Tunes On The Go: From The Walkman To The iPod & Beyond [Geek History]

walkman intro cc   Tunes On The Go: From The Walkman To The iPod & Beyond [Geek History]Your children will never know what it’s like to have the batteries on a personal cassette player start to run out, as the music slows by a noticeable couple of BPM and Bruce Dickinson’s vocals on your Iron Maiden compilation begin to wane. Heck, your children probably won’t listen to Iron Maiden (mine will, it will be heavily enforced).

In the age of streaming media, digital everything and repeated shunning of physical media, the way we consume music continues to evolve. The path we’ve taken thus far has been long, expensive and many lessons have been learned. If you’re too young to remember the Sony Walkman, this article is for you.

If you fondly remember a time of mixtapes and recording music off the radio, this article is for you too. You might just feel nostalgic enough to dust off your old collection of <insert 80s/90s band> cassettes (or maybe not).

Cassettes & The First Personal Stereo

In order to trace the history of personal audio, it seems fitting to first explore the foundations of the technology that made it possible for Sony et al to redefine your listening habits with headphones and portable players. The humble compact audio cassette was a product of the Philips corporation who in 1962 created and 1963 licensed free of charge for audio use. It was to become one of the main dominant formats for listening to and storing music and remains to this day the last mass produced analog audio format.

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The first personal stereo to use this technology was the fruit of Andreas Pavel’s labour, known as the Stereobelt. In 1972 he first pressed the play button on his invention to begin a recording of “Push Push” by Herbie Mann and Duane Allman, a feeling he described as “floating”. In 2003 Sony finally settled a long-standing patent dispute with Pavel, who finally got his pay-out and the title he’d wanted for so long: the inventor of the personal stereo.

The Sony Walkman Legacy

Despite Pavel being the initial inventor of the personal stereo, and more to the point the personal cassette player, it was Sony who first took the product to market under the guise of a low-cost portable stereo. Initially marketed as the Walkman in Japan, the Soundabout in the US and the Stowaway in the UK, Sony’s personal player virtually introduced the global public to the concept of listening to music on-the-go using lightweight headphones.

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The first model was the TPS-L2, a metal-cased blue and silver design that boasted features like stereo playback and dual 3.5mm jacks. It came with a basic pair of Sony headphones and took 4 AA batteries (though could also run off mains power via 6v adapter). The Walkman soon grew in popularity sparking Sony to release several more models, including the Walkman Professional in 1982 which saw the addition of recording capabilities. Featuring recording level meters and manual control over input volumes, the Professional soon became a go-to tool for journalists, songwriters and anyone who wanted near-professional quality recordings on cassette.

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In October 2010 Sony officially stopped manufacturing cassette Walkman units in Japan, though production continues in China and the US for limited markets. The cassette Walkman’s decline can be partly blamed on emerging technologies, notably Sony’s replacement – the Discman. Known as the CD Walkman in Japan (and in 2009 this name was adopted worldwide), the Discman was the first portable CD player on the market when it was released in 1984 only 5 years after the original Walkman.

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As anyone who has ever used a portable CD player (particularly an early one) will tell you, these units were prone to skipping. The original Discman CD players had absolutely no jog protection, which meant one had to be particularly careful while handling it. Later models featured Sony’s ESP anti-jog protection which stood for Electronic Skip Protection. The technology pre-read the CD so as to write its contents to a memory buffer, measured in seconds. Later Sony changed the name to G-Protection, and eventually the high-end players were classed as “jog proof”. Eventually the Discman lines were upgraded to play CD-Rs with raw MP3 files on them, as well as Sony’s proprietary ATRAC codec.

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With the original Walkman dying out, and the Discman still climbing in popularity, some were surprised when Sony introduced a new format – the MiniDisc – in 1992 which eventually outshone Philips’ upcoming Digital Compact Cassette technology. The format was immensely popular in Japan, though global sales didn’t quite reach what Sony might have hoped beyond the motherland. The technology used small cartridges that contained discs which initially used the ATRAC compression codec, but later advanced to include raw CD quality recording.

To many, myself and fellow writer Christian included, the MiniDisc was a great format thanks to being scratch proof, jog proof and head-and-shoulders above the abysmal quality of the MP3s floating around file sharing services at the time. The format has been discontinued now, but you can still buy MiniDiscs for the moment.

