Revisiting the travel chess computer

Computers are interesting things. When we think of computers, we tend to think of general-purpose computers – our laptops, smartphones, servers and mainframes, things that run a vast array of programs composed of hundreds of thousands of instructions spanning a multitude of chips. When I was younger, general-purpose computers were more-or-less hobbyist items for home users. Single-purpose computers still exist everywhere, but there was certainly a time when having a relatively cheap, often relatively small computing device for a specific task was either preferable to doing that task on a general-purpose computer, or perhaps the only way to do it. Something like a simple four-function calculator was a far more commonplace device before our phones became more than just phones.

Chess poses an interesting problem here. By modern standards, it doesn’t take much to make a decently-performing chess computer. The computer I’ll be discussing later in this post, the Saitek Kasparov Travel Champion 21001 runs on a 10MHz processor with 1KB of RAM and 32KB of program ROM (including a large opening library). It plays at a respectable ~2000 ELO2. This was released in 1994, a time when the general-purpose computer was becoming more of a household item. The Pentium had just been released; a Micron desktop PC with a 90MHz Pentium and 8MB of RAM was selling for $2,499 (the equivalent of $4,988 in 2022, adjusting for inflation)3. 486s were still available; a less-capable but still well-kitted-out 33MHz 486 with 4MB of RAM went for $1,399 ($2,797 in 2020 dollars). Chessmaster 4000 Turbo would run on one of these 486s, albeit without making the recommended specs. It cost $59.95 ($119.85 in 2020 dollars)4, and while it’s hard to get a sense of the ELO it performed at, players today still seem to find value in all of the old Chessmaster games; they may not play at an advanced club level, but they were decent engines considering they were marketed to the general public. A more enthusiast-level software package, Fritz 3, was selling for 149 DEM5, which I can’t really translate to 2020 USD, but suffice it to say… it wasn’t cheap. Fritz 3 advertised a 2800 ELO6; a tester at the time estimated it around 2440 ELO. Interestingly, when that tester turned Turbo off, reducing their machine from a 50MHz 486 to 4.77MHz, ELO only dropped by about 100 points.

All of this is to say that capable chess engines don’t need a ton of processing power. At a time when general-purpose computers weren’t ubiquitous in the home, a low-spec dedicated chess computer made a lot of sense. The earliest dedicated home chess computers resembled calculators, lacking boards and only giving moves via an LED display, accepting them via button presses. Following this were sensory boards, accepting moves via pressure sensors under the spaces. These were available in full-sized boards as well as travel boards, the latter of which used small pegged pieces on proportionally small boards with (typically clamshell) lids for travel.

In 2022, we all have incredibly powerful computers on our desks, in our laps, and in our purses. Stockfish 15, one of the most powerful engines available, is free open source software. is an incredible resource even at the free level, powered by the commercially-available Komodo engine. Full-size electronic boards still exist, which can interface with PCs or dedicated chess computers. Some of these products are pretty neat – DGT makes boards that recognize every piece and Raspberry Pi-based computers built into chess clocks. There is an undying joy in being able to play an AI (or an online opponent) on a real, physical, full-sized board.

The market for portable chess computers has pretty much dried up, however. Pegboard travel sets eventually gave way to LCD handhelds with resistive touchscreens and rather janky segment-based piece indicators. These were more compact than the pegboards, and they required less fiddling7 and setup. The advent of the smartphone, however, really made these into relics; a good engine on even the lowest-end modern phone is just a better experience in every single way. On iOS, tChess powered by the Stobor engine is a great app at the free level, and its pro features are well-worth the $8 asking price. The aforementioned app is excellent as well.

When I was quite young, I improved my chess skills by playing on a 1985 Novag Piccolo that my parents got me at a local flea market. I loved this pegboard-based computer – the sensory board which indicated moves via rank-and-file LEDs, the minimalist set of button inputs, even the company’s logo. It was just a cool device. It is, of course, a pretty weak machine. Miniaturization and low-power chips just weren’t at the state that they are now, and travel boards suffered significantly compared to their full-sized contemporaries. The Piccolo has been user rated around 900 ELO, it doesn’t know things like threefold repetition, and lacks opening books.

I’ve been trying to get back into chess, and I decided that I wanted a pegboard chess computer. Even though the feeling pales in comparison to a full-sized board, I don’t have a ton of space, I tend to operate out of my bed, and I have that nostalgic itch for something resembling my childhood Novag. Unfortunately, things didn’t improve much beyond the capabilities of said Novag during the pegboard era. I would still love to find one of the few decent pegboard Novags – the Amber or Amigo would be nice finds. But I ended up getting a good deal on a computer I had done some research on, the aforementioned Saitek Kasparov Travel Champion 2100 (from hereon simply referred to as the 2100).

I knew the 2100 was a decent little computer with a near-2000 ELO8 and a 6000 half-move opening library. I liked that it offered both a rank-and-file LED readout and a coordinate readout on its seven-segment LCD. Knowing that these pegboard computers struggled to achieve parity with their full-sized counterparts, I was pretty surprised to find some above-and-beyond features that I was familiar with from PC chess engines. The LCD can show a wealth of information, including a continuous readout of what the computer thinks the best move is. A coaching mode is present, where the computer will warn you when pieces are under attack and notify you if it believes you’ve made a blunder. A random mode is present, choosing the computer’s moves randomly from its top handful of best options instead of always choosing what it believes is the best of the best. You can select from themed opening books or disable the opening library entirely. These are all neat features that I really wasn’t expecting from a pegboard computer9.

