When the Sony Walkman was launched, 30 years ago this week, it started a revolution in portable music. But how does it compare with its digital successors? The Magazine invited 13-year-old Scott Campbell to swap his iPod for a Walkman for a week.
My dad had told me it was the iPod of its day.
He had told me it was big, but I hadn't realised he meant THAT big. It was the size of a small book.
When I saw it for the first time, its colour also struck me. Nowadays gadgets come in a rainbow of colours but this was only one shade - a bland grey.
LISTEN UP TEENAGERS... THE CLASSIC WALKMAN EXPLAINED
1: Clunky buttons
2: Switch to metal (that's a type of cassette, not heavy rock music)
3: Battery light - usually found flickering in its death throes
4: Double headphone jack (not to be found on an iPod)
5: Door ejects - watch out for flying tapes and eye injuries
So it's not exactly the most aesthetically pleasing choice of music player. If I was browsing in a shop maybe I would have chosen something else.
From a practical point of view, the Walkman is rather cumbersome, and it is certainly not pocket-sized, unless you have large pockets. It comes with a handy belt clip screwed on to the back, yet the weight of the unit is enough to haul down a low-slung pair of combats.
When I wore it walking down the street or going into shops, I got strange looks, a mixture of surprise and curiosity, that made me a little embarrassed.
As I boarded the school bus, where I live in Aberdeenshire, I was greeted with laughter. One boy said: "No-one uses them any more." Another said: "Groovy." Yet another one quipped: "That would be hard to lose."
My friends couldn't imagine their parents using this monstrous box, but there was interest in what the thing was and how it worked.
In some classes in school they let me listen to music and one teacher recognised it and got nostalgic.
It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape. That was not the only naive mistake that I made; I mistook the metal/normal switch on the Walkman for a genre-specific equaliser, but later I discovered that it was in fact used to switch between two different types of cassette.
I managed to create an impromptu shuffle feature simply by holding down 'rewind' and releasing it randomly
Another notable feature that the iPod has and the Walkman doesn't is "shuffle", where the player selects random tracks to play. Its a function that, on the face of it, the Walkman lacks. But I managed to create an impromptu shuffle feature simply by holding down "rewind" and releasing it randomly - effective, if a little laboured.
I told my dad about my clever idea. His words of warning brought home the difference between the portable music players of today, which don't have moving parts, and the mechanical playback of old. In his words, "Walkmans eat tapes". So my clumsy clicking could have ended up ruining my favourite tape, leaving me music-less for the rest of the day.
Throughout my week using the Walkman, I came to realise that I have very little knowledge of technology from the past. I made a number of naive mistakes, but I also learned a lot about the grandfather of the MP3 Player.
You can almost imagine the excitement about the Walkman coming out 30 years ago, as it was the newest piece of technology at the time.
The Walkman was a nostalgic sight for Scott's parents
Perhaps that kind of anticipation and excitement has been somewhat lost in the flood of new products which now hit our shelves on a regular basis.
Personally, I'm relieved I live in the digital age, with bigger choice, more functions and smaller devices. I'm relieved that the majority of technological advancement happened before I was born, as I can't imagine having to use such basic equipment every day.
Having said all that, portable music is better than no music.
Now, for technically curious readers, I've directly compared the portable cassette player with its latter-day successor. Here are the main cons, and even a pro, I found with this piece of antique technology.
This is the function that matters most. To make the music play, you push the large play button. It engages with a satisfying clunk, unlike the finger tip tap for the iPod.
When playing, it is clearly evident that the music sounds significantly different than when played on an MP3 player, mainly because of the hissy backtrack and odd warbly noises on the Walkman.
The warbling is probably because of the horrifically short battery life; it is nearly completely dead within three hours of firing it up. Not long after the music warbled into life, it abruptly ended.
With the plethora of MP3 players available on the market nowadays, each boasting bigger and better features than its predecessor, it is hard to imagine the prospect of purchasing and using a bulky cassette player instead of a digital device.
