Once the icon of the Japanese electronics industry and a must-have device, Sony’s Walkman turned 40 this year and like its now middle-aged fans is clinging to its youth with high-tech updates.
On July 1, 1979, as the global economy suffered through the second oil shock, Sony unleashed a dark-blue brick of a machine with chunky silver buttons called the Walkman TPS-L2.
Priced at a hefty ¥33,000, the first generation Walkman could not record but its stereo music playback function quickly captured hearts in Japan and then the world.
It had two headphone jacks — labelled “guys” and “dolls” — to allow two people to listen simultaneously. A bright orange “hotline” button could be pressed to lower the volume when chatting.
After a disappointing first month when only 3,000 units sold, sales exploded to eventually hit 1.5 million worldwide. The second model, the WM-2, which came in red, black and silver, chalked up unit sales of 2.58 million.
Over the following four decades, Sony sold more than 420 million Walkmans and stopped counting the number of models it produced after it hit the 1,000 mark — about 15 years ago.
The electronics giant chose the name partly because of the popularity of Superman at the time and the fact it was based on an existing audio recorder called the Pressman.
The word Walkman has since entered everyday language, but the device was initially called the Soundabout, Stowaway or Freestyle in some parts of the world.
“The Walkman is my youth,” said Katsuya Kumagai, 51, as he browsed an exhibition marking the 40th anniversary of the first model.
“It was always in my life,” he added, scanning some of the 230 varieties of Walkman at the exhibition, which also offers nostalgic visitors the chance to play with some of the older models.
As an 11-year-old, Kumagai could never afford a Walkman and envied older children as they whizzed by on roller skates plugged into the latest music.
“I’m quite emotional. Memories from those days are flooding back,” he said, echoing the thoughts of many a middle-aged fan for whom the Walkman provided the soundtrack to their youth.
Dethroned by the iPod
Sony continued production of the cassette-tape Walkman until 2010, long after the technology had been overtaken first by the CD in the 1980s and the MiniDisc Walkman in 1992.
Like many in the industry, the company was shaken by the emergence of Apple’s iPod, which suddenly allowed listeners to make their entire music collections portable.
But Sony struggled to keep up, and its latest high-end versions now cost well over $2,000 and look more like smartphones with flash memory and high-resolution audio — a far cry from the early generations.
Scott Fung, a 17-year-old who attended the exhibition, has never known a time when people could not listen to music on the move. He said he had “only heard” about the Walkman and was keen to satisfy his curiosity.
“Ever since I grew up, devices have always had screens and they don’t have physical buttons,” he said, clutching his smartphone and gazing at the early Walkmans on display.
“When I was born, Sony Walkman was already not as relevant … (it) was not really a big part of my life,” the student from Hong Kong said.
Old tech still exudes cool
Fung listens to music via his smartphone, but surprisingly, he revealed himself to be a fan of older technology.
“I think this older design is really intelligent where you can just play and pause, go back and forth in a song, which is very interesting to me,” he said.
Fung is apparently not alone in his penchant for old-school tech: a first edition Walkman presented as new and never used recently sold for ¥1.3 million — an astounding 40 times its initial price.
Sony engineer Hiroaki Sato, who worked on the early Walkmans, said it would be “quite difficult” to replicate the technology now as it would involve painstakingly reproducing the high-precision mechanical parts.
He said current versions would likely not exist in 40 years as the recording formats and rechargeable batteries would undoubtedly have changed beyond recognition.
But the old Walkman has stood the test of time.
“Repairing this, I realized this is an excellent machine. If we replace the damaged rubber belt, it works normally. It’s so cool,” he said.