The Legacy of the Sony Walkman

The lush cacophony of jungle sound reverberates around the entourage of explorers. The leader, decorated with safari gear and a cliché mustache, makes a final vicious cut through a weave of hanging jade vines. In a clearing, enshrouded on a pedestal in a sacred beam of sunlight, is the artifact. He rushes forth and falls to his knees in dramatic jubilant ecstasy:


“I’ve found it! I’ve found an original Sony Walkman!”


No, it’s not really this hard to find or buy a Sony Walkman cassette player, although the original TPS-L2 models in good condition sell for more than $600 on Ebay. Sony produced over 200 million of the revolutionary 1979 Sony Walkman cassette models, until 2010 when they ceased production and it officially joined the cultural lexicon as a fossil of the past. The fact that a cassette player was still actively produced and sold deep into the age of the iPod shows the immense power that lingered with the Sony Walkman brand. The original Walkman is now a collector’s delight, commonly sold with descriptions like “extremely rare vintage”, as if you’ve personally been invited to bid on a lost Van Gogh painting. 


Walkman and the 80s were like Michael Jordan and basketball. Inseparable, with an effect that still influences how we listen to music today. It was that huge. It altered the way humans interacted with others in an urban environment, introduced a whole new facet of escapism, and gave an entire generation the first taste of having a personalized portable soundtrack to life. 


It’s important to know the terminology of what exactly constitutes a Walkman. If you walked by someone on the street in 1994 and said, “Oh look, you’ve got a Walkman”, the person in front of you could’ve been holding one of literally dozens of different things. As popularity exploded, the term became ubiquitous and came to refer to any kind of portable stereo device, whether that be a Sony Walkman cassette player, a Sony Walkman cd player, or a lesser brand like Aiwa or Toshiba that tried to compete with their own versions of the portable listening device. Even if you narrowed your “What constitutes a Walkman?” parameters down to strictly to the cassette players, you would find dozens of models of varying colors and sizes. In 1989, Sony produced 16 models in one year, including models with wireless remotes and a model with recording capabilities. Can you imagine if iPhone debuted 16 models in a year? 


But I’m getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s back it up about three steps. The TPS-L2 was the original that started it all, right? Well, how was it born and what does it even look like? Good questions. Back in 1979, long before 400 million sales, there was only one. 


The idea for a Walkman blossomed when Sony’s co-founder, Masaru Ibuka, got tired of traveling on business trips with his TC-D5 portable cassette player. If you look up this elephant, the TC-D5 was about the size of a small textbook. Ibuka went to Norio Ohga, the executive deputy president of Sony, and asked him to make something better. Before Ibuka’s next business trip, Ohga already had a prototype built. There’s a now famously understated line of when Ibuka first took the model to Akio Morita, the Sony chairman. He said, “Try this. Don’t you think a stereo cassette player that you can listen to while walking around is a good idea?”


In a furious four-month window, a Sony development team had a product ready for the market. The cassette technology had already been around for 16 years and was primarily used by secretaries and journalists, but it had not yet been marketed for a mass audience. Edd Thomas, an antique electronics expert, told, “Technologically, it wasn’t this amazing invention. All the parts were basically there. Sony just had to piece them together.”


The TPS-L2 released in Japan on July 1, 1979. The initial hopes were lukewarm, and Sony only ordered a production run of 30,000 units. They predicted they could sell 5,000 units per month at 33,000 yen, or about $150 American. July of ’79 would see them sell just 3,000 units, but two months later, they had sold more than 50,000. The TPS-L2 came to America in June of 1980 and momentum had begun. In 1981 the 2nd-generation WM-2 Walkman was released with a silver metal casing and a pair of painfully 80s burnt orange headphones. The 2nd-generation took Walkman from being a Japanese hit to an international sensation. A million units sold in nine months.


Visually, the TPS-L2 was a simple but sleek blue denim aluminum cassette player with a silver ribbon strip along the button casing. It played with two AA batteries and weighed in at a cool 13.75 ounces. For comparison, an iPhone 12 weighs just under 6 ounces and has similar dimensions, although the Walkman was 1.14 inches thick. Battery life was about eight hours and the player came paired with silver aluminum headphones with black earmuffs. The Walkman had two headphone jacks, so you could listen with a friend, and a “hotline” button feature. The hotline button would mute the music and activate a built-in microphone, so if a friend approached you could say “Huh? What’s up?” and talk to your friend without taking off your headphones. The hotline feature was later removed because, well, it turns out humans don’t always like to talk to each other. 


The biggest negative cultural criticism the Walkman caused was called the “Walkman effect”, which was explored at depth in a 1984 article by Shuhei Hosokawa. It’s the exact same sensation you see when you’re in public. Instead of communicating with those next to you on the bus or sitting at a school lunch table, you awkwardly stare into your phone and scroll through Instagram for the 17th time. The birth of this social communication norm started with a pair of headphones. It’s a clear signal of isolation and detachment, a form of inward escapism, providing the soundtrack to the observations of life around you without interacting with the outside world. 


The Walkman became especially important in the urban environment, a setting where interactions were difficult to avoid, and a person could shift the headphones up and ride the bus in peace or flow through the city streets on their skateboard submerged in music. Rolling Stone journalist Rob Sheffield once commented, “In my headphones, I led a life of romance and incident and intrigue, none of which had anything to do with the world outside my Walkman”. 


In time, the iPod conquered the Walkman, and smartphones destroyed the iPod. The Walkman’s legacy stands covered in overgrowth, like an old Incan ruin. But you don’t have to brave the Amazon and risk death by mosquito to know the ancient power of the Walkman. Its effects are apparent every time you wear ear buds to the gym or put your hood up and pretend you’re Eminem writing lyrics on a city bus. The Walkman is the original enabler of escape, the first to give a soundtrack to your world.