I can see why the 2100 tends to command a high price on the secondary market – if you want a traditional pegboard chess computer, it seems like a hard one to beat. I’m certainly intrigued by some of the modern solutions – the roll-up Square Off PRO looks incredibly clever10. But for a compact yet tactile solution that I can tune down to my current skill level or allow to absolutely blast me, the 2100 checks a lot of unexpected boxes. As I mentioned, these travel units died out for good reason; I can play a quick game on against Komodo and get an incredibly detailed, plain-language analysis afterword that highlights key moments and lets me play out various ‘what if?’ scenarios. I do this nearly every day as of late. Purchasing a nearly-three-decade-old chess computer may have been a silly move. But it’s a different experience compared to poking at at an app on my phone. It’s tactile, it’s uncluttered. It’s scaled down, but there’s still something about just staring at a board and moving pieces around. I still use my phone more, but the 2100 offers something different, and it offers that alongside a decent engine with a flexible interface11. Maybe one of these days someone will come out with a travel eboard, but I doubt it. Solutions like the Square Off PRO are likely the direction portable chess computers are headed. This is fine, it’s a niche market. I’m just glad a handful of decent models were produced during the pegboard era, and I’m happy to have acquired the Saitek Kasparov Travel Champion 2100.

  1. To the best of my knowledge, this unit is also known as the Kasparov Cosmos. Aside from the color of plastic, these units look identical, are feature-identical, and have been tested to the same rating. I don’t, however, have actual confirmation that they run identical hardware or ROMs. ↩︎
  2. Saitek claims 2200 ELO on the Travel Champion 2100 (why it’s called 2100, then, is a mystery…) but an independent test places it around 1980 ELO. I’ll trust independent tests a bit more, though ranking a computer is rather murky to begin with. ↩︎
  3. Price/specs from an ad in the December 1994 Home PC magazine. ↩︎
  4. Price from an ad in the March 1994 Electronic Entertainment magazine. ↩︎
  5. The asking price was apparently 198 DEM, but ads from the time suggest it sold for as low as 149 DEM. ↩︎
  6. ELO taken from a review in the October 1994 issue of PC Joker. ↩︎
  7. A thing about sensory boards is that they like having confirmation that the board state isn’t getting out of sync. So, in addition to making your move (by pressing down once to remove a piece and again to place it), you need to input the computer’s piece moves on the board as well. Obviously you would have to make the moves for them, but the act of applying pressure at the beginning and end of every move gives it sort of a rigid feel that can feel fiddly at times. ↩︎
  8. Frans Rosch, known for the Fritz engine, wrote Saitek’s engines at the time. ↩︎
  9. A lot of these features made it into Saitek’s LCD line as well, like the Mephisto by Saitek Maestro, one of which I may have also acquired. ↩︎
  10. Modern electronic boards no longer rely on pressure sensors. The aforementioned boards from DGT sense pieces by proximity and know what they are. The Square Off PRO isn’t quite so advanced, but it does use magnets in lieu of pressure sensors. This makes for more natural play, of course, but it also either locks you in to the manufacturer’s costly pieces or requires hacks to get traditional pieces to work. Pressure-based boards accept any pieces. ↩︎
  11. The interface is still pretty simple, and setting options and accessing info and such is not super intuitive. However, the manual is definitely something of a bygone era. It is very detailed and very well-written. I’ll hopefully be getting a flatbed scanner soon and popping this up on ↩︎

A doughnut in my ear: the Sony Linkbuds

Ever since I saw Techmoan’s video about the new Sony Linkbuds, truly wireless1 earbuds with an open design made possible by virtue of a doughnut-shaped driver, I’ve been enthralled. I always prefer open headphones, which can be tricky when you’re buying things meant to go in your ear. Even within the realm of full-sized, over-the-ear cans, it’s a niche market. People like having a silent, black background. I understand this, but it isn’t for me. For one thing, silence gives me anxiety. For another, the sort of platonic ideal folks tend to have for music – the live performance – is never a silent black box either. Ambient sound exists; even the much-misunderstood 4′33″ by John Cage is more of an exercise in appreciating ambient sound than it is an exercise in silence. Perhaps that’s a pretentious way of looking at things, but this widespread belief that audiophile greatness starts in a vacuum has certainly left the market with a dearth of open designs.

Earbuds themselves are a dying breed. In-ear monitors (IEMs) direct sound through a nozzle directly into the ear canal, where their tips are inserted. This gives a tight physical connection to the sound, and it – once again – isolates the listener from the world better, leading to a more silent experience. I’ve used – and enjoyed – a handful of semi-open IEMs, but… IEM fit is tricky. My ears are different enough in size that I generally need a different tip size for either ear. Even when I do get the ‘right’ fit, it nearly always feels like a delicate balance, and one that requires me to sit a certain way, move very little, and avoid shifting my jaw at all. For quite some time now, I’ve been using Master and Dynamic’s MW-07 Plus. Their design is such that an additional piece of silicone butts up against the back of the ear’s antihelix for additional support, minimizing fit issues significantly. They also sound great. I like these enough that I own three pairs of them2. Getting them seated properly can still be an issue, though, and… they aren’t open. They do provide an ‘ambient listening’ mode that’s sort of a reverse of active noise cancelling – using the inbuilt microphones to pick up ambient noise and inject it into the stream. It’s better than nothing. A new problem has started to manifest with the MW-07s in which that additional piece of silicone doesn’t always fit over the IEM tightly enough, and it obscures the sensor that detects whether or not the IEM is in your ear. The result has been a lot of unintentional pausing, and a lot of frustration.

I spend a fair amount of time listening to a Walkman or a DAP using full-size cans (generally Sennheiser HD-650s), but I also do like the convenience of casual listening from my stupid phone with no headphone jack via Bluetooth. Right now, this means either one of my several pairs of MW-07s, or the weird little doughnuts that are the Sony Linkbuds. I’ve been putting the Linkbuds through their paces for a couple of weeks now, and they’ve quickly become my favorite solution for casual listening. I will get into their caveats – which are not minor – but the TL;DR is that they sound good enough, they fit well, and they’re just… pleasant to use. I know the hot take is to say that Sony lost their flair for innovation and experimentation in the ‘90s or whatever, but they are still doing interesting things. It may not be particularly impressive on a technical level, but someone still had to greenlight the R&D for designing a custom doughnut-shaped driver for the Linkbuds. It’s a shot in the dark for an already-niche product market. These aren’t going to be for everyone, but if the idea of a truly wireless earbud with a gaping hole in the middle to allow ambient sound in is appealing to you – I think Sony did good.


