Menu

Music to your ears: Walkmans & other portable cassette players (1981)

Note: This article may feature affiliate links to Amazon.com or other companies. Qualifying purchases made via these links may earn us a small commission at no additional cost to you. Find out more here.

Sony Walkman with cassette

The personal stereo revolution: Portable tape players take music on the go

Sony Walkman with cassette

Personal stereos: A new rhythm to the inner life

They came without warning, captivating the ears of joggers, students, bicycle riders, commuters and roller skaters. Weighing little more than a pound, they pack more sociological punch than a load of hula hoops.

They are personal stereos.

You’ve already seen the symptoms: the straight-ahead stare; the Mona Lisa smile crossing faintly moving lips; the rhythmic gait usually reserved for dance floors, and a voracious appetite for fresh batteries.

There has been a certain amount of backlash.

Some critics predict personal stereos — when there are enough of them in circulation — will kill the art of conversation.

Others contend they are a safety hazard because the noise in the ears of the wearer that they produce may drown out outside sounds when worn by joggers, bikers or even walkers.

But Sony Corp. spokesman Fred Wahlstrom says they are here to stay. “People want to listen to music wherever they go. People are very conscious of sound.”

In the spring of 1979, Sony unleashed its $200 Walkman tape player on the unsuspecting world of consumer electronics. Sony Chairman Akio Morita reportedly wanted the unit so he could listen to classical music on his home system, while his children listened to their own music in private.

Immediately, Walkman was heralded as the first genuinely new development in consumer electronics in more than a decade. Within six months, dozens of other companies had dissected the unit, and were on their way to marketing their own versions of the tiny musical wonder.

Such well-known companies as Panasonic, General Electric, Aiwa, Koss and Sanyo hit the market with tape players, radios and combinations that generally are of high quality. Many units come with a snap-in radio that looks like a cassette but acts as a miniature FM receiver.

Sony Walkman ad 1980
Sony Walkman (1980)
The art of conversation

Manufacturers have steeled themselves to critics who say they may kill the art of conversation.

“If used in moderation, like anything else, it (the Walkman) is not harmful,” said Sony’s Wahlstrom. “I don’t think you should allow your kids to come to the dinner table with them on.”

“Let me ask you something,” said Koss president James Dodson. “I just went on a vacation with my wife and two sons. Do you think it would have been more pleasant with one expensive car radio playing music my wife and I enjoy, or with a couple of portable stereos in the backseat with my kids?”

For the owners of the machines, they offer a semi-solitude that disturbs no one.

“If my husband wants to watch a football game and I want to knit and listen to music, I can just put on the headphones and not leave the room,” said bank executive Meg Taylor, 41. “Then we can enjoy each other’s company, and still do the things we enjoy.”

>> Craft how-to: Make a cassette tape holder (1983)

Many daily activities are made more enjoyable by strapping on a portable music system. A personal stereo brings a new dimension to such tasks as lawnmowing, house cleaning, dishwashing — even bathing.

Toshiba KT-S1 cassette player 1981
Toshiba KT-S1 cassette player (1981)
Safety concerns

For those who enjoy it, bicycle riding — denounced by some people as dangerous — is even more fun with music along. The new headphones are designed to allow outside sounds to enter the ear. However, playing music at an excessive volume can cause problems.

MORE  Ponch & John hit the roads as motorcycle cops in LA on CHiPs (1977-1983)

Chicago Alderman Louis P. Farina, after almost running into a bike rider who did not hear Farina’s car horn, drafted a city ordinance to ban the wearing of headphones while operating bicycles, mopeds and snowmobiles. The City Council, however, has delayed a vote several times to determine if the legislation is constitutional.

On busy streets where bikers need some concentration to negotiate in traffic, arguments against personal stereos are well taken. But on the nation’s bicycle paths, riders resent being told what they can and cannot do.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Chicago restaurant manager Thomas Trapp, 25, responding to Alderman Farina’s proposal. “If we allow that kind of censorship of our personal behavior, pretty soon the politicians will be telling us we can’t wear certain kinds of clothes or something.”

In a recent article, syndicated columnist Bob Greene lamented the use of headphone stereos at his beloved Ohio State Fair.

“I sympathize with people who are made so jittery by traffic noise and crying babies and angry shouting that they use the Walkman as a method to find personal solitude,” writes Greene.

“But the Ohio State Fair is sacrosanct; when the Walkman invades the fair it has gone too far. Next thing you know, the spotted swine will be wearing them.”

Sony Walkman 2 1981
Sony Walkman 2 (1981)
Many reasons for choosing portable cassette tape players

Manufacturers’ warranty cards indicate personal stereo converts are not always selfishly motivated in their purchases. Most give their reason for buying one as “to avoid disturbing others” – not “to avoid being disturbed by others.”

