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Sony Walkman TPS-L2

Legends. These are the truly great, revolutionary products that change everything. They elevate themselves from being merely a design icon to a cultural icon. The Sony Walkman TPS-L2 introduced in 1979 is one of those legends. It's the first Walkman ever made and the first product I'm showcasing that's older than myself. This was the first time music became truly portable making it historically more significant than even the iPod. The TPS-L2 has become a collector's favorite so expect to pay a premium for one in good condition. I was lucky and purchased this from a university museum for a reasonable price.

 

Like the iPod, the Walkman isn’t truly the first of its kind. There was a cassette player before it called the Stereobelt. It was big, ugly, expensive and only lived on as a patent. What the Walkman did was make the idea of a portable cassette player into a marketable, attractive consumer product. That’s the genius of Sony. 

 
TCM-600 | © Sony Corporation

TCM-600 | © Sony Corporation

Before the Walkman, there were tape recorders but no tape players. It seems so obvious today that you would create a tape player but everyone thought that such a market did not exist. There are too many myths and marketing driven romanticism on the origin of the Walkman so it’s impossible to say what genesis really was. One thing that’s certain is that the tape recording division at Sony was looking for something that could make them as successful as the radio division. Led by engineer Nobutoshi Kihara, they created a prototype using the TCM-600, a tape recorder. They ended up creating a ridiculously expensive product, and being the business genius he is, chairman Akio Morita demanded that they find a way to reduce the COGS significantly.

 

The Walkman, like many great successes in history was really an accident. It was not launched or planned carefully because people weren't sure a market for it existed. It explains why the TPS-L2 shared so many components with the TCM-600 tape recorder. 

 
Initial branding for export models | The Walkman Archive

Initial branding for export models | The Walkman Archive

The Walkman brand has become so iconic that it's in the Oxford English Dictionary but it started out as a bit of a fumble. As Sony began exporting the Walkman, they feared that the name may sound awkward to native English speakers. Sony decided to brand the device as “Soundabout” with the exception of the UK and Sweden, which received the brand names “Stowaway” and “Freestyle” respectively. After realizing that the Walkman name was sticking better with consumers, Sony made a swift change to pushing the Walkman name globally. The Walkman entered the world when Japanese influence on the world was exploding, and I believe sounding “Japanese” only became an asset.

 
Japanese TPS-L2 packaging | © Sony Corporation

Japanese TPS-L2 packaging | © Sony Corporation

As shown on this box,the Japanese market initially had an absolutely crazy cartoon Walkman logo. After making the decision to stick with the Walkman name globally, Sony quickly created a new, more serious logo.

 
The first Walkman ad | The Walkman Archive

The first Walkman ad | The Walkman Archive

This is the first Walkman ad in history. Sony intended it to be a trendy product for consumers under 20 but it became popular regardless of demographics. The Walkman went on sale in 1979 at ¥33,000 which equates to roughly $500 today. Sales were predicted to be 5,000 per month but Sony sold upwards of 50,000 in the first two months of sales.

 

The TPS-L2 is typical late 70s Sony in design. It looks like it was designed using just a ruler, which it literally was - this was a time when designers still drafted designs instead of using CAD.

 

The Japanese sensibility of neatness and succinct voice in design are clearly visible here. Just like the Germans, the Japanese embraced simple, coherent design but preferred to add a little bit of character and optimism for the future using extreme miniaturization and a little bit of aesthetic garnish.

 

Like Apple’s lineup today, many of Sony’s products of this era were constructed from Aluminum. Machining at a large scale wasn’t yet feasible though, so the company’s products were stamped from sheets of material. It’s not something that looks particularly attractive through the modern eye but you can certainly appreciate Sony’s aim to create a durable metal housing.

 

The biggest drawback of using stamped metal for construction is patchy design. The TPS-L2’s exterior shell is composed of 5 different panels, and as we all know, having many parts compromises the feeling of solidity.

 

The back of the device has an array of (largely) decorative lines that flow into the plastic foot on the left side of the device. They help visually tie the device together. Judging by the placement of the foot, I'm guessing that Sony intended on its users placing the Walkman on its side.

 

In an attempt to attract younger buyers, Sony anodized the TPS-L2 in blue. It isn’t all that attractive and makes the device feel a bit toy-like. It’s no surprise that Sony made subsequent Walkmans in more serious silver and grey tones.

 
MDR-3L2 | © Sony Corporation

MDR-3L2 | © Sony Corporation

What often gets forgotten in history are the MDR-3L2 - the headphones that came with the Walkman. Headphones at the time were designed for stationary use because portable products were pretty much nonexistent. Realizing this, Sony engineers came up with a super-light design weighing only 45g that sit on your ears, not over. They became a fashion and cultural signal, just like Apple’s white earphones decades later.

