Traffic cops, look out for 'Walkman'

It can be disconcerting at first -- the sight of a glassy-eyed creature in shorts strolling down the street with stereo headphones strapped to his head. But walking, jogging, or cycling, men, women, and children with miniature tape recorders on their belts are becoming a common sight.

The fad begun by Japan's Sony Corporation is catching on. Now competitors like Japan's Sanyo and Toshiba have jumped into the game. Altogether some 20 companies, including a handful in Hong Kong, are turning out the stylish compact "personal stereos."

Several million of these hip-hugging stereos variously labeled "Walkman," "Walky," or "Walksy" have been sold around the world for prices ranging from $65 to $150.

The new product, begun as "Walkman" by Sony in late 1978 for Japan, spread fast to the United States and then to Europe, Asia, and Australia by early 1979. Its advertising on TV and in newspapers targeted brand-conscious young people shown listening to music as they cycled, jogged, or lolled at the poolside.

But wherever "Walkman" goes, controversy strolls not far behind. "It is a menace to traffic," says one Singaporean. "Those people with earphones walk right out into the street. They cannot hear anything around them."

From Hong Kong come reports of secretaries missing phone calls because of their featherweight "personal stereo" headphones.

But "Walkman" has its vehement defenders. "You can use it to block out environmental noise like pile drivers," one business executive says. "It's a personal machine. It doesn't blare out music and spoil it for everyone else," notes one Singaporean fed up with the noise of portable radios used in public.

One wonders why the craze has gone so far. Most of these machines have no speaker, they cannot record, and they are expensive.

True, they can be worn with little discomfort, and they give full three-dimensional stereophonic sound.But the same effect can be achieved by plugging the earphones into stationary stereo machines or into portable stereo radio cassette players.

Not everyone thinks they are so wonderful, though. "I do not have one. I don't want one, and I can't see any reason for one," one New Zealand soldier based here declares over a mug of hot chocolate. "I get more th an enough music as it is."

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