The rise and fall of the Walkman, the mp3 generation, and the future of digital music

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Once upon a time, in the good old days of 1979, when record players were still in vogue, when the 8-track gasped its last shallow breath inside a rusty, rat-infested Pontiac Le Mans, and the misinformed fathers of modern hipsters considered their outdated reel to reel recording decks the apex of audio perfection, the music industry was on the precipice of world domination. Cassette tapes were perceived as the red-headed step child of the 8-track, and digital music was just a science fiction fantasy to most, but Sony would release a monumental product that changed the music industry forever.

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That product was called the Walkman, a portable cassette tape player powered by AA batteries, and if you lived in that era or any time during the twenty years that followed, you probably remember the first time you put those flimsy foam headphones on and pressed play. Headphones were nothing new, but with the Walkman we were finally untethered from the massive stereo system in our living rooms, and overjoyed by the freedom we were afforded. It was an amazing, life changing, individual experience that is mimicked to this day in so many of our personal devices. The Walkman shaped the future in many ways and changed how we imagined what the future would bring.

This is not a history of the Walkman by any means. Detailing it’s many models or its successes and failures (of which there are many) would take a second article. However, it should be made clear that many companies copied Sony, and few would ride the wave of success as Sony did in the 1980s with the Walkman and in the 1990s with their beloved Diskman.

Sny D121 Discman

Still, after so many years of success, the technology started to feel old and the generic models were just as popular as the brand name. Then, in October of 2001, as the public was bombarded with 24 hour news feeds and the threat of war was in the air, Apple dropped a bombshell with their iPod MP3 player. The small, convenient device delivered a new generation the freedom of tuning out the world and tuning in to a whole universe of music, now at their fingertips. The iPod could hold 2000 songs and the iTunes Store offered up music at a good price with just a click of the mouse. Sony’s Walkman division took a huge hit. Almost overnight, the wave that Sony had been riding for more than twenty years crashed.

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That was then, and this is now. The iTunes Store is in decline, but it is still going strong, and Apple is making moves to keep it relevant with iTunes Radio and the recent acquisition of Beats by Dre.

Still, many audiophiles wish that the music quality of mp3s was better, as they think back to the glory days of vinyl. The sales of 24bit remastered records are on the rise and many are looking for a next generation music device that can play back FLAC, ALAC, mp3, WAV, AIFF, and AAC files.

Recently, rock and folk artist Neil Young completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to develop such a device called the Pono. The Pono is a digital music player designed with one of the best DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) chips on the market today. It is described on the web site as capable of capturing “all the feeling, spirit, and emotion that the artists put in their original studio recordings.” 

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With the decline of iPod sales and the purchase of Beats, it is quite possible that Apple has something similar planned, but Sony may have beat them to it. Sony’s new Walkman NWZ-ZX1 is their latest attempt to win back market share. This video Walkman with high-resolution audio is getting rave reviews and strong sales overseas. Capable of up-scaling your music collection to CD quality and built with 128GB of storage, this could be Sony’s final push to win back their status in the portable music industry. There have been huge cuts in Sony’s product line of late and it is surprising that they are still making music devices.

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With this new trend of high quality music, Sony may reclaim the crown that was lost over a decade ago and perhaps Apple’s iTunes will continue to decline. Yet, it is possible that the new King in town will be Pono, with Neil Young and his team reclaiming the glory days of vinyl quality music, but this time without the hum and hiss of a record needle.

About Author

Poet, web designer, and tech writer, Brad Bailey is co-founder of Tech Gen Mag. Having once been a regular in the Orange County poetry circuit, Brad set his notebooks aside to assist childhood friend, Kristian Markus, with the task of building a web-based tech magazine. Born into the Nintendo generation, Brad is a longtime fan of video games, gadgets, and computers.

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