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Walk This Way

Date: 9th July 2019

It was forty years ago this month that hi-fi headphones went from a niche product to one of the most mainstream, mass market consumer durables in history. It didn’t happen overnight of course, but that’s when the process began – at the launch of the revolutionary Sony TPS-L2. The ‘Stowaway’, as Sony initially dubbed it, was a small portable cassette player – indeed to be more precise, it was the smallest tape deck ever, outside the world of miniaturised spying devices…

Fascinatingly, Sony had no great expectations for the product. In his book ‘Made In Japan’, the company’s co-founder Akio Morita describes how he 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 on his international flights. The TPS-L2 duly hit the market one year later, and the reviews were mixed. Some couldn’t see the need for it, and others didn’t take it seriously as a music player – lest we forget, open reel machines were still viewed by many audiophiles as the only serious tape medium.

Many hi-fi magazines at the time either ignored it or gave it a lukewarm review. Instead, it was widely viewed as ‘just another one of those Japanese novelty products’, like digital watches with games in, or calculators that played tunes. What attracted attention from media watchers was Sony’s naming policy for different global markets – in the UK it was the ‘Stowaway’, in the USA the ‘Soundabout’ and in Japan it had the odd moniker of ‘Walkman’. Legend has it that Morita initially hated the Japanese-market name, but the marketing material had already been made and it was too expensive to change!

Those who looked beyond the marketing however, found hidden treasure. The most surprising thing about the first ever Walkman wasn’t its name, but its sound quality. It was spectacularly good compared to any portable consumer device the world had heard before, and this was all the more amazing because it wasn’t that much larger than a cassette box. There were two reasons for this; first was Sony’s excellent transport mechanism, decent head and playback electronics, and the second was the fine pair of headphones supplied. Fascinatingly though, these weren’t like the big, bulky hi-fi and pro audio designs of the day – enormous, heavy, closed-back designs – they were petite, ultra-light and folding. They looked like a toy, but sounded remarkable for their size.

In truth, the TPS-L2 headphones were the real story – for two reasons. First, the tape player part of the package wasn’t that new; that Walkman was basically just a repurposed Sony TCM-600 mono recorder made for reporters and businessmen, with the recording functionality removed. Second, its headphones offered a hitherto unseen combination of portability and sound quality – they were the spark that lit the fire of personal audio that has burned so brightly ever since. The Walkman concept – a small cassette player with foldable lightweight stereo headphones – went on to be a massive cultural phenomenon that transformed the lives of many around the world.

For the first time ever, it was possible to listen to your own favourite tunes – not somebody else’s on the radio – in high quality stereo sound while out and about. That first Sony Walkman pioneered the concept of music on the move. Life without personal audio is as hard to explain to anyone now used to it, as life without the internet. Yet it had a massive effect on the audio world – arguably greater even than Compact Disc – in the nineteen eighties. The concept of suddenly ‘owning’ your own personal space as you walk the city streets or sit on the train on the way to work was seen by many as personal liberation.

Of course, Apple’s iPod came along twenty years later and rebooted the concept of music on the move, this time with computer audio files instead of more fiddly and fragile cassettes. And now we have a generation of people who constantly use their smartphones to listen to podcasts, audiobooks and streams of their favourite music – all using small, high quality headphones as a critical part of the equation. Hi-fi enthusiasts now buy purpose-designed digital music players and high quality portable phones or in-ear buds, and play hi-res music out and about, just as eighties music lovers used their top spec Sony Walkmans.

Over the past few or so years, this movement towards personal music has accelerated and global sales of headphones have rocketed – from 286 million in 2013, to 400 million this year, according to market research firm Statista. In hi-fi, many people now use ‘cans’ as a substitute for a high end pair of loudspeakers – simply because more ‘sound per pound’ is possible if the right models are used. Last year, for the first time ever, a dCS DAC launched with the option – Bartók didn’t just have a headphone socket, but a specially-designed headphone amplifier stage that had to match the stellar standards of the rest of the product. It has proved a great success, garnering widespread critical acclaim for offering state-of-the-art sound from headphones, as well as through conventional hi-fi separates systems.

Forty years on from when Sony – perhaps inadvertently – created a revolution in the way we have come to use headphones, the personal audio story is far from over. Indeed, you might say it’s only just begun…