Where have all the hi-fi tuners gone? We look back to the March 1981 issue

What Hi-Fi? April 2024 and March 1981 covers
(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

After a couple of Back Issues columns looking at copies of the magazine from around 20 years ago, I took a deeper dive on my most recent dip into our archive. While I, of course, can remember 1981 with alarming clarity, for plenty of our readers it is relatively ancient history.

The magazine’s masthead is now very different (although it has been remarkably consistent for the past 30 years or so, with only a Sound and Vision subhead coming and going in the years since the 1990s) and many of the specifics – certainly as far as product types is concerned – have changed; but the broad brush strokes of What Hi-Fi? remain the same. To wit, reviewing and rating the latest hi-fi and home entertainment equipment.

We have been covering home cinema products for longer than you might think

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That last bit – the home entertainment bit, I mean – is what caught my eye as I was flicking through the pages of the March 1981 issue of What Hi-Fi? The magazine wasn’t even five years old at this point; and of course the behemoth that is whathifi.com was an unimaginable science fiction for all but the most dedicated of computer buffs. And yet, here we are, in the pages of What Hi-Fi? magazine from 1981, with features dedicated to how tricky it is to record video compared with audio, and (below) how the market for movie software was on the (very sharp) rise. 

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Birth of a short-lived video format

(Image credit: Future)

It wasn’t only VCRs that were newsworthy on the home cinema front: there is also a story on the imminent arrival, within weeks, of Philips’s remarkable innovation LaserVision. LaserVision was destined, sadly, to become something of a side-note in the history of video media; the ubiquity and relative simplicity of JVC’s VHS video system meant that the new-fangled CD-cum-record laserdisc was never able to capture the imagination of a public that yearned simply to be able to access Hollywood blockbusters (as well as other, er, more specialist, shall we say, action movies) at home. It would be a decade and a half before the DVD would emerge to replace what was by then a venerable home entertainment medium.

So, despite what the occasional rose-tinted-spectacle-wearing reader might think they remember of the glory days of the magazine, What Hi-Fi? has covered the audio-visual side of home entertainment equipment pretty much right from the off. I must confess, I hadn’t realised quite how embedded it is in the brand’s traditions, so I was pleased to see the coverage from my youth. 

Tuners were very much on song

(Image credit: Future)

As a sharp reminder of how things have changed over the past 40 years, though, that main cover line hits pretty hard. “Digital tuners make it easy” indeed. Now there is an equipment line that has, to all intents and purposes, disappeared from the modern system. Radio is still here, of course – in many respects in more robust health than ever – with equipment that can track down stations from anywhere on the planet. But a separate hi-fi product, dedicated to digging out a radio station? It’s just not a thing any longer.

Different products – but very much the same purpose

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Following the group test of tuners comes a number of micro systems with cassette decks and tuners as the sources for your 80s audio needs. The cassette, while bigging itself up in recent times on the back of a nostalgic surge, is very much in the Hall of Fame category of media these days. These micro systems, then, are really the forebears of the nowadays ubiquitous smart speakers – think Sonos, AudioPro and the like – while the up and coming boomboxes of the day have emerged blinking into the digital light as portable Bluetooth speakers – JBL, Ultimate Ears etc. 

While the look, feel and technology of the products might have changed dramatically in 40-odd (and rather odd, come to that) years, the concept behind them remains the same: good quality equipment that makes accessing your music easy and fun, both at home and on the move. Which can only be a good thing. 

A final note on that cover: What Hi-Fi? was embracing the latest technology even then, with the second cover hit boasting of our “unique, computerised Buying Guide”. Some things never really change.  


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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.