Bringing the Boom Back

Boombox Panasonic

I don’t remember exactly when I got my first boombox. I found the model and searched old newspaper ads and found a year-end clearance sale ad for 1984. Maybe it was 1983, but whenever it was, it was before I had ever heard the term “ghetto blaster.” 

I chose the Panasonic RX 4955. It was silver, had a radio and a tape deck and sounded great. Memories have a way of becoming distorted, but I recall opening it at Christmas and searching for rock music on the radio. My dad would have said “play some Christmas music.” Of course that’s not what I wanted to hear. 

I know I had a copy of Eagles Greatest Hits Volume II. I remember walking outside at my grandmother’s house playing the intro to Life in the Fast Lane. I can hardly remember the song now – somehow it’s not played on the radio anymore- but recalled the boombox well enough to want it again 

I don’t even know how long I had the old one or what became of it. I did have several others in my lifetime. Before long, it was the trend to have boomboxes with detachable speakers. I had several of those over the years, but don’t remember any of those specifically or fondly. Yet I grew nostalgic for this bulky silver Panasonic “blaster.”

A few months ago I began searching for the same model I had in the 1980s and found it pretty quickly. Then it hit me – I don’t own any tapes. I probably had four or five of those sturdy cardboard file boxes full of them at one point, but some time ago faced with moving and storing them, I tossed.

I still don’t think cassette tapes are a great format, so the tape player wasn’t important for my repurchase. Almost 40 years later, what I needed was an input jack so I could connect my phone. The XR-4955 did not have that feature, so I needed something that did, but with the same feel and sound.

So I set out to find as close to the same model as possible. Before long, I arrived at the RX-5030. And it seems to me these are more common and widely available now than the RX-4955. After a couple “Buy It Now” offers, my eBay purchase was on the way.

I couldn’t wait for it to arrive. It showed up in a blue Wal-Mart Box and was carefully wrapped in many layers of plastic bubbles. I carefully removed the tape and then used disinfectant to wipe down the case to ensure no trace of coronavirus could have survived. I even wiped the power cord. 

I turned on the radio and have had it on pretty much continuously since it arrived. 

Is this a Thing? Should You Buy One?

That’s a hard question to answer. The quality of music has been sacrificed to convenience in recent times. I don’t know many who even have a stereo system in their home. They’ve been replaced with bluetooth devices. Boomboxes from the ’80s don’t have bluetooth. They do however make devices you can plug into a headphone jack to make them bluetooth compatible. 

In my experience, it’s great to be able to listen to radio stations from all over the world. Jazz FM in the UK is a favorite- it’s not just jazz, they mix in soul and blues and include lots of stuff I haven’t heard before. But “bluetooth issues” are too frequent to make it continually satisfying (not so different from radio static), but I keep trying. (Hint: It seems to work better from a stand-alone Jazz FM app.)

As I mentioned, I don’t currently own a cassette tape and I’ve mostly used the boombox to play a local classical radio station. I do have the ability to plug a cable into the RCA jacks so I could play Spotify, Pandora or tunes stored on the phone. If it’s quality you’re looking for, go with a compact disc on a nice stereo system. If it’s convenience you want, plug your phone into a decent speaker. 

The cost of a vintage boombox in decent condition starts at around $200. You can purchase new equipment with additional functionality for much less. A boombox is more of an iconic symbol of the 1980s and the culture that went with it. Today, it’s straddling a weird space between quality and convenience. You wouldn’t really buy it for either, but it does sound good and looks really cool in the corner.

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