Boombox is a colloquial expression for a portable music player with two or more loudspeakers. It is a device capable of receiving radio stations and playing recorded music (usually cassettes or CDs), usually at relatively high volume. Many models are also capable of recording (onto cassette) from radio and (sometimes) other sources. Designed for portability, most boomboxes can be powered by batteries, as well as by line current.
The first Boombox was developed by the inventor of the C-Cassette, Philips of the Netherlands. Their first ‘Radiorecorder’ was released in 1969. The Philips innovation was the first time that radio broadcasts could be recorded onto C-Cassette tapes without cables or microphones. Early sound quality of tape recordings was poor but as the C-Cassette technology evolved, with stereo recording, Chromium tapes and noise reduction, soon HiFi quality devices become possible. Several European electronics brands such as Grundig also introduced similar devices.
Boomboxes were soon also developed in Japan in the early 1970s and became popular there due to their relatively compact size matched with impressive sound quality. The Japanese brands soon took over major parts of the European Boombox market and were often the first Japanese consumer electronics brand that a European household might purchase. The Japanese innovated with sizes, form factors and technlogy, introducing such advances as stereo boomboxes, removable speakers, in-built TV receivers, and later inbuilt CD players.
The boombox was introduced to the American market during the mid-1970s, with the bulk of production being carried out by Panasonic, Sony, Marantz, and General Electric. They were immediately noticed by the urban adolescent community and exploded onto the streets of America’s metropolitan centers such as New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. The early models were an attractive hybrid which fused the booming sound of large in-home stereo systems and the portability of small portable cassette players. The AM/FM tuner was the most attractive feature of the early boombox – up until the incorporation of input and output jacks allowing for the coupling of devices such as microphones and turntables.
This development brought boombox to their height of popularity, and as their popularity rose so did the innovative features included in the box. Urban adolescents loved boomboxes for their portability, but most important to the youth market was the bass. The desire for louder and heavier bass led to bigger and heavier boxes; by the 1980s some boomboxes had reached the size of a suitcase. Most boomboxes were battery-operated, usually requiring D batteries – sometimes up to 10 or more per box – leading to extremely heavy, bulky boxes. Regardless, the boxes kept growing in size to accommodate the bass output and newer boombox models were affixed with heavy metal casings to handle to vibrations from the bass.
By the late 1980s many boomboxes included separate high and low frequency speakers and a second tape deck to record off the radio or pre-recorded cassettes. They began to be installed with equalizers, balance adjusters, Dolby noise reduction, and LED sound gauges. In the mid-1980s, the bigger and flashier the boombox the better; it became a status symbol among young urbanites which in turn called for increasingly extravagant boxes. The introduction of the compact disc in the early 1990s led to smaller, more compact boomboxes, often made of plastic as opposed to their metal counterparts from the decade before. The rectangular, angular, chrome aesthetic of many 1980s models were replaced with black plastic in the 1990s, and modern designs are dominated by curves instead of right angles. The designs of older models are a source of much interest among enthusiasts and collectors. The larger feature-packed models, and rarer models, are often the most sought after.
The boombox quickly became associated with urban society, particularly African American and Hispanic youth. Towards the end of the 1970s and throughout the 1980s many carried their boomboxes everywhere they went, holding them on top of their shoulders while walking down the street, playing their music loud for everyone to hear. People used their boomboxes to spread their ideas; cassettes were traded and shared. The wide use of boomboxes in urban communities led to the boombox being coined a ‘ghetto blaster,’ a nickname which was soon used as part of a backlash against the boombox and hip hop culture.
Cities began banning boomboxes from public places and they became less and less acceptable on city streets. The boombox became intrinsically linked to hip hop culture and, as Fab Five Freddy puts it, was ‘instrumental’ in the rise of hip hop. Certain models like the JVC RC-M90 and the Sharp GF-777 were known as the boombox kings, having the power to drown out other ghetto blasters and were used in music battles. The Beastie Boys embraced the boombox as a signature, The Clash always had a boombox with them, and Schoolly D lugged around a Conion 100cf in the UK.
The 1990s were a turning point for the boombox in popular culture. The rise of the Walkman and other advanced electronics eliminated the need to carry around such large and heavy audio equipment, and boomboxes quickly disappeared from the streets. As boombox enthusiast Lyle Owerko puts it, ‘Towards the end of any culture, you have the second or third generation that steps into the culture, which is so far from the origination, it’s the impression of what’s real, but it’s not the full definition of what’s real. It’s just cheesy.’