Portable audio—then and now

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!

Comments closed
    • Jigar
    • 11 years ago

    I still have a lot of great music on Cassette, if only i had the perfect cables i would have successfully transferred my collection in my computer.

      • MadManOriginal
      • 11 years ago

      Somehow I’m pretty sure that cables won’t be a limit in transferring tapes with consumer gear.

        • just brew it!
        • 11 years ago

        Yup, I agree. The condition of the tapes themselves, the quality of the tape deck, and the A/D section of the soundcard (especially if it is onboard) are all likely to have bigger effects on the quality of the transfer than the cables.

          • travbrad
          • 11 years ago

          Exactly. It sounds like someone got fed some PR about Monster cables

    • alex666
    • 11 years ago

    I almost think that the Walkman was the worst thing to ever happen to music listening. Sure the fidelity was pretty good and it was small, but it started the mass rise of _[

    • crose
    • 11 years ago

    “how far we’ve come in the past quarter century.”

    What? A quarter century is a loooong time, dude. Back in the days of yore that was a /[

      • just brew it!
      • 11 years ago

      OK, perhaps not the best choice of words.

      But when you consider that the predominant consumer technology used to play pre-recorded music prior to the Walkman (i.e. phonograph records) remained essentially unchanged for close to a /[

    • herothezero
    • 11 years ago

    Ironically, for all the convenience we have today in personal audio, sound quality has suffered horribly. Kids think 128kbps is how stuff should sound.

    It’s tragic, really.

      • Meadows
      • 11 years ago

      Market demand and audio masterers are partly to blame too, CDs should be able to store audio of vastly superior quality to vynil, yet ironically, quality-enthusiasts look up vynil versions to avoid the distorted nightmare that modern marketing enforced.

      • just brew it!
      • 11 years ago

      Yeah, low bitrate MP3 FTL… I really can’t stand the “underwater” effect that it tends to add to the sound. You even hear it on the radio fairly frequently, and it sounds like utter crap.

      The thing is, a player like the Clip *[

      • Krogoth
      • 11 years ago

      Because most portable systems do not provide the environment where you could “tell” the difference. It is very difficult to engineer a hi-fi audio environment that is portable.

        • just brew it!
        • 11 years ago

        To a point. But the limiting factor on many portable music players is actually the crappy headphones/earbuds that come bundled with them, not the players themselves. IMO the Clip sounds pretty darned good as long as you play it through some decent headphones or a good car/home stereo system.

      • UberGerbil
      • 11 years ago

      Yeah, because all those cassettes full of 3rd-generation tape-to-tape copies from the radio or scratchy lps that I listened to as a kid on crappy speakers (or even worse headphones) were such high quality.

      You could have high quality then, and lots of people picked crappy quality for convenience or economics or whatever. It’s really no different today.

      • travbrad
      • 11 years ago

      This is true, but the music they are listening to usually sounds crap no matter how high the bitrate is. Not only in terms of the music itself, but also the horrible mastering caused by the “loudness wars”. This isn’t really a problem with less popular music though (which isn’t intended to compete for loudness on radio stations). Also, they need to GET OFF MY LAWN 😉

      Most downloadable music now is far above 128kbps mp3 quality too, so it’s not so much of an issue anymore. When mp3s first started gaining popularity it was a major problem, but not so much now.

      Nowadays I’d put more blame on youtube/rhapsody and similar streaming services, and also the terrible speakers/headphones most people have (which make it harder to notice the horrible audio quality)

        • just brew it!
        • 11 years ago

        Speaking of the “loudness wars”, I’ve noticed something with nearly all of the music I’ve transfered from vinyl. Even when normalized to 100%, the /[

          • travbrad
          • 11 years ago

          That’s interesting. I always felt there was a definite difference, but I never actually measured it. I think it would be really cool if someone did a genre by genre comparison of the compression levels, and also decade by decade (although I have a feeling I know what the results would be).

          It’s just a lot more “exhausting” to listen to music with such high compression levels IMO. It really shouldn’t be a strain on your ears to listen to music you enjoy… I think the only music left with similar compression to vinyls is classical (with some exceptions of course), because that is so dependent on layering stuff on top of each other and going from very quiet moments to very loud.

          On a side note, a lot of bands don’t even have good sound at their concerts either. They just seem to crank everything up to the max, and it just ends up sounding like a muddled mess of impending doom. If that’s how they play in the studio I can see why compression is “needed”.

