meaning that no matter how good the recording quality, the aural experience in the home was limited.
The mother of all inventions
A range of innovations took place beginning at the end of the 1940s to help put Hi-Fi into the homes of the masses. First, the invention of reel-to-reel audio tape recording, which was based on technology acquired from Germany following the Second World War, allowed for higher-quality master recordings to be captured in the studio, allowing higher-fidelity recordings to be mass distributed.
This was then followed by the introduction of the Long Play microgroove vinyl record. These LPs revolved at 33 1/3 rpm, resulting in far lower surface noise as well as improved EQ and greater dynamic ranges. Another boon to the LP was the greater duration that they could fit onto each side. Classical music lovers quickly adopted this new format as most classical works could fit on a single LP.
Other developments included the advent of FM radio, which had wider audio bandwidth than AM radio, as well as new and improved designs of amplifiers and loudspeakers, allowing for better-quality systems to start appearing in people's homes, with far less financial outlay needed to produce them.
We're hearing both sides now
All of this, however, was taking place in monaural. Even if there were multiple speakers in the home, they each had the same signal going through them. Stereo systems were not commonplace until the 1960s. The invention of stereoscopic equipment allowed both recording artists and audiences to hear recordings that were spread out across a stereo field, with different instruments and voices placed deliberately across this.
It took a while for artists to learn to use this technology effectively, with some 1960s stereo masters suffering from being innovators. Listening to the first stereo mix of Taxman, for example, shows that even The Beatles didn't get it right all of the time, with all instruments in the left channel and all vocals in the right.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, stereo was commonplace, with artists such as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and The Who using this new technology to great effect, having vocals and instruments occupying physical space in the stereo field. It baffles the brain to think that there were less than three years between the abominable stereo mix of Taxman and the sublime middle section of Whole Lotta Love from Led Zeppelin II, but the technology available and invention of producers bloomed in that time.
Looking to today
Nowadays, the audio lover is spoiled for choice, with a range of options available. The ability to listen to any piece of music through a streaming app on your smartphone using Bluetooth headphones is all some people want or need.
For others, they much prefer the creation of sound through physical means, which is why vinyl sales in 2020 are the highest since the early 1990s. Modern vinyl also has the benefit of being far higher in quality and thickness than vintage LPs were capable of.
Given that sound is created by making vibrations in the air, it should always be the case that the most high-fidelity sound is created by a set of speakers with the ability to move lots of air. Speakers like the phenomenal B&W 702 Signature Floor Standing Speaker are expertly tuned to make it sound like you are almost in the room with the musicians themselves.