8-Track versus cassette

The audio battle

Famous format wars I VHS versus Betamax I 8-Track versus cassette I Sega versus Sony versus Nintendo I Blu-ray versus HD-DVD I Future format wars

While JVC and Sony were duking it out over home video, those more concerned with audio were cruising down the road listening to an 8-track tape deck. There were mutterings, however, of these things called “cassettes”…

Developed by Bill Lear of Lear Jet fame, 8-track, or Stereo 8 cartridges as they were officially known, shot to prominence in the mid-60s, nestling under the dashboard of many a pick-up or muscle car. A lot of those early decks were developed by Motorola, which has tried its hand at pretty much everything down the years. 8-tracks were ahead of their time, allowing you to select tracks without the need to switch sides and in the late 1960s they boasted higher quality audio than the cassette.

On this occasion, victory was decided not by manufacturer spats, legal rows or missed marketing steps; it was more of a gentle evolution of the previously less successful format. The smaller, more versatile cassettes already boasted the ability to rewind – 8-tracks used a continuous loop of tape so you had to spool all the way to the end of a cartridge in order to go back to the beginning. Then, in 1971 the hi-fi era began, bringing improved build mechanism and tape quality.

Sony had a hand to play too. First, in 1964, it convinced Philips to free up its invention to other manufacturers. Then, 1978’s revolutionary Sony Walkman personal cassette player really turned the tide. In 1983, cassette sales even
overtook those of LPs as Walkman sales soared.

By the time Billy Joel’s 52nd street was released on Philips’ new Compact Disc format in 1982, 8-track had disappeared from stores. The cassette had won, but 8-track lives on in the memory of many a grizzled Kiss or Rush fan, and in the constant loop tech that is used in movie projectors to this very day.

Unlucky Losers

5 formats that coulda been contenders

Betamax

Boasting better picture quality, more durable, smaller cassettes and an auto programme search which allowed viewers to find their favourite points on the tape, Sony’s video format had everything but a winning marketing strategy.

Super Audio CD

Boasting incredible sound quality, these DVD-quality discs nonetheless never
had the opportunity to fight their corner. They were too expensive, and the world settled first for plain old CDs and then for MP3 and other compressed formats.

Minidisc

MDs were an interim technology that launched as a replacement to cassettes, then became a rival to MP3, but ended up as a footnote. However, what is undeniable is that they were more compact, re-recordable and durable than cassettes or CD-Rs, while the compressed files still sounded great.

Sega

By the mid 90s, Sega obviously thought it could never be toppled. What else would explain the years it spent dicking about, adding unwanted peripherals to the Mega Drive, then releasing the unloved Saturn? Alas, console gaming new boys Sony knocked it out of the park first ball with the PlayStation and Sega’s excellent Dreamcast arrived too late to save the day.

HD-DVD

Toshiba’s format had so much going for. It was cheaper, had the support of the Xbox 360, and even the name made it seem like the natural successor to DVD. Sony had lost out with proprietary formats before – see above. My, how the tides would turn… every great format has its day then dies. even the PS3 and XBox will one day be consigned to history…