To start, the Linkbuds are extremely comfortable. Unlike any IEM I’ve used, they quickly disappear from my ear. If I shake my head, I’ll notice the weight there, but they stay in place fine. Being earbuds instead of IEMs, there are no tips to worry about sizing. But like the MW-07s, there is an additional bit of silicone – in this case, a tiny little hoop that catches behind the top of the antihelix. These are included in five sizes, and they help with positioning enough that choosing the ‘wrong’ size is detrimental to sound and not just the security of the earbud in the ear. They seem too flimsy to do anything, but they’re vital to the fit, and that flimsiness ensures that they remain light and comfortable. Aftermarket manufacturers are selling replacements for these; I’ve acquired some pink ones to make them a bit more me. The amount of silicone contacting the skin is low enough to keep itchiness to a minimum during extended wear – a discomfort that became a reality after wearing the MW-07s for long stretches.


The Linkbuds are not an audiophile-grade experience. Compared to the MW-07s, they’re… thin. But they don’t sound bad, they don’t sound particularly cheap or tinny. Their sound is rather hard to describe. Some folks have done frequency response charting3 of them, and… yeah the low end rolls off early and it rolls off hard. This can be compensated for quite serviceably with the inbuilt equalizer (more on this shortly), but these are never going to hit you with thick sub-bass. Music that relies heavily on this will sound a bit thin. Occasionally, a piece of pop music like Kero Kero Bonito’s ‘Waking Up’ will surprise me in just how much the production leans on the low-end. But for the most part, the equalizer gets the upper bass present enough that music tends to sound full enough to be satisfying.

There is one really peaky little frequency range somewhere in the 2500Hz band. I first noticed it on µ-Ziq’s ‘Blainville’, the repeating squeal noise was… unbearable. This manifested in a few other tracks as well4, but was also tameable through equalization. Beyond these frequency response issues, it’s tricky to talk about the sound of them. They sound big. Not necessarily in terms of soundstage, but the scope of the reproduced sound itself feels more like it’s coming from large cans firing haphazardly into my ears than tiny little doughnuts resting precisely inside them. I assume this can largely be attributed to the good fit – I’ve used high-end wired earbuds like the Hifiman ES1005, and when they’re properly positioned they sound great… but keeping them properly positioned is tough. Soundstage is fine, imaging is fine. I actually enjoy them quite a bit for well-recorded classical, particularly pieces for chamber ensembles. In a recording like Nexus and Sō Percussion’s performance of Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ, not only do the instruments feel like they exist in a physical space, you can almost sense where on the instrument a given note is being struck.

The app

I’ve mentioned the equalizer twice now, but before I can talk about that, I have to talk about the app. In general, a product is less appealing to me if it involves an app – this tends to mean some functionality only exists in a terribly piece of software that probably won’t exist anymore in three years. This is true of the Linkbuds as well, but two things make me reluctant to care about it: the functionality feels pretty set-it-and-forget-it to me, and they’re already bound to a phone by virtue of design. The app lets you set quite a few things including some strange 3d spatial stuff that I haven’t tested, a listening profile designed to liven up low-bitrate lossy compression, and integration with other apps. This integration is very limited, only supporting Spotify (which you shouldn’t do) and a few other things I hadn’t heard of6. It also lets you set the language for notifications (for low battery and the like), and upgrade the firmware. Then there’s the equalizer – five bands, plus a vague ‘Clear Bass’ slider. I’ve found I’m happiest with the following settings:

Clear Bass 400Hz 1kHz 2.5kHz 6.3kHz 16kHz
+7 +1 ±0 -4 -3 -3

This obviously isn’t going to work miracles with the sub-bass, but it does bring enough bass presence to make for a fuller sound, and it smooths out that peak in the 2.5kHz band. The equalizer has a bunch of presets, and lets you store three of your own presets. Frustratingly, while the app supports a bunch of different Sony headphones, it’s also a different app than the one used for Sony speakers.

A final thing that the app allows for is the setting of the four tap commands that are available to you – twice or thrice on either Linkbud. These are limited to a handful of presets – one plays/pauses and skips to next track, one is volume up/down, one is next/previous track, etc. I wish these were just fully customizable. I find it easier to adjust volume with the physical buttons on my phone, so I’m using pause/next and next/previous. I’d love to tweak this for a couple of reasons – not having a redundant next command, and swapping the order of next and previous. Regardless, this is more useful than the hardcoded two buttons on my MW-07s. And while tapping on the Linkbuds feels silly vs. pressing an actual button… it is much easier.

A few final notes

Battery life is bad. I get it, the shape of them and the fact that half of the unit is a doughnut-shaped driver means there isn’t much room for a battery. But the reality is that the MW-07s last long enough to get through a workday, and the Linkbuds just… won’t. Which sucks, because getting through each new slogging day of work pretty much requires a constant stream of high-energy music. The case they come in doesn’t have a great battery either, and this is less forgivable.

Compared to the MW-07s, I really like the way the case feels. It’s made of the same plastic as the Linkbuds themselves, which just… has a nice feel to it. The case is also just weighted in a very pleasing weeble-wobbly way. The Linkbuds snap into the case very positively, whereas the MW-07’s just kind of flop into place. The Linkbuds’ case has a single LED, which reports the battery status of the case itself when you open it, and each Linkbud when you snap them into place. It only seems to report vague green and orange levels. The MW-07 case, on the other hand, has three LEDs which clearly correspond to case, and left and right MW-07. These LEDs have three vague levels instead of two.

