November 27, 2022

The history of the boombox: from radio tape recorders to wireless speakers

Read Time:9 Minute, 53 Second

Boomboxes predate wireless speakers, iPods, and cassette players. They became one of the first portable devices for listening to music. The nightstand-sized device had angular outlines, but it boasted features like an equalizer and bass boost, for which it got its name – from box (box) and boom (explosion). The device appeared in the seventies, became a cult in the eighties and disappeared without a trace in the nineties. What were the boomboxes and what is left of them today?

Early examples

At its core, a boombox is a cassette recorder with various sound amplification functions and a built-in radio receiver. The prototype of the boombox can be called the device of the Dutch company Philips, released back in 1966 – it was able to record radio on a cassette directly, without microphones and wires. The quality of the recording left much to be desired, but this was soon corrected with the advent of stereo recording, chrome dioxide compact cassettes and noise reduction systems. All this made it possible to significantly reduce the amount of noise and opened up the possibility of re-recording tracks from cassette to cassette with minimal loss of quality.

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Then Japanese companies – Sony, JVC, Hitachi, Sanyo, Panasonic – took over. In post-war Japan, industry grew rapidly, and the young population moved from villages and villages to cities. Urbanization was accompanied by the emergence of new cultural symbols, one of which was the boombox. Having felt the market, companies began to embody all the latest technical achievements in their devices – stereo sound, interchangeable speakers, built-in CD players and even integrated TV.

To better appreciate the functionality of the devices, here are just some of the interesting features of various boomboxes:

Auto rewind to the next track at the touch of a button. There is a pause on the cassette between tracks – a few seconds of silence. The device rewound the track to a pause and turned on playback. Some devices even let you first select the song number to rewind to the desired track.
Radio receiver with radio station presets. Radio was the streaming service of the 80’s and played a big role in the music industry at the time. Any hit of that time was sure to appear on the radio.
VU meters are the same devices with arrows on the front panel. They usually measure mic or output level, but on some boomboxes they had a switchable functionality and could also show battery level and radio reception quality.
Two-way acoustics – bass and mids go through a large speaker, high – separately through a small one. Some models were even three-lane, for example, Sharp wf 939.
Noise reduction systems. The magnetic tape at low speeds has an unpleasant high-frequency hiss, this is especially audible at quiet moments of the recording. Technologies like the Dolby System and ANRS compress the signal when recording onto tape, raising the volume level of the quiet parts of the track above the noise level. Then the system in the tape recorder, imperceptibly to the listener, restores the dynamic range of the recording during playback. The catch is that the tape recorder must be compatible with the noise reduction system used to create the cassette. Therefore, several systems from different brands were built into some boomboxes at once, with switching between them.
The ability to mix a microphone signal with a signal from a cassette or radio is a kind of karaoke. The ability to record a microphone signal over a cassette signal is an important feature for musicians.
Built-in microphones in addition to the ability to connect an external one. For some models, for example, the Panasonic national rx 7700, they are recessed into the case and slide out when pressed, and you can record sound in stereo on them.
Soft touch buttons appeared in the eighties. These are electronic keys that only need a light touch to open the deck, as opposed to mechanical keys that click like a typewriter.
Spectrum analyzer – columns of blinking LEDs, began to appear in devices in the late eighties. They help to guess the frequency response of the track and adjust the equalizer, and also just glow coolly.
Stereo expansion – despite the impressive size of the boomboxes, the distance between the right and left speakers is still not enough to form a good stereo. Therefore, some devices, for example, the Sanyo M-X920, made it possible to expand the stereo field using psychoacoustics and playing with the phase.

Among other things, the device allowed you to listen to music at a decent volume, gave high-quality sound, had flexible settings and was portable. Of course, it weighed a lot, powered by a dozen heavy Class-D batteries, and some models were so huge that they had the portability of a cement mixer. Fortunately, in those days it did not bother anyone.

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The portability of the boombox was quickly appreciated in Japan, and from the early seventies they began to organize giant outdoor parties, the main venue for which was Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. The biggest parties took place on Sundays and gathered everyone: rockers, cosplayers, street magicians, dancers, martial arts fans and other representatives of various subcultures. Over time, boomboxes are gone, but parties in Yoyogi Park are still going on .

At the peak of popularity

Boomboxes didn’t make it to the US until the late seventies. But everything has changed – the device becomes a portable studio for many aspiring artists. He allowed the rocker to record the rehearsal on the microphone, and the rapper to recite over the right beat. A two-cassette deck made it possible to make a couple of dozen copies of a demo recording and distribute it to friends, each of whom could also replicate the tracks they liked among their acquaintances. Even Nirvana recorded demos of their debut on the boombox.

