See 24 Walkmans & other portable tape players that made headphones the ultimate fashion accessory

Woman listening to vintage Walkman stereo headphones

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The Sony Walkman is a portable cassette tape player introduced in 1979, and it’s best known for the then-innovative feature of being able to play music on the go.

The 80s Walkman can be credited with making music not only portable, but entirely personal. Participating in the world with our own personal soundtrack in the background is an activity we take completely for granted today — especially those generations after Gen X.

No one saw it coming, but when the Sony Walkman was first released, it launched a lifestyle revolution that, in hindsight, has proven to be a predecessor of the modern smart phone and — for better and for worse — a precursor to how we live our lives today.

Not only have we collected some vintage ads from the early days of this 80s tech and the “personal stereo revolution,” we also found some fascinating contemporary articles remarking on the trend.

Knowing what we know today, it’s amusing to see their concern that Walkmans might “kill the art of conversation” or be otherwise inappropriate in certain settings.

Kinda makes one self-consciously wonder if — some 50 years down the line — our descendants won’t read about our distress over the disruption smartphones have caused with wry amusement at our naïveté. /BRB

The first Sony Walkman (1979)

The first Sony Walkman (1979)

The 80s Walkman & a personal stereo revolution: Portable tape players take music on the go (1981)

Text excerpted from the Tampa Bay Times (St Petersburg, Florida) November 23, 1981

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.

Sony Walkman Pro 1982

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.”

MORE: Top 10 audio cassette tape care tips from the 70s

1981 GE cassette players

Personal stereos: A new rhythm to the inner life

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.

Sony founder Akio Morita with a Walkman cassette player
Sony founder Akio Morita with a Walkman cassette player

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 vintage ad – Get lost on your way to work (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.”

ALSO SEE: Vintage portable radios from the 50s to the 80s

“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?”

1988 Walkman

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.”

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 with use of personal stereos

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.

DON’T MISS: Vintage 80s home stereo systems, personal stereos, TV sets and more

Sony Walkman with cassette

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.

Sony Walkman 1986
Sony Walkman (1986)

“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

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.”

Sony Walkman 1992 Rolling Stone
Sony Walkman from 1992

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.

ALSO SEE: Vintage 80s tech: See 1987’s hottest TVs, VCRs, stereos, cellular phones & more at The Good Guys

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.

Panasonic personal stereos 1984
Panasonic personal stereos (1984)

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.

Vintage yellow Sony sports walkman FM and a duck (1984)
Vintage yellow Sony Sports Walkman FM… and a duck (1984)

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.

Toshiba KT-VS1 cassette player 1983

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.

MORE: See the vintage Toot-A-Loop & Panasonic’s other wacky portable radios from the 70s

Joy Walkers shoes and a free Walkman offer (1987)

New technology: The vintage 80s Walkman

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

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 stronghold 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.

Rock magazine branded cassette player

“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.

DON’T MISS: MTV music television started a rock revolution in the ’80s by playing non-stop music videos

Vintage Quasar personal stereos with carrying strap and headphones (1985)
Vintage Quasar personal stereos with carrying strap and headphones (1985)

Personal portable tape players from the ’80s

Ladies’ Home Journal – December 1981

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.

Personal portable tape players from the eighties

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 (1981)

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.

ALSO SEE
Get blown away by these Maxell cassette tape ads (1980s)

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.

Oct 1985 Panasonic personal stereo

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.

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.

Walkman fashion from 1986 - Candie's

NOW SEE THIS: 25 things most people under 25 have never seen in real life (and probably can’t name)

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