Going Walkabout with a Walkman

My job is to write audio equipment reviews and news briefs for our magazine. My hobby is to write this blog. Writing for a print medium means writing tight because there's only so much space to go around. That means routinely eliminating material. The temptation I face most often is to lard hardware reviews with music criticism. I'm a lapsed music critic and like to blur the boundary between tech criticism and music criticism as long as it doesn't disserve the tech-oriented reader. Recently I faced a similar temptation when reviewing a Sony Walkman and earbuds. It required a trip out of the office. Some impressions of the trip ended up on the cutting room floor. They weren't strictly necessary for the review, but they haunted me. I'll blog them here instead.

I should explain that the MDR-NW750N noise-canceling earbuds I was reviewing are a very special accessory for the Sony Walkman NW-ZX100 music player. For $600, you can buy the NW-ZX100 alone. For $700, you can have the NW-ZX100HN bundle; Sony throws in the noise-canceling earbuds, and it's well worth the extra hundred bucks. The two products are joined at the hip, with the noise-canceling circuitry for the earbuds built into the Walkman. This provides a power source for the noise cancellation (no battery necessary) and allows the buds to be optimized for the player.

I needed noise. In Manhattan, where I live and work, noise is never in short supply. The Metropolitan Transit Authority provides an interesting selection at a reasonable price. On a warm, muggy afternoon, I dropped the Walkman into a tote bag—to protect it from my soon to be sweaty body—and left my cave. The first thing I noticed was that the noise cancellation worked beautifully on noisy streets. It did well in the subway too. See the forthcoming review for more details. Having taken the subway to Greenwich Village, far from home, I switched to a bus for the trip back. This was a free transfer. I wondered if I could work the free transfer into a print review. Probably not.

As I walked down West 14th Street from the subway to the bus, I passed three homeless men lying on the sidewalk. They were covered in dirt and sweat. One of them didn't have a shirt. They had obviously been sleeping on the street—New York's shelters are dangerous places and some homeless people prefer to avoid them. The part of my mind that fusses around with audio equipment abruptly shut down. The music I was listening to (Alexis Cole's Dazzling Blue: The Songs of Paul Simon) was quite lovely. But it was not the most meaningful information coming into my brain through the five senses, even in a high-resolution format at 192,000 bits per second. The jolting sight of people considerably less fortunate than myself—a toycritic who reviews audio gear for a living—may have been the most significant thing that happened to me that day. That didn't get into the review either.

I arrived at the bus stop. The bus came in a minute or two. Before I boarded, two people in wheelchairs got on first, which is the correct protocol. They included an unaccompanied man, a woman who appeared to be unconscious, and her attendant. The bus driver unfolded a motorized ramp across the doorway, reconfigured the seating at the front of the bus to accommodate the two wheelchairs, and got his passengers settled. Then the rest of us boarded. The bus was mostly empty and I captured one of the coveted single seats on the righthand side. On public transit, it's a luxury to have no one sitting next to you. The two wheelchairs were in my field of vision along with a panoramic view of the city streets through the windshield and side windows of the bus.

I thought how lucky I was to live in a humane city (well, more humane than some) where disabled people can get around cheaply. The sleeping woman's head lolled on her shoulder while her attendant watched over her. The unaccompanied man, nattily attired in a colorful sports shirt and a pork-pie hat, had his wits about him and seemed to be enjoying the ride. I enjoyed it along with him. I could hear Alexis Cole's voice again. The slow boat floated uptown from the Village through Chelsea, the Flower District, Midtown, west on Central Park South, north on Broadway past Lincoln Center, and eventually home.

I've long known that a darkened room makes it easier to listen because reducing one sensory input (vision) enhances another (hearing). Now I know that the sight of extreme human suffering makes it impossible to listen. What difference does it make? Just under 800 words.

Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems, now available in both print and Kindle editions.

canman4pm's picture


Thank you for bringing a little human interest to the otherwise fairly clinical world of tech review. I guess one of the advantages of our times is that a reviewer, such as yourself, is no longer limited to the space of print media. This little blurb makes a nice codicil to what I'm sure is your standard, if insightful, review.