A revolution in your hand: Happy 45th birthday to the Sony Walkman

Sony Walkman
(Image credit: Future)

It’s 45 years to the day that Sony first unleashed the Walkman and set in train a transformation in the way we listen to music.

Up until then, we had to keep music in our heads when we were out and about. But the Walkman enabled us to take it wherever we went. For all those of us who take listening on their phones for granted in 2024, it’s hard to overstate how seismic this felt for the kids of the early 1980s. In the short term it lead to a huge sales boost for cassettes 0 both pre-recorded and blank - and a huge rise in, er illegal taping. And by the mid-'80s the cassette was the dominant album format in the UK, a position it held before being overtaken in turn by CDs in 1992.

The origin story of the Walkman is a contested one, with German inventor Andreas Pavel laying claim to being the first to develop a portable hi-fi system. He patented one in 1977 in Italy and the following year in the US and Japan.

Then, in July 1979, Sony unveiled its now iconic version which at the very least may have been inspired by Pavel’s prototype. In the US it was named the Soundabout, in the UK, the Stowaway, but was eventually rebranded as the Walkman.

The device went on sale for $150 ($650 at today’s prices) but that figure soon dropped as Sony cornered the market, forcing out rivals – Toshiba and Panasonic had their own versions – and Pavel’s own Stereobelt, which was launched in Italy around the same time.

The heyday of the Walkman lasted until the mid-'90s when portable CD players began to creep onto the market. But the Discman never really took off - who knew CDs would jump if you ran with them in your pocket? - and was soon superseded by the MiniDisc and, by the early 2000s, the invention which would blow them all out of the water: Apple’s iPod.

First Sony Walkman TPS-L2 1979 - Restoration & Repair - YouTube First Sony Walkman TPS-L2 1979 - Restoration & Repair - YouTube
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The Walkman had a pretty good run, though - Sony only stopped making them in 2010. But, of course, yesterday’s obsolete junk is tomorrow’s cool vintage. Prices of Walkmen in good condition have been going up on eBay for quite some time, fuelled not only by this notion but the ongoing cassette revival. In 2021, over 243,000 of the things were sold of the things in the UK - the highest figure since 2003 - and more and more major album releases are including a limited edition cassette version.

A truly iconic brand, then. Indeed, you wouldn’t bet against Sony reviving it once more before it reaches 50.

Will Simpson
News and features writer

Will Simpson is a freelance music expert whose work has appeared in Classic Rock, Classic Pop, Guitarist and Total Guitar magazine. He is the author of 'Freedom Through Football: Inside Britain's Most Intrepid Sports Club' and his second book 'An American Cricket Odyssey' is due out in 2025