One last silly detail that the Linkbuds get better than the MW-07 is the volume that they use for their own sounds. Tap confirmations and low battery notifications are soft sounds, played at reasonable volumes. The MW-07’s notification for switching on ambient listening mode is just a little too loud, and the low battery notification is absolutely alarming. This is something that a lot of companies seem to neglect – generic units are usually terrible about it. Master and Dynamic certainly tried harder than generic vendors, but Sony did it right. It’s a little thing, but little things add up.

I guess this post largely serves to take away my audiophile cred, but the reality as I age and my life gets more complicated is that there’s listening as an activity and then there’s listening as background. The activity is akin to enjoying a 15-year Macallan Fine Oak while background listening just gets you through the day like a few shots of rail vodka. The Linkbuds serve my casual background listening needs really well, and they sound perfectly fine doing it. They pale in comparison to my Sennheiser IE-800s, but… they’re supposed to. They’re doing a different job. And while my MW-07s may sound better, they’re increasingly not worth the hassle when I want to both listen to music and move my body. I hope Sony makes a second version of these. I want more doughnut-shaped drivers out in the world. I want Sony to really go ham on such an open design. I want Sony to keep being weird. But mostly I just want to know I’ll be able to get a replacement pair a few years down the line, because I think I’m going to want to keep using these for a while.

  1. I don’t love this term, but it’s stuck as an industry standard and I suppose it is accurate. If you’re not in the know, earlier Bluetooth earbuds and in-ear monitors were wireless in the sense that there was no wire running directly to your phone or other device, but technical limitations meant that short wires connected them to one another/a receiver. Truly wireless designs are, by contrast… truly wireless. I don’t know why the term bothers me. ↩︎
  2. I didn’t pay full price for any of them, so… that helps. ↩︎
  3. SoundGuys included one in their review. I didn’t link straight to it from the post because I don’t know what their testing methodology is, and I’ve seen murmurings around that the response they were showing only manifests at higher volume. Take it with a grain of salt, but… regardless, these aren’t for bassheads. ↩︎
  4. Another one I made note of was ‘2021 Needs It’ by La Neve ↩︎
  5. I use the term high-end loosely here. A $70 pair of earbuds is only high-end in the sense that few manufacturers are making earbuds beyond the $15 price point. ↩︎
  6. Endel, Auto Play, and Soundsense. Dunno. ↩︎

The low end of the high end

Recently, Techmoan posted a video about his daily driver Walkman. This sort of pushed me to go back and finish this post that I had a half-hearted outline of regarding my daily driver Walkman. I don’t really have an exotic collection; my interesting pieces are along the lines of a My First Sony1 and the WM-EX999, notable for its two playback heads, allowing for precise azimuth settings for both directions of play. I also don’t really take my Walkmans out much; they just hang out near me as I do my day job. What I want out of a ‘daily driver,’ therefore, isn’t something that stands out by being the most compact or affordable. Rather, it’s just reliable, pleasant to use, sounds good, and has the tape select options I need (Dolby B and I/II formulation).

The deck that I’ve ended up on to fill this role is the WM-DD11. Readers familiar with Walkman nomenclature will recognize ‘DD’ as indicative that the deck uses Sony’s Disc Drive mechanism. These mechanisms use a servo-controlled motor that butts up against the capstan via a disc, leaving the sole belt path for the takeup hub. They provide good speed accuracy, largely impervious to rotation and movement of the deck. They’re mechanically simple and quite reliable, with the exception of an infamously fragile piece – the center gear. Made of a deterioration-prone plastic, this gear has failed on essentially every DD Walkman out there. While the decks continue working for some time after the gear cracks, a horrid clicking sound is emitted with every rotation. Some folks fill the inevitable crack with epoxy, buying the gear some time. Replacements are also available. But every DD deck out there either doesn’t work, clicks, or has been repaired in some way or another.

My WM-DD11 does not have any center-gear-related issues, nor has the gear been replaced or repaired. Unlike most DD models2, the WM-DD11 has no center gear. DD models were high-end models, and the WM-DD11 sat in the strange middle-ground of a stripped down, low-end version of a high-end design. This is, to me, what makes the WM-DD11 special. It’s what makes it an interesting conversation piece, and it’s also what makes it a great daily driver. Like most DD models3, it only plays unidirectionally. This is, perhaps, inconvenient for a daily driver, but it also removes the b-side azimuth issue that affects bidirectional models4. Like most DD models, it has manual controls for a couple of tape settings – Dolby B on/off and Type I/Types II & IV. And while it lacks the quartz-lock that some DD models5 had implemented by this point, the standard servo-driven disc drive system is still more accurate and stable than other low-end models of the era.

The similarities largely stop there, though. Pressing ‘play’ on the deck immediately reveals the primary difference – lacking the soft-touch logic controls of most DD models, the WM-DD11 has a mechanical ‘piano-keys’ type transport. Unlike most piano keys, Sony did premium the buttons up a bit by keeping them in the standard DD position, on the face opposite the door. This means there’s a larger mechanical path than if they were positioned directly above the head, though I doubt this complexity really affects reliability much. People often malign mechanical transports, but I rather like the physical connection between button and mechanism. They tend to feel more reliable to me as well; soft-touch mechanisms still have mechanical bits, they just have to be controlled by the integration of some motor.

With the DD models, specifically, this tracks. The cursed gear facilitates things like tape-end detection in the soft-touch DD models. I certainly don’t think Sony knew this plastic was going to deteriorate; I don’t think they knew all the capacitors they were buying in the ‘80s were going to leak after a couple of decades either. But, despite the fact that there are only a handful more internal bits in the soft-touch transport, one of these has a critical fault. The gear itself is odd – a large, donut-shaped thing that goes around a metal core. It wouldn’t surprise me if this design led to the use of a plastic that wasn’t so thoroughly time-tested.

