Curiously in an age where digital music players are shrinking in size and going more mobile and online-centric, that most massive and sacred of 1980s staples, the boombox, is quietly making a comeback. Though still hovering on the fringes of mainstream awareness, courtesy of several new high-tech apps and electronics, with each passing month, the humble ghetto blaster is steadily amping up the volume and vying to be heard.
"The boombox is the global, iconic symbol for audiophiles who love to play and share music," explains Steve Swenson, brand manager for TDK's Life on Record imprint. "Compared to other systems, it's a… centerpiece for music and social gathering, and serves as a connection point for people." Obvious fans of waving bass in your face, as he alludes, the company quietly rolled out futuristic two- and three-speaker models last year. Giving the original icon a sci-fi makeover, units also add modern features like iPod and iPhone connectivity, support for attaching external instruments and options to play and control tunes right from USB flash drives.
Retailing for $399.99 and $499.99, respectively, systems aren't for the faint of heart or subtle of gesture, being infinitely more outspoken than today's earbud-toting subway rider and nebbish noise-canceling can lover has become accustomed to. As such, mass market appeal remains uncertain, though Swenson says the systems are designed specifically with 18-34 year-old listeners in mind, rather than the misty-eyed Beastie or Fat Boys fan one might anticipate. A new old-fashioned approach to sharing music, however, he believes boomboxes' ongoing high-profile cameos via appearances on Saturday Night Live (with help from Julian Casablancas) and in Evian ad campaigns are nonetheless raising mainstream awareness. Naturally, industry insiders hope a growing tidal wave of nostalgia will help such systems cross over into mainstream success.
According to Swenson, today's music listener secretly misses the magic of wearing their heart on their sleeve, and blasting its corresponding angst or aggression out at cranium-shaking levels. "After significant research and discussion with audiophiles globally," he says, "it became apparent that with the invention of iPods and other devices, music was isolating due to headphone listening. Consumers also missed the warmth of analog. [We wanted]… to bring back a way to share music socially again."
Arguably more practical and affordable solutions, group listening services for Facebook like Turntable.FM and Rolling.FM would seem a more natural evolution of the mass party-starting movement. Headphones such as rapper 50 Cent's new SYNC by 50, which allow multiple fans to enjoy the same tune from a streaming audio source, also appear a wiser hardware-based alternative. (At least for those not looking to deafen innocent bystanders…) Numerous set-top and Airplay or Bluetooth wireless-enabled speaker docks like iHome’s iW1 or Bose’s SoundLink further offer house party hosts much of the same basic functionality and sonic performance, albeit in a less portable format. Nonetheless, despite the ready availability of group listening options, a growing range of downloadable applications like BoomMaster and Jamboxx are helping bring back the ear-rattling cassette-era flavor, as are additional standalone boombox units.
Inspired by the growing popularity of dance culture, Pioneer is the latest to enter the market with its new STEEZ line of candy-painted boombox devices. Featuring full-color LCD screens and options to adjust track tempo, automatic battle features with spoken vocal cues and countdowns, and stop and resume functions at preset song points, units clearly target footloose street crews. From their juicy coloring to not-so mouthwatering pricing (models range from $299.99-$499.99), the so-called "portable music systems" pick their battles, focusing on avid dancers rather than general hip-hop heads or casual admirers. Designed as a mobile practice solution vs. nonchalant way to instantly announce your presence to the entire neighborhood, they're nonetheless just another stepping stone helping boomboxes regain a commercial foothold this side of 1990.
Given the systems' relatively high cost, limited practicality and arguable general audience appeal, even proponents of the hardware are, of course, aware that chances of a breakout comeback are minor. It's likewise dubious whether or not there's still room in a world of iPod touches, Zunes and Sansa Clip Zips for what were, even 30 years ago, ridiculously large and flamboyant speaker systems. As far as those still keeping the torch alive for boomboxes are concerned though, like other outsized 1980s trends such as fashion, spending and cultural excess, everything old is truly new again.
"Today's models offer the latest features in digital technology, support a broad range of formats, play music from a wide variety of devices, and directly connect with a guitar, keyboard or microphone," says Swenson. But more important than their 21st century upgrades, he explains, are next-generation models' contribution to the overall acoustic canon. "The boombox is one of the strongest symbols of musical history and heritage. Modern-day units pay homage to the icon and significance they hold in musical and pop culture."