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Sony personal audio through the years

From the original cassette Walkman® to high-res streaming models

When I was a kid in the '80s, my Sony Walkman went everywhere with me. It's what made doing chores like mowing the lawn and washing dishes tolerable. And the allowance money I got from those chores was often spent on tapes at either Ear Food (my local music shop) or Tape World in the mall.

We take it for granted now, but the ability to enjoy your music on the go was revolutionary when the first Sony Walkman came out. Suddenly, you could create the soundtrack to your own life — untethered to a particular location.

And its portability also created a market for high-quality, compact headphones to pair with it. Here’s an overview of the still-evolving history of Sony personal audio gear through the lens of Crutchfield as we celebrate our 50th anniversary.

A timeline of highlights in Sony personal audio

In February of 1979, Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka wanted something portable that would allow him to listen to music on long international flights. In just four days, a team of Sony engineers adapted Sony’s “PRESSMAN,” a compact mono tape recorder designed for journalists, into a stereo cassette player, and the Walkman was born (or a prototype, anyway!).

1979: The original Walkman, TPS-L2, debuts

The original Walkman went on sale in Japan in July of 1979. Sony expected to sell about 5,000 units a month, but more than 30,000 were sold in the first two months. The TP-L2 had two headphone jacks, so you could listen with a friend.

A photo of the Sony TP-SL2 walkman, with an inset from our catalog

We first featured the TPS-L2 in our Summer/Fall 1981 catalog.

1981: WM-2, or Walkman II, is released

The second-gen Walkman’s sleek design and focus on sound quality made it very popular. It was much lighter than the original and added an anti-rolling mechanism and support for high-quality metal tapes (not Metal, though it didn’t discriminate).

Sony WM2 Walkman

The Walkman 2 appeared in our Summer '82 catalog.

1982: Sony releases the MDR-E252 — their first in-ear headphones

The MDR-E252 in-ears were part of Sony's "NUDE" series — which stood for "Natural Unequalled Dynamic Earbuds."

Sony MDR-E252 in-ear headphones

These early in-ear headphones came in black or white, and they included a carrying case for tangle-free travel.

1983: The Sony Music Shuttle is released

Sony Music Shuffle ad

Sony had a full-page ad for the Sony Music Shuttle in our Summer/Fall 1983 catalog.

What is the Sony Music Shuttle, you ask? Well, it's not a Walkman, but it definitely falls in Crutchfield’s wheelhouse: it’s the first car stereo that turns into a portable device (in 4.5 seconds!).

the Sony Music Shuffle in the Crutchfield catalog

We note that "you don't have to worry about thieves breaking into your car to steal your car stereo — you've got the most important part with you!"

Also in 1983: Sony releases their first Sports Walkman

Though Sony's rugged, water-resistant "Sports" models also came in black, it’s the iconic yellow that I most remember. It really set them apart from the rest of the lineup.

Sony Sports Walkman WM-F5

Most sources list 1984 as the first year of the Sports Walkman, but we hit the Crutchfield archives and found it featured it in our Summer/Fall 1983 catalog.

1984: Sony releases the D-5, the world’s first portable CD player

Sony’s D-5 (or D-50, depending on where you lived) was about the size of four CD cases. You could plug it into your home stereo or use the optional battery pack to take it on the go. In 1985, our Summer catalog said: “Compact Discs will one day be the most popular medium for playback because the sound quality and convenience are unbeatable.” We weren't wrong. And we still sell a heck of a lot of CD players.

An image of the Sony D-5 in someone's hand

We called the D-5 "the easiest way yet to enter the wondrous world of Compact Disc Players."

1986: “Walkman” gets an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary!

By 1986, most people were probably familiar with the Walkman, but it's still pretty exciting to get your own dictionary entry.

1987: Sony expands their headphone offerings

By the mid-1980s, Sony was offering a wide array of headphones. The compact MDR-E272 headphones were "digital-ready" for pairing with your Discman.

Sony MDR-E272 Headpones

Our Fall/Winter 87/88 catalog features the MDR-E272 headphones as a worthy Walkman upgrade.

