40 Years of Personal Stereo

The impact of the The Walkman and its descendants

Thursday 1st August 2019

Sony TPS-L2 Stereo Cassette Player, 1979. Original image: Binarysequence (CC BY-SA 4.0)

It's hard to imagine today, that in 1972, four of the world's biggest consumer electronics brands turned down Andreas Pavel's invention of the Stereobelt on the grounds that people would never want to use headphones in public. Pavel's device, as the name may suggest, comprised a belt with an integrated battery pack, audio cassette deck and headphones. The wording in its patent document promised to "provide a sensation of being surrounded by a three-dimensional field of lifelike sound events...", but as history shows it never took off. A few years later though, Sony's move to adapt their Pressman dictaphone for a music consumer market changed the way people listen to music forever.

The Walkman was born in the summer of 1979 utilising the existing technology of magnetic cassettes, already popular with car stereo users, but made even more so when coupled with the personal player. In turn, the cassette became the go-to format for younger listeners, and by 1983, cassettes were outselling vinyl. Much of the attraction to cassettes came from the ability for teenagers to share music via home-taping and mixtapes, now widely considered the ancestors of today's online playlists.

Teenagers had long been told that they were causing a nuisance playing loud music publicly and socially, but now they were listening to music privately, perhaps secretly, wherever they went, for as long as their AA batteries lasted. Newspaper stories linking hearing loss to headphone use didn't deter young users, and home-taping was allegedly killing music, but The Walkman and its imitators became more and more affordable, going from strength to strength. Walkman became the widely accepted noun for any personal stereo, much like Hoover had done for vacuum cleaners years before.

The personal stereo was even credited with a rise in fitness levels as many people found that exercise became more bearable for them if they were accompanied by their own motivational soundtrack.

Romances were sealed with mixtapes, albums were borrowed and copied instead of purchased, chart rundowns were recorded from radio broadcasts. The combination of format and device seemed unstoppable. Even when the Sony Discman arrived on the scene it didn't manage to dethrone its tape-based predecessor completely. Less durable, less reliable, more expensive, battery hungry and years away from being able to make CDs at home, the Discman was eventually rebranded as the CD Walkman to justify its place in the line.

CDs ended up taped onto a C60 (or C90 for those albums that made use of the CD's extra capacity) and travelled the world in Walkmans. The ill-fated MiniDisc, though technically lauded by musicians for its usefulness as a demo tool, its high fidelity and long playtime, couldn't topple the personal cassette player. It wasn't until faster internet speeds and mp3 files became accessible, along with Napster and similar websites that the cassette and its partner were threatened.

In 2001 Apple's iPod became the desirable device for music lovers on the go. Other players were available, but it was Apple, that like Sony before them managed to produce the iconic player. Six years later Apple did it again incorporating the technology into the iPhone, dominating the market ever since, with other tech firms following suit. Spotify launched in 2008 shifting behaviour again, but with the convergent nature of devices such as the iPod, the method of playback stayed relatively the same. 

Sony announced that they would cease producing cassette Walkmans in 2010, but the company still produces them for some markets. Cassettes have enjoyed an underground revival in recent years enabling a DIY cassette counterculture, not unlike the zine scene of the punk era. It's easy to draw comparisons between dubbing copies of a master tape to reproduce and self-publish music and the cut, paste and photocopied world of the zine. It's the very opposite of the commercially lucrative resurgence of vinyl records.

40 years on, the Walkman, its cassettes and headphones were clearly important disruptors of the culture of the late 20th Century, but it is perhaps easy to ignore their legacy today. Pocket-sized players, audiobooks, podcasts, in-ear headphones, album sharing, playlists and mixtape culture can all trace their lineage back to the humble personal stereo.

Explore Fred Perry Subculture's Playlists here.

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