The World's Worst Walkman Knockoff
I'm always on the lookout for a bargain, a character trait that goes back to when I was in high school and was trying to make my summer job money last all year. When the Walkman hit big, I could only ever afford no-name copies. Occasionally I'd luck out and get a decent sounding unit (especially in the late 80's when it seemed more of the knockoffs had gotten a better handle on the technology), but frequently I'd just have to suffer for months with some pretty bad sounding crap.
Check out the Stereo Super Mini Cassette Player. It's a tiny bit better looking than most cheapies, and is remarkably tiny considering that so many knockoffs were actually much larger than a real Walkman. I think that they were taking design cues from Sony's WM-10 pictured here - a Walkman barely larger than a cassette case. Sony had the tech to pull off the daring miniaturization of their already tiny cassette player, but what about the brain trust who made the Super Mini?
Pulling the Super Mini out of its box and luxurious blanket of bubble wrap, it looked good as new (I wish I had some idea of what it cost back then). It's about the size two cassette cases stacked up - not too bad. The playback head is in the door, saving crucial millimeters. I looked around the house for some tapes, only finding a Henny Youngman comedy album and a get-rich-quick audio seminar. Not exactly an audio obstacle course. Some further digging unearthed actual music, so I was ready to test.
Unusually, the Super Mini has no controls. After inserting the tape, simply turn the volume knob to click the Mini on. After 20 years, it still worked! The problems are that the audio plays at the wrong speed with lots of flutter, the sound quality is awful, and most importantly - the audio level is ear-splitting even at the lowest setting! There wasn't anything I was doing wrong, since there aren't any controls. An interesting design choice, but one that leaves you without fast forward, rewind, or a way to stop the tape other than shutting the unit off.
Granted the player is two decades old, but I have a pretty good inkling that it probably never sounded too good. The Mini even claims to be CrO2 & Metal compatible, but do I even have to tell you that it lacks sensors to tell the difference? It scores points for its stab at compactness, but they should have taken another page from Sony's book and created something that sounded at least okay. Still, the Super Mini pointed out two things to me. One is a lesson that I learned in the 80's - to save up to get a real brand name Walkman (which I still have). The other is that you have to get a lot of things right to make a working portable cassette player.
A Walkman is a mechanical device, so you need to deliver some degree of sophistication to get a working product. Today there are a lot of cheap MP3 players out there because it takes a lot less technical oomph to get an MP3 player right. Assemble the right combo of chips and a heapdhone jack, and you've got an MP3 player. It still amazes me that today you can find good sounding portable CD and cassette players (and all those moving parts) for under 20 bucks. Back then for 20 bucks you really got what you paid for.
Thanks to Walkman Central for the Sony WM-10 picture above