A Personal Ode to the Sony Walkman

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

In the early '80s my parents added a few of the latest technological wonders to our household that were meant to make our lives easier or entertain us: a microwave, VCR, and answering machine quickly come to mind. But perhaps no other invention of the decade had a more personal and profound effect on me than the Sony Walkman. 

OK, to be honest, my first personal radio wasn't a Walkman but a more affordable copycat by a competing electronics manufacturer, Panasonic. And it was just a radio; no cassette player. But the concept was the same, and the word Walkman soon became a term synonymous with anything that was small, played music, and had headphones. 

Today, the concept of portable music is nothing new. But before the Sony Walkman came along the best you could do for private listening was plug a pair of oversized headphones into a giant home stereo that you couldn't lug around with you. Or you could listen with one earbud to a tinny transistor radio. 

But that was about to change. As the story goes, it was Sony's co-founder Masaru Ibuka that developed the idea of a portable music player. An opera fan who was planning to travel soon, he asked his company's designers if there was a way to create a device that was lighter and smaller than Sony's existing TC-D5 cassette player that he was carrying onto planes to listen to music. 

The original 1979 Walkman. Photo via Wikipedia

It was 1979, and little did Ibuka know that his idea would turn into something that became an icon of the '80s decade. Sony designer Norio Ohga built a prototype in time for Ibuka's next flight. Not only did the gadget play cassettes, but it also had an in-built microphone that allowed the user to mute music and talk to someone without having to remove the headphones.  It also came with two headphone jacks so two people could listen to music at the same time. These two features were later dropped from production because no one used them so if you happen to own a Walkman with them, it's probably worth a bit more money than later versions. 

The headphones were innovative as well. Sony was able to make them lightweight, thanks to an inner magnet that resonated audio. 

The Walkman wasn't just another consumer product. It made the act of listening to music in public more socially acceptable. Some may argue that it was the beginning of society's downfall and reliance on technology that cut people off socially from others, especially as it paved the way for the iPod and mobile phones. 

But for an introverted preteen whose parents weren't in touch with what was playing on the airwaves at that time, it was a game changer—and perhaps a life changer as well. 

Image via michaellowin on Reddit

My parents loved music but by the time I came along, the only ones spinning vinyl in our house were my siblings. They all married and moved out by the time I was ten, leaving behind a musical void of sorts along with a stereo that somehow made it to my room but with static-y, walnut covered speakers. My parents had also developed a fondness for The Lawrence Welk Show, so it's safe to say I was woefully out of touch with much of what was playing on the radio unless one of my siblings took me for a ride somewhere in their car. 

That all changed when my oldest sister gifted me a personal radio for Christmas in 1983. Suddenly, this whole new world was opened up to me which I could listen to in private and therefore, without judgment. I still recall the first few songs that topped or were climbing the pop charts at the time: "That's All" by Genesis, "Karma Chameleon" by Culture Club, "Politics of Dancing" by Re-Flex, "Let the Music Play" by Shannon, and "Say Say Say" by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson. 

I could relate a bit more to my classmates and my friends that owned record collections of '80s music. I recognized the songs and the artists. 

A couple of years later, when the foam covering on my earphones wore away from so much use, I was able to upgrade to a Walkman with a cassette player. All of my first albums were on cassettes. 

While my parents and I shared all of the new gadgets in our household, these personal radios were used exclusively by me, in private. I don't recall if either of them even tried the headphones, and that was fine with me. 

That Panasonic and later the Walkman became more than just listening devices. When I put the headphones on and listened to my favorite music, I would slip into a fantasy world and became a different person. I would daydream about being someone else, someone older and famous who could sing. I lip-synched and danced around my room with pure adolescent abandon. Even if that confidence didn't always spill over into the real world, there was something about acting a part in private that boosted my self esteem. And yes, I'm sure I was embarrassed once or twice when my mother came in my room looking for me because I couldn't hear her calling my name above the music. 

I'm sure I wasn't the only teen brought out of their shell a bit by the Walkman. For most adults, however, the personal radio began to accompany them on outdoor workouts, thanks to the handy clip and shock absorbent technology. A study determined that the number of people who walked for exercise increased 30% between 1987 and 1997—the years that marked the height of the product's popularity. 

Sony only expected to sell 5,000 Walkmans per month when the product was first introduced in Japan. Instead, they sold more than 30,000 in the first two months and decided to release it internationally. Throughout the '80s and '90s new versions were released: a water resistant Sport Walkman and the CD playing Discman. A digital version was introduced in 2011. 

And in 2023, Sony re-introduced the Walkman. The NW-A35HN is slimmer than its 1980s predecessor but with a nostalgic, cassette player-like feel. Reviewers are saying the audio is much better than the sound quality from any mobile phone. The price is said to be more affordable than a gold-plated player Sony was making a few years ago. 

But there will probably be one key thing missing and that's the magic of experiencing a truly revolutionary piece of technology for the first time. That was something that only my 11 year-old self can fully appreciate, the result of being in the right place at the right time in history. 

Here's a collection of fun vintage Japanese commercials for the Walkman:


  1. Reintroducing the Walkman sounds great, but my experience is that no one uses headphones anymore. It’s become more socially acceptable to play music or videos without them, which annoys me to no end. The whole point of the Walkman is listening to your music on your own, but since people are ruder now, headphones are no longer deemed important—which sucks.

    First cassette on my Walkman: Guns ‘n’ Roses “Appetite for Destruction.” Because it had naughty words, playing it with headphones was CRUCIAL.

    1. Good point, Rich. I forgot to mention that I loathe earbuds - they just don't stay in my ears no matter how much I try to get them to fit - and I find the lightweight headphones that came with these personal players MUCH more comfortable.

  2. In 1979 I was 13 and decided I wanted my music to be "portable", I didn't even know walkmans existed and at that time they would have been hundreds of dollars anyway. I used a handheld "Dictaphone 10" that was my Dads. I remember listening to "Eight Miles High" on the bus with an earphone , it sounded awful and I gave up on portable music for a few years.


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