Bring the Noise

The evolution of portable audio

By Matthew McKinnon
The Walkman, 1979
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The Walkman, 1979

Germany, 1977: Inventor Andreas Pavel applies for the first of several patents on a “portable small component for the hi-fidelity reproduction of recorded sound,” which is a muddy way of saying he conceived the walkman. His Stereobelt is designed for two listeners, with dual headphone jacks and a “hotline” button that, when pressed, lowers playback volume to allow conversation (heard through the headphones) via a built-in microphone. (“Say Cindy, I don’t mind this tape, but Zuma was soooo much better;” “Oh totally. Like a Hurricane has nothing over Cortez the Killer. ”) Pavel makes several prototypes but fails to shepherd his device to market.

It takes Sony to make the walkman sing. Impetus for the company’s innovation comes from co-founder Masaru Ibuka, who requests an easy way to play classical music cassettes during long flights to America. Sony engineers rush to create a prototype. Ibuka falls in love on first listen. So does CEO Akio Morita, who instructs his design team to add a second headphone jack and hotline button. (Both features mimic the Stereobelt; both are removed from later models.)

Sony’s TPS-L2 hits Japanese stores on July 1, 1979. It costs 33,800 yen, or the equivalent of one month’s salary for the average adult worker. Street teams flood Tokyo to play demo tapes for pedestrians, most of whom speed from skeptical to thrilled in seconds. The machine’s initial, 30,000-unit production run sells out by the end of August; worldwide sales start four months later. The L2 is introduced as the Soundabout in the U.S., the Stowaway in the U.K. and the Freestyle in Sweden. In a short time, Morita orders global adoption of its Japanese nickname — the Walkman.

Sony moves 200 million units in the player’s first two years. The Walkman is linked to North America’s jogging fad, despite the illogic of dashing through intersections while listening to Hit Me With Your Best Shot. The portable cassette player becomes to the ’80s what the pocket radio was to the ’50s: a cultural phenomenon that changes the way the world experiences sound. Headphones become the ’80’s lasting fashion statement.

Only Pavel remains unimpressed. The inventor collects royalties on his Stereobelt patents from 1986 forward, though Sony refuses to concede ownership of the idea. The parties clash in courts through June 2004, when Pavel accepts a multimillion-euro settlement in exchange for dropping all legal claims against the company.

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