Audio

Sony’s Walkman Turns 30 Years Old

Japan Sony Walkman

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Up until the 1970’s, it wasn’t that easy to carry music around with you like today. Unless you had a transistor radio small enough to carry, you were probably out of luck. Most recorded music was on eight track tapes too large to carry around. Equipment to play back recorded music was even harder to carry. Thirty years ago today on July 1st, 1979, Sony changed the consumer electronics world with the availability of the Walkman model TPS-L2. Thirty years later, there have been hundreds of different Walkman portable music players of various type released with cassette, FM, video, hard disc, and flash functionality. How did it begin, though?

In 1978, Sony added the small TC-D5 stereo model to its well-known Densuke series of portable tape recorders. Although popular among audiophiles, the TC-D5 was too heavy to be truly portable and the cost was prohibitive at 100,000 yen. Ibuka (Co-Founder of Sony and then Honorary Chairman) was a regular user of the TC-D5, and he would take one with a set of headphones on overseas trips, so that he could listen to music in stereo on the plane. However, he found it too heavy. One day, before going on a trip to the United States, he asked Ohga (then Executive Deputy President) for a simple, playback-only stereo version of the Pressman, the small, monaural tape recorder that Sony had launched in 1977. Ohga immediately called Kozo Ohsone, general manager of the Tape Recorder Business Division.

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Ohsone immediately replied, “Yes, yes, I’ll do it.” He had his staff alter a Pressman, removing the record function and converting the machine to produce stereo sound. They then attached headphones and tried this creation. The resulting sound was actually quite good. Shortly after, Ohsone and his staff were working on this rather strange-looking combination of large headphones and a small Pressman, when Ibuka visited them to discover if they had created what he requested. Always interested in products under development, Ibuka had a habit of dropping in at Sony’s various laboratories.

Ohsone suggested that Ibuka try the modified Pressman. Ibuka was pleasantly surprised by the powerful sound that came from such a small device, and he was reminded of the first time he had listened to stereo sound through binaural headphones at the 1952 Audio Fair in the United States. Ohsone managed to provide a modified version of the Pressman in time for Ibuka’s business trip, but it worked with small, special batteries. Ohga presented Ibuka with the unit, together with two batteries that he had an engineer from Ohsone’s group rush around Akihabara (an electronics-shopping district in Tokyo) to find and a selection of classical music tapes. Ohga’s relief was short-lived. He received a call from Ibuka in the U.S., who said, “The batteries ran out on the plane, and I can’t find any replacements over here.” Ohga also realized that the tapes he gave Ibuka were blank, and he hurriedly called CBS Records in the U.S. to ask them to prepare a selection of music tapes for Ibuka.

Despite all this, when Ibuka returned from the U.S. he was obviously pleased with the unit, even if it had large headphones and lacked a record function. Ibuka went to Akio Morita and said, “Try this. Don’t you think a stereo cassette player that you can listen to while walking around is a good idea?” Morita took it home to try over the weekend, and he was also impressed. He agreed with Ibuka that the sound was quite different compared to conventional speakers, and he was excited by the fact that the device could be carried around easily, creating a personal listening experience. Morita, co-chairman for the Sony Corporation, often had to take airplane trips across the Pacific Ocean from Japan to the United States. The flights were long and tiring. To help him relax on the long flights, Morita liked to listen to his favorite opera music. To carry all of the equipment and tapes he needed to enjoy his operas, Morita almost needed to buy another seat on the plane.

With company momentum pushing towards revolutionizing the portable music player, Akio complained to one of his engineers about the problem, and Nobutoshi Kihara went right to work – changing the course of history by sketching the original design of the Walkman onto a piece of paper.

In February 1979, Morita called a meeting at Sony Headquarters. The group of predominantly young, electrical and mechanical design engineers, planners and publicity people were more than a little apprehensive, as well as curious, to hear why they had been summoned by the Chairman. Morita held up the modified Pressman and said, “This is the product that will satisfy those young people who want to listen to music all day. They’ll take it everywhere with them, and they won’t care about record functions. If we put a playback-only headphone stereo like this on the market, it’ll be a hit.” He continued by saying, “Our target market is students and other young people. We must launch it before the summer vacation at a price similar to the Pressman, which means less than 40,000 yen.”

At that time, for sales and accounting purposes, new product launches usually took place on the 21st of the month. To meet Morita’s deadline meant launching the product on June 21, which was only four months away. To develop the necessary manufacturing, marketing, and other systems in such a short time was a formidable task. Most of those present were stunned. “We can’t do it in such a short time,” was the general consensus. However, they were excited about the idea. It was a product they themselves wanted to develop and use and they agreed that a launch before students started their summer vacation would be ideal. Thus, the collective conclusion reached was “It’s difficult, but not impossible. Let’s give it our best shot.”