Music on the move
Furthermore, there were a number of buttons protruding from the top and sides of this device to provide functions such as "rewinding" and "fast-forwarding" (remember those?), which added even more bulk.
As well as this, the need for changing tapes is bothersome in itself. The tapes which I had could only hold around 12 tracks each, a fraction of the capacity of the smallest iPod.
Did my dad, Alan, really ever think this was a credible piece of technology?
"I remembered it fondly as a way to enjoy what music I liked, where I liked," he said. "But when I see it now, I wonder how I carried it!"
WALKMAN 1, MP3 PLAYER 0
But it's not all a one-way street when you line up a Walkman against an iPod. The Walkman actually has two headphone sockets, labelled A and B, meaning the little music that I have, I can share with friends. To plug two pairs of headphones in to an iPod, you have to buy a special adapter.
Another useful feature is the power socket on the side, so that you can plug the Walkman into the wall when you're not on the move. But given the dreadful battery life, I guess this was an outright necessity rather than an extra function.
Scott Campbell co-edits his own news website,
Net News Daily.
A selection of your comments appears below.
Oh, I remember being so jealous of my classmates who had Walkmans. When they first came out, they were over $200. Such joy when the cheap electronics brands started making them! Every long trip, I carried a big bag full of tapes and extra batteries. When the iPod came out, I was in awe at the idea of being able to carry my entire music collection in one small device that would fit in my pocket. I'd never trade my iPod for a Walkman, of course, but this brought back some great memories, and I really enjoyed the article. Maybe next you should try out a Commodore 64 for a week?
Michelle, Portland, Oregon, USA
The one he is using now should be the earliest stage of Walkman history. I still remember my last walkman 8 years ago was actually powered by a single AAA battery only and can last for few hours. I agree perfectly to what he said about '.... with a satisfying clunk " o men... this was absolutely a SATISFACTION !!
Chester Kev, Malaysia
You mention the lack of capacity and the limited number of tracks you could carry around, I seem to quite merrily recall ALSO carrying around a slick over the shoulder carry case for up to 20 cassettes should my friends and I be heading out. And all the song lyrics were handily printed out on the inside of the cassette cover, how ingenius was that!
Andrew McCreath, Wateringbury, Kent
Memories! I still have exactly the same model that Scott used for his review - brought back floods of memories from the 80s - especially using the double headphone socket so my girlfriend (now wife) and I could share Phil Collins (!?). Between myself and my 3 kids I've now bought every model of iPod/Phone, but I doubt I'll have those memories again.
Jim Mantle, Melbourne, Australia
The best thing about Walkman is that it could only play one cassette and limited songs. Even though MP3 give us plenty of storage and songs, i realize that i now do not have the patient to listen to one whole album. I keep shuffling whenever the songs is not that nice. Walkman forces me to listen to the whole album and sometime i discover some hidden nice songs. Now, i just skip...hahah
Ahhh - the good ol' days, before MP3 players... This was state of the art when I was growing up (in the mid 80s), and my original Walkman is still going strong. It was the one with the metal case, and survived more than one drop off the desk. The only drawback was the fact that I had to have the "rubber bands" replaced on a regular basis - but at least you could repair it, unlike the successors. Ok - the battery life wasn't great, but you could overcome that by using the mains adaptor when you were hiding in your room.
Karen, Leamington Spa
I've got really fond memories of my Walkman from 1999 - my boyfriend had a CD player (bulky) and minted mates had MiniDiscs (too expensive) but I loved making mixtapes for friends and personalising the labels. It wasn't anywhere near as big as the one in this story - then again, thank God flares were in fashion and we all had such massive pockets!
Maggie Stuart, London, UK
Oh - how I laughed when I read Scott's account: it's all true! It's so hard now to see how excited we were to have these - but looking back, not only were they bulky, but if you wanted to listen to more than one album you had to carry pockets-full of tapes. If you waved them back and forward the sound also went warbly and I can vividly remember the great advancement for the '2nd generation': auto change direction which meant you didn't have to turn the tape over when you got to the end!!