          • barleyguy
          • 11 years ago

          Actually, that’s true. Vinyl was usually mastered close to a standard level of K-20, which is 20 DB RMS below white noise. The standard mastering level of CD’s SHOULD be K-14, which is 6 DB louder than vinyl. K-14 doesn’t sound as “open” as K-20, but is still free of distortion (caused by the level anyway). The loudness wars have brought much of the Pop and Rock music up to K-12, K-10, even K-8. Getting that loud starts to cause audible distortion, and kills the dynamic range of the musical composition.

          The ironic part of the whole thing is that radio stations run Optimods, which put everything at the same level anyway. So the loudness war has no advantage in radio. It does make it sound louder in CD changers, but I’m not sure why that’s a good thing.

          A link about the K-System and commentary on the loudness wars, if you’re really that curious on a technical level:
          §[<http://www.digido.com/articles-and-demos/13-bob-katz/21-level-practices-part-2-includes-the-k-system.html<]§ (P.S. Sorry for the late reply. I dabble in recording, so I thought I'd throw in my perspective.)

            • MadManOriginal
            • 11 years ago

            I was going to reply to his post although I don’t know all about the K numbers 🙂

            ‘Loudness wars’ doesn’t refer to the mastering level in the way he’s talking about it where CDs are just ‘loud’ and you might want to adjust your volume but they still sound clear, or as they’re supposed to. It refers to mastering too high so that the recorded signal is clipped and thus distorted. I have been fortunate to avoid loudness wars CDs for the most part but if you want an example get Californication by Red Hot Chili Peppers, it was my first loudness wars CD and I didn’t personally understand what loudness wars actually meant until I got it. Playing it sounds like garbage in that there is crackling and distortion especially during peaks that is not part of the music. It’s worse than listening to mediocre radio reception but not the same sort of static. Another example (I don’t have it though) is Metallica’s Death Magnetic.

            • just brew it!
            • 11 years ago

            It is quite possible with modern digital technology to severely compress the dynamic range /[

    • zima
    • 11 years ago

    Too bad we have quite a big setback in comparison to battery life of late Walkman (at least those from circa 2000)

    I remember how I put new battery into it one Friday evening, took tram to train station, train to home city, walk through it so I was just before midnight. That’s 5 hours already. And then – I left it on in my coat, only noticing that…Tuesday morning. It was still on. Used during the way back and few hours in that week.

    In totall around 90 hours probably.

      • zimpdagreene
      • 11 years ago

      I agree battery life was great then.

      • ludi
      • 11 years ago

      You can have battery life like that again, if you don’t mind doubling or trippling the battery area in your digital media player and eliminating the screen.

    • ludi
    • 11 years ago

    This does bring back memories. I had a couple portable tape players (nothing as high-end as the original Walkman), but the purchase that really set me back was the Sony CarDiscman. $200 plus tax back in…what was it, 1998? By 2005 you could buy a CD player that was superior in every way (except the credit-card remote) for $35 at Wal-Mart.

    • Captain Ned
    • 11 years ago

    Ah, the long-maligned cassette tape. True devotees will remember the the holy wars between the TDK and Maxell factions (I was on the TDK side). I still have a cassette deck in my home stereo but I’ve been going through the tape collection and buying CDs of all those albums I taped back in college.

      • just brew it!
      • 11 years ago

      IIRC I used both TDK and Maxell, without a strong preference for either. I still have a cassette deck as well, but it probably hasn’t been turned on in ~4 years.

        • Palek
        • 11 years ago

        Don’t forget BASF! Anybody remember those extremely bright orange cassettes with the multi-color stripes on the label? So very 60s!

        On topic, I remember that a common argument between walkman owners was whose models were superior, Panasonic’s or Sony’s. Panasonic made much more durable players, primarily because they used all-metal mechanics even in cheaper models while Sony went for cheap plastic bits for the low-end. My beloved Panasonic walkman served me for over 5 years and its performance did not degrade at all over the years. A friend bought a similarly priced Sony that started to produce wow and flutter in about a year!

    • eofpi
    • 11 years ago

    I too have a 4GB Sansa Clip. Its flac, vorbis, and mp3 support is great.

    As much as I like the album-oriented nature of it (I listen to a lot of concept albums), I’ve yet to locate a shuffle function. I’ve yet to consult the manual, but figure I should be able to figure these things out on my own. Is it just nonexistent, or am I missing something?

