That is a common question that arises from time to time inside collector’s circles. There were hundreds of different models that go from almost crap to the finest piece of precision electro-mechanic miniature device. But… which ones sound best?
SONY DD30, one of my favorite walkmans. And it sounds really well.
Many collectors and cassette fans look for cheap walkmans, but they usually are low end models with also low quaity sound. When audio quality is important, I’m happy to say that many walkmans sounds pretty good if loaded with a well recorded tape. However, for the most exigent enthusiasts, there are just a few walkmans that achieves the goal of offering real HI-FI sound.
I’m lucky to have a collection focused on top-end models. I have almost all of the best models from AIWA and SONY (as well as some from SHARP, Panasonic…) from ’83 to ’93. And I’m lucky to have more than 50% of all my collection serviced by a professional technician, so I have a pretty good idea of how good or bad they sound.
I think that we have to differentiate two categories:
- Quality for a casual listener, someone who doesn’t know the meaning of real HI-FI nor HI-END sound. Someone who doesn’t have any idea of how a HI-END stack (in a acoustically-conditioned room) does sound. Someone who won’t spend more than 30 euros in a headphone or 300€ in a home sounding device.
- Quality for someone who really wants the highest quality. In this case I should measure things with the absolute sound quality scale, where low end walkmans will score somewhat between 2-3 and the world’s best Hi-end stack will score about 9.9 or so.
So, let's talk about both them.
Quality for a casual listener
This is probably what may interest most of the collectors. Many high level models from the best brands will lay in this category: AIWA, SONY, Panasonic, Toshiba…
The SONY WM-150, looks very elegant and sounds well.
In many models of this category, filling up with as many technologies as possible were the engineer’s main target. And they indeed did it. It’s incredible how could they embed such a tiny mechanism with auto-reverse, Dolby, PLL radio, LCD screen and even a remote in such a small device. Precise like a good Swiss watch.
I’ll personally pick many of the AIWA’s TOTL models from the ’85 to the ’91, especially from the PL, PX, JX and JL lines. They sound pretty well, but they also are pretty rare and quite expensive. Especially if you want one in perfect working order. One step below you can find many models that are easier to find, cheaper to buy, but doesn't sound as good.
Based on my own experience, I’d recommend you to avoid any AIWA with SUPER BASS system and go for DSL. The former makes the bass mudded and boomy sounding, which isn't good at all. So there are only a few remaining models, which sound pretty good, like the PL101, PL303, T303, JL303, J505, P202MkII or P505. The HS-T40 and T60 could be some of the cheapest but are also very rare to find.
AIWA HS-J170, a do-it-all walkman that doesn’t sound so good.
On later models (’93 and over), AIWA’s quality was full downhill. Investment and expenses were cut all the way, plastic was used everywhere and cheap parts made the worst AIWA we remember. SONY had acquired more than 50% stock of AIWA and let them slowly die.
One good thing that SONY did in their entire line of walkmans is that even the simplest model was made with a very decent quality. So many models from the mid-range did sound pretty good. They didn’t have two different bass systems (like AIWA did) and almost all models had more or less the same features. So any model with Dolby and preferably with two-band EQ (for more flexibility) would sound pretty good, especially from the mid-range. Models like the WM-B19, B39, B47, WM-2055, 2085, WM-FX43, BF67 are good examples…
SONY WM-B39, one of my favorite walkmans. Not really a top model, but this one gives me most good rememberings.
On top of all of those, probably the best ones are the WM-701C and many of its derivatives, like the best ones from EX Series, which are very small, light and thin. For example, the EX-5, EX-555, 606, 622, 633, 641&642, 655, 677 and so on… If you look for lightweight, advanced and convenient ones, these can be the perfect choice.
SONY EX-5, one of the most elegant models ever made.
These models are all very thin and light, but at the same time robust (mostly made from metal). They are advanced as most of them feature auto-reverse, Dolby, MegaBass, feather-touch buttons, long-lasting batteries and some other interesting features. However, they usually have not so good W&F, something that’s especially noticeable when you run (or even walk). But for staying sit down or walking slowly they can be excellent choices.
But there are also options outside the two big brands, and Panasonic had a lot of different and interesting models. Some are relatively cheap, like the best ones from the SX line: SX60, SX75… Sadly, they are not so easy to find. Another problem is that these walkmans use a really thin belt (around 0.5mm thick) that is both hard to find and to replace. However, our friend Marian is making brand new ones at Slovenia.
Panasonic SX60, a tiny, sexy and good sounding walkman.
There are other options from other brands, like Sharp, Toshiba, Pioneer or Kenwood but they are much more difficult to find. And then there are 3rd line brands, that probably never achieved such a good sound quality level to be compared to the best ones, apart from a few exceptions. I’m talking about Philips, Hitachi, Sanyo, Grundig and all the other less known brands…
Grundig BB285, a low end model, completely made of plastic.