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Sony Walkman Cassette Player: the Sony That Broke the Sound Barrier

sony walkman

“No invention in my lifetime has so changed an art and cheapened it as the Sony Walkman, which first infiltrated our culture 25 years ago this month,” wrote Norman Lebrecht in July 2004. Mr. Lebrecht, the noted British music commentator and author, continues that, “set beside the cheapest compact disc, the best cassette Walkman was, sonically speaking, a donkey cart.”

Donkey cart or not, the Sony Cassette Walkman was a milestone audio product that sold millions of units and—if one tracks eBay sales—is still a popular vintage collectible. In it’s heyday from 1979 to 2010, Sony sold almost two million cassette Walkmans. The device became such a part of the social consciousness that in 1986 the word “Walkman” was entered into the Oxford English Dictionary.

In terms of sound reproduction, though, I’ll have to agree with Mr. Lebrecht: the fidelity of a cassette Walkman leaves much to be desired. But, Walkmans got better with time. Fidelity progresses as technology develops. The fidelity of early Walkmans was constrained by headphone quality and the inherent hiss of cassette tapes. Cassette Walkmans steadily improved in sound quality and usability from their first model in 1979 through their final offering in 2010, adding such improvements as auto-reverse, bass boost, AM/FM receivers, double cassette drives, and even water-resistant and solar powered models.

As Lebrecht continues his rant against cassette Walkmans, he positions the device as the starting point of the “personally selected portable music” craze. His opinion is that this craze was a bad development; that music is meant to be enjoyed “like painting and sculpture, in a fixed place, a gallery or living room.” This is the point at which Mr. Lebrecht’s opinion and mine part. When I choose to listen to music, I want to listen to my music; I don’t want to be restricted to the selection offered by the local radio station or the guy on the beach with the loudest boom-box. I don’t expect a Walkman to provide the sound quality of my home system; what I expect it to do is deliver the music I want to hear at a particular time and place.

Wanting to listen to one’s favorite music regardless of location was the motivation for creating the Walkman in the first place. As the story goes, Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka wanted to be able to listen to opera on international flights without having to carry Sony’s big (4 lbs.) portable cassette player. So, Ibuka tasked Sony engineers with solving the “weight and portability” issue. Their solution was the model TPS-L2 portable cassette recorder.

The TPS-L2 eliminated speakers (by requiring headphones) and reduced the size of its amplifier, resulting in a smaller and lighter package. The model was introduced in the U.S. as the “Sound-About” and in the U.K. as the “Stowaway.” These names were soon dropped in an effort to simplify patent applications in multiple countries, and the name “Walkman” was adopted across the board.

But to credit Sony with inventing the portable cassette recorder in 1979 would be a mistake (no matter how quaint their “development” story is). Portable cassette recorders were actually invented seven years earlier by a Brazilian named Andreas Pavel, who subsequently filed patent papers in Milan, Italy, in 1977 and over the next eighteen months filed for patents in the U.S., Germany, England and Japan.

Andreas Pavel’s portable device, called the Stereobelt, had all of its components attached to a belt that had permanently attached headphones, tape player and storage, and bass transducers that would vibrate into one’s body instead of through the headphones.

In 1980 Pavel began negotiating with Sony for a royalty fee on their Walkman sales. To get royalties on international Walkman sales, Pavel found it necessary to sue Sony in multiple countries, so their court battles went on for almost 25 years before a final settlement was reached (in Pavel’s favor).

Despite decades of lawsuits, Pavel was lucky that Sony’s Ibuka shared his enthusiasm for portable music. Without Sony, portable cassette recorders may not have been introduced for another decade, if ever. For years after developing his prototype, Pavel schlepped his invention to most of the large electronics corporations of the day, including Yamaha, Grundig, Phillips and ITT. All of them laughed Pavel out of their offices.

Pavel says of their responses: “They all said they didn’t think people would be so crazy as to run around with headphones; that this is just a gadget, a useless gadget of a crazy nut.”

If only those 1970s executives could have peered into the 21st century, to see trainloads of commuters all plugged into their portable devices and pedestrians with headphone cords dangling across their cheeks!

Let me modify Norman Lebrecht’s words to re-state today’s reality: No invention in my lifetime has made music as accessible as the Sony Walkman.

Previously published by WorthPoint.com

Originally posted 2015-11-03 09:40:59.

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