1988: Crutchfield sells an "ultimate Sony Walkman" and a “Super Walkman"

In our 1988 Summer catalog, we offered the “ultimate Sony Walkman” (WM-F601), which was “the world’s smallest” and had “Mega Bass circuitry." I bought a Sony boombox in 1992, so I can speak to the importance of the "Mega Bass" feature.

This issue also featured a new “Super Walkman” (WM-F100) that offered “true hi-fi sound on the run.”

Sony WM-F601

This Walkman "has it all," including Mega Bass, auto reverse, and folding headphones!

1990: Sony releases TCD-D3 DAT Walkman

The TCD-D3 was, according to Sony: “the first ultracompact, lightweight DAT Walkman, small enough to fit in one’s palm.” DAT stands for "Digital Audio Tape." This recording and playback medium was not widely used by consumers because it was expensive. The music industry also expressed concerns about its ability to make unauthorized high-quality copies of source material.

1991: Sony upgrades the Discman with a 1-bit DAC

The D-303 was the first portable CD player to use a 1-bit digital-to-analog converter — "music is produced with greater accuracy and less distortion, especially at low volume levels.”

Our catalog presentation for the Sony D-303 Discman

In the Summer of '91, you could order this streamlined Discman.

1992: Sony releases their first noise-canceling headphones for consumer use

The MDR-5700 headphones were offered for use in airplane cabins.

Also 1992: Sony releases their first MiniDisc player

MiniDiscs were a big step in the evolution of personal audio (even if it’s not one we all remember). They were recordable like cassette tapes but could instantly cue up digital tracks like a CD. But they wouldn’t skip when bumped like CDs, thanks to buffer memory. It also used a new digital audio compression technology (ATRAC) to store more music in less space.

Sony MZ1 Walkman

Our Summer 1993 catalog had a whole MiniDisc page. It featured the MZ-1, the first portable MiniDisc player, along with home and car MD players.

1994: Sony offers a Video Walkman

1994's Video Walkman had a 4" color LCD screen and 8mm VCR for on-the-go A/V enjoyment. We also offered a "Watchman" portable tube TV with built-in speaker!

Sony GV-S50 8mm Video Walkman and FDT-5BX5 5" Watchman

We had some great portable video options in our 1994 summer catalog.

1995: Sony releases the MDR-NC10 noise-canceling headphones

They reduced outside noise by 70% and used a Fontopia design that fit comfortably in the ear.

Mid-1990s: Cassette-playing models of Walkman are largely phased out

CDs had been outselling tapes since 1989 and by the mid-90s our catalog no longer offered cassette-playing models of the Walkman. Fortunately, the price for devices that played CDs had dropped significantly. I know I had transitioned to CDs by then, and I was growing my collection at an alarming rate thanks to a Columbia House subscription.

Sony D-E305 Discman and MDR-NC20 Headphones

By the summer of '97, the Discman was "slim and stylish." We also offered the robust MDR-NC20 noise-canceling headphones to pair with it.

Sony's MDR-NC20 headphones were a staple of our catalog for about 10 years. With these noise-canceling headphones, "you’ll hear more clearly the music from your portable Walkman or Discman, without high volume levels and strain on your ears!”

1999: A Walkman for the new millenium

As more people accessed digital music files on their computers, Sony Walkman technology followed suit with several models of Walkman with digital memory. They introduced the Memory Stick Walkman (NW-MS7) in 1999, followed shortly by the Network Walkman (NW-E3) in 2000.

Sony NW-MS7 Memory Stick Walkman

The memory stick in this Walkman was smaller than a stick of gum and stored up to 120 minutes of PC-based music.

2001: The Network Walkman goes sporty

That bright yellow and black styling makes this Network Walkman instantly recognizable as a "Sports" model. But this version is a lot easier to take running with you than the heftier cassette and CD models of the prior two decades.

Sony NW-S4

This slim and sporty NW-S4 offered "up to 2 hours of skip-free PC music."

