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The Sony Walkman

It is a little difficult to describe the cultural impact the Walkman had on an entire generation, but it’s no exaggeration to say that the Walkman transformed popular culture in the 80s. There’s even a funny thing called the ‘Walkman Effect’, which refers to the phenomenon of isolating yourself in a personal soundscape. We take this ‘effect’ for granted today, but it all started with the launch of an innocuous device into an unsuspecting — and global! — market, by an electronics company that just happened to be headquartered in Japan. 

The story of the Walkman is really the story of Sony, and the story of Sony is one of continued innovation under great uncertainty. 

What is interesting about the Walkman is that it wasn’t a difficult technological breakthrough. There were parts of the Walkman’s development that turned out to be technically challenging, but — as we’ll soon see — those challenges weren’t the biggest obstacles in bringing it to market.

Before the Walkman, cassette players were already quite popular. Sony rolled out its first cassette recorder — the TC-100 in 1968. It was a neat device that set the bar for cassette recorders over the next couple of decades. A year later, Sony’s miniature recorder, the TC-50, made headlines because it went to space on NASA's Apollo missions to the moon. Its form factor was uniquely designed to enable one-handed operation, in particular the placement and operation of its buttons. 

In 1978, Sony released two products that would play an important part in the story of the Walkman. The Pressman was Sony’s monaural tape recorder. It was a compact, light-weight device well-suited for journalists recording interviews or dictating notes. The other product was the TC-D5. A high-end stereo cassette recorder, the TC-D5 was used by enthusiasts to record in outdoor settings. Legend has it that when Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka wanted to listen to music, he often plugged in a pair of headphones to the TC-D5. He enjoyed listening to music on the go as well — for example, on long flights overseas. The sound quality was great, but the TC-D5 was too heavy to be carried everywhere. In response to this, Sony engineers modified the Pressman — they stripped out the recording circuit and added in a stereo amplifier. The device now functioned as a portable playback-only stereo player. The idea for the Walkman was born.

Sony’s other founder, Akio Morita, recognized the commercial potential for a truly portable music player — the new and improved Pressman paired with a set of light-weight headphones. This was ground-breaking. To put things into context: the possibility of having a personal soundscape that one could walk around with did not exist in the 1970s. Building a device capable of this was not a hugely complicated technical challenge … but there was simply no proven market for it. In his autobiography Made in Japan: Akio Morita and Sony, Morita mentions that he does not believe that any amount of market research could have predicted that the Walkman would be a success. This is how he describes Sony’s approach to innovation at the time:

“For many years now we have put well over 6 percent of sales into research and development, and some years as much as 10 percent. Our plan is to lead the public with new products rather than ask them what kind of products they want. The public does not know what is possible, but we do. So instead of doing a lot of market research, we refine our thinking on a product and its use and try to create a market for it by educating and communicating with the public.” [bold emphasis added]

Other leading Japanese companies are also known to be sceptical of traditional market research tools.

Morita assembled a team to start working on the Walkman in February of 1979. He defined the target market as the youth who were growing increasingly passionate about music. Morita wanted to launch the player before the Japanese summer vacations started in June. With only four months to go, the team was on a tight timeline. 

Many people in the company pushed back on the Walkman from the get go. The engineers were not convinced that there would be consumer demand for a product without the capacity to record. The Walkman’s portable headphones were also regarded with suspicion. It’s impossible to overestimate how unusual an idea it was because the headphones available on the market were clunky, expensive affairs — not a trendy accessory that youngsters would be keen to sport outdoors. They were mostly associated with hearing impairment, people in very specific job roles (like telephone operators), or niche audiophiles.

But Morita was unshakeable. He strongly believed in the Walkman. So much so that he agreed to resign if the product did not work. In his own words:

“They said it wouldn’t sell, and it embarrassed me to be so excited about a product most others thought would be a dud. But I was so confident the product was viable that I said I would take personal responsibility for the project. I never had reason to regret it.”