Costs were cut in some other places – the tape head stays with the body and not the door, there are some plasticky bits that certainly don’t have the premium feel of other DD models. But the WM-DD11 fits in a market segment that seems underappreciated to me. It’s high-end in the ways that matter, while being stripped down elsewhere. That middle-ground rarely seems to exist these days, with performance going hand-in-hand with luxury and the low-end solely existing at the bottom of the barrel. It’s a false binary presumably created by the need to sexy up anything decent enough to market.It’s hard to sell half the features, but I wish companies would try. I want the low end of the high-end market to exist. I want products like my reliable, simple, yet still very performant WM-DD11 to exist.

  1. These aren’t particularly interesting, but the notion of the My First Sony line fascinates me. On the one hand, it’s just a way to get a brand name cemented into potential customers while they’re quite young and impressionable. On the other, Sony put far more design considerations into these products than my jaded mind would trust nearly any other company to. I’d like to write about these products some day. ↩︎
  2. Predating the DD nomenclature (and also being a professional model), my understanding is that the TC-D5 series of field recorders uses a similar mechanism to the DD11. ↩︎
  3. The white whale model WM-DD9 is the only DD model to do bidirectional playback. It uses a different mechanism from most DD models to accomplish this, and by my understanding this mechanism does not have the fragile center gear either. ↩︎
  4. “Just flip the tape on a bidirectional model!” Yes, except (on portable decks, at least) the option to only play a single side generally does not exist. So you’re probably going to catch this after the deck has already done a bunch of clickety-clacking to get to side B. It’s perfectly acceptable to use a bidirectional model this way, but it’s also incredibly annoying. ↩︎
  5. I, personally, have mixed feelings on quartz-lock. I think the standard DD mechanism sounds great, and the quartz-lock consumes noticeable battery. But, the WM-DD22 exists as well, essentially a (center-gearless) WM-DD11 with quartz lock. I don’t need one, but it is a bit of a beige whale. ↩︎

Commercial music media, a tier list

I’ve owned a lot of audio equipment over the years. Radio receivers, (pre)amplifiers, and equalizers of course, but more importantly the devices required for listening to… many different forms of media. I was late to the party for plenty of them, never an early-adopter and often only dipping my toes into a media after it was entirely out of production. At some point, streaming happened, and new physical formats just kinda… stopped. Existing ones seemed to be fading out; the death of the CD was a big deal. It never really died, though. Pressing plants never ceased to exist, there is no ‘last CD player ever produced.’ It’s hard to say, then, that it’s making a comeback, but alongside the vinyl and compact cassette revivals, the demise of the CD has certainly been delayed. Even more obscure formats like MiniDisc and wax cylinder are getting some niche love.

Given all of this, given my re-entry into the cassette scene, I’ve been thinking a lot about the merits and demerits of all of the media I’ve used over the years. So, here are some thoughts, in a sort of slipshod tier-list format, presented worst-to-best for the sake of suspense. While I’m going to give some historical context regarding why these were all incredible achievements at their time of introduction1, I’m ranking these as a format that I would value for any purpose beyond novelty or nostalgia today. I’m also only including formats that I’ve owned and listened to commercially available recordings on. I could make honorable mentions for ADAT and RDAT, but I’ve only used those for recording (they’re both good at what they set out to do, they’re fine). This is also just for music, despite my extensive LaserDisc collection and the fact that I’m actively digitizing VHS cassettes. Maybe that’s a post for another day. For now:

D-tier: 8-track tape (Stereo 8)

An easy medium to rank. The Stereo 8 Cartridge and the earlier 4-track Stereo-Pak had a problem to solve – get people to buy music to listen to in their cars. In solving this problem, Earl Muntz took inspiration from broadcast tape cartridges, which solve a very different set of problems. Herein lies the biggest failure of the format – the loop. 8-tracks rely on a continuous loop of tape spliced together with sensing foil, the album split across four stereo tracks. Because the audio has to switch between four programs on the same length of tape, and because rewinding doesn’t really exist on the format, gaps aren’t introduced between programs like you might have on a Compact Cassette. Instead, the gap is often the length of the sensing foil in the middle of a song. This alone relegates the format to D-tier for me. But there also just isn’t really any advantage to it today when compared with the Compact Cassette. In theory, they should be better at audio reproduction in comparison to a Compact Cassette, as their speed runs double that of the latter. In practice, I’ve never seen a high-enough end 8-track deck to think that it could’ve made a difference. They don’t feel particularly nice to handle, either. I’m glad that I’ve owned and used them before as a novelty, but I would never invest in a working one for any other reason.

D-tier: Shellac records (78s, &c.)

Before vinyl, records were made in a variety of sizes, in a variety of speeds, out of a variety of materials. But the sort of generally-settled-upon record was a 10″ or 12″ shellac disc, spinning at 78 RPM. These held about 5 minutes of music tops per side, and if you dropped them, big chunks would chip off, rendering a significant portion of the disc unplayable. The advent of the vinyl record solved both of these problems – the grooves were thinner and more accurately reproduced, allowing for a slower playback speed and more groove per side. Dropping vinyl isn’t a great idea, but it’s a much softer material, unlikely to shatter or chip. Much like the Compact Cassette being analogous-to-but-better-than the 8-track in every way, vinyl records are just all-around better than shellac. The low-tech beauty of an acoustic reproducer is about the only reason I, personally, would acquire 78s today. That 5-minute limit really kills any other appeal.

