Obituary: the Sony Walkman

THE ICONIC SONY WALKMAN is the latest techno dinosaur, as Sony has announced it has halted production of the cassette-tape player Japan. Photo courtesy SonyInsider.com

By Jake Coyle

NEW YORK (AP) — The Walkman, the Sony cassette device that forever changed music listening before becoming outdated by digital MP3 players and iPods, has died. It was 31 years old. Sony announced Oct. 25 that it has ceased production of the classic, cassette tape Walkman in Japan, effectively sounding the death knell of the once iconic, now obsolete device. The Walkman is survived by the Discman (still clinging to life) and ironic music listeners who think using a Walkman in this day and age is charmingly out of touch.

It will continue to be produced in China and distributed in the U.S., Europe and some Asian countries. Digital Walkmans are also being made with models that display lyrics and have improved digital noise-canceling technology.

Still, if you’re looking to chisel a date in the Walkman’s tombstone, then Oct. 25, 2010, is as good as any. For many, that it’s taken this long is surprising: “They were still making those?’’ Perhaps Oct. 23, 2001, the day the iPod was launched, is the better date of expiration.

But none of the success of Apple’s portable music players would have ever happened without the cassette Walkman. Some 220 million have been sold since the first model, the TPS-L2, debuted in July 1979. (It retailed for $200.) At the time, transistor radios were portable, but there was nothing widely available like the Walkman.

It was developed under the stewardship of Sony founders Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka. Morita insisted the device not be focused on recording but playback, a relatively odd notion at the time.

Originally called the “Soundabout” in the U.S., the Walkman was an immediate sensation and a revolution in music listening. Foremost, it was portable. Music no longer needed to be something that one experienced sitting in a room, but could be blasted on the bus, pumped while jogging on a beach or played softly while studying.

By turning the volume up, anyone could be tuned out. The detached teenager with foam earphones slouched in the back seat or bobbing his head in the elevator became an indelible image of the ’80s. (The first Walkman did have an orange “hot line” button to lower the music and increase the microphone so you could hear someone talking to you.)

Music, previously listened to in a room with shag carpeting and a stereo, was cast into the world, made a part of daily life. Pink Floyd could join a walk in the park; Public Enemy could soundtrack a commute.

More than portability, it fostered a personalization to music, a theme the iPod would also highlight in those early dancing silhouette ads. A big reason there’s so much nostalgia for the Walkman today is because it eliminated any separation from music. It felt like an appendage, which is perhaps why some (with questionable fashion instincts) clipped theirs to their belt.

The Walkman was also the father of the mixtape, an offspring that nearly trumps the progenitor. For the first time, music was something you could make yours by arranging it and swapping it.

For those young and unfamiliar with this process, making a mixtape typically entailed gathering songs by The Cure and Depeche Mode, labeling the tape with care and awkwardly giving it to a love interest.

The Walkman didn’t disappear so much as it was improved upon. Sony continues to use it as a brand, but the company long ago ceded hipness and style to Apple. The iPod will likely one day befall a similar fate, and another generation will gasp in joined wistfulness. When it comes to music and how we hear it, we’re all romantics.

3 thoughts on “Obituary: the Sony Walkman

  1. THE WALKMAN IS NOT DEAD! I JUST RECORDED MY SESSION WITH MY SHRINK TODAY AND I’LL PLAY IT AGAIN. SCREW IPODS, MP3, AND ALL THAT- I DON’T NEED THEM, DON’T WANT THEM, AND HAVE MORE $ TO SPEND ON IMPORTANT STUFF LIKE GAS AND FOOD!

  2. I purchased an identical Walkman in 1980 at the start of a carrer in international sales and in anticipation of many longhaul flights. The original had 2 headpone jacks and seperate left and right volume sliders. These were quickly dropped on later models.
    From a technical standpoint the Walkman was a great idea but to build a cassette player only slighty larger than the cassette itself was not the true genius even though millions and millions have been sold since.
    To me the real breakthrough was the small high fidelity earphones, which until the Walkman came into being, did not exist.
    If you look at all of the advancements in micro headphone technology since the walkman first introduced them, the development of the small cassette player seems secondary by comparison.

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