Fans of the artists went to their live performances with a boom box and recorded everything on a cassette, copies of which were then distributed to other fans. The artists themselves could record their performance “in line” by connecting the mixer to the cassette player – it turned out to be a very good quality.

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So a huge number of young people got acquainted with new genres of music, the main among which was hip-hop. The portable speaker quickly became the center of parties in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. The streets were filled with breakdancers, arranging noisy parties.

In addition to fans of hip-hop, which was then more of an underground, boombox received recognition from rockers, punks and metalheads, whose favorite bands filled stadiums throughout the seventies and eighties. For example, in one of the scenes of the movie Star Trek: The Voyage Home , Spock calms down a punk with boombox music screaming from a boombox (the scene was later parodied in the Star Trek: Picard series and the movie Spider-Man: Homecoming ). The strange neighborhood led to the exchange of cassettes of both genres among fans – many spat, but someone liked it. This resulted in the convergence of rock and hip-hop, giving rise to rap rock, rapcore and nu metal.

Boomboxes left a serious cultural imprint on the music and art of the time. Rap rockers The Beastie Boys used the JVC RC-M90 as a mascot and often took pictures with her. Rapper LL Cool J also loved this model and posted her photo on the cover of the Radio album. Punks The Clash released an album called Sound System also featuring a Sony CFS-65 boombox on the cover.

Boomboxes can be seen in the films Fame (1980) , Flashdance (1983) , and especially Say Something (1989) , whose scene with John Cusack received many parodies. In contemporary clips, Madonna’s instrument in Hung Up and Lady Gaga’s in Just Dance have the instrument flashing . Moreover, this is the same model – Vela Discolite DK-990R, which stood out for its unusual appearance with bright backlighting.

Decline and transformation of the image

The protest against the habitual way of life that began in the sixties culminated in the emergence of new genres of music, art and forms of self-expression. Almost all of them went beyond the usual cultural boundaries, turned out to be loud and gave the impression of a slap in the face. Graffiti on the tram, break-dance-battle right on the street, grotesque images of glam rockers, Satanism in the lyrics of metalheads easily fit into one logical chain. Therefore, a boombox screaming at the top of its lungs in the street did not bother anyone in the eighties.

However, in the nineties, the commercialization of music and art led to disappointment in former ideals, and new technologies seriously changed the usual way of life:

The advent of the Sony Walkman changed the idea of ​​portability. A heavy boombox could be replaced with a light and small device with headphones. There were so many street parties with loud music from the boom box that they seriously began to annoy the townspeople, so they began to ban them. The advent of the Internet has brought live fan communities and hangouts online.

Boomboxes have become radios. The angular aesthetics of the eighties were replaced by the smooth lines of the nineties. The transition from cassettes to CDs made it possible to make the device smaller. Instead of mechanical buttons, digital control appeared. As a result, radio tape recorders and music centers of that time lost even the aesthetic connection with boomboxes.

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Subsequently, the spread of digital music almost completely replaced the familiar radio, replacing them with miniature mp3 players, and then smartphones and wireless speakers.

Wireless speakers – the new boomboxes?

Bluetooth speakers are far from a boombox in appearance, but they embody the philosophy of this device. This is still a device for music at parties:

The focus is on power and functionality, sound quality is usually secondary, although there are models with excellent sound.
Manufacturers are trying to teach the column to read all relevant formats (as was the case with boomboxes, into which they integrated both vinyl players, and TV, and, subsequently, CD players).
Appearance plays a big role, and if the speaker can glow and blink with all the colors of the rainbow, that’s even better.
The speaker control app almost always has an equalizer, bass boost, and other salient features of boombox functionality.
Even an FM receiver is often present, although very few people need it. Some speakers can be plugged into a microphone and used as karaoke, which was also possible 40 years ago with boomboxes.
A pack of hefty batteries has been replaced by a massive battery, and thanks to digitalization, the device has become more portable. But not always – there are a number of huge and powerful wireless speakers for large-scale parties, the portability of which has gone not far from the bedside table.

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It is logical that companies are also trying to make references to cult devices in their lineup: some speakers look like boomboxes, and JBL has a line of Boombox speakers. There are also custom models that directly imitate the legendary tape recorders.

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What is the result
Today, boomboxes often appear in music videos, movies and TV shows as a vivid symbol of the eighties. They evoke especially strong associations with the New York culture of hip-hop and breakdancing. In the wake of the campaign against boomboxes in the late eighties, the device received the insulting nickname “ghettoblaster”. But this does not prevent people from becoming nostalgic for these devices, acquiring cult models on the markets and collecting entire collections.

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