I've had several mp3 players, the batteries last for random times as I can never find a USB cable with a silly connector, mp3 players also do not switch off they just go until they're flat. They work randomly as the software which thrown together in a sweat shop is utter rubbish. The headphones invariably last a period measured in days if you don't lose them in the first place, I also had to put a carabiner on my player that makes a nonsense of its minute size, otherwise I just lose it for weeks on end. Being a control freak, I can't stand the "shuffle" function and I lose patience about having to fire up a PC and faff with deleting and copying files. I had a walkman, for years and years, with one set of headphones, it worked
I remember some young people going out wearing these as a sort of status symbol, even if they had no batteries! However they still have a role; I got one from eBay for my partially sighted dad so he can play his audio books.
Troy, Basildon, Essex
I remember my first few Walkmen - I say few, as I must have had at least three or four of them during my adolescence due to death by seaside, breakfast food, motor exhaustion, melting, etc. They were a source of both great joy and incredible frustration, as you either had to deliberately break up any journey to buy batteries, or carry a pack with you, everywhere you went. They also chewed up and spat out tapes, especially mix tapes of great sentimental value with alarming regularity, and as battery juice ran out, the motor would slow, risking stretching the tape to a sound that DJs would love, but that drove everyone else crazy!
Ahhhhh, I was never rich enough to own a Walkman. I had two or three "other" manufacturer versions in latter years. I do remember I had a rich friend who got one the week they came out. I was absolutely astounded with the sound quality. It was a brilliant piece of technology for its day and I recall that its launch was as hyped as that for the iPod.
Andy, MIlton Keynes, UK
Interesting that Scott thinks that "the majority of technological advancement happened before I was born". Don't you think that's what we all thought, all those years ago? I've every expectation that in 25 years time Scott's children will be looking with horror at the iPods of old and Scott will be scratching his head and trying to keep up with the latest developments.
I remember listening to the Walkman for the first time on a school picnic in 1985. I was 11 years old then. We were in the school bus and this classmate of mine proudly started flaunting his Walkman that one of his uncles' had got him from the US. I had absolutely no idea what it was until he asked me to put on the headphones. With me in anticipation he then pressed "Play". I swear I can never forget what my first song on the Walkman sounded like. The song was Michael Jackson's "Wanna be starting something" and the way I could appreciate different sounds in spatial, 3D clarity was amazing. I begged my classmate to let me listen to one more song but he was a shrewd businessman. Before he hit the play button again I had to pay a fee for the liberty of listening to his prized possession!
Dr Maajed J. Wani, Srinagar, Kashmir, India
I use both, however my Walkman is a (what was state of the art) Sony WM-DD3 direct drive (no warbling) Dolby Noise reduction (no hiss). Although the latter obviously is physically larger and far inferior in terms of track capacity to an iPod or equivalent, what it does do is beat my digital device hands down when it comes to dynamic range, sound quality and richness. Secondly, since a cassette is typically no longer than 45 minutes in length, I am thankfully limited to my oblivion of the world around me and the annoyance to others especially on public transport. Quality not quantity
Paul, Beeston Notts
The Sony Walkman was fairly pricey and a lot of us had to make do with cheaper versions. Many of these personal stereos (as they were called in the UK) lacked a 'rewind' function which meant the listener had to repeatedly flip the cassette over, 'fast-forward' a while, then flip the tape back! The double headphone socket was another feature lacking in the cheaper makes but a further social-friendly feature on later models of the Walkman was the big orange 'hotline' button. If someone wanted to say something to the listener, they could hold this down and it would mute the music so they could be heard. Rechargeable batteries and an 'anti-roll' mechanism were essential if you truly wanted to enjoy music on the move in those days.
Lee Morgan, Isle of Wight