Image source.

The first model of the first-gen Walkman was the TPS-L2. The basic case and mechanical parts of the device were borrowed from the Pressman. It had a characteristic blue and silver body with an orange button at the top. The TPS-L2 could run for eight hours on a single charge of its batteries. It was fitted with two headphone sockets so that two people could listen to music at once. This feature was added to avoid criticism that the device was impolite or isolating (In fact, Morita suggested the feature because his wife felt shut out when he was testing an early version of the product out!). Today, it is telling of how unconventional the concept of a personal music player was.

The team worked on trimming down the Pressman to meet the use case — removing the recording circuit, loudspeaker, and microphone socket. However, the internal microphone was retained. It was used for the “hot line” function built into the device. When the orange button at the top of the TPS-L2 was pressed, the sound of the cassette was reduced and mixed with the output from the microphone. This allowed the two people listening to music together to talk to each other over the song — another indication of how revolutionary the Walkman was. Both the second headphone socket and the hot line feature were removed in later models of the device.

The specs of the TPS-L2 speak to the fact that technology for the music player already existed. By making the Walkman, Sony leaned into what was already available to create demand for a new product; to create a new consumer behaviour. A review of the Walkman two decades after it was first released says: “The virtuosity of the first Walkman was that it daringly exposed precise technology to the perils of portability.”

The real technical challenge with the Walkman was the headphones that were bundled with it — the MDR-3L2. Morita even called it out as one of the most difficult parts of the project. 

What were headphones like before Sony’s MDR-3L2s?

In 1937 the German company Beyerdynamic launched the world’s first dynamic headphones — the DT-48. But they were forced to freeze production when World War II broke out. Two decades later, John Koss invented the stereo headphone. Weighing around two kilograms, they were the first headphones produced specifically for listening to music. People used them to listen to their LPs. Koss had this to say about one of the company’s early models, the SP/3X:

“Back then if someone handed you a headset, it had been designed for a telephone operator or a bombardier. The SP/3X meant nothing to anyone until they could actually hear it, and when they did, it was about as exciting as their first ride in a car, or flight on an airplane. The sound of the SP/3X Stereophone was about that exciting.”

Koss was successful in popularising headphones among the masses. His success prompted would-be giants like Phillips and Sennheiser to enter the market as well. In the 1980s, Koss diversified into other electronics. As the demand for light-weight headphones to accompany portable music devices grew, Koss began losing market share. That’s where Sony succeeded.

The Walkman was designed to enable people to listen to music on the go. The headphones needed to be light enough for people to jog in the park while wearing them. Yoshiyuki Kamon, a Sony engineer who worked on developing the MDR-3L2s said:

“Most headphones at the time were the large kind that covered your ears. When it came to using a new material to make headphones, our concept was to make them so small and light that you don’t even feel them. We wanted them to be the smallest in the world. Everything we did, we were doing for the first time and that’s how the whole factory operation started.” [Translated from Japanese by Sony Electronics Asia Pacific]

Image source.

The MDR-3L2s were a stripped down pair of dynamic headphones — in which a coil wire fed by the amplifier was fixed directly to a diaphragm that floated in the magnetic field. In place of the typical ferrite magnets, Sony used much lighter rare-earth ones. The rare-earth magnet was paired with a polyester diaphragm over an open-backed plastic frame. These materials were not commonly used in consumer electronics. The stereo mini-jack on the MDR-3L2s was also developed by Sony for the first time — they made it licence-free so that any company could use it. The mini-jack ended up becoming the industry standard.

The final product came with a thin headband and distinctive foam pads. It weighed only around 50 grams and the headphone driver units were about 23 millimetres across (less than half the size of the earmuffs of conventional headphones at the time). With the MDR-3L2s, Sony met their design goals:

“The essential difference between them and all those models from the earlier years was that, thanks to their easier portability and low weight, you could listen to music in your room, at the park, while walking, pretty much anywhere.”

