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Testing a Walkman

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Testing a Walkman, and other adventures in math

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1989, The Syracuse Newspapers

If you can hold it in your hand and put a tape into it and then listen to the music on headphones, what do you call it?

Sony has had this problem for 10 years.

If it says "Sony'' on it somewhere, you call it a Walkman. That's what Sony insists on. After all, Sony invented the thing, and it turned the world on its . . . er, ear. Sony has a right to keep the name to itself.

But try telling that to everybody else. When I started shopping for a replacement for my aging tape player, the first places I looked were the discount mail-order electronics ads in the Sunday New York Times.

"Walkmans,'' read one of the ads. That kind of plural showed guts.

"Walk-type players,'' read one on another page.

All the other ads went straight to the point. They took Sony's trade name and shook all the non-generic content out of it. Everything they sold that fit in your hand, held a tape and played music through headphones was a Walkman.

I LIKE IT that way, and you should too. Life would be immeasurably difficult without the great commonizing effect of sharing the words and phrases the catch our fancy.

"Radio'' was once one of those words, as was "aspirin.'' Everybody, however, used them to mean any sort of audio-signal receiver and any kind of acetylsalicylic-acid pain killer.

These days, a "Walkman'' is a little tape player, at least in the real world of street talk and daily commerce. That's all that matters to the kids in $120 running shoes who shop for salt-and-sweat-proof tape players and the guys like me who just want something that will play Dylan in the afternoon.

And so, when I decided to shop at a real store instead of through one of those phone-order ads set in two-point type, I asked the clerk where the Walkmen were. She pointed to an entire section of the store. There must have been three dozen different Walkmen.

It wasn't like buying toasters, that was clear. If the toast comes out without getting burned, the thing is just fine, despite what it says on the box.

But how do you test a Walkman? I had brought along three tapes. I had even brought spare batteries. I'd brought along my favorite lightweight headphones, a pair that I'd treasured for six or seven years.

I played the tapes on a few of the most expensive Walkmen, using my own headphones and the ones that came with the players. I found out one thing right away: It was time to retire my old lightweight headphones. The new ones were a lot better, especially in bass response and overall smoothness.

THE NEXT thing I discovered was that one tape from the three I brought was a super test tape for Walkmen. It's an eight-year-old "Audio Sampler'' from Nautilus Recordings, a California company that faded away as the digital revolution strolled in.

I probably didn't have to worry about it, but I waited until the clerk wasn't looking and then started switching headphones from the players they had come with to 10 or 12 of the others, one at a time, mix 'n' match style. It was a salad bar of sound.

Of course, I had no intention of buying two Walkmen just so I could match the best headphones with the best player. But I wanted to see if I could find the lucky combination—with the best headphones and the best player coming in the same box.

When my reverie ended, I was holding an Aiwa HS-G370 Walkman and a pair of Aiwa headphones. They sounded great together. And they came in the same box.

I took the box to the island of windows that took up the rear of the store.

"Your phone number, sir?'' one of the cashiers asked as she filled out the Visa slip.

"I was never good at math,'' I said.

She gave me a funny look. "Tell me,'' she said. "Were you good at signing your name?''

I scribbled on the dotted line and left, carrying two victories, one big and one small. I'll never tell which was which.

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