Pressing 'Pause'

Boomboxes achieve collector status and offer a break from incessant multi-tasking

“My radio, believe me, I like it loud/ I'm the man with the box that can rock the crowd”
— LL Cool J

It's been said that what's old becomes new again.

Watching Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveil the new iPad helped to solidify my decision about the vintage boombox that I'd recently purchased off eBay.

I had originally begun searching for a portable stereo cassette player as a way to listen to some of some old tapes I found at my parents' house. Since then, I've realized that I had unwittingly become a member of a worldwide subculture where vintage boomboxes are as good as gold.

Just to be clear, the piece I purchased was no MP3-compatible docking station that attempts to mimic the look and feel of an ’80s-era boombox, but an authentic old-school five-speaker boomer (as enthusiasts call them).

Now, I admire Apple and its endless portfolio of high-end consumer electronics. If it weren't for that exclusive service provider deal that they have with AT&T, I'd probably be on my second iPhone by now. But the thinly-veiled planned obsolescence of their product lines (iPad enthusiasts are already anticipating the next version and there's also talk of an iPhone 4G release later this year) had me yearning for a much simpler era — when bigger and louder was, in fact, better.

(Full disclosure: I do own an iPod Classic with about 6,000 songs on it but found myself listening to the same 50 or so tracks almost constantly.)

So I began my search on eBay expecting to find a handful of dusty, barely functioning Radio Raheem replicas going for less than the price of a vanilla latte. I was wrong. If only I knew in 1984 what I know now.

What I found instead was more than 20 pages of listings from sellers as far away as China trying to cash in on the retro-chic appeal of gargantuan, dual cassette boomboxes about the size of a Samsonite suitcase. Some of the pieces — particularly those shipping from overseas — were listed for upwards of $500. Used.

After refining my search a bit, I located the very affordable piece described above. Within a few moments of receiving the package a week or so after the auction closed, I was instantly transported back to my college days with a copy of Twilight 22’s “Electric Kingdom” (courtesy of an old K-tel cassette compilation). And the best part: I didn't have to power up my laptop, download any software, create a new user name or password or accept any licensing agreements to enjoy my new toy.

Now more importantly than obtaining the actual box itself, I wanted to understand the pop psychology driving the surge in enthusiasm for all things ’80s. This was bigger than boomboxes. Apparently, Sony Walkman players, Casio calculator watches, Mattel Electronics football games and numerous vintage board games are all highly sought-after pop culture artifacts in the cyberspace market.

A Google search for “retro boombox” yields dozens of blogs, photo sites and discussion forums for serious box collectors. There's even an on-line boombox museum that chronicles the history of the pieces as well as their impact on the media and popular culture. (Speaking of Radio Raheem, who can forget Spike Lee's explosive 1989 drama Do the Right Thing, which practically co-starred a boomer?)

There are entire on-line communities dedicated to buying, selling and swapping vintage boomers (or ghetto blasters for the less politically-correct), and several Web sites specialize in selling brand new unopened audio cassettes. And for iPeople who want the best of both worlds, a handful of sites even provide detailed instructions on rewiring a boombox to become iPod compatible.

I was struck by the sheer collectability of some pieces. For instance, the JVC RC-M90 featured on the cover of LL Cool J's debut album (aptly titled Radio) is one of the most sought after vintage pieces, going for well over $600. That's like one-and-a-half iPods.

Now, trying to justify this mania to the uninitiated — those born after 1989 perhaps — is often futile. Some will simply never experience the elation of having finally caught and recorded a favorite song off the radio.

Some will never know what a “pause mix” is. And others will associate the term “high bias” more with the way cable news channels cover politics than with an expensive, high-quality type of cassette tape.

Yes, I'm clearly showing my age. And though I appreciate the art of multitasking, I don't necessarily need to catch up on the latest book, check my e-mails, verify my bank account balances, visit Facebook and send a Tweet all at the same time.

If that's how you roll, the iPad (or an iAnything, for that matter) might be the device for you. For me, kicking back and popping in a cassette copy of A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders or Nas’ Illmatic is all I need to go back to a time when we listened to an album in its entirety before blithely skipping to the next digital playlist.

My vinyl collecting friends can relate.

For many of us, then, the vintage boombox represents a bit more than a simple portable recording and playback device. It's a piece of pop culture history stuffed with 10 D batteries and a bunch of positive memories.

Sometimes I feel a need to, well, put life on "pause" from time to time. And that's exactly what I intend to do.