2003: The Walkman gets small

Sony's NW-MS70D Network Walkman was ultra-compact and could store up to 11 hours of music. It weighed only two ounces.

Sony NW-MS70D Network Walkman

In our Summer 2003 catalog, you could pick up this teeny, tiny Walkman.

2005-2011: You could buy Walkman-branded Sony Ericsson mobile phones!

Before a certain pervasive smartphone came out, you could enjoy music on your Sony Walkman/phone.

2008: Sony releases the first Network Walkman with video

Technically, this is not the first "Video Walkman" as Sony offered an 8mm VCR in 1994. But the NW-A800 series is way more portable. Bluetooth was added as a connection option with the NWZ-A820.

Sony NZW-A800 series

In our Fall 2008 catalog, we featured the first Walkman with Bluetooth as a connection option.

Also in 2008: Sony releases the first digital noise-canceling headphones

According to Sony, their MDR-NC500D were the first headphones to use digital noise cancellation. This type of noise cancellation uses digital signal processing (DSP) to remove unwanted sounds. Small microphones listen to the exterior noise, then the DSP creates an inversion of the sound waves from that exterior "noise" in order to cancel it out.

Sony MDR-NC500D digital noise-canceling headphones

The Sony MDR-NC500D headphones could reduce ambient noise by up to 99%.

2011: The NW-Z1000 Walkman is released

The NW-Z1000 was the first Walkman to have an Android operating system. It allowed users to enjoy music, video, and a variety of applications. It featured Sony’s proprietary S-Master MX digital amplifier (Sony’s original full digital amplifier, S-Master, optimized for mobile devices to reduce distortion).

2013: ZX1, the first high-res Walkman, is released in Japan

One major downside in going from a Discman to a Network Walkman was the loss in sound quality. The focus for a device with built-in storage was to be able to get a lot of files into a small amount of space, so your music would end up compressed. With the dawn of high-res options, you could enjoy quality, lossless music on the go.

Sony NW-ZX2

Crutchfield's first high-res model was the XC2, which we sold in 2015.

2016: Sony releases their first pair of premium noise-canceling Bluetooth headphones.

The MDR-1000X headphones paved the way for Sony's industry-leading WH-1000XM series.

Sony MDR-1000X

The MDR-1000X debuted in our July/August 2017 catalog.

2017: Sony releases the WH-1000XM2 heaphones

Sony's WH-1000XM2 headphones kicked off a trend — this series is consistently on our list of Best Bluetooth Headphones. Shortly after I started at Crutchfield, I asked resident headphone expert Jeff Miller which headphones I should get for my brother who was complaining about noise in his office. He suggested the 'XM2s.

Sony has continued to refine the series since then with the 'XM3 (2018), 'XM4 (2020), and now 'XM5s (2022). This series is one of our best-selling and top-rated wireless headphones — it’s very popular with both Crutchfield customers and employees. I actually bought three 'XM3s myself (one for me, one for my husband, and one for a friend).

Sony NW-A306 Walkman with headphones

Sony 'XM5s pair well with the NW-A306 Walkman.

Also in 2017: Sony releases the true wireless WF-1000X headphones

These were the first 100% wire-free noise-canceling headphones Crutchfield carried. The current iteration, WF-1000XM5, is somehow smaller and lighter than prior models, despite having larger drivers.

Sony WF-1000x

The WF-1000X in-ear headphones offered totally wire-free listening.

2024: Sony continues to offer high-quality personal audio options

In addition to Sony’s very popular in-ear and over-ear headphones, we still offer a range of Sony Walkman models. These high-res digital players are in many ways worlds apart from the original Walkman, but they still provide the same satisfying warm and fuzzies of playing your music, just for you (in the very best quality you can at the time).

Sony NW-ZX707 Walkman

The LCD touchscreen on Sony's NW-ZX707 Walkman can display track info and album art, or you can opt for a retro look with this cassette tape interface.

Personal audio continues to evolve, so stay tuned to Crutchfield to see what the future brings!

  • Mahendra B

    Posted on 3/9/2024

    Bought back old memories :)

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