C-Tier: DVD-Audio and High Definition Compatible Digital (HDCD)

These two formats are not really similar to one another in any way, but I’m lumping them together because they are both equally boring. DVD-Audio is just… audio on a DVD. There’s a lot more space there, so you can fit much higher resolution audio, or much more audio, or audio with more channels. But it’s part of DVD, so it’s encumbered with a bunch of copy protection and encryption nonsense. It never saw a lot of commercial support, and despite how much this probably would have helped adoption, most DVD-Video players were not also DVD-Audio players. It’s a boring format.

HDCD is barely a format, but it is technologically interesting, at least. It uses (among other things) peak soft-limiting to extract a claimed 20-bits out of an otherwise normal 16-bit CD data stream. All HDCDs were, thus, backward-compatible with normal CD players, albeit with peak distortion. It was made by a company that is only known for making this one thing, a company that was then bought up by Microsoft for the sake of acquiring said thing. Perhaps HDCD would have taken off a bit more if Microsoft didn’t own it… though perhaps they did a perfectly good job managing it, who am I to say? At the end of the day, though, the interesting qualities of the format fade quickly. It’s more analogous to Compact Cassette’s Dolby noise reduction systems than anything – circuitry and a process to squeeze a little bit extra out of an existing medium.

The only thing saving these two from D-tier is the fact that they’re perfectly acceptable ways of reproducing audio.

C-tier: Digital Compact Cassette

The Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) is a genuinely neat format. And I may very well acquire a few more classical recordings on it. I have a portable player; don’t tell any of the DCC-heads, but I use it as a playback unit for analog Compact Cassettes with its incredible head. This is a big part of why I think the format was and is so neat – Philips managed to get an album’s worth of digital audio into the same physical format as their old analog Compact Cassette. Physically, the cassettes are made of a more rigid plastic than analog cassettes, more along the lines of a Zip disk. They also have a Zip-(or floppy-)esque spring-loaded shutter to cover what would be exposed tape on their analog predecessor. Tapes can’t be manually flipped – the top side has album art instead of sprocket holes. All of this leads to a very retro-future feel, the latest and greatest in digital technology.

When Sony made RDAT, they were really hoping to make SDAT, a compact digital cassette format with a cheap stationary head. This wasn’t really doable at the time, and when Philips achieved it with DCC, they did it via compression. Lossy MPEG compression. DCCs sound quite good; I think even the 12-bit tapes handily beat the first version of ATRAC compression used on Sony’s competing MiniDisc. But, like MiniDisc, it feels a bit undesirable when the Compact Disc’s pure PCM bitstream is right there. Unlike MiniDisc, DCC has all the usual trappings of a tape format. It can only seek slowly, by winding through tape, and despite the physical cassette only being insertable label-side up, it’s still a double-sided format. Every DCC deck must have an auto-reverse mechanism, because every DCC tape will stop halfway through and need to be reversed.

Quite a few classical recordings were released on the format through premiere labels like Erato, Decca, and Deutsche Grammophon. This is a definite plus for me, as I can have one deck that plays some classical music on DCC and some queer bedroom pop on analog Compact Cassette. But generally speaking, the format kind of flopped. There are nowhere near as many commercial recordings as MiniDisc. It’s not an easy format for me to get excited about collecting for. I doubt I’d touch it at all if the deck wasn’t such a good deck for analog as well. Even this is contentious, though. DCC fans basically forbid you from listening to analog tapes — the formulation of which is potentially more abrasive, and the exposed tape of which is likely dirty — on DCC decks. Only a few portable deck models were made, and if you want one, your best bet is to import it from Holland. The deck I have is pretty standard – a Philips DCC170. It’s chunky, heavy, covered in deteriorating soft-touch rubber, slow to start-up, and runs off of a bare 18650 cell in a 3d-printed adaptor. It’s a mess of a situation. All told, backward compatibility with analog Compact Cassettes is what’s saving this format from D tier.

B-Tier: MiniDisc

MiniDisc is just all around neat. It’s the first mainstream physical compressed digital medium that I can think of. It was recordable from the get-go, unlike CD, because of its magneto-optical design. Because of its fragmented recording design and its intent for portable use, all players have an audio buffer, allowing for things like gapless shuffle. I don’t really think early versions of the ATRAC lossy compression used by the format sound great, but they do sound fine, and later versions are quite good.

Here in the United States, MiniDisc never really took off. We just sort of dealt with chunky portable CD players that had like three seconds of anti-shock buffer. Perhaps this is good, the secondhand market for CDs and CD equipment is great. But I wish I could’ve experienced MiniDisc in a place and time where it was popular. It deserved it; it accomplished its goal of being a really good digital alternative to the old humble Compact Cassette. It made some compromises (ATRAC), but it looked and felt cool doing it. I don’t really have a desire to get back into MiniDiscs; I’m perfectly happy with my phone, MP3 player, or a cassette Walkman for music on the go. MiniDisc doesn’t really have an advantage over any of those (okay, it has advantages over tape, but that’s not the point with tape), so its appeal to me is purely from admiring its technological solutions to the problems of size and recording. And even though I, personally, am less likely to collect MiniDiscs in 2022 than DCCs, I do think its design decisions make it a much more practical format.

B-Tier: Reel-to-reel tape

Reel-to-reel tape is a decent home listening format. It sounds spectacular. As an artifact, it’s even more ritualistic to handle than vinyl. The tape must be threaded into the machine in just the right way – over this spindle, under that. It’s hardly plug-and-play, but something about loading the reels just sets you up for a satisfying listening experience. I have to knock a few points for the complexity of playback, and a few more for the wide variety of tape speeds, sizes, and track configurations that mean a serious collector needs multiple decks. I have a couple of decks in storage, but would really like to acquire a compact unit like the Akai X-V. Even then, it would likely be for my own transfers rather than seeking out collectible commercially-produced reels. Solid B-tier format.