With regard to price, everyone involved with the project thought that instead of working out a price based on production costs, they must first decide on the price at which the product would sell. They believed that if the price could be kept below 30,000 yen, sales would be great, but that 35,000 yen was more realistic from a cost point of view. At this point, Morita said, “This is Sony’s 33rd year in business, so let’s sell it for 33,000 yen.” Under Morita’s leadership, they decided on a strategy and resolved to launch the product before the summer vacation.

Morita was completely absorbed in the new business. While Ibuka was adept at spotting new and interesting technologies and motivating his staff to develop them, Morita was the one who had the vision required to turn technologies into products. Since the founding of Sony, the two men had combined these different, but complementary, talents to great effect. Morita said to Ibuka, “This product is going to enable young people to listen to music anytime, anywhere. But the headphones are bigger than the device itself. Can’t we do something about that?” On hearing that, Ibuka remembered an R&D meeting two or three months earlier, at which there was talk of developing lightweight, open-air type headphones.

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Sure enough, when he went to the Research Laboratory, he found exactly what he was looking for. The development of the compact and extremely lightweight H-AIR MDR3 headphones was virtually finished. While most conventional headphones at that time weighed between 300 to 400 grams, the H-AIR headphones weighed just 50 grams. Furthermore, the new headphone driver units that fitted over the listeners’ ears were only 23 millimeters across, much smaller than the 56-58 millimeters that was normal for the oval-shaped, earmuff type headphones developed previously. Despite being so small and light weight, the headphones produced great sound. The H-AIR headphones were included in the portable stereo project in March 1979. Between them, Morita and Ibuka had successfully brought together technologies developed independently by different sections of Sony.

Had the Walkman gone through the conventional planning, approval, testing, and other development stages, it might never have seen the light of day. Sony might have just concentrated on developing a smaller version of the Densuke stereo tape recorder instead. However, Ohsone encouraged his staff to try their ideas before they had time to think about the difficulties that might arise. In this case, as Ohsone’s team managed to materialize Ibuka’s idea into a prototype, Ibuka and Morita provided the encouragement to turn this prototype into a product. Once the Tape Recorder Operations Division had promised Morita that they would create a product before the beginning of the summer vacation, the team really set about the task. Thanks to Morita, the objectives of the project were made crystal clear. Although there initially was some feeling in the division that a record function should also be included, Morita focused specifically on a playback-only, small headphone stereo unit to be launched before the summer vacation, and he inspired the members of the project team with his vision and resolve.

Ohsone believed that if you think too much about a project before doing it, you could always find faults with it and too much discussion just creates delays. Ohsone, Shizuo Takashino, and other members of the development team worked through the night two or three times a week and they kept each other motivated by constantly cracking jokes or having a few beers after work. In developing the Walkman, Ohsone believed that the first model must be reliable. The shape and style of the product could be improved in subsequent models. However, if the first model received a reputation for breaking down easily, then it would put an end to the entire project. The main job of the development team was to establish the value of this new concept. Given the tight time schedule, Morita told the team not to worry about the external appearance of the first model. So, Ohsone decided to use the same mechanism as the Pressman, half a million of which had already been manufactured.

The technologies involved in making the novel product were not new, but merely assembled in a new way. What the team had to focus on was producing a reliable product, one that did not break.

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With no real technical problems to concern themselves with, the team concentrated on ways to promote the concept of music on the move to ensure the product would be a hit. First, a group of young members led by Toru Kohno of the Publicity Division racked their brains to come up with a suitable name for the product. The name needed to present the idea of portability, so they considered Stereo Walky. Unfortunately, Toshiba was already using the “Walky” name for their portable radio line. The new product was a descendant of the Pressman so Walkman was proposed. Despite protests that the name was a strange mixture of Japanese and English, Morita praised it. Most buyers would be young people, and Morita believed that the young staff members who had come up with the name were in tune with their own generation. He supported the enthusiasm and boldness that had gone into the creation of the name. In addition, packaging and posters bearing the name Walkman had already been printed and there was no time to change them.

Morita took one of the test models home to try. His first idea was adding an extra jack so two people could listen to music at the same time. His second idea was designing a talk button to enable people to carry on a conversation while wearing the headphones. Yasuo Kuroki of the Product Planning Center worked with the product engineers to incorporate these features and create a simple, functional, yet attractive design. Nevertheless, the first Walkman received much criticism even before it was launched. People said that a tape player, which could not record, would never catch on. Morita, however, refused to be swayed, staking his own reputation on the success of the Walkman. Although he could not definitely say it would be a hit, Morita trusted his judgment. He knew that the first thing his own children did when they got home was to turn the stereo on, and he firmly believed that the Walkman would further deepen the connection between young people and music.

