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Monday
Jul302012

Sony Walkmans #0115

The collector: Tim Jarman, electronics engineer, writer on the subject of audio and also a collector and restorer of classic audio and video equipment. Farnborough, UK.

The collection: Sony Walkmans

The story behind the collection...

I grew up during a period of great musical creativity (the 1980s) and soon discovered that great music is made even better by high quality equipment. I am fascinated by the Japanese concept of “perfection in miniature”, larger Japanese products can be a bit bland but when they try to make things as small as possible the inventiveness and craftsmanship is often astounding.

When did it all start and how many do you have? I started about ten years ago. This was the ideal time as Walkmans were beginning to be withdrawn from everyday use by their owners but there was no real collecting culture, which meant that there was plenty of choice but none of them were particularly expensive. I wouldn’t like to start from scratch now; some of the better known designs can be very expensive. I collect all types of Sony products (now is a good time to pick up early Trinitron TV sets by the way) but I must have 50 or so Walkmans, not including the CD and MD variants.

Does your day job inform your collecting (and vice versa)? I like to keep the two as separate as I can; collecting can be an escape from the pressures of work since there are no deadlines and no expectations of others to meet.

 

WM-D6C

You said that it was the Japanese built Sony machines that were of main interest, is this a quality or 'authenticity' issue? The country of origin gives an indication as to how highly Sony themselves value the product. Production in Japan was expensive so only the best models were made there, below that factories in Malaysia, Korea and Taiwan were used.

iPod's early advertising depicting dancing street youth blatantly copied the style and feel of the earlier Walkman campaigns. What else came across as rather familiar? Since the iPod concept was simply a re-working of ideas already present in the market it comes as no surprise that the advertising was derivative too. Even the same warnings were trotted out in the press after a few years, “playing your Walkman too loudly will damage your hearing” was re-hashed with references to the iPod for example.

How does Apple compare with Sony (e.g. company, design ethos and products)? At its peak Sony was an engineering company whose business model was based on innovation and high quality production. The products were the key and they were produced in highly automated factories owned by the company. Products like the Walkman were all about freedom, once you bought them you were free to enjoy them as you wished. In contrast the current Apple business model seems to be about the desire to monetize everything; the iPod is simply a way to get you to spend money in the iTunes store. It is produced in third party outsourced factories whose famously poor labour conditions are seldom out of the mainstream press and the invasive nature of the software infrastructure that supports it is destructive to personal privacy in my view. The “friendly” nature of early Apple products like the Apple II and the original Macintosh (both of which I have great respect for) seems to absent from their later stuff.

How does Sony compare with earlier Braun and other Western pocket sized audio devices? Sony had the most “European” design sense of all the large Japanese audio companies, an attribute which they shared with Honda in their field. By the late 1960s they were producing immaculately styled products which tapped right into the European sense of form and function when the rest of Japan was producing bizarre equipment more in tune with American tastes. As Braun withdrew from audio Sony were one of the companies who took their place with a universally desirable range of models whose design language was instantly understandable.

TC-12 portable cassette recorder

Is there a defining Sony product (i.e. specific model) that represents when their earlier copyist design approach evolved into that of a true innovator? Sony have always been innovators and never used existing technology if they could possibly avoid it. The Trinitron colour TV system is a good example of this, it would have been easier to licence shadow mask technology from RCA as the rest of the industry did but instead they chose to go their own way, creating sets whose performance may never be equalled. Their TC-12 portable cassette recorder was based on a Philips design however, but it is important to appreciate that at the same time recorders of their own unique designs were also in production.

What were the key innovations in portable audio product design (inside and outside the box)? Compactness and stability, these were the great challenges in the design of the Walkman. Both were achieved with the Walkman DD series, by the time the WM-DD33 was introduced (the last of the “classic” Walkmans) the concept was just about perfect.


WM DC-2, WM-2 & WM-DD33

Aesthetics or Audio quality? (if you had to choose) Audio quality every time, a product cannot be pleasurable to own and use if it performs poorly. Technical perfection has its own aesthetic and its usually an attractive one.

Which 3 machines, to your mind, represent the best of the two and the perfect compromise between? The WM-D6C “Walkman Professional” gives perfect, unsurpassed audio quality but it is a bit large and “industrial” looking. The WM-2 (“Walkman II”) is exceptionally pretty but its speed stability is not perfect, which can spoil the enjoyment of some types of music. Between these the WM-DC2 (horribly expensive) and the WM-22 (astoundingly cheap for what it could do) represent a good compromise, that’s why both a very popular with collectors today.

Do you think Sony could retake the portable audio top-spot back from Apple in the future. Or, if not Sony, who else might be next? Apple is already showing signs of creative failure in the “post Steve Jobs” era so I don’t expect then to retain their dominant position indefinitely. Personal audio will probably become a “commodity” product where branding is largely unimportant (this has already become a major factor in the TV market) without sufficient profit margins available to sustain the interests of large, well-known organisations.

Dieter Rams or Jonathan Ive? Dieter Rams, without question. A true genius and visionary, his insight into the reduction of “visual noise” was a key part of 20th Century design.



WM-BF67

Design individuals or teams... who produces the 'best' products? Small, tight teams of hand-picked and highly talented individuals. No one person can do everything but large, heavy handed corporate culture can crush creativity.

Do you also collect the packaging and advertising material too Yes, but it’s very difficult to find. Walkmans were invariably bought to used, normally by excited young people who discarded most of this stuff immediately. They were the exact opposite of those phoney “collectables” which are bought just to put on display or forever remain sealed in their cartons. Many old Walkmans are a bit battered because they have lead “interesting” lives, I don’t mind this because at least it shows that they have brought happiness to someone.



