I listened to Taylor Swift’s new songs on a 22-year-old Sony Walkman and it was a tortured experience I won’t try again

Sony Walkman and Taylor Swift
(Image credit: Getty Images / Future (Composite))

The first time I heard Taylor Swift's Fortnight, a new song off the Tortured Poet's Department featuring Post Malone, it was through an FM radio built into a 22-year-old Sony Walkman CD player, but even with the poor reception, the lyrics resonated with this almost forgotten technology:

"I was supposed to be sent away

But they forgot to come and get me"

Listening to Swift's new blockbuster, the thirty-one-track-double album Tortured Poet's Department, on vintage technology was, I admit, an accident.

I'd unexpectedly discovered the Sony Walkman model D-FS601 buried in a box in my basement while searching for a Firewire cable for another aging piece of technology (a 2008 camcorder, but that's another story).

Though yellowing, the player, which also includes an AM/FM radio, dedicated weather channels, and even TV channels, looked otherwise in decent shape. I forgot all about the Firewire and brought the classic Sony Walkman upstairs to my home office.

As the name suggests, Sony Walkman's were meant to go where you go, which means battery operation (there's also a DC-in port so I could plug it into the wall but then what's the point?). With more than a little trepidation, I opened the battery compartment, which sits inside the device and under where you'd normally place a CD. I was praying that it wasn't filled with a pair of exploded double AA batteries. To my surprise and relief, it was empty and clean as a whistle.

Sony Walkman 2002

(Image credit: Future)

Shake it off

Holding the Walkman in my hand, I was surprised at its heft. Though listed on Amazon as weighing 9.6 ounces, I'd contend it weighs at least a pound. Like the original Sony Walkman (circa 1979) the player's shape was defined by its media. Whereas the first Walkman wrapped itself around a cassette tape, this 2002 model was mostly a circle. I say mostly because one side of the player is a big, grippable section. 

The idea was to put all the controls within thumb or fingertip reach. A built-in band would slip over your palm and you could control the power, play, skip, and pause with just your thumb. You'd still need to use your other hand to press almost a dozen other button options on the Walkman, though.

Sony Walkman 2002

(Image credit: Future)

There's something very forward-looking and also retrograde about this design. Who wants to carry around a pound of gear in their hand while running? Oh, and yes, this was a CD player designed to withstand a splash of water and take the bumps of a runner's road with what's known as built-in "G" protection. \

This didn't mean that the laser never skipped. Instead, the system cached 30-40 seconds of music (depending on the setting, I think) and would automatically cancel out missed bits of music. It was a smart idea that also ate up a little battery life.

A CD with style

Sony Walkman 2002

(Image credit: Future)

I found some fresh batteries, put them in, and immediately discovered that the radio worked. It was still set to one of our favorite radio stations from 20 years ago: 95.5, which has since become an all-religion network.

Putting the Sony Walkman aside for a minute, I headed back to the basement to dig through my still extensive CD collection. With almost all the songs ever recorded available online on the best music streaming services, there's probably no good reason to hold onto all these plastic bits of music memories. However, if you are, as I am, currently in between music services, they may not seem so obsolete after all.

I popped in a Motown: Jackson 5 Greatest Hits album and then went back to the box where I found the player to see if the originally wired headphones were still around. They were not but I found a pair with "MP3" printed on them, so I chose those and quickly wished I hadn't. The cable was too short, the earbuds fit was basic, and the sound was abysmal. I soon found a newer pair from Samsung and the sound was lovely and rich. Of course, there's a bass boost (three settings) on the Walkman, and I amped it to the mid-range. I won't claim the audio was better than what I get from, say, Spotify or Apple Music on my iPhone but it was good.

These features were over now

Naturally, I would much rather use a Bluetooth headphone with the Walkman, but that wireless protocol was only a few years old in 2002 and not widely used in music players and stereo headphones. I could, if I wanted, spend $20 for a Bluetooth transmitter that plugs into the player's 3.5mm headphone jack.

There's a lot on this Walkman that is no longer useful. It has built-in TV audio receivers for a collection of local broadcast channels that no longer transmit in anything except digital. Plus there are those weather stations that now play nothing but static.

As I noted earlier, the radio, both AM and FM, still works. I started looking for a single station I could reliably pick up – and that's when I found Z100 and Taylor Swift.

Founded in 1983, Z100 had been broadcasting top 40 hits to millions of listener's ears six years before Taylor Swift was born but unlike some old stations that stuck with the music that brought them, Z100 changes with the times and is in step with what's new, fresh, and undeniably hot. In today's moment, that's Taylor Swift and the Tortured Poet's Department.

The mega music star launched her surprise dual album on April 19, coincidentally the same day I began playing with the vintage Sony Walkman CD Player.

Don't blame me 

Sony Walkman 2002

(Image credit: Future)

As I tuned the radio to Z100, I heard familiar vocals. It was Taylor Swift, and not just any Taylor Swift, (say a banger from 1989 or Anti-Hero from Midnight). No, I could tell, this was one of Swift's song-poems from the Tortured Poet's Department. In quick succession, the station played Fortnight, I Can Do It with a Broken Heart, and My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys. Suddenly, the album was in heavy rotation.

It also sounded terrible.

Not the songs. Even from the static-filled bits I could make out, this was some beautiful and tortured stuff. But no matter where I moved in my house, the reception and clarity were abysmal, far worse than even my car radio.

I quickly realized this was the wrong introduction to Swift's last bit of unloading about yet another past relationship (and maybe her current one with football star Travis Kelce). After a few tracks, I gave up.

There is nothing wrong with using this yellowed CD player for physical media, especially the classics, but new tunes deserve the best mp3 player and best headphones you can buy. It's Taylor Swift, she deserves no less and I offer apologies to all the Swifties I've offended.

It's me, hi, I'm the problem, it's me.

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Lance Ulanoff
Editor At Large

A 38-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of PCMag.com and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.