1980’s Boomboxes

Panasonic RX-CW26L

Terms like “wow & flutter”, “soft eject”, “high-speed dubbing”, “CrO2“, and “auto-reverse” are retired now, gone from today’s audio equipment lexicon. Some say that’s a good thing.

I still have a soft spot for boomboxes. We used to call them “ghettoblasters” back in the North East of England. Not that any of us really knew why, or what a ghetto was. They were cheaply made, played cassette tapes, and had an AM/FM radio. Some of them even had a slide-out or vertical record player. I spent the latter part of my youth carrying around a number of these, blasting everything from the latest 80’s chart-topping hits, through rock & metal like Iron Maiden and Metallica, to grindcore and hardcore punk bands like Napalm Death, Carcass, and Discharge.

Since they were cheaply made, the amplifiers and power supplies in these devices were notoriously lousy. The amplifier output power levels were rated in PMPO (Peak Music Power Output) which is essentially a meaningless metric, and had THD levels exceeding 10% at way less than their rated output. Not that a lot of them could ever reach their rated output due to a miserable power supply design which would cause brown-outs and clipping of the audio signal every time there was a low-frequency transient. I attempted to cure this on one of mine when I was about 14 by adding very large electrolytic capacitors to the output of the power supply. It didn’t seem to be working, so I kept adding more and more large capacitors, eventually leading to rectifier failure, possibly due to the momentary (yet growing longer and longer) short circuits it had to drive into every time I turned it on. Maybe the fact that the distortion was still there when powered via a set of 6 or 8 alkaline “D” cells should have told me that the problem was elsewhere? Lesson learned.

TRK-7620 3D Super Woofer

A lot of these noise makers came in two main colours in the UK – Black, and Silver. Both of which with chrome accents. At one point, I had a Toshiba RT-90S in black. Those also came in Red. Yes, red. Actually, lots of manufacturers made red boomboxes in the 80’s for the UK market.  I can’t speak for the US market, although I often wished I could have had some of the monster ghettoblasters that were available in the US. Some of the offerings from Lasonic and Crown are still fetching high prices on eBay.

Back to the UK. In my own humble opinion, there is only one boombox (and subsequently, range of boomboxes) which held the highest position when it came to sound, and put the boom into boomboxes. The Hitachi Super Woofer. I believe the first incarnation was the TRK-7620 (see right) and it revolutionised the scene. Adding a dedicated subwoofer and low-frequency amplifier brought boomboxes into the 21st century ahead of time. The music of the 90’s demanded plenty of bottom-end, so the timing was perfect. Generally, the rule was you didn’t enable “3D mode” if you were running on battery power, else you were doomed to be spending a lot of money on batteries.

3D Amplifier System

I’m not sure I completely understand the schematic (I use that word loosely) on the right. It looks like they have a bridged amplifier for the subwoofer, but also the output from one appears to be fed to the input of the other, as well as to the output to the speaker? I’m no audio engineering expert, and I’ve seen bridged amplifiers, but never one where the input of one is via the output of the other.

I have a soft spot for tapes too, really. MP3’s are sterile. They’re files. Not physical. CD’s were physical, but they were sterile. Cassette tapes on the other hand, were full of nuance and character (and saturation!). You had the standard 90 minute (45 minutes per side) tape. That was what everyone had the most of. Then you had the choice of going to 120 minutes, but the tape was much thinner, leading to tape rescue with a pencil or a BIC pen (see below in the gallery). 60 minute tapes had thicker tape, and were more resilient to print-through while recording using a high bias or when you cranked up the recording level. Automatic Recording Level was the most evil thing to exist during that era!

On top of all that, you had the different types of tape. Ferric (or Ferro) was the basic tape. It was cheap, but lacked fidelity and the signal-to-noise ratio wasn’t that good. It was basically rust on tape. Then came Ferrochrome, Chrome, or CrO2 tapes. These were a little more expensive, and allowed for a more extended high-frequency response. At the top end was “Metal”. They were expensive, but very resilient, and offered the best sound quality of all of the standard cassette tapes.

Oh, and don’t forget Dolby A, B, and C noise reduction.

Lots of fun could be had by recording with Dolby noise reduction applied, and playing back without. Or maybe recording on a Ferro tape with a Metal bias and Dolby on, then playing back with different settings. A lot of that fun was removed by automatic bias detection (via recesses in the top edge of the cassette) and other such boring “features”.

Anyway, I’ve enjoyed a trip down memory lane with these boomboxes. Here’s some more pics I picked up on my travels while looking for some of my old ‘blasters.

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AD5GG works in the real world as an RF design engineer. Occasionally, he posts articles on this very site. Sometimes they're even worth reading. Please feel free to comment on posts using the comment system at the end of each post, and use the discussion forum.

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