The headphones evolved over time. First, into in-ear designs. And later in 1997, Sony introduced a new model which didn’t have a headband. The MDR-G61 headphones wrap around the user’s neck instead of on top of their head. Sony followed popular trends and eventually transitioned into earbuds. But the legacy of the MDR-3L2s still lives on. Late Sony designer Yasuo Kuroki put it aptly:

“Everyone knows what headphones sound like today. But at the time, you couldn’t even imagine it, and then suddenly Beethoven’s Fifth is hammering between your ears.”

On June 2, 1979, Sony launched the Walkman. It retailed at ¥ 33,000 — a price point Morita thought would make it affordable for the college-going youth. Instead of a standard press conference, they arranged a live demonstration of the product. They escorted the journalists to a park and handed each of them a Walkman and a pair of headphones. As the journalists listened to a tape that explained the features of the product, Sony staff used the Walkman around them —on skateboards and tandem bicycles. 

The reception of the press was muted at best. In the first month, Sony only sold around 3,000 units of the Walkman. With focused advertising efforts, sales quickly picked up. By the end of August, 1979 — just three months after the launch — the initial batch of 30,000 devices had sold out. The rest is history. When Sony celebrated the Walkman’s twentieth anniversary, they had sold 186 million units.

The Walkman was a hugely successful product that heralded a new age of personal audio systems. But the journey wasn’t always smooth sailing. Here’s a small piece of the product’s history that you won’t find on Sony’s website. Two years before the Walkman launched, a German citizen called Andreas Pavel had filed patents across the globe for a device called the “Stereobelt”. The Stereobelt was a personal stereo system which consisted of a cassette holder, soundboard, and microphone hooked onto a belt. It wasn’t a single integrated device — each part of the product was encased in a separate compartment. When Pavel initially approached Sony for royalty payments, they obliged by giving him a cut of their profits in Germany. However, Pavel wanted more. 

He filed infringement cases against Sony in the United Kingdom. British courts ruled in Sony’s favor — holding that a portable stereo player was a straightforward development of an existing product; it lacked the truly inventive step that would qualify for patent protection. This was also the reason Sony had not filed a patent for the device themselves. Pavel threatened to sue Sony in other jurisdictions. To avoid protracted litigation, Sony paid Pavel a hefty settlement amounting to millions of euros in 2004. 

Over time, Sony launched hundreds of Walkman iterations. Morita has an interesting take on how the product evolved:

“It is interesting that what has happened with Walkman is that something that began by taking away features from a full scale recording and playback unit has now come almost full circle. We have put back—or made available with add-on devices like tiny speakers—all the features we removed in the first place, and even added some new ones, like the capability of copying from one tape to another.”

Image source.

This is reminiscent of the lifecycle of the iPod. The original model of the iPod was designed to be a dedicated music player. Apple added incremental features in subsequent models until the last model, the iPod Touch, was essentially an iPhone without a sim card.

The 1980s was a decade of intense development for the Walkman. Touted as the “Walkman decade,” Sony greatly exploited the commercial success of the product in these years. The second model of the Walkman, the WM-2, was released in 1981. With this model, Sony shrunk the size of the device down — it was only just larger than the cassette it played. The engineering precision to make this possible was significant. Compared to the mechanical challenges, miniaturising the electronic components would have been easier. This is largely because newer and smaller parts were fast becoming available. Sold in metallic grey, black, and red, the WM-2 was one of the best-selling models of the Walkman. It also foretold Sony’s efforts to make the device even more compact in coming years.