      • just brew it!
      • 11 years ago

      It is in the Music Options menu (hit the menu button while a song is playing). You need to scroll the menu down to get to it.

        • eofpi
        • 11 years ago

        Ah, so it is. Thanks!

    • Sargent Duck
    • 11 years ago

    It would have been neat, if only for cosmetics, had you been able to get last gen’s ipod shuffle (not the ridiculously stupid one they launched without a volume control) in that pic. If nothing just to see the size difference.

      • XaiaX
      • 11 years ago

      Anyone who had a portable CD player with the “morse code remote control” interface recognizes that new shuffle as a simple adaptation of old tech. Tying the buttons to one specific set of headphones is irritating, but it means fewer mechanical parts in the main unit, so fewer points of failure, so greater reliability.

      For that matter, the original CD based mp3 players had no UI and relied on similar “morse” interfaces.

      Not every piece of hardware has to do everything that anyone might ever want to do with a similar piece of hardware in every possible circumstance. Not every PC has to able to play games, not every personal vehicle needs a 10,000 lbs. towing capacity, not every MP3 player needs to be able to be used as a centerpiece for a home stereo.

        • ludi
        • 11 years ago

        How does replacing multiple buttons that have to be pressed once per function, with fewer buttons requiring multiple presses for most functions, /[

    • Jive
    • 11 years ago

    Nice benchmark, Sansa clearly wins hands down.

    • bdwilcox
    • 11 years ago

    My uncle had a Cadillac in the 50’s that had a turntable mounted upside down under the dashboard. How’s that for portable audio?

    • Spurenleser
    • 11 years ago

    I still have a Sony Hi-MD player (MZ-RH10) and you can get up to 50 hrs of playback if you use the internal battery and the secondary battery pack (1 x AA). Sure it’s not as small as iPod and Co and it’s a dead technology, but I like the long playback time and the changeable media.

    Before buying that Hi-MD player I first wanted to buy the Sony MZ-N910 MD-Player. It would have had up to 115 hours of playback time with the external battery (and at least 45 with just the internal one). But alas, it was out of stock way too early.

    I’d probably buy an MP3 player if they had more than 40 hrs of playback time. Sure, give me a bigger design and ditch the fancy color display in favor of something monochrome and smaller.

      • just brew it!
      • 11 years ago

      q[

      • Tarx
      • 11 years ago

      Just buy one that has replaceable batteries.
      I really liked my old Creative Zen Nano (until it fell into the pool). On one AAA battery lasted a long time (20hrs?) and then just swap the battery out when it dies.
      Now I have a MP3 player with a non replaceable battery that does the USB charge and lasts about 10 hours. Too short, non-swappable = Very annoying!

      • brm001
      • 11 years ago

      Cowon D2+: §[<http://www.cowonamerica.com/products/cowon/d2plus/<]§ "Audio : Max. 52 Hours Continuous Playback at default setting *" Of course you won't get that much with high volume and VBR MP3s, but you didn't specify mitigating circumstances ;)

    • PetMiceRnice
    • 11 years ago

    Things sure have changed a lot over the years. My first portable music device was a Sony WM-F17 recording cassette walkman which set me back $129 CDN back in 1987. In 2002, I bought a Panasonic SL-MP30 portable CD player for $139 CDN. I still have it today and it works fine, that is, when I care to use it. My first MP3 player (which I also still have) is a Creative Labs MuVo TX FM 512MB, which also was $129 when I first got it. My current MP3 player is 2 years old now and it a RCA MC2602A which was $100 with an extended warranty (which I’ve never needed).

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I liked the picture of the WM-2!

    • DrDillyBar
    • 11 years ago

    Music was less expensive in the tape days too.

      • dragmor
      • 11 years ago

      No its the same price as now.

      1981 people taped content off the radio.
      2007 people download content off the internet.

        • Meadows
        • 11 years ago

        You’re pretty dense.

          • dmitriylm
          • 11 years ago

          No, it actually all makes sense.

            • BoBzeBuilder
            • 11 years ago

            Man I’m caught in the suspense.

            • ssidbroadcast
            • 11 years ago

            It’s making me tense.

            • no51
            • 11 years ago

            I’m sitting on the fence.

            • Palek
            • 11 years ago

            Are you a bird, perchance?

            • ssidbroadcast
            • 11 years ago

            Oof, Palek. Fail.

