Sony Introduces the Walkman Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Sony Walkman, which provided personal, portable stereo sound, became the most successful audio product of the 1980’s.

Summary of Event

The Sony Walkman was the result of the convergence of two technologies: the transistor, which enabled miniaturization of electronic components, and the compact cassette, a worldwide standard for magnetic recording tape. The smallest tape player devised up to that time, the Walkman was based on a systems approach that made use of advances in several unrelated areas, including improved loudspeaker design and reduced battery size. The Sony Corporation brought them together in an innovative product that found a mass market in a remarkably short time. Walkman Sony Corporation;Walkman Personal stereos Audiocassette players and recorders [kw]Sony Introduces the Walkman (July 1, 1979) [kw]Walkman, Sony Introduces the (July 1, 1979) Walkman Sony Corporation;Walkman Personal stereos Audiocassette players and recorders [g]East Asia;July 1, 1979: Sony Introduces the Walkman[03640] [g]Japan;July 1, 1979: Sony Introduces the Walkman[03640] [c]Communications and media;July 1, 1979: Sony Introduces the Walkman[03640] [c]Inventions;July 1, 1979: Sony Introduces the Walkman[03640] [c]Science and technology;July 1, 1979: Sony Introduces the Walkman[03640] [c]Trade and commerce;July 1, 1979: Sony Introduces the Walkman[03640] Morita, Akio Ibuka, Masaru Ohga, Norio

Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering, which became Sony, was one of many small entrepreneurial companies that made audio products in the years following World War II. It was formed in the ruins of Tokyo, Japan, in 1946, and got its start manufacturing components for inexpensive radios and record players. They were the ideal products for a company with some expertise in electrical engineering and a limited manufacturing capability.

Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka formed Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering to make a variety of electrical testing devices and instruments, but their real interests were in sound, and they decided to concentrate on audio products. They introduced a reel-to-reel tape recorder in 1946. Its success ensured that the company would remain in the audio field. The trade name of the magnetic tape they manufactured was “Soni”; this was the origin of the company’s new name, adopted in 1957. Transistor technology was a turning point in the fortunes of Sony, for it led the company to the highly popular transistor radio and started it along the path to reducing the size of consumer products. In the 1960’s, Sony led the way to smaller and cheaper radios, tape recorders, and television sets, all using transistors instead of vacuum tubes.

The original marketing strategy for manufacturers of mechanical entertainment devices had been to put one into every home. This was the goal for Edison’s phonograph, the player piano, the Victrola, and the radio receiver. Sony and other Japanese manufacturers found out that if a product is small enough and cheap enough, two or three might be purchased for home use, or even for outdoor use. This was the marketing lesson of the transistor radio.

The unparalleled sales of transistor radios indicated that consumer durables intended for entertainment were not exclusively used in the home. The appeal of the transistor radio was that it made entertainment portable. Sony applied this concept to televisions and tape recorders, developing small portable units powered by batteries. Sony was first to produce a “personal” television set, with a five-inch screen. To the surprise of many manufacturers who said there would never be a market for such a novelty item, it sold well.

It was impossible to reduce tape recorders to the size of transistor radios because of the problems of handling very small reels of tape and the high power required to turn them. Portable tape recorders required several large flashlight batteries. Although tape had the advantage of recording capability, it could not challenge the popularity of the microgroove 45 revolution-per-minute (rpm) disc because the former was much more difficult to operate. In the 1960’s, several types of tape cartridge were introduced to overcome this problem, including the eight-track tape cartridge and the Philips compact cassette. Sony and Matsushita were two of the leading Japanese manufacturers that quickly incorporated the compact cassette into their audio products, producing the first cassette players available in the United States.

The portable cassette players of the 1960’s and 1970’s were based on the transistor radio concept: small loudspeaker, transistorized amplifier, and flashlight batteries all enclosed in a plastic case. The size of transistorized components was being reduced constantly, and new types of batteries, notably the nickel-cadmium combination, offered higher power output in smaller sizes. The problem of reducing the size of the loudspeaker without serious deterioration of sound quality blocked the path to very small cassette players. Sony’s engineers solved the problem with a very small loudspeaker device using plastic diaphragms and new, lighter materials for the magnets. These devices were incorporated into tiny stereo headphones that set new standards of fidelity.

