Forget The Walkman: It’s The Headphones

Forty years ago this month, a product was launched  in Japan that would have such a huge impact on the consumer electronics market that we are still using its descendants today. The story goes that one of the Sony founders would listen to music while traveling for the business, and found the company’s existing products cumbersome and awkward so asked his engineers to design something more convenient.

The resulting prototype became the Sony MDL-3L2, a set of miniaturised hi-fi headphones with distinctive foam earpads and a sliding metal headband that in total weighed an astoundingly svelte 45 g. It was paired with a cassette player called a “Walkman” derived from the company’s existing recorder that had been intended for journalists, and went on to sell in the millions. The market for headphones would never be the same again, and if you have a set of lightweight cans in your possession then this was their revolutionary progenitor.

But Hang On, What’s So Special About Headphones?

You probably won’t have heard the Walkman’s 40th anniversary described in those terms in the various reports covering the event, because of course the social impact of the portable music player rather than its headphones is what people remember. The joy of making a mix tape, of listening to The Human League on the bus, and of the adult disapproval of anything involving Kids Having Fun. Previously, music had been a static affair involving bulky record players, but now it could be taken anywhere. The other youth audio icon of that era, the boombox, simply couldn’t match the Walkman, and everybody wanted one.

The famous Stereobelt , from US patent US4412106A.
The famous Stereobelt , from US patent US4412106A.

But from a tech perspective the Walkman itself isn’t the breakthrough that made personal audio possible, and instead the lightweight headphones are the main event. Diminutive cassette players were not revolutionary even in 1979, the Compact Cassette format that we’re all used to had been around since the Dutch electronics giant Philips rolled them out in the early 1960s as dictation machines, followed by both the Microcassette and Mini-Cassette formats which had been introduced at the end of that decade. A German inventor had already produced and patented a miniaturised cassette player he called the “Stereobelt” earlier in the decade, and it was inevitable that before long one of the larger manufacturers would have produced a Walkman-sized consumer device.

On the other hand, lightweight high-quality headphones such as those shipped with the first Walkman were a genuine innovation in 1979, and are really the component of the personal audio success story that should be celebrated. The true star of the show is the MDL-3L2, so perhaps it’s time to celebrate what it represents instead of its boxy stablemate.

We are used to our electronic devices being minimalist and pocket-sized in 2019, so to really understand the impact of a lightweight set of headphones it’s worth taking a trip back to the 1970s for a very different experience of consumer tech. Hi-Fi had traditionally been a prestige item, and no living room was complete without the wood and brushed aluminium of a so-called “Music centre” hi-fi stack. Music for younger people meant a standalone record player in the bedroom, a lug-around cassette player, or an AM portable radio, with the ever-present threat of parental rage should its volume become too high. Headphones — at least the ones you could afford — were chunky plastic affairs that were about as cool as your grandmother’s taste in interior decoration, and certainly not something you’d wear anywhere someone might see you. Anything lightweight certainly didn’t sound good, and anything that sounded good was way out of any reasonable budget. After the Walkman launch, the new light-weight ones became cool,  a must-have fashion item that was often just worn around the neck when not being listened to, a fashion statement in itself. It didn’t matter that few teens had the Sony originals, here was something that gave them autonomy over their musical consumption, and they took hold of it enthusiastically.

Enough Cultural Impact, How About The ‘Phones Themselves?

A typical modern headphone transducer, with a rare-earth magnet, and coil suspended on a polyester diaphragm. Iain Fergusson [CC BY 2.5]
A typical modern headphone transducer, with a rare-earth magnet, and coil suspended on a polyester diaphragm. Iain Fergusson [CC BY 2.5]
It’s surprising, while researching this piece it has proved very difficult to find any information at all on the MDL-3L2, while it appears in many of the pictures of the first Walkman it’s always mentioned only in passing as the product of another design team at Sony. The early models feature a blue and silver design to match that first Walkman, and in the place of the one piece springy metal headband you’d find on later models and their copies it has a shorter springy slider for each ear, that locates in a plastic headband. Unlike later similar ‘phones they had an uncommonly long cable, 3 metres seems excessive.