 

Of course, being compact and portable was what made the Walkman truly revolutionary. Its size is stunning when you consider that this is the first product of its kind. Out of luck, the launch of Walkman also coincided with the aerobatics craze of the 80s so the compact size made it even more popular.

 
TPS-L2 ad | The Walkman Archive

TPS-L2 ad | The Walkman Archive

That’s not to say that the TPS-L2 pocketable though. It’s too tight of a squeeze in a pants pocket though it could fit in a loose jacket pocket. To solve the portability issue, Sony included a case that let you strap it to your waist. What started out as a necessity eventually became a marketable, fashionable image that Sony used to attract more buyers. You want to be trendy and culturally relevant? Go buy a Walkman.

 

The TPS-L2 is split into two regions, blue and silver. This was most likely an aesthetics driven decision but like any good product, its design helps you understand the function of the product. The blue region is for the most part, dedicated to containing the cassette itself. The silver region is home to the controls, and is what you interact with. Something worth noting is that the silver band is actually made from plastic and simply painted silver. Odd how the most metal-looking part is the plastic one.

 

There are no latches or locks to the cassette compartment; it just opens using manual force. I loaded up a brand new copy of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the first thing that struck me is how terrible it sounds. Because I've never owned a cassette player in my life and have no point of reference, I can't really judge the functionality of the TPS-L2. I'm just going to assume that cassettes sound bad.

EDIT: According to the readers, there are many possibilities for my Walkman sounding bad: its head could be misaligned, dirty or there's a likelihood that my tape could have deteriorated over time. One comment was universal though - cassettes in general don't sound nearly as good as high fidelity options we have today. 

 

Pushing the eject button pushes a physical lever that pushes the cassette forward. In a world where every solution is digital, small moments like this are gratifying. 

 

Something that also feels really satisfying is the hinge mechanism for the cassette door. It’s made from minuscule plastic parts that snaps the door open and shut with an audible click. It’s like a miniature version of a 70s Porsche door.

 

The top of the device. One of the highlighted features of the TPS-L2 were its dual headphone jacks. A social feature for an anti-social music device.

 

Next to the dual headphones is a button labeled “Hot Line”. This was another key feature of the TPS-L2. When the user pressed the Hot Line button, the device would would override the music with audio from the built in microphone. It allowed you to listen to Subway announcements or talk to a friend without taking off your headphones. I find it to be a particularly clever idea as it uses existing parts from tape recorders. Hot Line wasn’t really a sought after feature though, and was axed in later models.

 

 

The TPS-L2’s controls are all neatly arranged on the right side of the device.

 

The playback controls of the Walkman are as simple as it gets. They have a lot of travel and make a satisfying click when you disengage them using the stop button.

 

Beneath the playback controls are the volume sliders. Notice how I said, sliders in plural. Like many products of its era, the left and right channels are adjusted independently. Not sure why anyone would want to do this other than for accessibility reasons.

EDIT: Several readers have notified me that misalignment of channels happened frequently when the head of the tape player would read slightly off the tracks. This was an easy way of resolving a common problem.

 

Though it’s hard to call the TPS-L2 a beautiful device, it does come off as having a respectable amount of care poured into it. Garnish like the Sony logo on the brushed panel to the tiny debossed typography all help support this first impression.

 

The back of the product is barren except for the massive “STEREO” graphic and the battery compartment.

 

The battery door is held shut using the tiny plastic latch. To door is attached using a simple rod and isn't spring loaded, making it just a bit fussy to open. The battery compartment does a good job of isolating itself from the internal components (so the illusion of this being a magical device isn't broken).

 

What I find truly fascinating is how it's a manifestation of its creators' psyche. The Japanese are notorious for creating order and purity through miniaturization. They have condensed Haikus, instead of lengthy poems, restrain trees into bonsai and create an art form out of packing neatly ordered lunches. The Walkman, like so many other Japanese masterpieces is exactly that, a distilled vision of what is heavy handed. Technically, there's nothing that remarkable about creating a device that plays tapes. It may be why nobody had attempted to do this before Sony. What's really remarkable though, is what everyone overlooked: the concept of the personal audio player. Modern life in a city like Tokyo can be stressful, and a device like the Walkman allowed people to create a personal space without disturbing others. As it turned out, the desire for creating a personal bubble using music was universal. It was the biggest discovery Sony had ever discovered unintentionally, and it changed everything.