In the same week that it’s been reported that vinyl is set to outsell CDs for the first time since 1986, Sony have announced a re-release of their classic Walkman to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Styled to look like the original classic, but with modern technology behind its facade of a retro tape deck, it’s a meeting of two different eras that is, essentially, completely useless in a time when we all carry a high-powered touchscreen computer in our pockets at all time. Still, there’s something appealing about that plastic case, retro styling, and the idea of a music device that won’t keep dipping the volume cos shit’s kicking off on the family WhatsApp thread.
The anniversary got us thinking of the many generations of the portable music device, all of which were exciting but flawed innovations. From the first gen iPod to the Discman, the Minidisk and beyond, here are the best and worst portable music devices of all time.
Launched: Attained popularity in the 1950s
How it worked: Radios used to be a big piece of kit that sat in the family room and informed you about wars and stuff. Then the tranny came along, and rock ‘n’ roll radio, and brown eyed girls sneaking off down the old mine for a snog with Van Morrison. The teenager and their music had been liberated from the home.
Best feature: Your mum not being there listening to it with you.
Worst feature: You had to listen to what was on the radio.
Launched: 1979, but attained popularity in the mid-’80s
How it worked: This pocket-sized (albeit sized for a big pocket) cassette player was the first truly portable way for fans to listen to their own music – as opposed to the radio – on the go, as it encouraged the owner to make their own compilations on C90s for an hour and a half of musical goodness. An absolute game-changer.
Best feature: Portability!
Worst feature: Guzzled batteries like Barney Gumble with an unattended Duff tap. Also: fast forwarding to the next track required a special type of Jedi-level ESP.
Audio Technica Sound Burger
How it worked: It clamped itself around a vinyl record, you strapped it on your shoulder and strutted off down the street looking absolutely insane. Similar devices were available from other manufacturers, but the Sound Burger had the best name. Hold the pickles, please.
Best feature: Innovation! At a time when vinyl was the dominant format and not just shelf-candy for hipsters, the Sound Burger was a valiant attempt at freeing the listener from their home stereo.
Worst feature: Records skip when you move the record player. You do the math.
How it worked: It’s a Walkman for your CDs.
Best feature: You could skip to the next track.
Worst feature: Required you to walk around with the comportment of a ballet dancer stealing the family jewels from a stately home in order to stop the thing from jumping. Also, it was difficult to make your own mixtapes on CD for a good decade after its release, so this was for your shop-bought albums which – at the time – could cost anywhere from £10 to £20 in olden-days money.
Sony Minidisc Walkman
How it worked: The Minidisc offered CD quality sound alongside the functionality of a cassette, meaning the mixtape was back back back, baby. Well, for the few who actually bought into it.
Best feature: Great sound quality, and a friend-impressingly decadent possession.
Worst feature: Coming in at around £450, it was too expensive to take a gamble on, and never really captured the public’s imagination like its predecessors had.
The MP3 player
How it worked: Downloading songs from a computer onto the player’s internal hard drive, the MP3 player was the first portable music device to do away with interchangeable media altogether.
Best feature: No more cassettes or discs! Ditch that rucksack, baby.
Worst feature: In its infancy, the storage quality was pretty poor – the first ever MP3 player, the MPMan, could only carry up to eight songs at a time. That’s about a twelfth of a Drake album.
How it worked: With far greater storage than the first wave of MP3 players, an easy user interface and music library integration and a simply beautiful design, the iPod seemed to have arrived on a spaceship from some groovy, faraway planet. Actually came from the groovy, faraway brain of Steve Jobs.
Best feature: So many songs, everywhere you go. The iPod defined a generation’s listening in the ‘00s, and changed the way we consume music.
Worst feature: So very steal-able. Back case made of shiny metal so easy scratched it was practically a notepad for your keys to do automatic writing on in your pocket.
How it worked: Designed for portability and with runners in mind, the clue is in the name: press play and listen to whatever comes up. Pot luck music!
Best feature: Significantly cheaper than your average iPod/mp3 player and incredibly small/handy, it’s the most portable the portable music device has ever been.
Worst feature: I mean, well, you can’t pick a song to listen to… Innovation in reverse.
Words: Will Richards and Dan Stubbs