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How do we listen?

In to the Wind

January 18, 2011
Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

It’s hard to tell if the culture leads the technology or the technology leads the culture. In any event, certain things I took for granted as a youth are no more, or at least rare in my circle.

It was something of a status symbol when I was a young man if you had a far out sound system. They were called stereos and the bigger the better; the more watts, the better.

Actually, I think those times were the peak in audiophile gadgetry. Perhaps it would serve to regress back to an earlier day and follow the evolution of the personal immersion in music, at least from my perspective.

I was one of the older kids in a family of seven kids. I had aunts and uncles not much older than me. I remember going to grandma’s house in the late 50s and hearing my aunts and my uncle play 45 records on this little gray suitcase shaped phonograph player. I can remember the sounds of “Yakety Yak,” and “Purple People Eater” coming out of the front of that player like it was yesterday. They were teenagers, and to a small boy this technology was awesome. “How Much is That Doggie in the Window?”

One day my dad brought home this hi-fi. By later standards, it wasn’t really high fidelity (hi-fi), and was mono instead of stereo, but suddenly music (besides me making the reed squawk on my clarinet) entered our lives.

Out of an old box mom had stored in the attic came these 78 records. I was introduced to Woody Herman, Benny Goodman and other performers of the big band era. I guess one or the other of my parents had a record player previously, but this big console hi-fi was the first I remember at home. It even had a built-in FM radio, and the nice maple cabinet blended well with mom’s furniture in the living room.

It wasn’t long before we started buying 33 1/3 records. “The Sound of Music” was the first one I remember. I think we wore it out listening to it over and over. Herman’s Hermits, The Monkeys, Rolling Stones and the Beatles blared best from the big grill on that hi-fi, in my opinion.

As my teen years advanced, it was always a joy to visit a friend who had one of the new marvels, a stereo. It was about 1970 when solid state technology swept the market and tube type amplifiers began to be replaced by the transistor. Some audiophiles will argue that for pure sound the tube amplifier will never be replaced by anything solid state, but remember, this is my chronology, not some stodgy audiophile's.

Huge speakers were coupled to these powerful stereo systems and room filling sound amazed as well as entertained; bigger, better, badder, louder.

Then the technology actually got smaller. Speaker technology evolved and amazing sounds could be heard from seemingly diminutive units. Miniaturization of the electronics meant smaller amplifiers and receivers, and they often were combined into one. Soon even the FM tuner was incorporated into the unit and it became an all in one stereo.

Those were the days. The living room became a listening room. Parties revolved around the stereo and whoever had the best collection of LPs. Some of the more sophisticated audiophiles even had these huge reel-to-reel tape decks which could hold hours and hours of music.

Fast forward to the late 70s and the release of the Sony Walkman. Suddenly you could uncouple from the home bound stereo and listen to your own music, privately, even in public places. Then in 1984 Sony released the Diskman, which was a quantum leap in personal stereo technology.

In the late 90s the mp3 player was introduced. Small, with no moving parts, personal stereo players reached the mass market. Apple Computer saw the future of such personal devices and released the first generation iPod in 2001. Suddenly it was cool to have 1000 songs in your pocket. The trendy white ear buds differentiated the iPod from other MP3 players, and still does.

About 2003 I bought an Archos MP3 player with a hard drive. It holds 15 gigabytes of songs, but is as big as two sardine cans stacked. It still works and over the years I’ve kept it filled with music.

About 2003 or 2004 my kids started wanting iPods. They got them. It seems every year at Christmas one or more of them received the latest and greatest. It added a new element to parental controls determining what sort of music played in those ear buds. Parents could no longer hear what the kids were hearing. Music and music sharing became ubiquitous. Kids suddenly had access to tens of thousands of songs, and not all good, to a parent’s perspective.

We’d be driving along in the car and I’d ask the kids something. No answer. I’d ask again, this time louder. Out of one ear came an ear bud. “What,” they’d ask? Then you’d have to repeat it once again. I used to get a little annoyed. In my view the personal stereo device became a block to family communication. They weren’t asking to change the station on the car stereo anymore. No, they were off in their own little world listening to their choice of music. Many times all three of them would be lined up in the backseat, with each of them listening to their own music.

On trips you could no longer depend on one of the passengers keeping you awake and alert. You were on your own with only the aid of the car stereo and road noise.

When I was a kid, the most stolen possession was my bicycle. I lost three of them. For my kids, it’s been their iPods. I think they have all had at least one stolen. At Christmas or a birthday, dad replaces them.

That is what happened to my youngest son. Somebody stole his iPod. I got him a new one for Christmas. It is the iPod Nano. It’s not much bigger than a postage stamp and the same form factor. It has a backlit, touch screen, and can hold literally thousands of songs. It holds more songs than my ancient Archos. The technology has evolved remarkably.

You know what? It is so cool; I found a refurbished one on Ebay for myself. Yep, now I can be as unsociable as the kids. And, it has the trendy white ear buds. Your weekly columnist has arrived!

Until next time--

You can read past columns by visiting and clicking on the “Local Columns” button at the bottom of the page.

In to the Wind and this column are copyright 2011 Mike Gilchrist. Readers, feel free to contact me at via email, or write to me at P.O. Box 255, Toledo, IA 52342.

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