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The woman basks in Caribbean sunlight as Jimmy Buffett ``wastes away again in Margaritaville ... .'

The serenade's source? A JVC PC-X300 - what some used to call a ``boom box.' The mutant son of the transistor radio. The anti-Walkman.Somewhere in between requests for Grey Poupon, an ad asks us to believe, this woman bought a portable stereo. Some manufacturers create scenes like these to counter the portable stereo's, eh, stereotype. One ad even advises the reader to ``call it anything but a boom box.' Maybe it's working. Or maybe the image of the boom box as a weapon of youthful rebellion was a bum rap in the first place.

Many owners of boom boxes aren't even young enough to be baby boomers. Others are upwardly mobile professionals who like their music to go.

Whatever the market, these big plastic rectangles with even bigger voices have made their mark on American pop culture.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Electronics Industry Association, consumers bought 26.3 million portable stereos in 1988. The association projects sales of 28.5 million in 1990.

Ernie Clendenin, 37, a crane operator from Pleasant Garden, bought his portable 15 years ago. ``I just love music,' he says. ``And I like to dance.'

Keith Bowman, 58, a farmer from Greensboro, takes his everywhere he goes.

``I'm not the carry-it-on-your-shoulders type guy,' he says, ``but I use it for recording mainly.'

Bowman says he originally bought his portable to record instructions for dancing, but now he uses it to listen to music and record concerts.

``I listen to a lot of bluegrass and gospel music,' he says. ``I've recorded at least 700 concerts with my boom box. I use it for all sorts of things. I even record sounds in the wild.'

Then there are the young fogeys.

Scott Andrews, a student at Southeast Guilford Senior High School, received his boom box as a Christmas gift two years ago.

``I want to become a musician,' says Andrews, 17, ``and I listen to music for backing and inspiration.'

With more flashing lights, knobs and levers than an air traffic controller's console, the traditional boom box is an electronic talisman.

Radio Raheem brandishes one in Spike Lee's ``Do the Right Thing,' blaring the streetwise rap of Public Enemy almost from the movie's beginning to its end. John Cusack holds one high over his head to serenade an aloof teen angel in ``Say Anything.' Mr. Spock uses the Vulcan pinch on a punk rocker who plays one too loudly in ``Star Trek IV.' Even the Joker's henchmen keep one handy in ``Batman' to provide appropriate mood music.

And the bigger, the better.

Kids lug 'em around, often on one shoulder, straining to look cool. The look is definitely important, but you often hear monster boxes before you see them. Everyone within seemingly a 12-mile radius listens to the music, without much of a choice.

The newer breed of boom box is more elegant and understated, say Greensboro retailers. In fact, they aren't really boxes at all, with rounder edges and such high-tech features as CD players and dual cassette players.

Chalk it up to shrewd marketing, says Marlon Moore, supervisor of the audio department at Circuit City. ``The manufacturers have changed the style of the boxes,' Moore says. ``They're sleeker and a lot better looking. Before, bigger was better. Now, with the addition of the CD player the emphasis is on quality, not quantity.'

The changes have attracted new customers, says Tom Lauterback of the Electronics Industry Association. ``The compact boom boxes were a godsend,' he says.

``They are about the size of a carton of cigarettes. The sizing down broadens the appeal of the product. You don't need 24-inch biceps to carry it around. They are lightweight and can be carried around easily or placed on a shelf.'

Back in Greensboro, Brendle's Harold Pierce agrees, pointing out that size is not necessarily the best determiner of sound. ``The old boom boxes were extremely loud, but the sound was distorted,' he says. ``When a customer comes in asking for a box with a CD player, I know they are concerned with the quality of the sound.'

Although the big, bulky models are still available, Pierce says, most customers prefer the newer style.

The emergence of CD players probably has been the biggest change in the portable stereo industry, raising the prices of higher-end models. But as Circuit City's Moore points out, ``you get what you pay for.'

Another refinement is the speakers. In the past, practically all of the models had encased speakers. However, today's more expensive models have speakers you can unlatch from the main unit, and up to 4 feet of speaker wire.

Brendle's Pierce says that a lot of customers remain teenagers hoping to have the best of both worlds: the sound of a stereo system but the mobility of a box.

And Robert Schmalenberger of SoundSystems warns that ``convenience is definitely a trade-off on quality.' The better home system still is going to deliver better sound, he says.

But many who buy the boxes nowadays already have home systems. While teens like the boxes because they're easy to transport, yet double as personal home stereos, most 25- to 40-year-olds already have invested $1,000 to $2,000 on home components. To them, the portableis a plaything to take on the road.

``Last Christmas a woman came in and bought her husband a $430 JVC so he could take it on the beach,' says Pierce.

Elderly customers seem to like the new image and quality of the boxes, say retailers. Not inclined to sink too much money into a home system, they can enjoy CDs and tapes at reasonable prices.

The cost depends on the features. The lower-end models, providing a tape player and radio, can be as inexpensive as $90. The mid-range may offer dual cassette decks, and cost around $200. On the high end, boxes with CD players, five-band equalizers and detachable speakers fetch up to $500.

Whatever the price or features, yesterday's inner-city icon is going mainstream. And, at least according to advertisers, what once was a boom box now is simply a stereo system - with a handle.

Staff writers LaVonne McIver and Jacqueline James contributed to this article.

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