I fall in love with inanimate objects.
Tennis rackets, pens, sneakers, watches, bicycles, sunglasses, and so on. It’s not exactly unconditional love; my emotions can lead these objects to hang around past their expiration dates.
So consider this article a love letter, an amorous note to the stereos that helped me grow as a person and made my heart go pitter-patter. Because when it comes to 80s/90s stereo systems, I’m all in!
My affinity for audio and the tech surrounding it emerged during a 6th-grade karaoke party. You see, I was the only one at the party who showed up with a record instead of a cassette tape. So when my friend’s older brother took me up to his room and transferred “King of Pain” from the Police’s Synchronicity album from record to cassette, I became obsessed with audio technology and preoccupied with pestering my parents for one of these revolutionary cassette players!
Fast forward to my eleventh birthday, also known as The Year of the Sony Sports Yellow Boombox.
While I was stoked that my friends had chipped in and surprised me with a Mongoose Expert BMX bike, it was the gift from my parents that stole the show and became one of my all-time favorite gifts.
The Sony CFS-920 was fantastic in every way. Since it was “water-resistant,” it was perfect to place on the toilet, blasting Z100 while I showered. Knowing that my radio was safe from the water gave new meaning to “I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Only in My Dreams” and gave me every reason in the world to “Pump Up the Volume.” This way, when I pounced out of the shower soaking wet to grab the phone off the wall to try to win a radio station contest, I had no fear of killing my radio due to water. The Sony Sports also had a handle that could be placed on the top of the radio and on one end, letting you look cool as shit as you trotted it around vertically.
I fell asleep countless times with the radio nestled between my ear and the wall, gently manipulating the rubberized cassette buttons until they were erect, then softly patting them back down. I warned you this was a love letter.
I’m not sure what color yellow Sony Sports used, but it gets my vote for The Pantone Color of Every Year.
The Unlabeled Double Cassette Deck
A few months after the yellow Sony was bestowed upon me, Guns n’ Roses released “Appetite for Destruction,” and something that lived deep inside of me rose to the surface like a “Rocket Queen.”
I wanted to be a radio DJ.
I would spend the next few years of my life obsessively crafting mixtapes and then meticulously handwriting the tracklisting.
“Hands to Heaven” by Breathe into “Welcome to the Jungle” into “Wild, Wild West” into “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.”
So. Much. Belinda. Carlisle.
This passage is a shout-out to the nameless, faceless, double-cassette stereo that served me so well; I am ashamed not to remember its make and model. But this fine device was used and abused until it decided to break up with me by unspooling every tape I fed it. Hey, sometimes, “Love Bites.”
Does anyone out there remember Consumers catalog shopping? Every quarter, you would receive a thick catalog in the mail from Consumers Distributing that offered everything from video games to diamond rings. You would then visit one of their local storefronts; my local one was on Northern Boulevard in Flushing, Queens. You would tell them what you wanted, pay in full, and then you would get a phone call when the item arrived at the store from the warehouse.
Think of it as Internet shopping before there was an Internet.
This is where my first bookshelf stereos would come from, made by Yorx, a company that would cram a million features into their radios and sacrifice sound quality in exchange–it was a winning recipe for suburban kids on tight budgets! Who needed the street swag of having a double-cassette Sony when you could get a stereo with 16 equalizer switches!?
My first “big boy” stereo had a record player, double cassette deck, AM/FM radio, and two speakers you could spread out. Countless hours of joy, at a fraction of the price!
From my “big boy” stereo I graduated to my first “adult sound system.” Complete with an elegant moniker, meet the sophisticated and regal Yorx Grandeur. How fancy was it, you ask? So fancy that they used about 10 different fonts on the stereo and speakers.
On model 2306 (1990?), the turntable was gone, replaced by a “three-beam laser pickup” CD player. Oh, the Bliss!
This system was put to the test by my multiple Columbia house memberships. Dozens of new CDs would roll in every month, and this stereo ran 20 hours a day, seven days a week.
The Grandeur is where I started to explore all genres of music, eventually settling into the 90s alt-rock vibe that would never leave my side. There was Toad the Wet Sprocket and Sugar and Smashing Pumpkins and Red Hot Chili Peppers and Psychedelic Furs and Nine Inch Nails and all of the bands that would stitch into the fabric of me.
Sometimes I’d have to press down extra hard on the CD player to get it to close correctly. Sometimes I would need to blow on the lens much like I had to do years earlier with Super Mario Brothers on the NES. In hindsight, perhaps this was the Grandeur begging me for a break.
Sony Compact “Elevator” System
The all-black, slim profile on this Sony system screamed high end. And it was also bought from a catalog, go figure! But this time, it came from The King of 164th Street, Len Harris. Adopting a similar business model as the Consumers catalog, but with a neighborhood feel, Mr. Harris would offer “guidance” as you thumbed through catalogs of merch. There was a small showroom, and that’s where I spotted the Sony that I had to have. The only problem was that it sold for about $750.
Enter my introduction to “refurbished” merchandise.
Wait? I could get the same stereo, “factory reconditioned,” for half the price?
I believe my mom and I struck a deal. Since I was going considerably over budget, I needed to come up with some funds. I likely tapped into whatever allowance I had squirreled away and possibly some cash from my snow shoveling endeavors.
