Portable audio—then and now


— 3:58 PM on April 15, 2009

I recently acquired a Sansa Clip 4GB MP3 player (which, I might add, I'm quite happy with). After using it for a few weeks, I was struck by how much we take for granted today when it comes to portable tech, and how far we've come in the past quarter century. As chance would have it, I also ran across my old Sony WM-2 while digging around in the crawlspace recently. (Alas, it no longer seems to be functional; pressing "play" results in some whirring noises, but the tape does not move.)

Sony essentially invented the high-fidelity portable audio market when it introduced the original cassette Walkman in 1979. If you wanted portable audio prior to that, you either had to put up with tiny, tinny-sounding transistor radios or bulky boom-boxes. The Walkman was a fundamental game changer—it was portable, had very good fidelity for the time, and let you play your own mix tapes, freeing you from the whims of people who made playlists for local radio stations.

Like many people back then, I had a sizable collection of cassette tapes for my Walkman. Sure, they were prone to wear, tear, and other physical abuse; the fidelity went slowly downhill the more you played them; and if you left one sitting in the car on a hot day... well, just forget it. But they still sounded better than the alternatives, and hey... blank tapes were cheap, and you could always dub a fresh copy from your vinyl LPs.

Let's compare specs, shall we?

  Sony Cassette WM-2 Sansa Clip
Year introduced 1981 2007
Size 4-1/4" x 3-1/8" x 1-1/8" 2-1/8" x 1-3/8" x 7/16"
Weight 8 oz (w/o batteries or media) < 1 oz
Battery run time 5 hours 15 hours
Play time (without changing media) 90 minutes (C-90 cassette tape) ~50 hours (4 GB at 160 kbps)

We sure have come a long way!

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