B-Tier: Super Audio CD (SACD)

SACD makes it up to B-tier for exactly one reason: Direct Stream Digital (DSD). I find the Compact Disc to be a (spoiler alert) neat format because it’s a raw PCM bitstream. SACD isn’t quite raw; its DSD data is losslessly compressed and the discs are unfortunately encumbered by encryption. But DSD itself is still very neat – while a Red Book CD takes the relatively slow, relatively high-bitrate approach, DSD is instead a 1-bit, 2.8224MHz pulse-density modulated signal. The concept of fast 1-bit digital audio is often touted as being ‘more analog.’ This is debatable, and I don’t have any desire to engage in that debate here. I do think that a non-PCM approach to digital audio is interesting, and I find tech that explores this area fascinating. SACD wasn’t a great commercial success, but some good recordings are out there; all the discs I’ve heard sound great. I would really only collect these for the sake of ripping to DSD Over PCM, but unfortunately the process for that involves having a very specific firmware on a PlayStation of some sort. If I had a ripping solution, I’d be very into collecting these.

A-Tier: Compact Cassette

Compact cassettes were my childhood. I got into Tangerine Dream, Björk, the Twin Peaks OST because I inherited a bunch of tapes my cool sister was getting rid of. They sounded good enough, and compared to the somewhat-fragile record player and vinyl, they were a reliable plug-and-play solution for a kid. Eventually CDs and CD players dropped in price, though. They sounded great, offered quick random access, and were even more reliable. With the CD’s prominence, who needed tapes? They started disappearing from music stores, and for years I basically felt like they were fully in my past.

At the beginning of the pandemic, for one reason or another I decided to get a Walkman and I figured I’d get like… ten or so tapes. I’m easily over fifty now2, with three well-stickered hot pink Clik Cases full of synthesizers and angry queers. They’re still quite compact. They sound better than my memory would’ve led me to believe. And, unlike a CD, they’re artifacts that I want to handle. I want to look at the cassette and see that it’s rewound. I want to flip it partway through. I want to marvel at the colorful and glittery shells modern tape labels are using. I buy CDs these days to immediately rip to ALAC files, storing the discs as a backup medium only. Since I turn them into files, I often pick-and-choose songs instead of listening to albums in their entirety. Cassettes are an album format to me, a mindset. I’m only putting them in A-tier instead of S-tier because of things like wind times, noise floor, azimuth issues, wow/flutter… all of these things are pretty minor, but I definitely get why the Compact Cassette renaissance isn’t for everyone.

S-Tier: Compact Disc (specifically, Compact Disc Digital Audio)

Once they became affordable, CDs were a huge part of my life. I didn’t know anything about the technical side of how they worked3, but I knew they were shiny and cool. They sounded great on the cheapest of machines, and unlike tape, those machines couldn’t really eat the discs. All manner of changers existed, I had several machines that used 6-disc caddies, I had a 60-disc direct-access Technics machine, and a 300-disc Sony unit with a rotating tray. Everything about the CD was effortless and convenient. Eventually, I got a burner for my hi-fi stack, which largely supplanted my MiniDisc deck. Even when I got my first iPod4, I preferred my own high-bitrate rips over anything the iTunes store offered at the time. Now, I often buy used CDs on eBay, as this is a cheaper solution than getting a lossless download (if such a thing is even available). The disc itself then serves as a backup.

I think part of the CD’s staying power has to do with this ability to rip. CDs are fascinating to me as a pretty unique format. It’s completely unencumbered by encryption or other DRM. It’s not files on a data (CD-ROM) disc, it’s an uncompressed raw PCM bitstream with a table of contents that lays out the tracks. I imagine this lack of encumbrances also helped the format’s broad adoption. Users like things that just work, and part of ‘just working’ is being able to take advantage of one of digital data’s fundamental truths: its ability to be infinitely duplicated.

S-Tier: Vinyl record

Compared to shellac, vinyl is great. Play time is long enough to not be obnoxious, and the discs are pretty easy to keep in a single piece. Compared to reel-to-reel tape, the format is much more standardized5 and playback is much less involved. And more than any of the compact formats mentioned, a 12×12″ full-bleed jacket housing a bright colorful slab of vinyl (as many current-day releases are) makes for an incredibly pleasant artifact.

Vinyl sounds good. Digital formats obviously have no inherent noise floor, and can perfectly reproduce signals within the bounds of human hearing. Digital formats are incredibly good, and a lot of the things people like about analog formats tend to be because they perceive digital formats to be too good. But conceding that analog formats have technical limitations that digital formats solve, vinyl still sounds really good. Like the Compact Cassette, it’s a format for albums that I want to listen to start-to-finish. It’s a mindset. Cassettes are more portable, but the ritual involved in dropping the needle, the feeling of handling the record as an artifact… it all sets the mindset perfectly. I don’t think the ritual is quite as engaging as that of reel-to-reel, but the practicality of the format makes it truly S-tier.

I started really collecting vinyl when I was in high school, and while life changes made me take a few breaks, I never really stopped. My current collection is much different from what I scrounged up at secondhand shops when I was young, and much more personal. It’s a format that feels good, sounds good, and above all is just kind of magical.

Ultimately this is what my modern listening habits boil down to. My phone or DAP/MP3 player are a practical, functional day-to-day, carry-everywhere solution for listening to a lot of music accurately. CDs facilitate that. Vinyl and cassettes capture something else that’s still incredibly valuable to me on a day-to-day basis. More obscure formats like DCC and MiniDisc remain fascinating examples of cutting-edge digital technology. And while I never want to replace the foam on another 8-track again, even that format — miserable by modern standards — has a story to tell.