The Digital Audio Player

In 1997 the first mass-produced digital audio player – or MP3 player as the device was to become known – was created by South Korean firm Saehan Information Systems. It went on sale the year after as the MPMan, where it was rebranded as the Eiger MPMan for the North American market. The device had a fixed flash memory size of 32MB, enough for about 6 songs depending on length and quality.

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In the years that followed MP3 players became all the rage as the Internet became a household phenomenon and more and more computers were sold to consumers. The world’s first hard-drive digital audio player followed in 1998. Manufactured by Compaq and used a 2.5” laptop hard drive, the technology was licensed to HanGo Electronics and featured a capacity of 4.8GB and went on sale in 1999. It wasn’t long before nearly every electronic manufacturer started manufacturing an MP3 player, with some dedicated brands like Diamond (Rio), iRiver and sound card manufacturer Creative giving it a go, all with varying levels of success.

The iPod Legacy

Announced by Apple in September 2001 and on-sale the following month, the first iPod was a 5GB capacity white and silver box with a mechanical scroll wheel that required Mac OS 9 or X (10.1) and iTunes to transfer music via FireWire only. There was no Windows compatibility initially, and on the second released version of the iPod Apple released two versions – one that came with iTunes of Mac, and one that came with Musicmatch Jukebox for Windows. Finally in October 2003, six months after the iPod 3G, iTunes for Windows surfaced and the iPod really started picking up traction.

Upon realising it was on to a good thing, Apple released several more variants in the iPod line starting with the flash-only iPod Mini in 2004 which introduced the “clickwheel” that Apple still use today. The Mini was replaced by the Nano (which has since seen seven revisions) and joined by the screen-less Shuffle in 2005. Both of these models are still available for sale, alongside the iPod Classic which serves as a dedicated hard disk player and aside from a few capacity tweaks has been unchanged since 2007 and continues to be sold today.

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Apple’s latest addition to the iPod line (which, with the convergence of devices into do-it-all boxes of joy might be the last) is the iPod Touch, introduced in 2007. It was the first iPod with a multi-touch interface, Wi-Fi and a web browser and ran Apple’s (then) brand new mobile operating system, iOS. The iPod wasn’t just a simple, well-branded device but the digital equivalent of Sony’s original Walkman. This led to many believing Apple was indeed the first to attempt such a thing, when in actual fact the technology had been on the market years before Cupertino were ready for a release.

Dumbphones, Smartphones and iPhones

The aforementioned convergence of technology has long been a trend, and the first mobile phone – now affectionately termed dumbphone – with an MP3 player arrived in 2001 in the form of the Siemens SL45. The phone was also the first to feature expandable memory via an MMC slot, making it an incredibly advanced bit of kit for 2001. In the years that followed nearly every manufacturer followed suit, and Sony even used their historic Walkman brand on a range of Sony Ericsson phones designed with portable MP3 playback in mind.

In 2005 Motorola and Apple made history when Steve Jobs took to the stage at a special event in San Francisco to reveal the Motorola Rokr, the first phone to be compatible with iTunes, which in hindsight is an odd partnership considering Apple was already working on its next big thing a year earlier – the iPhone. In 2007 it was ready, and Apple’s iPhone was released with iPod capabilities, Safari and the ability to run proprietary apps. With the release of Android the year later, the modern mobile world we now live in had its foundations.

Over the next 5 years services like Spotify (established in 2006) and Grooveshark (in 2007) set their sights on the mobile market. Spotify has arguably been the most successful of the mobile streaming services thus far, having initially debuted its first mobile app on the Android operating system at Google I/O in May 2009 with the official release of the iPhone version in August 2009. This allowed for both the streaming of music from the service over 3G connections and offline sync of playlists, with Grooveshark shunned on iOS but using emerging HTML 5 technology to circumvent Apple’s (and anyone else’s) restrictions.

And for the future… well we’re probably going to see a lot more lossless music delivered to our devices as network infrastructure improves and storage capacities continue to increase. I will leave the real speculation to you, where you can add your thoughts, reminisce and argue about formats past and present in the comments, below.