Sidebar: Speaking of making money shoveling snow. I would ask my dad to exchange the “large” bills for singles. I’d fold ’em, stack ’em, and create a tower our of dollar bills. It was like the poorest Indecent Proposal scene you can imagine. Eventually, I bunched together $35 singles and made my way to the Fresh Meadows Bloomingdales to buy my first “big” purchase with my own money: a black Swatch watch where a portion of the watch face could be adjusted to display a multitude of colors. So if we’re talking about my love affair with inanimate objects, this timepiece had me head over heels. Heck, I still love it today! Back to the music…
My Sony stereo system was state of the art. Sleek. Beautiful. If only the fucking thing would work. When the CDs spun, the sound was crisp and clear. However, more often than not, the system would choke on a disc and need to be unassembled to lodge it free. Our relationship started as fire and ended up in smoke.
Vintage Aiwa Compact Disc Stereo System, CX-NMT720
The only way to recover from a dark relationship is to step into the light. The subtle sexiness of the Sony could only be replaced by its polar opposite: a hi-fi system that was loud and brash, lit up like a Christmas tree in a dark alley.
The Aiwa CX boasted a killer LED screen, with digital equalizers flashing and down. The sound quality was pretty dope, too–blowing away Yorx.
They say your greatest strength is also your weakness, and that was the case with this stereo. The LED panel was fun during the day but kept me from sleeping at night–I was forced to tape something over the screen to block the light at night.
This sound system got me through my college years. Matthew Sweet took over with “Sick of Myself” and Tripping Daisy told me, “I Got a Girl,” while Weezer’s “Blue album” and Sunny Day Real Estate’s “Pink album” swirled as the Stone Temple Pilots went “Purple.”
While I no longer possess this Aiwa system, I do monitor eBay auctions to potentially rebuy it one day for nothing more than nostalgia.
10-disc CD changer/trunk mount
Getting an aftermarket 10-disk changer installed into my leased Honda Civic DX coup was one of my proudest moments. I felt as if I leveled up to Freedom Status when I would pop the trunk, load the magazine, and then shuffle songs to my heart’s delight.
It was April 1995 when I played my first song in my first new car: “Only One,” the seventh track off of the Goo Goo Dolls’ Boy Named Goo album. That was also the day I birthed “Andrew’s Track 7 Theory” which states that all 90s alternative rock albums have amazing seventh tracks. More on that in a future post!
Of course, it wasn’t the most convenient thing in the world to have to pop the trunk to load a new CD after a Tower Records visit, but it was a small price to pay to access 10+ hours of music at the push of a button.
The Walkman, So Many Walkman
As a kid, family vacations to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, offered much joy. Most notably:
- A chance to observe the Amish and leave with more questions than answers
- A visit to The Divine Carousel, a buffet-style restaurant where food was served on revolving table, similar to a luggage carousel at an airport.
- Shopping, specifically, Toy Liquidators and the Sony Outlet.
See, this was a time when outlets were rare, at least in my neck of the woods, and Pennsylvania felt like a shopper’s paradise. As a tween, I would buy small fireworks. One time, I picked up a little ceramic owl that predicted the weather by changing color. And it was here in Dutch Country that I picked up my first iron-on T-shirt, with the Guns N’ Roses logo pressed against a light grey background.
Toy Liquidators was a child’s dream. Action figures! Remote control cars! All for 75% off the “list” price. It was impossible to visit and not walk away with some discontinued toy. All shopping excursions ended the same, scouring the Sony outlet for cool audio equipment with whatever funds I had left.
I had so many Walkmans (Walkmen?) as a kid. The one I felt the worst for was a real jalopy, held together with duct tape and subjected to Bon Jovi’s “Blood on Blood” as I cut through apartment building courtyards to dutifully show up for my K-mart job. Knock Jon Bon all you like, but B on B told an “adult” story that captured my imagination.
The Sony Walkmen in my life came on countless walks, runs, bike rides and commuting adventures. And while the AA batteries would always die at inopportune times and the devices would always succumb to teenage abuse, thankfully, there was always that next annual trip to Lancaster.
The Birth of the MP3 Player
The turn of the century was bridged by Napster, the pioneering peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing software service that focused on MP3s. During this Wild Wild West period of music, I spent countless hours ripping albums off of Napster and onto CDs. And those CDs would find their way to the Creative Zen Nomad, my favorite MP3 player of all time.
Album after album of poor-quality music was loaded onto this bad boy. From the Ass Ponys to Zumpano and everyone in between. If the darn thing would boot up its beautiful 60GB of music, I could show you how obsessed it was with Blink 182. Anytime I put the Zen into shuffle, it would inevitably land on a track from “Take Off Your Pants and Jacket.”
I was never a fan of the Apple ecosystem or the iTunes store and shied away from purchasing any of their products. However, when video became an option on the iPod, I made the plunge, thinking that this media consumption would take my train commute to the next level. The only content I paid for was the original video of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” before I slipped right back to my Zen. Fast-forward all these years, and the Zen has crashed while the iPod still rocks on. If anyone can get me out of “Rescue Mode V1.3,” let me know!
There were tons of other MP3 players through the years, but ultimately, the Sandisk Sansa Clip became my go-to. Lightweight, cheap, decent battery life–she was the perfect companion when exercising or commuting.
I understand that Neuralink is not far from implanting chips into our brains that will allow us to access any song ever recorded–all from the cloud–no middleman stereo. I might sound ancient as dust as I reminisce of the music players of yesteryear. But when I think about how far my journey has taken me, from showing up with a record at a karaoke party to being able to stream virtually any song ever recorded, anytime, anywhere, I can’t help but sit back in awe.
If you would like to leave a love note to one of your radios from the past, please leave a comment below. And be honest, I’m fairly certain your devices will not be reading this post; after all, they are inanimate objects–but that doesn’t mean we can’t love them.