21 Bodacious, Retro Facts About the Sony Walkman

RealClear Staff


Sony announced recently that they are bringing back its evergreen brand, The Walkman. This time, the Walkman's not just here to look cool in 80s movies. Instead it's aim is to put iPods out of business with incredibly high sound quality. 

Seems like a good time to look back at the bizarre history of this cultural institution that was the highlight of cool for a few decades and actually once featured a button that let two listeners talk to one another (seriously). 

1. It Started Over 35 Years Ago

Sony invented the Walkman in 1978. 

But, the personal tape listening device wouldn't be here if it weren't for...opera?

2. Operatic Beginnings

The player actually wasn't created for the public, but developed especially for Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka. Ibuka wanted a way to listen to operas during his frequent long cross-Pacific flights. 

But the listening revolution didn't always have such smooth sailing.

3. The Name

The name "Walkman" actually stems from its predecessor, the journalist-focused tape recorder, the Sony Pressman. 

4. Welcome the Sony...Soundabout?

When the personal cassette player hit US soil in 1980, it was actually called the "Soundabout." In Sweden, it was the "Freestyle" and in UK it was the "Stowaway" (which, actually is way cooler than "Walkman" in our book).

5. Walkman Hater

But those names almost stuck. When the name "Walkman" was introduced Sony co-founder Akio Morita hated the name and asked that it be changed. 

However, an ad campaign had already begun and Sony determined it would be too expensive to start over. Wise move. 

This, though, was not Morita's only questionable call in Walkman history.

6. Morita Thought it Was Rude

The man who would someday earn a mint off the Walkman, hated the name...but also the product. He said it would be "rude" for people to listen to music in isolation. 

So, he came up with a mind-boggling special feature...

7. Dual Headphone Jacks

Morita's bright idea involved two headphone jacks, so two people could...be rude and listen in isolation. (And also practice some seriously questionable roller skating)

But, the Morita-Genius would strike again...

8. The Hotline Button

Morita's other rudeness-fighting innovation was the "Hotline" button. When two users were blasting Bannanarama circa 1982, they could push the Hotline button and the volume would lower and a small microphone would activate. 

Not for recording sound, but acting as a sort-of intercom so two headphone-wearers could chat. 

Brilliant move, sir!

9. Best Seller

Despite these bizarre choices, the personal listening revolution was hot. It's tough to say how many Walkmans were sold, but reportedly at the height of production, Sony sold as many as 50,000 per month in Japan alone. 

10. Clever Knock-Offs

With the runaway success of Sony's masterpiece, other tech companies jumped in. Some humorously named knock-offs of the Walkman included: Toshiba's "Walky" and Aiwa's "CassetteBoy". 

11. The Pro

Despite competition, Sony kept innovating. One big seller was the Walkman Pro, which featured Dolby noise reduction and sound quality on the level with professional equipment. 

12. The Pro at Work

The Pro's sound quality was so good, in fact, that punk rock icon, Henry Rollins, recorded one of his spoken word poetry albums using nothing but a Walkman Pro. 

13. The Cassette Revolution Peaks

How popular was the Walkman? Only five years after its invention, in 1983, cassette tapes began outselling vinyl record albums. 

14. Oxford Dictionary

In 1986, the term "Walkman" was added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

15. Hello Discman

Sony introduced its portable CD player, the Discman, in 1984. Though it took several years and many price drops in the technology, this eventually overtook the portable cassette player. 

16. Anniversary Models

Every five years, from 1979-1999, Sony unveiled limited-edition anniversary models featuring such Morita-esque additions as remote controls...and wireless remote controls for those with (apparently) 50-foot headphone cables or something.  

17. The Eventual Phase Out

Much like Morita's bright ideas, the Walkman simply wasn't meant to last. Around 2000, Sony began phasing them out. They are still produced today, but for only a small number of nations where tapes still sell well. 

18. Walkman...Resurrection

While Sony kept the name "Walkman" alive with several regrettable minidisc and DAT players that failed to catch on over the years, it recently gave the brand new life. 

At the Consumer Electronics Show, they unveiled the Walkman ZX2, a luxury digital music player. 

How luxurious?

19. Very Luxury

For starters, how about it's $1,200. 

For that price, though, you get enough bells and whistles to make Akio Morita proud. 

20. Features

So, what does Son-of-Walkman offer for a cool 12 Ben Franklins? 

128GB storage, touchscreen, Bluetooth and Android capable. 

But the big selling point is the S-Master HX processor, which claims to produce high end audio quality akin to audiophile formats like vinyl. 

21. The Future of the Walkman

Maybe the new Walkman is a little out of your budget. But, surprisingly, that old tape playing one might still have some value. As sources like Newsweek have reported, it's become retro cool for indie record labels and bands to produce cassettes. 

So, tapes might just still be cool. This commercial, on the other hand, will never be.

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