Because personal stereo headphones are regarded as cheap, almost disposable items, nobody seems to have performed a teardown on a pair and put it online. But since the lightweight construction is common to almost all low-priced headphones from decades since we can get an insight into what made them special in 1979 from looking at a more recent headphone driver. They’re so-called dynamic headphones, in which a coil of wire fed by the amplifier is fixed directly to a diaphragm and floats in a magnetic field. Almost all headphones that don’t cost a fortune are dynamic designs, they have proved themselves over the decades to be cheap to manufacture,  reliable, and high-performance. Sony used a rare-earth magnet in place of the much heavier ferrite magnets that would have graced earlier designs, and paired it with a polyester diaphragm over an open-backed rigid plastic frame. The front was covered with those distinctive foam pads, while the open back led to music leaking into the surroundings. These features have been the norm on headphones for years, but in the 1970s these were still exotic materials for a consumer-level product.

In the years following the launch of that first Walkman the market for personal stereo equipment exploded, with every player in the electronics market getting in on the act. The original Sony headphones were copied and made cheaper, becoming a generic item by the mid 1980s that you can still buy for about two dollars complete with those orange foam pads. They developed into in-ear designs and then dispensed with the headband entirely before further evolving into earbuds. But all these personal audio products owe their heritage to the single progenitor. Not the first Walkman, but its headphones, the Sony MDL-3L2. Happy 40th birthday!

Header image: Yoshikazu TAKADA from Tokyo, Japan [CC BY 2.0]


27 thoughts on “Forget The Walkman: It’s The Headphones

  1. Can we also get a shout-out for solid looking design? Those headphones still look nice, and so does the Walkman itself. It’d be hard to market it in the smartphone era, but if you go back before the iPod Touch, Sony could have totally made a portable music player with a similar design and color scheme to the original Walkman, and I think it would have done well.

    I mean, it would have done well, except for modern Sony finding some way to fuck it up.

  2. I still use the Koss Porta-Pro headphones. First used them in the 80’s and have never had issues other than the plastic piece that holds the headphones together eventually breaks. They are still available after all these years.

  3. My memory is fading, but I would have sworn that the Apollo astronauts took a “walkman” on their moon trips and I presume they had the corresponding headphones. Yet this article says the walkman and headphones were invented 40 years ago while the Apollo trips were 50 years ago. Can someone clarify?

    Oh. The Google appears to have an answer –
    Prototype player with no headphones.

      1. Only took Sony 10 years for someone there to say “What if we took out the record capability and gave it stereo playback and shrunk it a bit more?”

        Like the Fisher Space Pen, it’s not technology invented for use in space, it’s technology that just happened to be invented at the right time to be useful in space. If Sony hadn’t had the TC-50 available for 1968-69, NASA would have used something else.

  4. I found a Sony D3 in my workshop a few days ago, still works, but do they have a different jack socket, I have to pull the plug a little to get sound with modern phones?.

    1. Sounds like an incompatibility with either headset TRRS vs headphone TRS or the slightly thicker vinyl connector “bumper” that doesn’t always allow the deep plug action (bow-chicka-wow-wow) of older equipment. A thin trim of that will do wonders.

        1. I don’t know specifically about the Walkman but headphone jacks are also notorious for breaking their solder joints and sometimes the PCB around them. The holes in the PCB are big for easy insertion on the assembly line which leaves the jack suspended in the solder fills. Also, since they are always on the edge of the board, you can crack the board and the traces going to the socket very easily. If you can get at it, try resoldering the connections and inspect and repair any trace breaks. (This is a huge problem nowadays with brittle lead free solder).

    2. Modern headphones have three rings on the jack, the third one being for the in line microphone. Find a pair of headphones without the third ring, just the two for left and right stereo and that issue goes away. Had to learn this the chard way, as that third ring “grounds” the old walkman jacks which weren’t designed the way jacks on phones are now.

  5. IIRC, the ‘rare-earth’ material used in the magnets of these early Sony headphones was Samarium-Cobalt, which was the ubiquitous buzzword in all the knockoff’s of the Sony design that followed these in the early 80’s.

    SmCo was generally replaced by neodymium for the magnets in more modern cans, since Nd is magnetically stronger, lighter and it doesn’t have SmCo’s nasty tendency to shatter from impacts, which isn’t really a desirable trait in portable devices that might get dropped.

