The era of compact audio: Stereo 8 story – eight-track cassettes

Last time we talked about Stereo-pakthat paved the way for magnetic tape into car players. Today we are talking about his heir – Stereo 8, briefly overtaking the initiative.

A photo Leonard Nevarez / CC BY / Stereo 8 cartridges on the shelves of a thematic museum in the USA

Format father

The author of the format is self-taught designer William Lear. Over the course of his career, he has registered over 120 patents. Among his inventions is one of the first car radios named Motorola. This radio was produced by Galvin Manufacturing, later it became the same Motorol. Lear also set up production of aviation radio compasses that helped pilots fly in low visibility conditions. Later – he began to design the aircraft themselves, opened a separate company Learjet for this business in 1960.

But just three years later – in 1963 – Lear was destined to return to the automotive theme. The Stereo-Pak cartridge fell into his hands. Lear saw the potential in a new portable format – he wanted to simplify and improve the design of the cassette and bring his own product of this class to the market.

Lear increased the number of tracks from four to eight, removed the tape tension mechanism and the clip to prevent it from slipping. So he reduced the number of components inside the cartridge and simplified the production process. Lear also applied a special strip of foil to the tape, marking the end of the sound track. It served as a signal for the tape recorder that it was time to move the magnetic head. In the case of the Stereo-Pak, it was necessary to manually switch the jitter using a special lever on the player. As a result, Lear received an eight-track cartridge on which it was possible to record up to 90 minutes of music – twice as much as on the Stereo-Pak.

It was convenient to use: drivers did not have to often change cassettes while driving. First, the new cartridges were called the CARtridgebut then renamed to Stereo 8.


The format was inferior in sound quality to its competitors – in the first place, narrow sound tracks affected it. As the wear and tear, the accuracy of head positioning decreased, which caused noise during playback. The roller clip in the cartridge made of rubber was regularly deformed during operation – especially if the owner forgot to remove the cassette from the player when it was finished listening to music. There were other problems: the player regularly “chewed” the tape in those cars where its body was located close to the engine. Due to high temperatures, grease evaporated from the belt.

Despite all the shortcomings, the format has gained wide popularity, especially in America. An important role in this was played by the fact that Lear was a member of a consortium of major automakers. He persuaded the Ford Motor Company to make the Stereo 8 player one of the options that buyers of new cars could choose.

In 1966, the opportunity to install a regular player was given to buyers of three models: Mustang, Thunderbird and Lincoln. A year later, tape recorders were offered for all Ford cars. Players for 8-track cartridges were also installed by AMC, mainly in Marlin (in the photo below).

A photo Czmarlin / PD
The lack of music produced on Stereo 8 cartridges was also not observed. Lear was able to enter into a partnership agreement with a pair of major labels – Ampex and RCA Victor Records. Montserrat Caballe released his music in this format, Jim reeves, Kate smithas well as The Monkees, The Youngbloods and many others. The format along with vinyl was adopted as a standard for recording studios in the USA, Japan, Canada, Australia, Great Britain and other countries.

Over time, the format became portable and migrated to homes. Under it let out players and hi-fi installations. Similar systems did Telex communications, Electra and Panasonic. However, the Stereo 8 market failed to hold onto.

Sunset and pseudo-renaissance

Already in mid-1976, 8-track cartridges began to play the usual Philips cassettes. In the United States, despite support and advertising campaign actor Jimmy Walker, sales of Stereo 8 plummeted. One of the latest major releases is Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits album, released in 1988.

Today, Stereo 8 is nothing more than a subject of nostalgia. However, small indie artists are trying to give the format a second life and release albums on it.

Over the past few years groups have been noted RTB2 and Melvinsas well as teams Waves Crashing Piano Chords and Cheap trick. Who knows, maybe in the future we will see a revival of the format like this happened to vinyl.

Additional reading from our “Hi-Fi World”:

Highway Hi-Fi: what started the history of car record players
Audio cassettes in pop culture: why the obsolete sound recording format is again considered fashionable
Radio recorders from the USSR: a brief history of audio systems in Soviet cars
Compact cassettes: old / new trend or revival of the format?
DAT format is not to blame for anything: history and tests of digital audio cassettes
Beginning of an era of compact audio or “first shift” for bobbin
The era of compact audio: how tapes came into cars

At us on Habré:

  • 10 materials about replicas of sound cards, open sound libraries and audio software
  • Concert for a city with an orchestra: who and why records the sounds of everyday life

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