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How the Walkman helped ensure the success of the CD

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

How the Walkman helped ensure the success of the CD

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1992, The Syracuse Newspapers

Happy birthday, CD! When Sony, the inventor of the Walkman, came out with the first compact discs exactly 10 years ago, the world of recorded music changed forever.

The biggest change, of course, was the sudden shift from analog to digital - from records with grooves that were played by needles (and that got scratchy and wore out) to small, silvery discs that were caressed by tiny laser light beams. These new discs could be played thousands of times without any scratches and without wearing out at all.

Add to that the fact that these shiny discs were smaller and easier to carry, and it was clear that Sony had a winner on that day in October 1982 when the first CD player went on sale in Japan.

Sony had help in the laser disc project from an older company, the Dutch manufacturer that had invented the audio cassette 20 years earlier. This company, Philips, wanted everyone to know that the new disc was a cousin of the cassette, and so it demanded - and got - a special name for it.

Just as the cassette was officially called the "compact cassette," Philips made sure the new product was called the "compact disc." Nobody except audio historians cares much these days about the official name for the cassette, but you probably can't find a single music lover who doesn't know what "CD" stands for.

Not only have millions of people all over the world bought CD players, they've added CDs to their collections by the armload. Sony says more than 1 billion compact discs have been sold so far. If each one played for an hour, you'd need 400 years to hear them all.

The huge success of the CD came partly by accident. At the same time that CDs were beginning to catch on, another wave was already sweeping over America. You could see it in the hallways of schools and the jogging lanes along highways. People who would otherwise never have been caught dead wearing headphones were putting on little foam-padded ear pieces and clipping tiny tape players to their belts or pockets, listening to music on the go.

The Walkman craze caught Sony by surprise. What kind of crazy Americans were willing to go out in public with things that looked like earmuffs and made them click and jump and sway and hum even in the middle of a crowd? Proper Japanese didn't do that, of course, and so the Walkman started out in life as a decidedly Western phenomenon, even though it was invented in Japan.

With the compact disc heading into the home, Sony saw bad news for CDs in the success of the Walkman. It seemed like everyone was getting used to listening to music at any time and in any place - on a bus, in the back seat of the car, in the bathroom each morning. Cassettes and tiny players made that possible. The CD, however, had no place to go but in the hi-fi in the living room.

Before long, Sony and then the other Japanese manufacturers did what nearly everyone thought was impossible. They took all the parts of a home CD player and shrunk them down to thumbnail size and jammed them into a box the size of a triple-decker sandwich. Like a Walkman, the portable CD player that Sony introduced worked on batteries. And it even kept on playing if you shook it or turned it upside down.

Since that time, the original Sony Discman and its competitors have continued to fuel CD sales to record levels, and Walkman sales have slowed. The latest portable CD players are vastly improved, playing longer on the same batteries and offering such features as "turbo bass" and random play.

They're even smaller, too. Both Sony and Technics have new portable CD players that are no larger than three or four CD boxes stacked on top of each other.

Prices of simple models start at a little more than $100.

CDs caught another wave, too. At first, the Japanese started selling luggable cassette players with AM and FM radios built in. Then they added stereo sound. Suddenly, rock addicts and kids in America's cities discovered a new way to make themselves heard, and the boombox became an official item of urban outerwear.

If a CD player could be made small enough to fit into a coat pocket, it certainly would fit in a boombox, too, and so dozens of manufacturers have added CD boomboxes to their lines. The surprising thing about these players is their price: Even though a regular CD player costs at least $100 to $150, some companies are selling CD boomboxes, complete with AM/FM tuners, speakers and cassette players built in, for $200 or less.

If you're shopping for a portable CD player or CD boombox, you can save a lot of aggravation by doing some homework first - not the usual kind of homework, mind you. This isn't a school exercise; it's a how-to-save-the-green plan.

Here's what you should do:

First, decide how you want to use your new portable or boombox player. If you already have a home CD player, you'll probably never want to hook up your portable to a home hi-fi - and that means you don't need to look for one that has all the features of a typical home CD player.

However, if you don't have a regular compact disc player at home, you may want to look for a portable or boombox that can also do most of the things that a home player can do. Here's a short list.

A portable that can also be used as a home CD player should have:

Left and right channel output jacks, so you can run cables from the portable to your home amplifier or receiver.

An easy-to-attach power supply, so you can just plug n' play at home without worrying about batteries.

A simple way of zeroing in on any track on a CD. The best way of doing this is a number pad on the player, which lets you punch in, say, track 9. Cheaper players have little arrow keys that step from one track to the next. That's OK, but it's a lot easier to dial up the track just like you'd press the buttons on a telephone.

A programmable memory, so you can listen to tracks on a CD in any order that you want.

Second, look for closeout sales on last year's models before you stash the cash on a new 92 player. CD players change faster than Michael Jackson's videos, so manufacturers are always looking for ways to get the older models out of the way. Check the local stores first, and then look at the mail-order ads. The DAK catalog, out of California, is one reliable source of closeouts, and there are many others.

Third, if you're interested in a CD boombox, make sure you listen to it before you buy. Smart shoppers bring their own CDs along to hear what it sounds like, but even smarter ones bring a couple of cassettes, too. Play a few tracks from a CD that you've heard on a good hi-fi system, and then play a few minutes from a good cassette, too.

But don't stop there. If you are going to make recordings on the boombox, go ahead and dub part of a CD onto a blank cassette and then listen to it carefully.

A good CD boombox should sound clear and open - two qualities that are hard to define, but they're a little like love; you may not be able to describe it, but you know it when you find it.

Don't expect to be able to hear the lowest notes of a synthesizer or bass drum on a boombox - those sounds are about an octave or two too low for small speakers - but check to make sure that the bass you do hear sounds tight. The worst boomboxes have "one-note" bass that sounds loose and flabby, but the best ones will catch you right in the gut with a full, rich bass.

Fourth, check out the FM reception if you're considering a boombox. Tune into your favorite station and see how the sound compares to what you hear at home. But then switch to a classical station, too - WCNY at 91.3 is ideal - and listen for clear separation between the left and right channels. You should be able to hear sounds coming from points between the speakers, and, if you close your eyes, you should even be able to hear sounds that seem to come from behind the speakers.

Watch out, however, for the switches on some boomboxes that make the stereo "wider" than normal. Miracles just don't happen that way, and all those switches do is mess with the audio so that each channel plays part of the other channel in a sort of out-of-sync way. If it sounds good to you, fine; otherwise, leave that switch off. (And avoid any boombox that has that kind of "wide" stereo built in, without a defeat switch. It's a sure sign that the manufacturer was trying to hide the model's poor performance.)

Finally, a CD player, portable or home model, can't do anything without good CDs to play. You'll probably find that some compact discs sound great and some sound terrible, while most sound very good. The fact that a recording comes on a CD is no guarantee of sound quality.

If you'd like to hear a CD that stands far above the sound quality of most others, here are a few discs you could look for in the stores or by mail order:

"The Nightfly," by Donald Fagen, on Warner Brothers. The catalog number is 23696-2. Fagen, who was half of Steely Dan for many years, made this album 10 years ago, and it stands as one of the best-sounding rock CDs ever made.

"Fresh Aire III," by Mannheim Steamroller, on American Gramaphone. The catalog number is AGCD 365. If you've never heard the Steamroller, you ought to run right out and buy this disc or one of the others in the series of Fresh Aire CDs. Is it rock? Classical? Crossover? Who knows? The sound is as fresh as the title.

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