When Sony sales people tried to explain the concept of the Walkman to retailers, they met considerable skepticism. Retailers were not convinced they could sell a tape player that did not record. What kept Sony sales people and product engineers motivated in the face of such uncertainty was the enthusiasm of Ibuka and Morita as well as the fact that the young women working on the Walkman production line wanted to own what they were producing. Morita ordered an initial production run of 30,000 Walkman units. Considering that monthly sales of the best-selling tape recorder averaged 15,000 units, this was a bold decision. Amid considerable uncertainty, the project went from development through production to preparation for launch. Finally, on June 22, 1979, it was announced that the Walkman would go on sale on July 1, only ten days after the original target date and just before the beginning of summer vacation.

The Walkman was a truly original product, and Sony used innovative methods to launch and advertise it. The staff of the press and public relations divisions wanted to emphasize that Sony was introducing a totally new and fun concept. To do so, they decided to hold the launch event outside and included demonstrations of people listening to the Walkman while roller skating or cycling. They thought that as well as giving impact to the launch; this novel approach would appeal to the journalists attending. It was decided to test this launch style first on a group of magazine journalists.

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On June 22, when the journalists arrived at the Sony Building located in the Ginza area of Tokyo, they were escorted onto a bus and each handed a Walkman. They were taken to Yoyogi (a major park in Tokyo) and, after disembarking and receiving a brief greeting, they were instructed to put on the headphones and push the play button. The journalists listened to an explanation of the Walkman in stereo, while Sony staff members and students hired for the launch carried out various demonstrations of the product. The tape the journalists were listening to asked them to look at certain demonstrations, including a young man and woman listening to a Walkman while riding on a tandem bicycle. All staff members and students who were involved in the product demonstrations wore Walkman T-shirts to add to the overall effect of the launch.

As they listened to an explanation of the Walkman, the journalists were able to sample the audio quality of the new product, while seeing what people could do with it. They saw that the 33,000 yen TPS-L2 model enabled people to listen music of their choice, wherever and whenever they liked. For onlookers, a lack of any public announcement or audible sound was rather puzzling. The journalists were surprised at the unusual nature of the Walkman launch event, and this was apparent in their expressions. The response from the press was cool. Although the Walkman went on sale on July 1, as planned, by the end of July only 3,000 units had been sold and doubts about the product resurfaced.

After the launch, staff of the publicity and domestic marketing divisions took a Walkman and spent a day riding busy trains around the center of Tokyo in an attempt to advertise the product. Also, it was decided that people needed to listen to the Walkman to understand the quality of its sound. Consequently, young recruits who had joined Ohsone’s division in April of that year were asked to walk around the busy Shinjuku and Ginza districts on Sundays, offering passersby the chance to listen to the Walkman. High school and college festivals and other events were also targeted, and when young people put on the headphones and listened, their skeptical expressions were replaced with ones of delight. In retail outlets, staff was asked to carry around a Walkman with a demo tape and offer customers the chance to listen. And while serving to demonstrate the quality of the sound, Sony made great efforts to overcome the negative public image associated with headphones.

In addition to such grassroots marketing efforts, Sony presented a Walkman to various celebrities and asked them to try it. Magazine photographs of young pop stars listening to a Walkman certainly helped to popularize the product. There was no large-scale television advertising campaign, but thanks to various publicity strategies, the popularity of the Walkman spread by word of mouth. The initial batch of 30,000 units sold out by the end of August, and thereafter production levels had to be constantly raised to meet consumer demand. For the next six months, shops were consistently selling out, and retailers’ previous skepticism over the salability of the Walkman was replaced with pleas for more supplies.

At first, the main buyers of the Walkman were music fans in their mid 20s. However, the popularity of the Walkman spread very quickly to a wider young audience, and it became a fashionable new way to enjoy music. This success had been foreseen not only by Morita but also by some outsiders. When major electrical retailers were showing little interest in the Walkman, young buyers at Marui Department Store, a very popular store among young people, were convinced it would sell and placed an order for 10,000 units.

From the outset, the plan had been to sell the Walkman worldwide. It was decided to launch the product overseas six months after its Japanese debut and promotional plans were made accordingly. However, earlier doubts about the name resurfaced and various other names were suggested by Sony’s overseas subsidiaries. Consequently, plans were made to call it Soundabout in the United States, Stowaway in the United Kingdom and Freestyle in Sweden.

But when Morita went on a business trip to Europe prior to its overseas launch, he met parents in both France and the United Kingdom that had been told by their children, “When you meet Mr. Morita, please ask him where I can get a Walkman.” It seemed that many tourists who had visited Japan had taken a Walkman home with them and as a result the name was already known outside Japan. The name Walkman was easy to understand and had spread quickly, especially among people from countries where English was not the native language. Therefore, although it may have sounded a little strange, the team that had created the product itself created the name. Morita called Ohsone in Japan to recommend selling the Walkman worldwide under its original name.

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The Walkman created a totally new market for portable stereo systems, and its legacy is still warmly remembered by many people today. Tell us about your experiences with Sony’s Walkman devices.

Here is a picture of the TPS-L2 with the current 2009 Sony Walkman lineup:

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