Another popular reason listed on the warranty cards is “exciting listening experience.”

Koss, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the only domestic manufacturer of mini-headphones, estimates a mere 25 percent of the population has ever been exposed to stereo headphone listening at all.

As Koss’ Dodson pointed out, the temptation to use personal stereos to keep children amused in silence is great. For the first time, such phrases as “Turn it down!” and “What is that noise?” are in danger of disappearing from the English language.

Conversely, parents can use personal stereos themselves to occasionally shut out noisy playing activities, television – even clarinet practice. Adults can also keep their music to themselves while youngsters are trying to do homework.

The personal stereo concept already shows signs of becoming the same sort of mind-boggling success that the portable radio once was. More than 3.5-million Sony Walkmans have been sold worldwide.

The first Walkman was about the size of a paperback book, and consisted of a tape-playing mechanism only (no recording feature). Like any new product it also had a gimmick which Sony has retained through its latest Walkman III model — a “hot-line” microphone, to interrupt the music program for normal conversation.

But to the surprise — and skepticism — of many, the Walkman had no speaker.

Morita believed the public would be willing to listen to music on small, lightweight stereo headphones. He believed he had the answer for people tired of the inferior grey earplug, with its thin, distorted, monophonic sound.

“Pressure” headphones — the type used in recording studios, radio stations and with home stereo systems — had a reputation of being bulky affairs that closed off all outside sound. The lighter, open-air “velocity” headphone was an improvement, but it took an industry breakthrough to combine a strong, thin, vibrating membrane with micro-electronic components for high fidelity sound.

1981 GE cassette players
GE cassette players (1981)
The new technology

Micro-electronic circuitry also makes it possible to achieve portable sound quality comparable to quality home stereo systems, and at a far lower price.

MORE  The Gettysburg Address: Photos, analysis & the full text of Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech (1863)

Ever innovative, Sony also placed two headphone jacks on the cassette player, for people using the machine on airplanes, tandem bikes or just walking together.

Today, the copyrighted “Walkman” name, like Kleenex and Xerox before it, hovers dangerously close to becoming a generic term, though Sony retains a strong hold on its market share.

Beside the large electronics manufacturers, other lesser-known firms — Toshiba, Infinity, Technidyne, Proton — also entered the market, usually with higher-priced units for the sound connoisseur.

“I appreciate what the giants have done to prepare the market for me,” said Larry Kittelson, national sales manager of Proton. The Proton 100 FM receiver is priced at $119 at a time when similar radios of lower quality are available for as little as $30.

At the outset of the personal stereo boom, most manufacturers quickly discovered they were not prepared to keep up with the demand for the small stereos. Most failed to get a substantial number of units into stores by last Christmas. They hope to make a killing during this year’s holiday season.

Koss predicts that by 1985, personal stereos will be a solid $2-billion dollar a year industry.


Personal portables

The electronic gift-of-the-year this Christmas is almost certain to be one of the new personal portable radio and/or cassette players. Pioneered by Sony with its Walkman a little more than a year ago, sales are booming for the 40 different models now on the market.

All work on the same principle: a lightweight, battery-powered receiver-player (little bigger than a paperback book) with connecting feather-light headphones gives you a private world of sound that only you can hear.

But the real beauty (and hence popularity) of these new portables is that by attaching the receiver at your waist or carrying it in your bag, you can move about freely — walking, jogging, even cooking or cleaning — and still enjoy the amazingly clear, high-fidelity reproduction.

Sony Walkman
Sony Walkman (1981)
A portable cassette player buying guide

Here’s how to shop for the new portables.

Price: For a radio receiver alone — FM stereo, AM or both — under $100. Stereo cassette players — $100 to $180. Radio-cassette combinations — $180 and higher. A little comparison shopping will pay off in this highly-competitive field.

>> Walkman instruction manual (1982)

Sound reproduction varies among models; only you can decide which is best. In general, clarity of sound and definition of deep bass are hallmarks of a good machine. If you’re shopping for a cassette player, bring along a favorite tape to test; for radio reproduction, listen to a local station you know.

Test for smooth tape speed by jouncing around or shaking the player while listening. Quavering sound is not what you want.

For safety’s sake, check models for a button that lets some outdoor sound into the headphones — especially if you’re walking in heavy traffic. After all, you don’t want to be completely oblivious to the world around you.

>> Maxell cassette tape ads (1980s)

Batteries go quickly with these players, so look for rechargeable penlight batteries (AA or AAA cells are available at the hardware store). Many models offer an optional AC adapter so you can plug the set in and save batteries when you’re not in the mood to budge from your easy chair.

More stories you might like

See our books

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

join the fun

Don’t miss out on the latest and greatest vintage stuff!

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter here.