We look back at home cinema history and the birth of Dolby surround sound

What Hi-Fi? January 1991 cover
(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

In my latest monthly dive into the What Hi-Fi? archive, the first magazine I pulled out was from January 1991. It has always been reassuring to me that I can pretty much grab any magazine from the almost 50 years of the brand’s existence and find something interesting to highlight. I’m not sure what serendipity led me to this particular mag, but three or four things jumped out immediately on a casual flick through the pages. 

So, 1991; thirty-two years ago. (Everything I Do) I Do It For You by Bryan Adams would dominate the charts in the summer; seminal albums Nevermind, Achtung Baby, Blue Lines and Out of Time were released; Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Home Alone, The Silence of the Lambs and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves were the box office hits of the year. And the cover of the January 1991 issue of What Hi-Fi? majored on bassy speakers and (how things stay the same) upgrading your portable music player’s headphones.

Where home cinema sound began

Dolby Surround feature spread

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

What really caught my attention, though, was the spread explaining the relatively new (in a domestic sense) Dolby Surround sound. My first thought was one of surprise that the brand was covering TV and home cinema at that relatively early stage (I had thought our coverage of AV kit began a few years later in the mid ‘90s); and then I was jerked to attention by the image on the spread. Michael Keaton’s Batman couldn’t be more appropriate, really, reappearing as he does in 2023’s newest DC blockbuster, The Flash. Serendipity indeed. 

The advances in home cinema surround sound, from what was a hugely impressive and desirable beginning more than 30 years ago, are astonishing, of course. Today Dolby Atmos systems are able to provide sound placement on the vertical as well as the horizontal plane, allowing for far more atmospheric effects to go along with the precisely placed whizzes and bangs that we all know and love. But it all has to start somewhere, and Dolby Surround was a ground-breaking innovation that sold plenty of TVs and VHS players, not to mention full-blown home cinema surround-sound systems

Even the TVs were at it…

Toshiba TV review

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Earlier in the magazine, there is a review of a 28-inch (large-screen!) Toshiba TV with Dolby Surround capabilities and detachable rear speakers. Show that to anyone under the age of 30 and they will be shocked at what a top telly looked like “in the olden days”.

Upgrade those cans

Aiwa personal cassette player review

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Elsewhere, my attention was caught by the piece on the Aiwa personal cassette player, where the main takeaway was that it needed better headphones. 

It has been a continual plea from us at What Hi-Fi? over the years that you should consider upgrading the headphones that come with your hardware. Things have certainly improved now – albeit with smartphones, you'll be lucky to get a free pair of headphones – but it remains the case that spending just a bit more money on some better headphones will pay huge dividends. 

Sign of the times

Test spread from January 1991

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Finally, and as an aside, the double-page spread that the Aiwa personal player finds itself on is something of an eye-opener as well. It shares the space with a children’s musical toy, and a frankly odd review of a Denon lifestyle system that is, apparently, aimed at women. Different times.


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Jonathan Evans
Editor, What Hi-Fi? magazine

Jonathan Evans is the editor of What Hi-Fi? magazine, and has been with the title for 17 years or so. He has been a journalist for getting on for three decades now, working on a variety of technology and motoring titles, including Stuff, Autocar and Jaguar. With his background in sub-editing and magazine production, he likes nothing more than a discussion on the finer points of grammar. And golf.