The WM-DD was launched in 1983. It combined the best features of three other models — the compact electronics from the WM-2, the pressed metal case from the WM-5, and the disk-drive principle from the TC-D5. This new arrangement had the dual benefit of reducing the wow and flutter and increasing stability. A year later, the WM-DD2 shipped. It included the Dolby B-Type noise reduction system. Superficially, besides the addition of an extra switch, this model looked identical to the WM-DD. From a technical standpoint however, the change was far from trivial. It was only possible because of the introduction of small Dolby ICs that could run from the 3 volt battery supply without needing a DC-DC converter.

The WM-7 was an early model of the Walkman that included autoreverse — a feature that allowed both sides of the cassette to play without having to manually remove, flip, and re-insert the tape. It was also the first one to offer remote control which worked through special headphones sold with the model. These new features came at the cost of the device being complex and relatively expensive. However, these features were soon available on lower-cost models as well, like the WM-6.

Launched in 1984, the WM-F5 was designed for use in outdoor environments — famously advertised as being “splash-proof”. The casing was made from thick, impact-resistant plastic. On the inside, it was similar to the DD line of devices, with the addition of an in-built radio. Recognizing that foam headphones may not be ideal for wet environments, the WM-F5 was the first model of the Walkman which was shipped with in-ear headphone buds. 

Sony was quick to adapt to the different formats through which music was distributed. Just a year after CDs became available, the D-50 portable CD player was launched. However, Sony also continued to release new cassette players. Released in 1987, the WM-F107 was one of them. Even though very limited numbers of this model were produced, it deserves a mention because it was a technical marvel. Not only was it solar powered, but it was also exceptionally compact for the number of features it housed — Dolby noise reduction, AM/FM stereo radio, autoreverse functionality, and a waterproof case. 

The Walkman left an indelible mark on the way the world listened to music. Paired with the light-weight headphones, the device made good quality audio truly portable. The Walkman made music personal. It transformed the listening experience into a private affair, differentiating it from other audio systems like Boomboxes. It also allowed people to choose their own music — freeing them from fixed programs on portable radios.

Even though it was initially targeted at young people, it influenced the habits of people across generations. From a 16-year-old user: “I have my own world, somehow. I see it differently and hear it differently and feel stronger.”

To the prolific artist Andy Warhol: “I use mine all the time to listen to opera. It's nice to hear Pavarotti instead of car horns.”

The Walkman was a cultural and social icon that defined the late twentieth century. It also predicted the kind of devices the future would bring. A New York Times article from 1999 says:

“More important, the Walkman changed people's relationship to technology; its solitary, enveloping quality became its defining feature. The Walkman and its rivals quickly became a landmark in the history of media and a symbol of an inwardly focused era. "Personal sound" was a forerunner of personal computers and personal digital assistants.”

The Walkman gave Sony a solid head start in the world of portable music players. Fast forward to a few decades later and it is clear that Apple owned the market. So where did Sony go wrong?

Sony started making products in the early days of consumer tech. Back then, the objective was making technology usable — never mind if the consumer had to thumb through a long manual to understand how to use the device. Over time, the focus shifted from the actual product to the experience of using the product. A subtle difference with huge implications. A piece published by the Harvard Business Review traces this:

“In the experience economy, these expectations are reversed. Technology is a given, and the question of “what are the specs?” has been replaced by “what is it like to use?” ... Without modifying its business model, Sony has been left behind by a world that’s changed its relationship with technology.”

The digital music resolution also left Sony floundering. Often criticised for operating in silos, Sony was crippled by the conflict between its engineering and media divisions. It struggled to strike a balance between building a user-friendly music player and cannibalising Sony Music’s sales. This resulted in woolly products like digital music players that were only compatible with Sony’s proprietary format in an age of MP3 domination.

More broadly, Sony has historically been a hardware focused company. They never quite understood how to develop software.

Sony discontinued production of cassette players in 2010, nearly three decades after the first model of the Walkman was launched. It had sold over 400 million Walkmans in this time period — exactly 200,020,000 of these were cassette based models. The Walkman quietly faded away leaving some feeling nostalgic, while others wondered what took it so long to disappear.


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