The device that became the Walkman was first made by Sony engineers for the personal use of Masaru Ibuka. He wanted to be able to listen to high-fidelity recorded sound wherever he went, and the tiny player was small enough to fit inside a pocket. Sony was experienced in reducing the size of machines. At the same time the Walkman was being made up, Sony engineers were struggling to produce a video recording cassette that was also small enough to fit into Ibuka’s pocket.

Sony chairman Akio Morita laughs during a meeting where he displays a Walkman in February, 1982. The popular portable cassette player changed the way people listened to music.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Although the portable stereo was part of a long line of successful miniaturized consumer products, it was not immediately recognized as a commercial technology. There were already plenty of cassette players in home units, in automobiles, and in portable players. Marketing experts questioned the need for a tiny version. The board of directors of Sony had to be convinced by Morita that the new product had commercial potential. The Sony Soundabout portable cassette player was introduced to the market in 1979.

Significance

The Soundabout was initially treated as a novelty in the audio equipment industry. At a price of $200, it could not be considered as a product for the mass market. Although it sold well in Japan, where people were used to listening to music on headphones, sales in the United States were not encouraging. Sony’s engineers, working under the direction of Kozo Ohsone, reduced the size and cost of the machine. In 1981, the Walkman II was introduced; it was 25 percent smaller than the original version and had half as many moving parts. Its price was considerably lower and continued to fall.

The Walkman opened a huge market for audio equipment that nobody had realized existed. Sony had again confounded the marketing experts who had doubted the appeal of this new consumer electronics product. It took about two years for Sony’s Japanese competitors, including Matsushita, Toshiba, and Aiwa, to bring out portable personal stereos. Such was the popularity of the original device that most people referred to any miniature cassette player as a “walkman,” irrespective of the manufacturer.

Sony kept ahead of the competition through constant innovation: Dolby noise reduction circuits were added in 1982, and a rechargeable battery feature was introduced in 1985. The machine became smaller, until it was barely larger than the audiocassettes it played. Sony developed a whole line of personal stereos. Waterproofed Walkmans were marketed to customers who wanted musical accompaniment to water sports. Special models were designed for tennis players and joggers. The line grew to encompass about forty different types of portable cassette players priced from about $30 to $500 for a high-fidelity model.

In the ten years following the introduction of the Walkman, Sony sold fifty million units, including twenty-five million in the United States. Its competitors sold millions more. Personal stereos were manufactured all over the Far East and came in a broad range of sizes and prices, with the cheapest models priced at about $20. Increased competition in the portable tape player market continually forced prices downward. Sony had to respond to the huge numbers of cheap copies by redesigning the Walkman to bring down its cost and by automating its production. The playing mechanism became part of the integrated circuit that provided amplification, allowing manufacturing as one unit.

The Walkman did more than revive sales of audio equipment in the sagging market of the late 1970’s. It stimulated demand for cassette tapes and helped make the compact cassette the worldwide standard for magnetic tape. At the time the Walkman was introduced, the major form of prerecorded sound was the vinyl microgroove record. In 1983, the ratio of vinyl to cassette sales was three to two. By the end of the decade, the audiocassette was the best-selling format for recorded sound, outselling vinyl records and compact discs combined by a ratio of two to one. The compatibility of the audiocassette used in personal players with the home stereo ensured that it would be the most popular tape-recording medium.

The ubiquitous Walkman had a noticeable effect on the way people listened to music. The sound from the headphones of a portable player is more intimate and immediate than the sound coming from the loudspeakers of a home stereo. The listener can hear a wider range of frequencies and more of the lower amplitudes of music, while the reverberation caused by sound bouncing off walls is reduced. The listening public became accustomed to the Walkman sound and expected it to be duplicated on commercial recordings. Recording studios that once mixed their master recordings to suit the reproduction characteristics of car or transistor radios began to mix them for Walkman headphones. Personal stereos also enable the listener to experience more of the volume of recorded sound because it is injected directly into the ear.

