The Sony Walkman story

To understand how the Sony Walkman story started, it’s important to know the man behind it – Akio Morita. Sony was founded in 1946 as the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation by Morita and Masaru Ibuka, but Morita was the the creative force behind it. Initially focusing on manufacturing affordable tape recorders, he then became one of the very first people to realise the possibilities of the newly arrived solid-state technology in the early sixties. In his book, Made in Japan, Morita explains how the American and British consumer electronics giants simply didn’t ‘get’ why anyone would want a small transistor radio or tape recorder, as he recounts troublesome early sales trips to the United States trying to persuade blinkered US dealers to take on his products.

In 1960 Sony produced the first transistor television in the world, and soon after introduced their first cassette player, which was made under licence from Philips. Unusually, it was larger than the Philips original, but considerably better made, which was a portent of things to come. The company then introduced a range of excellent hi-fi cassette decks, as well as launching a new tape based format called ‘Elcaset’ in 1974 which offered the sonics of high end open reel in a cassette a little smaller than a VHS video. It was a typical Sony ‘heroic failure’ – a great high end format for which the company never managed to find a demand.

In 1978, Morita instructed one of his top audio engineers Nobutoshi Kihara to make a small hi-fi stereo cassette player so that he could listen to operas during his many international aeroplane flights, and the first Walkman was born. The TPS-L2 [pictured] duly hit the market one year later – forty years ago this month – and was called ‘Walkman’ in Japan, ‘Soundabout’ in the US and ‘Stowaway’. Legend has it that Morita initially hated the ‘Walkman’ name, but marketing material had already been made and it was too expensive to change! There are various claims made as to who invented the concept of the Walkman, but suffice to say that if Sony didn’t originate it per se, it certainly brought the machine to the market in a way no one other did.

What’s fascinating is how little the basic engineering changed over the life of the model. The TPS-L2 was the blueprint for the breed and whilst cosmetics were regularly changed, and various features added (or even removed), the basic object stayed almost the same all through the years. The original blue-and-silver model was actually little more than a Sony TCM-600 mono cassette recorder, made for reporters and businessmen, which when launched in 1978 was the smallest cassette recorder on the market. In TPS-L2 guise, its high quality transport came in a small aluminium case, with no speaker but with a beefy headphone output stage capable of driving two sets of headphones at the same time (for which there were two 3.5mm minijacks). There was even a ‘hotline’ button which partly muted the music and let the listeners talk to one another! Unsurprisingly the twin outputs and ‘hotline’ feature were phased out on the next Walkman II model…

What was so impressive about the TPS-L2 was its sound quality. Given a good quality cassette recorded on a high end deck, it was capable of superb fidelity, far in excess of what the latest generation of Apple iPods are able to achieve. Clean, punchy yet wonderfully musical, rich in tonal colour and sharp and stable in the treble, this £95 machine was a revelation. Importantly, the ‘Stowaway’ was also supplied with very good sounding lightweight headphones – unlike the awful earbud types now routinely dispensed with MP3 players.

What followed was the most popular Walkman ever – 1981’s WM-2 – which introduced the original Walkman logo that was to be seen on so many machines for so many years. It was a smaller, cassette-sized design with a single headphone socket and a tone switch, which soon became a ‘metal’ tape switch on the subsequent WM-3. The finest of the WM-2 derivatives was the mid-eighties WM-DC2. This model used a quartz lock system for the Disc Drive motor and also included Dolby B and C noise reduction. The WM-DD and WM-DD2 used a similar mechanism to the WM-2 but included a Disc Drive capstan motor that improved the speed stability to that expected of a decent home cassette deck. The WM-DD2 also had Dolby B NR. A similar Disc Drive mechanism was used in the WM-F5, the first splash proof “Sports” Walkman

Fine as the DC and DD variants were, surely the greatest evolution of the species was the WM-D6C – the so-called ‘Walkman Professional’. A large, brick-like thing compared to lesser walkies, at 180x90x40mm it was designed for broadcast use, ostensibly to replace Uher Report 4000 open reels, and featured a beautifully finished graphite black metallised case.  Mechanically it was loosely based on the TPS-L2 but with many changes and improvements, such as Dolby noise reduction (original D6 versions had Dolby B only, but Dolby C was added soon after to the D6C variant). Quartz locked Disc Drive and a Laser Amorphous record/replay head explained the unit’s excellent measured performance, which was second only to a Nakamichi ZX-9 at the time, and subjectively the Walkman Pro arguably sounded even better, with a very bouncy and musical sound compared to the Nakamichi’s somewhat clinical perfection. A brilliant audiophile cassette recorder, it stayed in production for nearly twenty years and is sorely missed by ‘tape heads’.

