The evolution of personal audio

I have fond memories of my first personal stereo. I got it as a present from my parents in about 1985. It was a brick of a machine. I think it was a Sharp. It had a shoulder strap rather than a belt strap, and it was my faithful companion on my Thursday afternoon newspaper round. As I stalked down the streets, green plastic case full of newspapers on one shoulder, the walkman would rhythmically bang up against my other side.

Most of the time I would listen to the radio rather than tapes. From about 4 to 7 o’clock on I’d listen to to the Top 40 on Hilversum 3, followed by “De LP-Show”, which played cool album tracks that otherwise wouldn’t have got much airplay. There are a number of songs that bring back very vivid pictures of Voerendaal whenever I hear them: “Sign O The Times” by Prince, “Dance Little Sister” by Terence Trent D’Arby, “Ship Of Fools” by World Party, “Criticize” by Alexander O’Neal, and almost anything by Luther Vandross.

Wow…nostalgia trip.

In 1992 I bought a new walkman while I was in California for the summer. This one was a Sony, and it was vastly smaller and lighter. I also have vivid memories of it. They are of sitting out in the Meadows in the spring of 1994, behind the HCRC building in Buccleuch St, eating my lunch and listening to tapes of “Fear” by Toad The Wet Sprocket, and “Elemental” by Tears For Fears.

I think it must have been in 1997 or so that Scott and Angela bought me a personal CD player as a present. Being able to play CDs on the go was a great idea, but the 4 AA batteries only lasted about 3 hours, so I didn’t end up using it all that much. Personal CD players of that era also had the disadvantage that they didn’t like being turned upside down and jiggled about while playing… There isn’t any music that springs to mind when I think of it. I think that might be because it didn’t have a radio built in to it. I like radio.

In 2000 I bought myself a Diamond Rio 500 MP3 player. Oooh. Shiny. Tiny. It had 64MB of memory, enough for over an hour of music, and it ran on a single AA battery for over ten hours. That was pretty cool. Unfortunately the interface for copying music from my computer to the device was rubbish, the drivers and firmware were flaky, and I could never get it to run properly under Windows 2000. Again, no radio, and again no specific music memories. (Coincidence?)

Last year I felt the need for another new music thing, and I bought a Sony MZ-N1 NetMD minidisc player. My reasoning was that with the MP3 player I could only carry a limited amount of music around with me (64MB). But with a Minidisc player I could carry as many discs as I had space for. Also, the MZ-N1 was a neat little gadget, and ran for about 40 hours without recharging its internal battery. 40 hours!

It also didn’t have a radio, and just as with the MP3 player, I just didn’t use it as much as I thought I would. I recorded a bunch of music to Minidisc, but the process was slow and awkward because of the silly restrictions Sony puts on PC-to-Minidisc copying. The software that comes with the device allows you to “check in” and “check out” music that you have stored on your PC’s hard disk. But you can only “check out” a song three times. Iif you want to copy it to any other discs, you have to “check in” one of the other copies.

Bollocks to that. There’s an alternative program, “NetMD Simple Burn” that allows you to copy from a CD in your computer straight to MD without the check in/out rubbish. The downside is that it you can’t copy an MP3 file straight to the MD. You have to burn it to a CD first (or a virtual CD image, if you have the appropriate software), and then copy it down.

The MD player itself was great, but getting a nice mix of music together on a single disc was a hassle. That was probably the reason it mostly sat around gathering dust, and why I’ve now sold it (yay eBay). I like listening to an extensive mix of music. If I’m listening to music at work, I have a collection of about 2500 songs on permanent shuffle. Sometimes I feel like listening to a single album in sequence, but most of the time I prefer variety. It keeps my brain jumpy and active.

I think that’s why I like having a radio built in to my personal stereo: no matter what mix I have on tape, CD, MP3 or Minidisc, with a radio there’s always something to listen to that I don’t already have.

So why am I now lusting after one of the new Apple iPods? It doesn’t have a radio, and judging by this evaluation of previous personal stereo equipment, that seems to be a key feature for me. The iPod’s battery life is good, but not as impressive as the Sony MD player. Also, it uses a purely internal battery. So if I’m out and about, and it runs dry, I can’t just slap in a couple of new AAs.

But…the iPod has two very compelling arguments in its favour. First of all, it has a downright silly amount of space. The top-of-the-line model has 30GB of space for music. Depending how you encode your MP3s, that can be up to 7500 tracks. I could rip all of my CDs to MP3 and still not fill it up. That’s a lot of variety.

Secondly, Apple doesn’t put roadblocks in the way of copying music to and from the iPod, like Sony does with their Minidisc players. The easier it is to put any new music I buy onto the machine, the more likely I am to use it.

Well, I can’t afford it this month anyway. But maybe soon. I’ll let you know 🙂