It may sound like hyperbole, but Sony really did change the way we listen forever back in 1979 when it launched the very first Walkman. Although large by today's standards, the original Walkman was considered tiny at the time, and was certainly the smallest device ever seen that could deliver high-quality stereo audio pretty much anywhere.
The Walkman TPS-L2 was a very basic machine, without such niceties as auto-reverse, automatic cassette type select or recording ability. What it did offer though, was a complete stereo system in a box, along with a set of headphones. Sony clearly wanted to make some cash from accessories too, since the TPS-L2 actually had two headphone sockets, which meant that many buyers also bought a second set of headphones, which would allow a friend to share the music. It's fairly uncommon to see two people tethered together on a bus or a train these days, but believe me it was a pretty regular sight back in the early 80s.
Back in 1999 Sony threw a big party in London to celebrate 20 years of the Walkman, and I was able to have a chat with one of the engineers responsible for the TPS-L2. He told me that when he had to present a prototype device to the board, he could only show it from one angle, so that they couldn't see the huge battery pack that was being employed to make it work. Luckily, that meeting went well and the project was signed off, and by the time the production unit was finished it was happy to run from AA batteries housed internally.
As impressive as the original Walkman was at the time, it was the release of the Walkman II that really set the stage for portable music players as we know them today. Not only did the Walkman II offer better sound quality than its predecessor, but is also looked superb. In fact, the Walkman II still looks pretty damn good by today's standards! The design was smaller than the first Walkman, and the silver and black finish looked sleek and minimalist. If there was one problem with the Walkman II, it was that it cost an absolute fortune, and you needed to have seriously deep pockets to even consider buying one.
It was probably the high cost of the ultra-desirable Walkman II that opened the door for a million and one copycat products. It wasn't long before every electronics company you'd ever heard of and loads that you hadn't, were producing Walkman-like products, bringing with them the generic term, personal stereo.
Despite the fact that many of the copycat personal stereos were very good, Sony just kept moving the goalposts and creating better, smaller and more feature packed Walkmans. I can still remember when a school friend of mine bought a Walkman so compact that it was actually smaller than the cassette that went inside it. You had to slide one side of the machine away from the other, which in turn increased the dimensions and allowed the player to accommodate the cassette. Sony even invented its own "gum stick" rechargeable battery standard to ensure that its Walkmans could be made as small as possible.
As well as concentrating on size and weight, Sony also augmented the feature set of its Walkmans. It wasn't long before you could buy players with auto-reverse function, built-in radio receivers and recording capability. I had a Walkman that shipped with an external stereo mic for high-quality recordings direct to the loaded tape. I smuggled that baby into many a concert in an attempt to build up my bootleg tape collection.
Considering that digital music is so ubiquitous today, it's hard to believe that cassette based personal stereos lasted as long as they did, but a combination of size, cost and user base kept the average consumer using the Compact Cassette as the portable music medium of choice for over two decades.