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Speakers

Old school boom box vs. today's wireless speakers: Which sounds best?

The Audiophiliac pitted a 1991 JVC PC-X100 boom box against a bunch portable wireless speakers, and the results surprised even him!

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Here's a 24-year-old JVC PC-X100 boom box sitting atop a brand-new Aiwa EXOS-9 Bluetooth speaker. Steve Guttenberg/CNET

How do the latest Bluetooth speakers compare with the sound of boom boxes made a quarter of a century ago? Has progress been made, has technology and digital signal processing made for better sound or are today's wireless speakers a step backward?

A few weeks ago I heard a bunch of portable Bluetooth speakers at the CNET NYC office, and I'm sorry, they all sounded different shades of distorted. They were harsh, grating, and just plain unpleasant -- and yet that hasn't affected Bluetooth speakers' popularity. Maybe the buyers don't know or care about what they're missing.

I never owned a boom box back in the day, but as I recall, some of them sounded decent, so I was curious to see how a vintage boom box would fare in a direct comparison with some of the better portable wireless speakers. A friend volunteered his 24-year-old JVC PC-X100 boom box, which sports a built-in CD player, AM/FM radio and a dual-well analog cassette deck.

I lugged it into the CNET office, and even before I started listening the PC-X100 had a clear advantage over most Bluetooth speakers. First, the PC-X100's speakers are removable; they detach from the central unit, so with the PC-X100 you can get bona-fide stereo separation. Most wireless speakers are one-piece systems, and their stereo speakers are just a few inches apart, so their stereo winds up sounding like mono. Even the high-end Naim Mu-so speaker, which is 24.7 inches wide sounds a lot smaller than the PC-X100 with its speakers spread 5 feet apart.

Not only that, you can replace the PC-X100's speakers with better quality speakers. I tried the boom box with a pair of budget-priced Dayton B652 speakers , and they were a terrific upgrade over the PC-X100's speakers. Even better, the pair of Pioneer SP-BS22-LR bookshelf speakers with the PC-X100, I loved that combination.

As for the wireless speakers, I gave them all a huge advantage, and played CDs on an Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray player, hooked up with a cable to the wireless speakers. For the JVC PC-X100 I played the CDs in the boom box.

Boom boxes were hugely popular, and eBay listings for them are still bountiful, so locating a used one should be easy enough. Ask the seller questions. Make sure it works; just powering up means nothing. Does it play CDs or tapes? If the seller hasn't played the boom box, and can't vouch for its working condition, don't buy it.

Click on any image in my photo gallery below to see how the JVC PC-X100 boom box fared against some of the better wireless speakers.