The Walkman established a market for portable tape players that exerted an influence on all subsequent audio products. The introduction of the compact disc (CD) in 1983 marked a completely new technology of recording based on digital transformation of sound. It was jointly developed by the Sony and Philips companies. Despite the enormous technical difficulties of reducing the size of the laser reader and making it portable, Sony’s engineers devised the Discman Discman personal stereos portable compact disc player, which was unveiled in 1984. It followed the Walkman concept exactly and offered higher fidelity than the cassette tape version. The Discman sold for about $300 when it was introduced, but its price soon dropped to less than $100. It did not achieve the volume of sales of the audiocassette version because fewer CDs than audiocassettes were in use. The slow acceptance of the compact disc hindered sales growth. The Discman could not match the portability of the Walkman because vibrations caused the laser reader to skip tracks.

In the competitive market for consumer electronics products, a company must innovate to survive. Sony had watched cheap competition erode the sales of many of its most successful products, particularly the transistor radio and personal television, and was committed to both product improvement and new entertainment technologies. It knew that the personal cassette player had a limited sales potential in the advanced industrial countries, especially after the introduction of digital recording in the 1980’s. It therefore sought new technology to apply to the Walkman concept. Throughout the 1980’s, Sony and its many competitors searched for a new version of the Walkman.

The next generation of personal players was likely to be based on digital recording. Sony introduced its digital audiotape (DAT) system in 1990. This used the same digital technology as the compact disc but came in tape form. It was incorporated into expensive home players; naturally, Sony engineered a portable version. The tiny DAT Walkman offered unsurpassed fidelity of reproduction, but its incompatibility with any other tape format and its high price limited its sales to professional musicians and recording engineers.

After the failure of DAT, Sony refocused its digital technology into a format more similar to the Walkman. Its MiniDisc (MD) used the same technology as the compact disc but had the advantage of a recording capability. The 2.5-inch disc was smaller than the CD, and the player was smaller than the Walkman. The play-only version fit in the palm of a hand. A special feature prevented the skipping of tracks that caused problems with the Discman. The MiniDisc followed the path blazed by the Walkman and represented the most advanced technology applied to personal stereo players. At a price of about $500 in 1993, it was still too expensive to compete in the audiocassette Walkman market, but the history of similar products illustrates that rapid reduction of price could be achieved even with a complex technology.

The Walkman had a powerful influence on the development of other digital and optical technologies. The laser readers of compact disc players can access visual and textual information in addition to sound. Sony introduced the Data Discman, a handheld device that displayed text and pictures on a tiny screen. Several other manufacturers marketed electronic books. As music listening devices, the Walkman and Discman were important and successful steps in exploiting a growing market. Discmans continued to grow with the expansion of CD recordings, but they also had to compete with digital downloading devices, such as iPods, first introduced by Apple in 2001, which captured significant market shares in the early twenty-first century. Whatever the shape of future entertainment and information technologies, the legacy of the Walkman has put a high premium on portability, small size, and the interaction of machine and user. Walkman Sony Corporation;Walkman Personal stereos Audiocassette players and recorders

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Armstrong, Larry, and Amy Borrus. “Sony’s Challenge.” BusinessWeek, June 1, 1987, 64-69. A profile of the company at a crossroads in its fortunes. Dwells on unsuccessful products and the problems that Sony faced in the intensely competitive market for electronic products.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klein, Larry. “Happy Tenth Anniversary, Sony Walkman!” Radio-Electronics 60 (October, 1989): 72-73. A short history of the Walkman written by an audio expert who had covered this product since its introduction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lyons, Nick. The Sony Vision. New York: Crown, 1976. A popular history of Sony that outlines the philosophy of its founders. Ends in the 1970’s and therefore does not cover the development of the portable stereo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morita, Akio, with Edwin Reingold and Mitsuko Shimomura. Made in Japan: Akio Morita and Sony. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1986. Personal account of the history of the Sony Corporation from the end of World War II to the 1980’s. Relies heavily on Morita’s memory and his own somewhat biased accounts of the development of key products.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nathan, John. Sony: The Private Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. A captivating, in-depth “corporate biography” that focuses on the interpersonal relationships within the company, particularly Sony cofounders Ibuka and Morita.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schlender, Brenton R. “How Sony Keeps the Magic Going.” Fortune, February 24, 1992, 76-79. Overview of the Sony Corporation emphasizes its latest products. Provides information about the corporate culture and the style of research and development. Includes a rare interview with Masaru Ibuka.

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