            • Palek
            • 11 years ago

            Hey, at least my pun was truly cringe-worthy rather than just bland. 😛

            • no51
            • 11 years ago

            I don’t like puns of your brand.

            • Palek
            • 11 years ago

            You are free to criticize, friend.

            • cygnus1
            • 11 years ago

            I’m gonna get in the shower for a quick rinse?

      • XaiaX
      • 11 years ago

      Now that’s complete nonsense.

      Remember crap like the “convenience pack” that contained a CD and a tape version of the same album? For the wonderful discount of NO DISCOUNT FOR YOU AT ALL? After all, they were just doing that because everyone “knows” that taping a CD you owned was piracy, just like ripping a CD now is. Remember when they sued Wherehouse? When they claimed that used CDs were stealing?

      Prices in real dollars haven’t changed much, but due to inflation music is still cheaper now than it was then. For example Pearl Jam’s “Ten” released on tape for MSRP of about $13. Not only can I get it off iTunes for less than that ($9.99), that’s not even compared to what that amounts to with inflation, which is closer to $20. The CD on Amazon is also $9.99, or $14.99 for the 2 disc version.

      Nostalgia is a bunch of crap. The good old days sucked.

        • eofpi
        • 11 years ago

        None of those things were actually illegal, though.

        Taping your CDs or the radio had any question of legality resolved by the AHRA.

        As for used CDs, the first sale doctrine is quite old. It’s no more stealing than used books are.

        Most things are indeed cheaper than they used to be. New CDs, though, are closer to $20 than $10, which may be a more apt comparison to release-date pricing of “Ten”.

        • eitje
        • 11 years ago

        Gotta point out that lower costs on older media is due to graduated reductions in earnings for the band that are a part of the contract.

        You buy an old CD these days, and it’s almost pure profit for the label.

        • just brew it!
        • 11 years ago

        q[

          • MadManOriginal
          • 11 years ago

          Thankfully you can still get most of it, and hopefully in non-remastered form. Some remasters are ok but many lose something in the feel of the music. I don’t know if there’s less good music today, taking in to account different styles, or it’s that we only remember the good music from days gone by. I wager the latter and that there was always a lot of junk being released.

          • Meadows
          • 11 years ago

          Not if you consider most electronic music or some modern rock/metal/cement/[pick hard material] music.

          • ludi
          • 11 years ago

          IMO that’s just selective memory at work. The good artists and bands either made an all-time classic album, or else kept producing new albums for twenty years or more, and their names have been preserved. The thousands of one-hit wonders and lamers largely disappeared into the sands of time, and were forgotten.

          So people look back to e.g. the 1970s and earlty 1980s and think it was nothing but Boston, Pink Floyd, Led Zepelin, Queen, The Police, etc. all day long with ocassional BeeGees, Rose Royce, and Yes, while forgetting the countless thousands of LPs and cassettes that went to the landfill without being regretted.

            • MadManOriginal
            • 11 years ago

            There is one counterpoint to that which I occasionally think of despite agreeing with you as per my previous post. I ask myself ‘What current bands will still be popular enough to get airplay (in whatever form) 30 years from now on something other than era-based stations (‘Classic Rock’ or what have you)?’ like Led Zep, Pink Floyd, etc. do now. For example the Clear Channel ‘modern rock’ station in my area plays those types of classics next to new stuff. In other words, what popular music of the last 10-15 years will remain timeless?

            • Meadows
            • 11 years ago

            There will probably be 3 trance songs over every 5 years that are worth remembering, along with other truly professional pieces from more modern genre subtypes.

            I also think that the music Blizzard produces should be remembered.

            • MadManOriginal
            • 11 years ago

            I know that’s your style of music so maybe personally for you but….yeah that’s not what I was asking at all.

            • Palek
            • 11 years ago

            I tried to think of some current artists with “hall-of-fame” potential but could not come up with any that I would really vouch for. I don’t think I’m in a good position to guess which contemporary artists will become tomorrow’s classics. The great music of the seventies, eighties and nineties had a very strong, defining influence on my taste in music and I will always judge all music by that yardstick, but people even just a couple years younger than me frown and give me funny looks when I list my favourite artists (Dire Straits in particular gets blank stares or “you’re old” jabs).

            • MadManOriginal
            • 11 years ago

            Chances are they’ll like it when they’re older too 😉 Music appreciation and changing taste over time is a funny thing. Wasn’t too long ago that I started appreciating classical enough to actually buy it.

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