  1. I genuinely believe this, even for the D-tier choice. ↩︎
  2. …don’t ask how many Walkmans. ↩︎
  3. Beyond, you know, ‘pew! pew! laser!’ ↩︎
  4. My first iPod was not my first MP3 player. Many years before, I had a Diamond Rio. It was not particularly viable. ↩︎
  5. Plenty of obscure formats did come up, of course, like quadrophonic solutions and records that play backward, but for the most part your only real concern is 33.3 or 45 RPM. ↩︎

On Wordle and Fragmentation

So, the New York Times bought the word game phenomenon Wordle for ‘low seven figures,’ or expressed in more human terms, ‘upward of a million dollars.’ I’m happy that Josh Wardle got his bag, though I despise the NYT for things like rampant copaganda, warmongering, transphobic editorial practices, and puzzlingly enough, boot-licking anti-labor covid jokes. It seems logical that Wordle will eventually get wrapped in with the other games that they NYT bundles alongside its crossword section, itself mired in controversy. Needless to say, I’ll be opting out of the game as soon as opting in means the NYT gets any ad revenue or mined data. A cursory glance at the replies on the NYT’s awkwardly third-person-voiced tweet shows that I’m not the only one who is unhappy with the news.

Wordle’s viral success was pretty clearly due to a combination of only a handful of factors. It’s a quick game and it’s difficult to lose. There’s only one puzzle every day, and everyone in the world has the same one. Upon completion, a share card generates the ubiquitous and iconic emoji-based teaser. These things combine to make a game where everyone is on the same page, generally feels a sense of accomplishment, and can readily share a captivating glance of their progress with everyone else who is in the know. It’s an ideal model of a viral design, even if the creator just made it on a lark for his partner to enjoy. I don’t think this was crucial to its success, but it didn’t hurt that it was self-contained, a single HTML file calling a single JS1 file with the only unnecessary fluff being Google Tag Manager. Even if people didn’t realize this, it certainly had an impact as far as being reliably quick to load. Grossly, the NYT writing about it prior to buying it almost certainly helped as well.

In my mind, the acquisition news immediately and irreparably fragmented what felt like the most important aspect of the game – the fact that folks across the globe were all working on the same challenge over the course of the same 24 hours2. Debates over which clone(s) – of which there are many – we should all migrate to flooded the replies to NYT’s tweet, Discord servers I’m in, and text messages from my friends. Almost as quickly, conversations about the game seemed to dry up significantly. When there’s one clear canonical version of a thing that everyone enjoys, it’s easy to stay in sync. When enough people suddenly hate that version of the thing, we’re now plagued by the paradox of choice. Assuming we all collectively get over that hump, the best-case scenario is that those of us who fled Official Wordle all collectively agree on the One Canonical Clone. This won’t happen, of course; attempts at unifying on this cause are already comically fraught. But let’s pretend it does.

The New York Times is going to succeed with its acquisition; there are plenty of NYT subscribers, plenty of folks who subscribe solely to the crossword, and plenty of players who simply won’t care unless and until it disappears behind a paywall. In this best-case scenario, we’re still going to have two distinct groups. How this plays out depends on the hypothetical One Canonical Clone.

Wordle clones are a dime a dozen. As mentioned, the game has no inaccessible dependencies. It’s entirely contained in an HTML file and a JS file. You can go download these now and play a local copy forever3. As such, plenty of the clones out there are exact clones, or nearly-so, just changing a name or colorscheme. I know of several of these hiding in the shadows on personal servers, for obvious reasons. If we all agreed one of these was the One Canonical Clone, we’d maintain perfect parity with the Official Wordle, but taking it down would be trivial for the NYT and we’d all have to make the clone decision again. The (technically, not legally) open nature of the source also means that we have access to the two word lists that the game uses. It is thus entirely possible to write the game code from scratch, only scraping the word lists. It’s worth noting that the order of the solutions list matters as well – it’s prerandomized, and the script doesn’t rely on PRNG at all. This too would ensure parity between Official Wordle and the One Canonical Clone, but I imagine NYT could get this taken down via the word list copyright violation. They could also at any time obscure their own code and change either of the word lists and/or implement PRNG. Of course, plenty of the clones that folks are flocking to4 don’t even attempt parity from the jump.

This of course ignores matters of feature parity and deviations from the original. Does the clean-room One Canonical Clone have a colorblind mode? Can NYT sneakily claim grids of yellow, green, and grey are protected trade dress? Will the One Canonical Clone’s developer add “helpful” features that add just enough friction to make daily play more of a nuisance than a joy? The clones are all too similar to declare an obvious replacement, but a lot of questions would remain even if we all managed to unite on this.

I don’t know what the point of this post really is. I think sometimes we grow attached to a Thing and we lose it for reasons beyond our control. This sucks, and in a desperate attempt to cling to the Thing, we frantically scramble to replace the Thing while realize that what made the Thing special could only really exist within the Thing’s original context. Sometimes it’s best to learn from what you loved about the Thing and channel that into Something New. Enjoy Things while you have them, lament their loss, but know that you’ll experience that feeling again. In my opinion, the news of Wordle’s acquisition was enough to ruin the Thing. And I think that just has to be ok.

  1. Plenty of folks aptly noted that Wordle felt a lot like the good ol’ days of the internet. Functional, not bloated, not swarming with modals and ads. There’s a lot to be said for that. ↩︎
  2. Rollover is at midnight local time, so there is some disparity across time zones. ↩︎
  3. Okay, not technically. The solutions word list contains approximately 2,300 entries. These are not chosen with a PRNG; they’re hardcoded into the game in a random order. My understanding is that there isn’t a contingency once the end of this list is hit in 2028. ↩︎
  4. hello wordl is a prime example. Interestingly, this was a clone that existed prior to the acquisition, largely for the sake of being able to play more than one puzzle in a day. After the acquisition the dev changed it over to daily mode by default to more closely mimic the original game. I don’t mean to knock the dev here at all, she’s doing good work on a thing people want. The response to the news has just felt like a scramble from all sides. ↩︎