Continuing with the “retro” theme, this month I’m taking a stroll back down through memory lane and take a rose tinted look at portable audio. Believe it or not we were around at a dawn of a new era of music on the go!
Only cool kids with rich parents had Sony’s.
In the late 70’s early 80’s if you wanted to listen to music while out and about you needed muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger and a paid up health plan for the hip replacement you would need after carrying a large “ghetto blaster” on your shoulders all day! Long before streaming, mp3’s and CD’s the humble compact cassette reigned king.
While the original cassette was only meant for dictation the advent of noise reduction from the late Ray Dolby enabled high quality recordings to be made in the home. If you wanted a selection of tracks you had to make your own mixtapes at home. NB: Kids don’t try this at home if you believe that “Home Taping is Killing Music” (The random BS that the record companies were trying to spread to people who already own the album).
The main problem of the ghetto blaster were not just the sheer weight but the fact they depending on your musical tastes you were most likely to p*** people while you were on the bus.
In 1979 Sony revolutionised the music industry by using their expertise and know-how to shrink the cassette players of the day into something that could fit on a belt clip. The Sony Walkman was born and heralded a new era of portable “personal” music. While Sony may have been instrumental in bringing the Walkman to the market they were not the originators of the idea… that accolade belongs to Brazilian innovator Andreas Pavel who had come up with the original concept in the late 1960’s but was unable to get the public interested in his ideas.
It seems that “listening” to music has been relegated to being just a background activity. as opposed to an emotional experience.
As with all breakthroughs in technology the first units were expensive and out of reach of the majority of consumers. Only cool kids with rich parents had Sony’s. However, this didn’t stop Sony’s rivals from marketing their own versions often a much cheaper prices but not featuring the Sony’s legendary build quality.
My first walkman… now that conjures up images of a kiddies toy… was not a Sony. In the mid 80’s Sony’s offerings were still on the pricy side. I can’t remember how much it cost me back then but my first “walkman” was a Sanyo Sportster. Housed in a shiny candy apple red case the Sanyo proudly boasted an “Anti-Rolling Mechanism” on the front lid.
It only offered the most basic of controls and had nothing in the way of any noise reduction other than a high/low tone control. It served me through my years walking to North Trafford College filling my ears with the sounds of Rush and other hard rock bands I was into at the time.
When I briefly moved to the West Midlands in my student years (late 80’s) my musical tastes were changing (Dire Straits, Billy Idol etc.) and along with that so was my equipment. I had upgraded the aging Sanyo with an Aiwa HSP-05 MkII which was a major improvement on the Sanyo. I also bought a Denon DR-171 cassette deck from Frank Harvey Hi-Fi in Coventry.
Shortly afterwards I upgraded again, this time to an Aiwa HS-P505. This model was awesome as it had autoreverse, Dolby B and a full featured remote control. It was no larger than a standard cassette which gives you an idea of how tiny it was. The only downside was that it used “gumstick” rechargeables instead of normal batteries. I had a workaround for this by using a 2 x AA battery holder and wiring a plug so I could use it on long train journeys going back to Manchester by train.
It was around this time that the compact disc appeared on the scene with the promise of higher fidelity sound than that of vinyl and tape which prompted yet another revolution, and another round of buying your music collection all over again…
My first portable CD player was a Panasonic SL-S160 (I think) which was on the market around 1995, I’m not certain about the exact model but the body shape and control positions look almost to how I remembered them. It featured “MASH” which was a form of bitstreaming that worked with 1 bit DACs and was noted to have superior sound quality in comparison to other players.
One of the main problems that plagued early portables was that of the track jumping while moving around. The model I had I believe had a 4 second buffer to compensate for any sudden moves which made listening to music while walking out and about a more enjoyable experience.
In the early 90’s the Frauenhofer Institute had devised a codec that could reduce the size of a conventional music track by a factor of almost 10 times while preserving the quality. The codec was called MP3 and in conjunction with the emerging internet it enabled music was being distributed globally without control of the record companies. I remember scouring the internet using AltaVista (remember them?) for zero day ftp sites and websites that had music in this format.
My next portable CD player was the Rio Volt SP90 which was capable of playing variable bit rate after applying a modified path from another model (SP100). This served me well for the next few years until it eventually started to fail to read discs.
For a while I made the foray into DAT recorders (MiniDisc never held any attraction for me) and apart from recording the odd *ahem* live gig I used it as a digital walkman. I had a Sony TC-D3 which in its day was one of the smallest and coolest portable DAT recorders out there. Sadly it started to develop problems and the battery was failing so it was retired from service.
In the “noughties” I’d started looking at getting an MP3 player but had no love for Apple and their iCrap range of products. Seeking an alternative and not wanting to become another “sheep” in the Apple flock I stumbled on the site Anything But Ipod and found what was back in 2007 as the holy grail of MP3 players…
Enter the Cowon D2, smaller than a packet of cigarettes, it sported 4Gb internal memory with a SD card slot to expand the storage, a 320 x 240 pixel touch screen (resistive), BBE equalisation and a built in DAB radio! For its diminutive size it had a power output of 74mW per channel which could literally blow your head off! I still have it to this day and it works fine!
The problem with all this technology is that it has changed the way we listen to music. A recent article on CNN’s site cited the death of the home stereo as being directly attributable to the advent of portable music devices. These days people can listen to music on a laptop through a pair of tinny speakers and declare that it’s “good enough”. It seems that “listening” to music has been relegated to being just a background activity. as opposed to an emotional experience.
Today’s consumer seems to care more about what brand of headphones they are seen wearing e.g. Bose, Beats Audio and Skullcandy (crappy overpriced, overhyped pieces of s***!) than sound quality. In fact most iPod owners cannot listen to high quality reproduction because it sounds so different from what they are used to.