  6. In 1971 in high school I used a Philips original cassette recorder to play music into a pair of Sennheiser HD 414 headphones. Those headphones were the first open air non-surround phones made, only a little bigger than all those that came ten years after. It was mono but sounded good, full range sound. Googled more… Those HD414 phones came out in ’68 even before the moon shots. Sony licensed their IP to make what is here in this article.

    Back then I wanted to hack a stereo head and amplifier into a shirt pocket sized dictation recorder. Play only, I thought it would be a great product at the time. At this time prerecorded tapes were not common, but cutting edge people could record on a home deck in stereo and make tapes better than those the record companies made.

  7. When the TPS L2 launched in the UK, I was working in an independent electrical store. We were fascinated, but couldn’t see why anyone would pay £100 for a tape player that couldn’t record. I borrowed one overnight, and as I was walking to my bus stop, a car load of blokes jeered me for wearing headphones in public.

    I was mortified: i thought “No way will these ever catch on!”

  8. Remember the DAK magazine ads for headphones like these for something like “only” $40, a deep discount off their retail price. A few short years later they were in discount shops for $5.

    Another DAK deal I remember was for some very expensive home stereo speakers which the manufacturer had done an oops on their assembly line. Someone had put a bin of paper cone tweeters (though very good paper cone tweeters which the company used in a lower price product) on the assembly line and the employees had dutifully installed them in a couple hundred pairs or so before someone noticed they were the wrong ones.

    Rather than run them back through the line to replace the tweeters, the company sold the lot to DAK, and threw in the proper high end tweeters. IIRC DAK was selling the speakers at 1/3 or less of retail. All the buyer had to do was pop the grilles off, remove 4 screws, swap the wires, screw the proper tweeters in and pop the grilles back on. Great speakers, really cheap, and they got a free pair of pretty nice paper cone tweeters to do something with.

    DAK was the first to introduce the automatic breadmaker to the USA. Turned out that it was a flop in Japan, people living in thin walled apartments didn’t like being awakened by a breadmaker starting up early in the morning. DAK bought all the manufacturer had on hand. In the USA most people sleep pretty far from their kitchens, or have much better sound deadening. DAK was able to move them quickly and other companies took notice.

    1. Probably also due to rice being consumed in much greater quantities than bread here.
      There are tarriffs on wheat to protect the local government subsidized rice production too, so wheat is noticeably more expensive than rice. Something that isn’t much of an issue in the west.

    2. I had this crazy DAK subwoofer that was, frankly, too big to move. After college, before grad school, I gave it to a friend, where it stayed on the East Coast until I came back, like seven years later? Then he gave it back to me when he moved house.

      Another eight years later, I moved to Germany. I must have given it to someone else… I’m sure it’s in the greater DC area to this day.

      It was called “thundering krakatoa” in the (always florid) DAK catalog. My parents never let me live that one down, but it put out low, if kinda sluggish, bass.

      1. Drew Allan Kaplan’s talent for breathless overstatement defined those catalogs, and I feel if anything, it watered down the genuine novelty of some of the products. I remember reading them eagerly as a preteen, though.

        Home Automation Labs, obviously HAL, was less bombastic with their narrative, and if anything, had an even denser (though narrower-focused) selection of wonders. That was the era before X10 powerline carrier was passé, and when a shoebox-sized 386 PC was worthy of the front cover photo. They had speech-recognition software, whole-house audio, and a ton more stuff nobody in my neighborhood could afford.

        For a kid fascinated by audio, though, these two plus the MCM Electronics catalog were a veritable pantheon of worship-worthy technology, and I pieced together what I could from parts I could scrounge on trash day.

    1. The Koss Portapro was released in 1984, and they’ve got plenty of bass, in spite of being a similar lightweight design.
      They’re still made today, and are still one of the better headphones <$100

  9. The Sennheiser HD-414 were likely the first widely available and decent sounding lightweight headphones, first available in 1968. They were (and still are) pretty good-sounding.

  10. If you really want some awkward headphones, look up telephone operators’ headsets from the bakelite era. The early ones had a chestpiece on a necklace with a literal horn arched up to gather the voice into the microphone. The cans sat on the head like normal, and they were quite heavy enough all on their own.

    Later models shrunk the microphone capsule into a familiar boom mount, making the headset a single-piece affair, albeit still heavier than I’d want to wear for a whole shift. The headband had quite a lot of spring tension to hold the whole thing up, and I think that’s really what kills it.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.