By Richard S. Ginell , Los Angeles Daily News. February 14, 1987.
Once upon a time -- actually not too long ago -- compact disc players were large stationary units waiting to be stacked in a home hi-fi system. Well, let's be fair; in many homes, they still are.
Then came the D-5, a miraculous bit of battery-driven miniature technology from the folks at Sony. Sony shrank the CD player to the square dimensions of the jewel boxes in which CDs come in, introducing it just in time for Christmas, 1984.
Originally, it was thought that Sony was merely creating the CD answer to its wildly successful Walkman -- a ''Discman,'' if you will. It would have a specialized use for those who wanted an upscale portable to jog with.
But there was a not-so-publicized facet of this little marvel that made it take off. Sony added an output jack to the rear of the player, which meant that it could be connected to any home component stereo system.
There was also an adapter so that the unit could be run on AC house current. And with the help of clever adapter devices made by companies like Recoton and Sparkomatic, the portables could be plugged into a car stereo and played through the car speakers.
Although tests have shown that the sound from the D-5 was slightly inferior to that of the average home deck, most people couldn't tell the difference -- especially if they heard the player in the stores without a comparison.
And the price for such a versatile, snazzy-looking little gizmo was right -- only $300 list, with heavy discounting widely available.
The D-5 became the hottest-selling CD player on the planet. The Japanese electronics industry fell in behind -- as they often have when Sony concocts something new -- and soon, portables by Technics, JVC, Quasar, Sanyo, Toshiba and several others started tumbling off the assembly lines.
The Electronics Industry Association in Washington, D.C., predicts that 800,000 portable CD players will be sold in the United States in 1987. ''People want music to go and this is the newest generation,'' said Allan Schlosser, vice president of communications for the association. ''It suits contemporary lifestyles.''
Refinements on the D-5 idea soon followed with blinding speed. Technics added programming -- arranging the selections in any order you wish -- to its SL-XP7 and reduced the size further. Sony struck back with the D-7, which has programming, repeat functions and a new diversion called ''shuffle play'' that scrambles the tracks and plays them in any order ad infinitum. In size, the D-7 is a mere 1 inch high, 5 inches wide and 5 inches long.
Once a bulky appendage, the battery pack became a small plate that snaps onto the bottom of the CD player, rechargeable after 4.5 hours of play. The Sony D-7 has a built-in AM-FM tuner, and the Toshiba XR-P9 comes with remote control, obviously aimed at potential home use.
Prices on some of these little units have dropped drastically as manufacturers try to sell off remaining stock on older models. The Sony D-5 can be picked up at discount houses like for as little as $148, and hi-fi magazines hawk the Technics SL-XP7 for only $150.
One critical question for those who want to use the player at home is how the portables sound when compared with a home deck. We hooked up a D-7 and a Sony CDP-200 home deck (circa 1984) to the same amplifier, played two copies of the same discs through them -- and found that the D-7 doesn't have quite as much presence, bass and treble response and depth as the home deck. Yet it was close, so close that for many buyers, the incredible versatility that the portables offer for the price might offset a slight disadvantage in sound quality. The Technics SL-XP7 sounded a bit brighter than the Sony, and also has a filter switch that cuts down the highs.
But the main reason these little players were designed was for carrying around -- hence the term ''Discman.'' The Sony D-7 even comes with a colorful fabric carrying strap so that the player can be slung casually over the shoulder. When used while walking down a city street at a moderate pace, the D-7 performed almost flawlessly, with only a couple of audible blank spots when the player made contact with the body.
That's quite an advance in the state-of-the-art over just a couple of years ago when a light tap to the top of a home CD player would cause skipping or complete shutdown. You shouldn't take the Discman jogging, though, for the player bounces around too much for the laser to remain on track.
Yet the sound through an average pair of headphones was marvelously clear, with amazing stereo separation and no hiss in the background. No tape or radio Walkman comes close.
According to the Electronics Industry Association, the Walkman boom hit its peak in 1985 with 27.7 million units sold, falling off in 1986 to a projected 24 million, and a projected 22 million in 1987. But there is no evidence yet that this fall-off has been because of the onrushing Discman.
What lies ahead for the portable CD player? No doubt more features, less accessories for one to buy, and naturally, further attempts to squeeze the size.
Technics is coming out with an even smaller player, the SL-XP5, that includes a battery case and is approximately .9 inches high. The upcoming Sony D-10, shown at the October Tokyo Audio Fair, promises to be even smaller than the D-7.
The future is here - and it's getting smaller.