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Remember when iPods and Beats were the coolest things around?

The coolness of owning great audio gear waxes and wanes, but will music listening ever be cool again?


The two coolest audio products of the 21st century


No doubt about it, the Apple iPod is easily the coolest audio product of the twenty-first century. Introduced in late 2001 it wasn't the first portable digital music player, there were portable CD players like the Sony Discman in 1984, and they were definitely cool. Then Steve Jobs put his special spin on the iPod, "To have your whole CD library with you at all times is a quantum leap when it comes to music." It wasn't hyperbole, the iPod, Classic, Mini, Nano, Shuffle, and Touch really did change the way we listened to music. Though Creative and Diamond entered the market first, the 'Pods all looked and felt cool, and owning an iPod made you cool.

Just as iPods were losing some of their luster Beats by Dre turned the related headphone market upside down in 2008. Beats may have been sold more as a fashion statement than for their sound, but in Beats wake came countless upstart headphone makers taking full advantage of the coolness Beats brought to the category. Headphones were, and remain, cool. 

I know it's hard to imagine now when many music lovers are more than satisfied with the sound of a single Bluetooth, Google Home Max, or Apple HomePod speaker, but there was a time in the last few decades of the twentieth century when not just audiophiles, but everyday folk's pride and joy was their home "stereo." In those days the coolest teenagers were the ones with a "hi-fi" with a turntable, CD player, amplifier, and two speakers.

Original Beats Studio headphones

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Audio's coolness boom exploded in the early 1950s, when a hi-fi was high tech. Owning a nice music system was a badge of honor that demonstrated you were a person who appreciated great sound. By the 1970s audio was so mainstream it was uncool not to have a great system at home or in your car.

Music was at the epicenter of youth culture the way the internet is today, but that started to wane towards the end of the 1990s. Symptomatic of this trend is when Music Television, aka MTV, stopped playing music. And maybe that's why owning a "cool" audio system isn't happening so much anymore.

Nowadays turntables are cool with a smattering of hipsters, teenagers, and die-hard audiophiles, but owning a great audio system isn't going to get admiring glances from friends and relatives. Owners of home audio systems may be small in number, but we're so cool we don't care if other people think it's cool, which is very cool.