Image Credits: Intro Image (Ham Hock)Cassette (David Zellaby), iRiver MP3 Player (Mark Micallef), Various iPods (Chris Harrison)

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26 Comments -

0 votes

Macwitty Karin Holmqvist

Those were the day!
Remember my first walkman – you had to sit still for otherwise sound began to sway

0 votes

Harish Jonnalagadda

Thise were the times.

0 votes

Harish Jonnalagadda

What I actually wanted to say that in those times, you had to make an effort to get stuff done. Now all I have to do is click 2 buttons, and viola: Maiden live in Australia.

0 votes

Tim Brookes

This is true. Making a mix tape was real work. You had to pause at the right time, find your next cassette or CD then repeat until you were done.

Even making MiniDisc compilations required the original media, construction of a playlist and then the “burning” of the data to your MD.

These days I type things in to Spotify and add them all over the place. The mixtape has lost its charm and the playlist has taken over.

Saying that, I still listen to albums!

0 votes

Adrian Rea

A nice article, Thanks Tim. Of course portable recorded music started with the gramophone :) Then cassettes in car radios. There were portable radios but we initially had a single, mono, ‘earpiece’. I can remember the first time I listened to a walkman with its orange foam ear pads and it was like being transported into another world with a really personal experience of stereo sound. It truly did feel momentus.

0 votes

Tim Brookes

Thinking about it, I’ve always known personal audio as a thing that’s existed. It was invented before I was born and widespread by the time I was old enough to appreciate it.

Putting on headphones for the first time must have been a pretty awesome feeling, like the first time you visited a website or the first digital picture you took.

I wonder what other moments there will be like that in terms of consumer electronics!

0 votes

Adrian Rea

Having thought about it, there is an omission from the article. It is the impact on society this revolution brought. It first came with those foam earphones and the constant sound to everyone else outside the musical nirvana, the repetitive tsst, tsst, tsst, tsst! The headphones leaked noise really badly compared to those original in ear earpieces. The second thing was that the sound was so good, users turned up the volume as high as they could to drown out the sounds of traffic, background noise and their parents. This led to increased levels of deafness and people in more isolated from those around them. People who have their music on the go benefit from a massive filling of time, there is also these days a wealth of content in podcasts that can inform and entertain. This all leads to another legacy – the antisocial or just plain unsociable side of the personal listener. Trying to communicate with someone above their listening pleasure can be extremely frustrating. Users become more zombie like when moving around the town and are putting their lives at risk as they cannot hear warnings of potential threats like approaching vehicles, calls from bystanders etc.
The development of headphones have increased this distance. They became smaller, then in-ear, then ambient noise cancelling to today when you can spend a large abount of money to have personally moulded ear plugs that block out the world and at least blocks the noise escaping for others to hear. The social loss at the cost personal gain continues to increase.
BIG IDEA – I wish some would develop an app that allows people to hear the world around them and to hear their music to, as if it were on the radio, however the outside world did not have to hear the content being played. I would pay for that. Perhaps mp3 players could have a mic and a control that adds the environmental noise into the content so listeners can come back into the world. Otherwise the choice is whether to be a part of society or drown it out.

0 votes

Tim Brookes

When has this not been an issue though? When the motor car was invented and put into production, people started being hit by cars. The Internet has been accused of turning people into anti-social zombies, but at the same time you read this article and commented using it. Smartphones are increasingly blamed for similar societal decay, but at the same time you probably wouldn’t want to be without one in this day and age. Cigarettes are still legal, and people continue to smoke – the point here being, people are perfectly able to make their own decisions and live with the consequences.

Every leap forward has some repercussions, and while your points are very much valid it’s not hard to see why I didn’t include increased levels of deafness, antisocialism and the sound leakage annoyance in the article. This is an article celebrating the history of personal audio from the point of view of someone who spent a lot of his childhood connected to a Walkman. I’d hate to see where my musical tastes would be at had I never have discovered the Walkman!

Interestingly, the very first Walkman had an extra button and a microphone. When pressed, the microphone would pass through to the earphones so he or she could communicate with the outside world. This died off pretty quick, oddly enough.

Oh, and on a lighter note you should check out the free Inception iPhone app if you haven’t yet. It uses the world around you, the sound captured by your phone and its own processor. It’s quite interesting, though a bit different to what you describe above.

