Today, Dominic Baker, takes a long look at a 1980’s original icon and concludes that the Sony Walkman was a game changer in the way popular culture is enjoyed.
As branding exercises go, Sony were right on the money with this product. It was small, lightweight, portable, stylish, reliable and I bet Duracell absolutely loved them.
It gave you your world on your feet, transported you to your own acoustic nirvana, with those trade mark orange headphones, it was a must have on every Christmas or birthday list in the 80s, the ‘iPod’ of its day it was a world-wide smash hit and tapped into teenage market like nothing else had done before. (Ed. I was given a silver one as a gift for my 25th birthday in 1983)
It was created primarily because one of the co-founders of Sony Masaru Ibuka wanted to listen to his favourite operas on long haul flights to various meetings around the world. Although Sony weren’t the first to the punch in thinking of the invention, that honour goes to a German-Brazilian inventor by the name of Andreas Pavel .
An audio engineer Nobotoshi Kihara came up with the prototype in 1978 and first marketed in japan in 1979 under the Walkman name, though this was not yet its international brandname. In the UK it was known as the “Stowaway”, in Sweden the “Freestyle” and it was marketed as the “Soundabout” in the US. In fact, then President and co-founder of Sony Akio Morita, reportedly hated the name and wanted to change it before release but as the gears of advertising and the promotional campaign was already in full swing, to change it would have proven very costly.
At the time the blue and silver TPS L2 was the first and cheapest portable stereo in the world, it first went on sale in Japan in 1979 and then in the UK in 1980. It had stereo playback and two mini headphone jacks enabling 2 people to listen to music at the same time. The TPS-L2 Walkman was an unprecedented success selling over 385 million units worldwide. It had incredibly low battery consumption, it steered away from gimmicky features and just concentrated on quality music at an affordable price.
It faced stiff opposition from Aiwa, Toshiba and Panasonic who produced their own versions. In response, Sony upped their game and introduced a model that had a twin motor auto reverse, which was normally only found on higher end home hi-fi equipment, thus ensuring that the speeds for playing both sides were regulated.
The Walkman brand became a household name and went on to furnish other devices including the CD Walkman, Video Walkman, Mini Disk Walkman, Walkman MP3 and finally onto Sony’s mobile phones.
Production in Japan of the cassette player only ceased in 2010 and they are still being made in China for overseas markets. It now has an added ‘kitsch’ value and is a collectors item which no doubt was born from sweet childhood memories of owning one. How many “mixtapes” on cassette do you have from the 1980’s?
The Sony Walkman pretty much single handedly ensured that cassettes overtook vinyl in sales in the early 80s. Sony thought that this would be their comeback after Betamax had nosedived so badly against VHS. It was the first product to be aimed at the teenage market and by 1990 there were over 80 different variants available.
Arguments will rage but was the Walkman one of the healthiest products ever to hit the market? Why? Because it spurred a generation of office workers to get up, get out and go jogging and roller skating in the open air.