Whilst the Walkman Pro garnered all the glory, round about the same time in 1985, Sony launched a cracking machine at the other end of the price scale. The WM-22 was a budget model which offered outstanding performance for under £30. The WM-24 and WM-25 added Dolby B NR to the basic WM-22 design, and came in a variety of colours. Despite its somewhat plasticky construction, this little unit offered staggering sound considering its price, with a very musically enjoyable yet stable character and an extended frequency response – and it even came with a decent set of headphones.

Of course, Sony made a dizzying variety of walkies, some of which may not have been so special sounding but which were notable for other reasons. The WM-7 of 1982 was the most complex playback-only Walkman, and was the first to have logic controls and a simple remote control unit built into the headphone lead. The WM-10 was the smallest ever cassette Walkman, the case had to be slid open to make it large enough to take a cassette. The WM-F10 included an FM stereo radio as well in the same sized package! The WM-F107 Solar Walkman was a technical tour-de-force. The solar panel could run the radio section directly or charge up a built-in rechargeable battery that could power the tape deck, which was of the highest quality. As a ‘Sports’ model it was also splash proof.

The nineteen eighties were the heyday of the Walkman, with the emergence of DAT and then MiniDisc causing Sony to shift its corporate focus to other formats, whilst the momentary explosion in the popularity of portable CD players (i.e. the ‘Discman’) in the early nineties took the sheen off Sony’s flagship Walkman products. Still, the company did continue the line, and made some memorable products, including 1989’s WM-DD9 for the tenth anniversary of the breed, which was the only two motor quartz locked, Disc Drive auto-reverse Walkman ever made, and sported an amorphous tape head, gold plated headphone jack and 2mm thick aluminum body. Needless to say it’s one of the most collectable…

By the Walkman’s fifteenth anniversary, Sony was making very small, slick machines such as the WM-EX670, featuring all metal bodies, barely bigger than a cassette itself, slick logic controlled auto-reverse transports and remote control. Costing around £100 at the time, the precision with which they were built was still very impressive, as was the Sony – even if it wasn’t the equal of the great DD models. Unfortunately, the retirement of Akio Morita in 1994 saw a change of style at Sony, and the cassette Walkman didn’t survive for long.

BUYING
Tim Jarman of Walkman Central has some tips for the aspiring collector…
If you would like a cassette Walkman you are in luck, millions were sold and they are still easy to find. The finest is undoubtedly the WM-D6C. This model enjoyed a long production life and there are plenty around. The sound and build quality are first class and they have the added advantage of the ability to record, making it easy to build up a library of quality recordings to listen to.

The original TPS-L2 and WM-3 are also worth seeking out; when in good condition they give very pleasing results. Being the original personal stereo they also have integrity and an authenticity that no other can match. The WM-2 and its many derivatives (all recognisable by the distinctive layout of the tape transport keys) are attractive and in Disc Drive guise are as good a personal stereo as you will find. Beware though if the machine makes a cyclic knocking or ticking noise. This common fault, caused by the fracturing of a plastic gear inside, is difficult to resolve as the parts needed to repair it are no longer available from Sony.

As an introduction to Walkman listening, the simple WM-22 is hard to beat. It combines great sound with simplicity and stability. Generally with all Walkmans the simple, well built models are the ones to go for. The very small or very complicated ones don’t always work that well, especially when they are a few years old or more and have had a hard life with their previous owner (as most have).

Once you have a Walkman there are a few simple things that you can do to get the best out of it. A new set of belts can work wonders, as can setting the speed and head azimuth up accurately – needless to say a thorough dusting, head clean and demagnetisation helps too. The easiest upgrade however is a new set of headphones, the original ones were never that good and Sennheiser’s PX100 works a treat with every one of them.Sony TPS-L2

One comment

  1. Rich C.

    A very interesting and thought-provoking article.

    The original Sony ‘Walkman’, the TPS-L2, though without doubt a timeless and iconic piece of kit, has always to me, came across as a bit of an ‘oddball’ device, as it sports a built-in condenser mic but lacks recording capabilities. I eventually learned (even before discovering this excellent site) that the purpose of the on-board mic was/is some sort of safety measure to ensure the user could also hear the general ambient sounds of the environment/situation he or she was/is currently within, in addition to the music from the cassette tapes being played, and the sound from said mic was/is activated by the orange ‘Hotline’ button on the side panel of the machine.

    Back in early 1981 my dad purchased the TP-S30, the very first ‘Walkman’-type offering from Sony’s ‘cousin’ brand Aiwa, which, unlike Sony’s own TPS-L2, sports actual recording capabilities along with not only an integral (monophonic) condenser mic, but also individual left and right channel mini-jack input sockets for connecting not just external microphones, but other external (line-level) components, governed by a mic/aux level attenuator switch, located on the front panel. A very useful and flexible machine for making decent cassette recordings ‘on-location’, though not quite to high-end ‘audiophile’ quality standards. I also liked the internal ‘smell’ of that machine.

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