Sony’s WM-D6C Walkman Professional cassette recorder is a vast, brick-like thing compared to any modern music portable. At 180x90x40mm, it’s crazily cumbersome by contemporary standards – rather like an eighties mobile phone compared to the latest iDevice. But when you look closer, you see the very best sounding portable ever made…
Let’s not forget that Apple did not invent the market for portable audio, Sony did, some thirty five years ago. And let’s also remember that Sony offered a massive variety of sizes and shapes, along with a single, take-no-prisoners, ‘ultimate performance’ variant – the 1984 Walkman Pro you see here before you. More impressively, the Walkie Pro actually beat almost every full sized cassette deck hands down in a straight fight – only the true greats such as Nakamichi’s CR-7E bettered it. Nice as an iPod is, it’s no contest against a £300 hi-fi separate CD player – that latter pastes it. This shows the sheer scale of achievement of the Sony, and puts its brilliance into proper perspective.
Indeed, the Pro was so special that it started a whole new ‘mobile audiophile’ sub cult. Audiophiles played their prized vinyl on their Linn Sondeks, plugged the WM-D6C into their preamp tape outs and recorded superb copies which they played out and about, or in the car on their top-of-the-range Pioneer or Kenwood car stereos. Backpackers took Walkie Pros to India in their gap year, broadcasters gave up their Uher Report 4000 open reels for them, and musicians spent countless hours out and about, recording ‘sound FX’ with them to mix into their latest creations. It was so damn useful, and so cool to boot.
Why so special? Well, it came down to Sony’s decision to use the very best heads and transport mechanism, allied to their ability to make them with such precision. Even when it came out in 1985, it was no fashion leader, but somehow that didn’t matter, such was its consummate quality. The Walkie Pro came in a black painted alloy case, when all others were smaller, brighter and plasticky. Then there was the extra ‘Record’ button – something you almost never saw on a cassette portable of this type. The Dolby selector was another give-away, offering on later models both B and C noise reduction systems on a little slider switch. Then there was the bank of little oblong LEDs, with peak indicators flashing at +3dB and +6dB.
Looking around the back was no less intriguing – a facility to switch off the quartz-lock speed control to allow variable pitch playback. This was another tell-tale sign of its status, as most conventional cassette decks didn’t even boast such a thing. Then there was the mechanical tape counter, the large battery box packing four AA cells, and a long volume slider controlling one of the beefiest headphone amps going. The transport, with its beefy capstan and expensive looking heads, was quite unlike other portables. Clunky in an over-engineered sort of way, the WM-D6C lacked the airs and graces of most hi-fi cassette decks, and its non-logic assisted controls snapped into place in an agricultural way. But this didn’t deter, as it has a ‘hewn from solid’ feel.
Feed it a good metal tape and instead of the usual splashy, mushy treble, all is sparklingly clear and vivid. Gone is the traditional wobbly Walkman midband with vague imaging and fuzzy detail, and in its place a clean, confident soundstage with bold lateral and front-to-back imaging. Then there’s the bass – run from batteries or a high quality DC supply, low frequencies have a speed and power like few other cassette machines ever made.
The heads fitted to all but the final models are so good that given a Sony Metal ES blank, you can get the record levels hitting +6dB with ease. The results are little less than astounding – so tight, so powerful, so clean, so dynamic, so musical. The usual cassette nasties (wow and flutter, tape hiss, compression) are comprehensively banished. Indeed, the Walkman Professional was one of Sony’s very best high end hi-fi cassette transport, squeezed into a box and run from batteries. Its record/replay head is also a top dollar laser amorphous affair, and to compensate for the lack of dual capstans (too tricky to fit into such a small box), the WM-D6C got the first quartz-lock servo control to grace a Sony cassette deck. This explains its superb speed stability and fantastic overload figures.
Nowadays, the only problem with buying secondhand is that – thanks to their stunning build, many people abused them as a matter of course, running them into the ground. Faced with ‘pro use’, the transport can break easily and the lack of proper auto-stop (its only conspicuous fault) can wreck the motor. The heads don’t last forever either. So be warned. A newish, mint, low use example is worth £200, but there are dodgy characters out there passing off twenty year old nails for upwards of £150 – don’t even think about these. Find a good one though, and they’re still a stunning bit of kit for analogue addicts, and subject any modern music portable to sonic shame!