0 votes

Adrian Rea

Good response :) Yes I do remember the pass through switch, it was the same as pulling off the headphones which was just as easy. You could also just pull the headphone out of the socket. But all these solutions require you to know that someone is trying to talk to you, and withouth flashing a light or tapping on the shoulder, it can be hard to realise someone wants you. I am sorry if it sounded like a rant, I did not intend it to be. My idea is more something that I would wish for myself. I can listen to music and still do my work, but it is not accepted in my workplace to have a radio on. To be able to listen to music and radio commentary whist still able to fully interact with my colleagues would enable multitasking but without that moment when others are trying to talkk to me but I just can’t hear them. Its like everyone having a personal radio on in the background but no one else can hear it.
I did look at the inception app, and yes it looks ‘funky’.
listening to headphones when you had never done so before, was inspiring. I agree it is one of those points in time you always remember, and I agree it was like the first time I saw a shockwave animation, the first time I used netmeeting (an early Skype) and heard live LA police reports in my bedroom in the UK,

0 votes

Adrian Rea

Sorry clicked post by mistake.
We all can get deep with enthusiasm on many new innovations.
You are right, every new innovation can have consequences, but when using them with others increases their benefit greatly. Alcohol can ruin a person, but used socially (and preferably in moderation) can really enhance several lives at the same time.
I am glad personal players have been developed more and more, I just would prefer a sociable, interactive world than an isolating self centered one, which can happen with new technologies.
Keep smiling :)

0 votes

salim benhouhou

What an evolution

0 votes

Davin Peterson

The iPod wasn’t the first MP3 Player. Creative Labs pioneered the mp3 player and had their ZEN player released in 2000, a full year before the iPod. Then Steve Jobs came along and stole the GUI patent from Creative to create the iPod. The Creative Zen was always better the iPod. So, you can’t assume everyone switched from Sony to Apple

0 votes

Tim Brookes

I’m fully aware that Apple didn’t invent the first MP3 player, but then you also need to be aware that Creative did not either. As I said above, the first MP3 player was created by a South Korean firm called Saehan and the first jukebox (HDD) player was manufactured by Compaq of all people.

Creative didn’t really pioneer much because everyone else was already on the bandwagon. Sure they had a line of MP3 players and jukeboxes which were good alternatives to the rest of the market, including the iPod, but so did iRiver, Archos, Cowon and a ton of other manufacturers.

I don’t really believe that Steve Jobs “stole” the UI from Creative.

0 votes

Garey Boone

Loved this article the Iron Maiden enforcement is also in play at my house. Also to all of those kids out their correcting your parents and telling them “it’s Justin Beiber’s new CD Dad not album” you’re only partially right an album is a collection sooo if you don’t want to hear Iron Maidens Best of The Beast all day long…Yes even when your friends come over, don’t correct me again. Just a little conversation that happens in my house once in a while.

0 votes

Harish Jonnalagadda

Iron Maiden rocks!

0 votes

Dimal Chandrasiri

I remember my dad bringing me a walkman when I was in grade 5.. as my birth day present..

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Alex Perkins

My mum still has her walkman. It looks huge compared to standards I’m used to!

0 votes

kendall sencherey

How times have changed!

0 votes

Edwin Williams

I still have my first walkman around somewhere lolol

0 votes

Paula Garland

Fun look back at all the things we used to use. I still see people listening to walkmans occasionally.

0 votes

Declan Lopez

i guess im not that old if i dont remember most of those devices

0 votes

Arron Walker

I didn’t really listen to music back then, but I remember my sisters always being with their walkmans. I also remember having a tape recorder toy I messed around with, good times.

0 votes

Tim Brookes

Ah yes, the Talkboy by any chance? This toy was famously featured in Home Alone (2, I believe) and subsequently was on every child’s Christmas list that particular year. And all it really was… was a dictaphone – marketing, eh?

0 votes

druv vb

Ahh the walkman. A pure joy when you could just listen to music anywhere. I still remember those days juggling with cassettes and recording off the radio.
The last time I did that was 10 years ago.

0 votes

Frank Zedmore

Interesting read! I remember when I made my first girlfriend a mixtape

0 votes

Charles Yost

I feel so old when I see one of those Walkmans. I think that I also had a Disman too when CDs came out. The physical medium of music is slowly fading away. Vinyl has still seems to be selling though.