Ah, the Sony Walkman … that wonderful device that has let parents add ‘hearing loss’ to their list of worries and kids add ‘was listening to my Walkman’ to their reasons to justify ignoring their parents. It was the first mainstream product to really let you take your music anywhere without forcing others to let you know your favorite mix tape included Debby Boone, Christopher Cross and the Bee Gees … well, until you started singing along, anyway. This past week Sony announced they were ending production of the cassette Walkman after 31 years.
It might be hard for some to fathom a world in which you actually need to check someone for headphones before assuming they are listening to you. Before 1980, music was largely played on stationary stereo systems or monaural portable radios. Heck, so-called Boom Boxes were just starting to climb in popularity when the Walkman hit shelves, bringing with them the thought that you could bring YOUR music with you wherever you went.
The Walkman took the idea of personal music to a whole new level. Home stereo systems of the time generally included a turntable and cassette recorder, allowing you to make tapes of your favorite albums or collections of songs. Soon people would be at the beach or on a picnic listening to their personal music … meaning that so was everyone else in the area!
Within a few years, the Walkman made it possible to not only bring your music with you, but also to keep it to yourself! Again that sounds totally silly to even highlight, but 30 years ago it was a huge deal – I had to explain to my kids how big a deal the Walkman was in the early 80’s when we watched The Terminator together for the first time recently (e.g. Sarah Connor’s roommate *constant* wore her headphones).
The Walkman became so ubiquitous that former Boston frontman and electronics design whiz Tom Scholz devised the Rockman in 1982 to massive success – and even eventually came out with a Bass Rockman, both of which were excellent private practice devices with nice amp-simulation options.
Of course, as with so many popular trends there were downsides … and the biggest from the Walkman was permanent hearing loss:
Then there was the health impact. ENT specialists warned unheeded that prolonged exposure to anything above 93 decibels, could inflict irreparable hearing loss. Pop fans received 105db through Walkman headphones. Cases of deafness were reported in medical journals, as well as aural cavity damage from the insertion of mini headphones. A generation’s ears were physically wrecked.
Also, while I have read entirely too much about how the sound quality of MP3’s is killing the appreciation of the true sonic qualities of music, recall the abysmal sound of an already flawed cassette tape through the cheap electronics of the Walkman and out through the awful little headphones:
In early wonderment at its portability, we kidded ourselves that the Walkman made an approximately musical sound. In the cold light of retrospect, the truth is it never did. Even a Walkman Pro with noise reduction in a soundproofed room failed to reproduce anything like the dynamic range of a symphony orchestra, the high Cs of a Pavarotti, the low rumblings of a Glenn Gould. Set beside the cheapest compact disc, the best cassette Walkman was, sonically speaking, a donkey cart.
And yet we gladly sacrificed sonic quality for portability and the personal enjoyment of our music. Gladly!
My last Walkman didn’t make the trip when we moved in 2008, as the cover was held on with tape, it had awful playback issues and was generally just ready for the scrap-heap … or for my younger son to disassemble!
In the years that have passed since then, we’ve seen better and better Walkman devices, portable CD players, hard drive based MP3 players and finally flash memory devices. But all of this has been based on a single premise: making our music portable and personal. And that is the premise that launched the Sony Walkman 31 years ago.
UPDATE: The(among others, thanks Larry!) notes that the rumor of cassette Walkman production shutdown was in fact incorrectly spread as a total cancellation, when in fact it was for Japan only. From the :
Widely circulated rumors of the demise of the original-style Walkman player, which uses cassette tapes, seem to have stemmed from two words on the Japanese Sony Corp. site for the device. It said, “Production finished.”
But as it turns out, that meant only that the player would no longer be sold in its home country of Japan, according to a Sony spokesman who didn’t want to be named because he was not authorized to speak on this matter.
He said he could not comment at all on why sales of the hand-held device, which took the world by storm starting in 1979, were being halted in Japan. However, the cassette-playing Walkman, he said, will continue to be available elsewhere, including in the United States.
It might come as a surprise to many that the original-style Walkman is still available, given that cassette players were long ago surpassed by digital devices that play music from CDs and MP3 files. Sony continues to use the Walkman name for its lineup of digital devices.
The article notes that the only cassette Walkman product in the US is the “Walkman Weather Radio/Cassette Player”, which features National Weather Service broadcasts as well as cassette playback and sells for ~$30.
So while it is ‘not dead yet’, I think that it is fair to say that since the cassette tape is no longer relevant to most people, it is only a matter of time before it is killed in other regions.
What are your best Walkman memories?