The Evolution of Speakers and How We Learned to “Turn it Up”

An elderly man playing a record

Imagine for a second that your favorite speakers didn’t exist and the only way you could listen to music was through live performance. You couldn’t reach for your phone and Bluetooth speaker to turn up that irresistible jam while you make dinner. Musical recordings began in the late 1800s, but it took some time to reach the general public. 

Today, musical recordings are ubiquitous and we access musical recordings from a variety of devices any time day or night. It all started with a famous scientist inventor and all-around tinkerer Thomas Edison. 

What would eventually become our ability to turn it up and listen to music at high volumes began as a sheet of tinfoil wrapped around a cylindrical drum that was turned and rotated? The idea of recording music would be the object of fascination for many engineers, inventors, and music aficionados for decades. 

Recreated Sounds and Mary Had a Little Lamb 

Consider just how revolutionary it was to recreate the sound. It doesn’t seem like much today, but in a world where the only way to experience music was to see it live, the idea of listening to a full song recording was terribly exhilarating. Every song you’ve ever loved, every verse you’ve harmonized while blasting your speakers in the shower, or the catchy song that prompted you to get on the dancefloor in high school, would never have happened. The early recreation of sound involved the rotating drum covered in tinfoil with a diaphragm on the other side, where the mouthpiece would be located and the singer or instrumentalist would play into it. 

At first, the results were barely audible and, as history would have it, the first “recorded words” were “Mary had a little lamb.” Thomas Alva Edison’s creation of this contraption was not high on his list of priorities, as he was having a little tit-for-tat with Nikola Tesla on electricity, but others took the torch and continued to improve the idea of recreation and recording sounds. 

Others like Alexander Graham Bell would make strides into getting recognizable recorded sound off the ground. The early Bell loudspeakers look like the recognizable horn speakers that go from a narrow tube to the wide face of the horn. 

The Loud Speaker in the Early 20th Century 

Most phonograms in the acoustic era would make use of the flaring trumpet form that was birthed from the first loudspeaker horn patent. Moving coil drivers were the next main component to take strides towards sound recording and this would become the famous Magnavox company. Early recordings to discs included the famous London Symphony Orchestra and their eight-sided version of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Similarly, the early 20th century and new musical genres like early jazz would make their way across the country through these early recordings like the well-known ragtime featuring The Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The dissemination and mass reach of these recordings would play an important role in the development of music and culture in the 20th century. 

From there multiple patents including Anton Pollak’s moving-coil loudspeaker to the “Magnavox” in 1911, which improved the moving coil, to the improvements of phonographic sound recording by using vacuum tubes contributed to the industry of music recordings. Engineers in the music industry were not the only ones interested in sound recreation. The movie business had a high interest in recording sound for the booming Hollywood industry.

Bell Labs developed the two-way loudspeaker in the 1930s. In 1934, several patents including one by E.W. Kellogg described an electrostatic speaker composed of many small sections that radiate sound without the need of the magnets, cones, or baffles. 

Altec Lansing Corporation was formed in 1941 and is still producing speaker products today. The Duplex driver improved sound quality and performance. These inventions hit the movie theaters in the mid-1940s and by 1955 it was the industry standard for motion pictures. 

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss 

Hearing loss is fairly common and can be brought on by aging, trauma, or prolonged exposure to loud sounds. Loud noise is detrimental to the inner ear and even one-time exposure to a loud sound could cause hearing loss, even if temporary. Once the damage reaches the inner ear or the neural system including the auditory nerve, it might be difficult to reverse the hearing loss. As the invention of loudspeakers improved, the love for “turning it up” made it easy to expose ourselves to extremely loud sounds. 

Ringing in the Ears after a Concert or Loud Sound Exposure

If you’ve ever experienced a music concert live and happened to be relatively close to the speakers and amplifiers, you may have experienced temporary tinnitus. This ringing of the ears can occur after exposure to sounds higher than 85 decibels. The volume of any conversation day-to-day is about 60 decibels, while the blaring car horns and city traffic can get up to 85 decibels, a concert is usually well above that. Damage experienced after a concert can very well be temporary but if the exposure happens regularly enough there may be tinnitus for a prolonged time. 

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) in 2011, at least 10 million adults under the age of 70 showed possible hearing loss in at least one ear. 

Treat Your Hearing Loss and Remember the Beauty of Listening

Hearing loss can make day-to-day activities quite difficult. They certainly make enjoying listening to our favorite music a little bit harder, but just turning it up louder and louder might not be the answer. It’s important to treat and get your hearing loss checked out before it progresses. 

Call the experts at Mission Hearing, where our mission is better hearing. Call us today. 


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