WM-55

Have you ever been to Japan for collecting purposes? I’ve never been to Japan! I’d love to go though, but the Japanese don’t keep old things like the British do so from a collecting point of view there probably isn’t much to see there.

Headphones and audio quality are a no brainer - do you agree? Not really. Most music is miked, mixed and processed to give an impression of depth and space when listened to through two well-placed loudspeakers. Because the loudspeakers share the same space the sound from them interacts in that space, giving you the impression that the band is playing right in from of you. Headphones are not stereo; they’re “binaural” which means that the two channels of sound are kept completely separate and are only re-combined in your own consciousness. It is possible to produce binaural recordings that are optimised for headphones but I don’t know of any mainstream examples. Stereo recordings played through headphones tend to give an exaggerated “Technicolor” form of stereo imaging which isn’t strictly accurate, although it can be very pleasurable.

Is noise cancelling technology a good thing (for both audio and socially)? I don’t use it myself, I find that the extra processing interferes with and degrades the sound. Closed back headphones (or simply keeping the volume level moderate) are a better solution I find.

TPS-L2, WM-DD3 & WM-F107

Do you use your collection regularly and if so do you like to swop devices, or are there firm favourites? All mechanical and electronic things seem to degrade more rapidly if they are not used so I try to run as many of them as I can regularly. That being said I usually use a slightly scruffy TPS-L2 (the original model) if I need to listen whilst away from home, this model works very well, is versatile and economical on batteries. It is also very cool in an inverse snobbery, post-consumerism sort of way!

What type of music(+) do you listen to on them? All sorts, I like Kraftwerk, Kate Bush, Bob Dylan, Tori Amos, Simon and Garfunkel, Dire Straits, The Beatles and Level 42 so my tastes are quite diverse. I like all the 1980s bands too, when I’m tuning through the radio I usually stop when I hear an 80s song. I’m getting into YMO at the moment, they are a late 70s / early 80s version of Kraftwerk who are little known outside their native Japan, some of their stuff is really interesting.

The thrill of the chase - if eBay is cheating then where is the most interesting or unusual places you have found items for you collection. I don’t use Ebay, it’s not collecting, just “amassing” if you do it that way. Most of my collection came from trawling car boot sales on Sunday mornings, it involves a lot of legwork and most times I come home with nothing, however I have found some real gems there.



My First Sony WM-3000

Will it ever end, if so how and (maybe) when? I expect that at some stage I will have to consolidate, working towards a key collection of my favourite designs which I will then have more time to concentrate on making really perfect.

How do you store and/or display them? My wife keeps talking about a big glass cabinet with a light in it but I don’t want to live in a museum, so at the moment they are packed away in box files so that it’s easy to pick any of them out to use. The authentic experience of Walkman ownership isn’t having hundreds all at once, it’s having one which you use every day and really get to know well. This is a balance I try to strike with my collecting.

Have you ever exhibited them? Other than displaying a few on a couple of TV interviews not really, but guests at our house usually ask to see them once they discover that I am a collector. However if the Japanese embassy (or indeed Sony themselves) are interested they only need to ask!

 

WM-190

Do you find repairing them a pleasure or a means to an end? What tools and knowledge/skills are needed? Study and restoration is an integral part of collecting, you can’t understand much about a Walkman just by looking at the outside and you can only appreciate it fully when it’s in good working order and meets where possible the manufacturer’s original specifications. The most important things that you need to repair them are sharp eyes and steady hands, along with a logical mind and the ability to remember complex assembly sequences. Basic (small) tools are cheap but things like reference cassettes and electronic test equipment are not, but you only need these in a few rare cases and where 100% performance is required. Worn out and stretched drive belts are a very common problem so establishing a supply and stock of these is also important. I’m not afraid to “break” a poor example if it means I can get a better one working but I don’t discard the carcass, most of the specialist parts are not available any more so you have to learn to be a bit self sufficient. Since most Walkmans are playback only you also need a decent hi-fi system with a well set-up cassette deck to make tapes on; Sony produced a model called the TC-WE475 up until quite recently which is ideal for this purpose. New TDK SA90 blank tape stock is still available so there are no problems there.


What advice do you give to those who are interested in collecting these Japanese marvels? Be patient and start with simple models (the WM-22 is a good one for a beginner). Buy a few cheap 1990s examples and experiment with taking them to pieces and re-assembling them, if you get if wrong you won’t have lost much. Don’t worry about trying to get all the landmark models first, start off which a few lesser-known types and have fun with them. Read up on tape recording, buy yourself a properly set-up full-sized deck and start building up a cassette library so that you’ll have something to listen to, you’ll enjoy collecting a lot more if you can use the things that you have. Learn a few basic skills like soldering so that when something doesn’t work because a simple fault like a broken connection you can sort it out yourself. Get into reading technical literature so that the specifications are meaningful to you, then you can easily tell what is what. Do a bit of background reading on related subjects like 1980s music or Japanese culture; this will help you understand better why Sony made them like they did.



WM-F63,WM-B52 & WM-SX34

Where is the future heading for portable audio products? Disappearance and integration into things like mobile ‘phones, commodification and low cost, unbranded production. The golden age is probably over which is why collecting the old ones is so interesting.

Where would you like it to go? In a way it doesn’t really matter, Sony gifted us with millions upon millions of beautiful Walkmans for over 25 years so there are plenty to go round. If I could have one wish it would be that the company would recognise the importance of this heritage and provide a bit of support (in the form of a few re-manufactured parts and freely available access to the repair data archive) for collectors who between then are making sure that this great period is not forgotten.

Visit Tim's Walkman Central website here.

Watch Tim on BBC TV commenting on the end of Sony Wallkman production (2010) here.

Old-Christmas-catalogs

 

All images © Nick Jarman (except WM-55 & WM-EX615 which are Tim's) and used with their kind permission.

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