The ‘pocket stereo’ changed how we listen to music

You can take the music you like anywhere’

CBC Archives · Posted: Oct 17, 2019 8:30 AM ET | Last Updated: 6 hours ago

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“Pocket stereo” makes music a personal experience in 1981

  • 38 years ago
  • 02:32

Tens of thousands of Canadians have begun shutting out the world and plugging into privacy with small, lightweight personal stereos. 2:32

Listen to what you want, when you want, but most importantly — where you want.

That was the promise of what was known as the pocket or personal stereo.

“Since Japanese manufacturers started selling the sets earlier this year, they’ve become a big hit,” said CBC reporter Barbara Keddy on The National for Oct. 17, 1981. 

The appeal for many of the tens of thousands of Canadians using pocket stereos was the ability to “listen to a world of your own,” said host George McLean.

More than portable music  

Personal stereos line the shelves at an electronics store in 1981. Prices ranged from about $70 to $430, according to the Globe and Mail. (The National/CBC Archives)

The personal stereo was a cassette deck that was small enough to slip into a large pocket or a purse.

It was plugged in to a set of small, lightweight headphones that covered the ear and delivered “high-quality sound,” according to Keddy.

According to the Globe and Mail on Dec. 17, 1981, Sony expected to sell 50,000 units of its Walkman 2 model in Canada that year. Its retail price was $280 (about $760 in 2019 dollars).

Early adopters took their music out for a run, a bike ride or to the gym.

“You can observe everything but you’re not really part of it,” noted student Tawny Millett, describing the experience of listening to a personal stereo. (The National/CBC Archives)

But listeners liked their personal stereos not just because they could take their music with them.

“It puts you kind of out of touch with what’s going on,” explained Toronto student Tawni Millett. “I like it. It makes you feel anonymous.”

Other students described using a pocket stereo as “an escape” and something whose appeal lay in not “having the noise of the world around you.” 

A ‘soundwave into your head’

Concerned about the effect a pocket stereo might have on her teenage son’s hearing, this mother made him return the one he’d bought. (The National/CBC Archives)

A couple interviewed on the street said they worried about the potential for damage to one’s hearing.  

Keddy explained that they had forced their teenage son to return his pocket stereo.

“My concern was basically medical,” said the boy’s mother. “I just can’t see that … putting a soundwave directly into your head can be good for you.”

But Don Lamont, owner of a personal stereo, dismissed the idea.

“You can put your head beside a speaker and turn it up just as loud and destroy your hearing,” he pointed out.

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