13 July 2017

Before stereo, Ford’s 1960s Studiosonic technology offered ‘concert hall listening’

Today’s in-car entertainment options have evolved from analog exclusivity to digital ubiquity. In between the pre-transistor, single-speaker monaural radios of the 1930s and the two-channel stereo systems of the 1960s, the Big Three offered transitional audio technology for improved sound.

Concurrent to the introduction of the 8-track tape player in 1965 and FM stereo in ’66, Ford brought automotive entertainment from the musical stage into cars with the Studiosonic Sound System, an on-board reverberation unit that piped the big sound of the space age into the American driving experience before the advent of stereo sound.

Even if radio entertainment was free of charge and broadcast at the speed of light, the radio sets required to play those broadcasts were expensive optional equipment. Today’s driver, accustomed to on-demand personal entertainment technology, might find it shocking that an AM/FM radio in a 1966 Ford was a $133 option (over $1,000 in today’s dollars). The Studiosonic added reverb between the front and rear speaker at additional cost. As reverb occurs naturally inside a music venue or theatre, Ford touted the Studiosonic as technology that delivered “concert hall listening,” and the spring reverb unit that made its way into Fords was developed from modern music itself.

Along with the first regular-production car radios in the 1930s, Laurens Hammond patented a spring reverb that created a reverb or echo effect by running signal through a series of springs for a delay. Early Hammond organ reverb units were housed in a large speaker cabinet, but eventually they were reduced to a compact size that fit famously into organs and the Fender Twin Reverb electric guitar amplifier by 1963. Like the Twin Reverb, the Studiosonic used a compact but specially dampened spring reverb. Adding a delay or echo between the front and rear speakers created a more spacious sound. The Studiosonic delivered what Ford said was another dimension to listening enjoyment. Simply adjust and enjoy.

Space-age technology had worked its way into car audio equipment and music itself. The hit song “Telstar,” by the Tornados, was about the TELSTAR orbital communications satellite and featured a melody played on a Hammond organ. FM radio brought more bandwidth to the AM radio party, and we were well on our way into the future when, in 1966, Ford added fully transistorized, genuine two-channel FM stereo to car radios.

Studiosonic and similar car reverb systems hung on for a time, but superior stereo sound relegated monaural car reverberation systems to history. The spring reverb lives today in countless guitar amplifiers, organs, and echo boxes, even if the still-orbiting TELSTAR has ceased functioning.

8 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Gary Tucker Oklahoma July 19, 2017 at 17:15
    My dad bought my mom a new 1964 Plymouth Sport Fury late in 1963. Everyone thought he was nuts. Not us kids (3) that could drive it. Besides being really cool and fast, it came with a reverberation unit tied to the rear speaker. It was a blast to listen to the radio with that thing on. One night at the supper table he said he bought new rear tires for the car. Said he asked the tire guy why the rear tires wore out so quick. His only statement was a question, "do you have any teenagers?"
  • 2
    Joel NYC July 19, 2017 at 17:35
    I still have my Echo Mate reverb laying on the shelf. The only problem was when you hit a large bump or pothole it sounded like a bomb went off. I live in NYC
  • 3
    Wayne Colorardo July 19, 2017 at 17:38
    Don't forget Chrysler's Hiway HiFi introduced in 1956! Then followed by the ARC 45 rpm record player in 1960.
  • 4
    Bruce Jones Aiken, SC July 19, 2017 at 17:49
    Chevrolet offered multiplex (stereo) FM radios as an option in 1965 (RPO U79).
  • 5
    George San Antonio Texas July 19, 2017 at 19:51
    My mom's 1965 Chrysler 300 four door hardtop had a reverb unit. I loved it.
  • 6
    Mark Michigan July 19, 2017 at 20:01
    I had a '65 T-Bird w/a reverberator. It was my first car (9 years old when I bought it in '74) and I really liked the system, even though my dad had a '74 T-Bird with a stereo radio with "Quadrasonic" sound!
  • 7
    George Georgia July 19, 2017 at 23:26
    My 1965 Dodge Polara also had the reverb option
  • 8
    Dale Brown Louisville, KY July 25, 2017 at 08:30
    I owned a 1966 Mustang convertible equipped with the rare AM/FM radio option and it had pretty nice sound, even with the single dash speaker and the top down. I currently own a 1964 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport with the equally rare AM/FM radio with both front and rear speakers. It has great sound as well. Those transistor units from the 1960s were ahead of their time.

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