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From AM Radio to Aux Cords: How Car Audio Systems Changed Over the Years

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According to a recent study of people’s listening habits, music is mainly consumed inside a vehicle. This doesn’t come as a surprise, with the average American spending more than 17,000 minutes behind the wheel per year. Turning on the car’s stereo system is a necessary part of driving for many. And as audio systems changed over the years, so has the content we listen to while driving.

Comedians, soap operas, and The Lone Ranger

The first car radio made its debut during the Golden Age of Radio in the 1930s. The Galvin brothers, Paul and Joseph, pioneered the mass production of affordable radios that fit inside a vehicle. Businesses operated more than half of the radio stations at the time. The other forty percent was owned by the military, educational institutions, churches, and other government agencies.

Your choice of programming in the car was limited to the news, bits by comedians, serialized dramas sponsored by soap brands, and “original broadcasts” such as The Adventures of Lone Ranger and the Shadow. You might even chance upon one of Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats, an informal radio public address.

The first car radio was introduced in the 1930s a.k.a. “The Golden Age of Radio.”

FM radio and the rise of niche programming

By the mid-50s, dual-band radio became standard in cars. For the first time, drivers had the ability to switch between stations in their vehicles. The FM band offered higher sound fidelity than AM, making it the perfect channel for listening to music. This new capability gave rise to new formats like the Top 40 which ranked the most popular music of the time. This format was later adopted by TV and digital media.

Adding the FM band also meant more available frequencies that did not interfere with one another. This led to the creation of niche stations and programming which catered to certain music styles and genres like country and rock n’ roll. Talk formats and sporting events also started to be broadcasted.

The dawn of the mixtape

There were unsuccessful attempts at incorporating portable music in cars by the late 50s, but it was only in ’65 that cartridge technology succeeded in doing so. The predecessor of the 8-track allowed drivers to play entire albums without skipping tracks. Around the same time, the cassette tape was introduced and surpassed the sound quality of 8-tracks in only a few years.

Both 8-track and cassette tape technologies gave car owners the power of choice. No longer did people need to wait for a song to be played on the radio, they had the ability to bring entire albums in their car and listen to their favorite artists. For the first time, the driver decided the soundtrack for every drive.

Beyond listening to song compilations by the record labels, the late 70s to early 80s gave birth to the mixtape movement. People started using their Walkman players to record beats and mix songs. Aspiring hip-hop artists made their own music at home and sold them on the streets. Exchanging mixtapes with friends and lovers became a thing, and people customized mixes intended for long drives.

The cassette tape was introduced sometime in 1965, giving every car owners the power to choose a soundtrack.

Cassettes were eventually replaced by CDs in the 90s. Compact Discs simply held up better, even with frequent use. Drivers no longer had to worry about rewinding the cassette or tugging on a tape caught in the player. Aftermarket car setups gained popularity and multi-disc players that can load up to ten CDs became highly sought after.

Playlists, podcasts, and user-created content

The launch of the first-gen iPod in 2001 accelerated the shift from CDs to digital music format. Boasting a 5GB hard drive, the idea of carrying 2,000 songs in your pocket quickly blew minds away. People could finally curate playlists beyond the 16-song limit of CDs. Songs can finally be skipped forward, rewound, and played over and over without worrying about damaging the tape or scratching the disc’s surface.

Things happened so fast that car manufacturers weren’t prepared to connect MP3 players to vehicle audio systems. Auxiliary cables, AUX cords for short, quickly bridged this gap in technology. For decades, the driver and the front passenger had full control over the stereo. The AUX cord finally extended this control to passengers in the back.

You might remember older versions of this cable that had a fake cassette on one end and the PL connector on the other. As car stereo systems incorporated AUX ports, these cables became simpler and more portable.

MP3 players like the iPod were later replaced by cellphones, which meant there were no longer any limits to what people could listen to in their cars. If something isn’t saved on your device, you can easily search for it on the web. Choices have also expanded to include user-created content such as self-released albums and podcasts.

Please pass the AUX cord

Wireless technology such as Bluetooth, Wi-fi, and satellite radio quickly followed. While these are considered an upgrade from using cables, they still come with their share of shortcomings. Switching between users in Bluetooth can be frustrating. Wi-fi availability in cars is still quite far from being equipped standard. There’s also the added cost of subscription service to access satellite radio.

Auxiliary cables have come a long way from flimsy plastic things that break after a month’s use. AUX cords made of aluminum alloy, reinforced rubber, or braided nylon are designed to withstand being bent thousands of times. Coiled and retractable cables also prevent damage from tangling. Connectors with 24k gold and copper casings also help make audio connections better and minimize signal loss.

The AUX cord isn’t dead, but in order to keep up with technology it is constantly innovated. To compensate for the iPhone and other Android phones losing their female 3.5mm headphone jack, newer auxiliary cables are being made with USB-C or Lightning connectors with PL tips. As long as we’re reliant on our phones for entertainment, we’ll need a physical means of connecting it to the stereo. It wouldn’t hurt to keep an AUX cord in the car in case wireless fails.

Auxiliary cables or “aux” gave the driver and front passenger full control over the stereo.
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CarParts.com

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In the Garage with CarParts.com is an online blog dedicated to bringing DIYers and devoted car enthusiasts up to date with topical automotive news and lifestyle content. Our writers live and breathe automotive, taking the guess work out of car repairs with how-to content that helps owners get back on the road and keep driving.

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