I've always had a soft-spot for Sony. For many others in my generation, countless hours were spent playing their best selling gaming consoles. There are very few sounds that can generate such a strong sense of nostalgia and excitement than that sound.
Apple, for a long time now, have been the leaders in consumer technology, especially in relation to good design practice — a podium which others like Microsoft, Samsung and Google (who are doing a pretty good job in my opinion) have been fighting to claim. Looking back, Sony once held this spot, the “Apple" of their day. Although they may no longer be the main headline grabbers (we'll ignore the gaming market for the sake of this article, they have that nailed at the moment) Sony have always stayed true to good design principles. More recently I have noticed glimpses which echo this former glory - of which I feel deserve attention, and wish to pay homage to.
I may have only caught the back end of tape players in my youth, but for me, the original Sony Walkman is possibly the most pivotal consumer product of our recent history. It almost singlehandedly defined the idea of personal consumer electronics, and with that, paving the way for the likes of the iPod and iPhone. The design story behind it is worth digging into and this short documentary is a great place to start.
It was a nice surprise to find Stephen Bayley in this documentary. I read a great book of his called "Taste" - well worth a read if you can get your hands on it.
The Walkman's genius was not just in the simplistic nature of the device - it was in it's ability to create an entirely new product category. By embracing the technology whole-heartedly, allowing the cassette to define the product archetype, it resulted in an object which celebrated a completely new experience. As described in the above documentary - what Sony actually created was personal space, made portable.
This thinking is embodied throughout the execution of the product, and as a result defined the Walkman as an icon. The method of consumption, the headphones, became a universally iconic symbol. The core technology, the cassette tape, became the defining medium of a generation, something which in hindsight has given the cassette a particular charm other mediums can't replicate - quite similar to vinyl.
In the decades since, Sony gradually fell from the mainstream of defining new behaviours through their iconic products and technology — a mantle Apple has since claimed and with it pushing design to an even higher standard.
However, over the previous year I began to notice glimpses across their latest range of products, from general design details to larger experience innovations, which allude to Sony returning to a humble yet confident position amongst its competitors.
The PS-HX500 turntable was the first thing that caught my eye. Very simplistic in design, communicating a much more honest functional language than the trend driven minimal aesthetic we see in so many competitors. The materials are perfectly fit for purpose - the contrasting polished silver spindle in the centre, the traditional bracketed hinges, the honesty and rawness of the connector ports. You can almost feel the smooth rotating motion of the tone arm just by looking at it.
Alongside enjoying your classic record collection, this record player also converts vinyl to high quality digital files. It has the perfect balance between analogue and digital that would appeal to the traditional vinyl dinosaur and the modern revival enthusiast.
Next up is the high-end Signature audio series, which echoes similar visual consideration. Here the MDR-ZR1 headphone balances a simple form (I'm a big fan of the perfect circle silhouette from a side profile view) whilst being quite iconic in its details and material choice. I love the ominous red jack connection and how unique the mesh cover looks, although it comes across a little more "flash". You can sense how the design team wanted to create a headset that is true to its function; driven by creating the best sound quality possible, yet took it a step further and transformed those features into iconic details - separating itself from the fashion driven headphone market.
Also in this category is the latest iteration of the Walkman - the NW-WM1Z. Being completely honest, when I first saw this a while back I thought the design was garish. Why is it so big!? Why such a rough texture? Why the bling-like gold?
On reflection, I feel like I've been conditioned to a "smaller is better" mentality through the constant refinement of modern mobile phone designs. Revisiting the Walkman for this article I have a newfound appreciation for it. Although large in size, it feels well suited to purpose, a robust "would last a lifetime" physical library of high quality digital music. Details such as the balanced gold jack input and the analogue control style UI suggest a highly tuned object aimed at giving you the best quality possible from your personal music archive.
With the iPod Classic now a relic of history (a sorely missed design, truly worthy of the term classic) and streaming digital music not quite having the same gravitas as a personal album collection, the Walkman seems like the perfect product to fill this void.
I've always thought the TV was an odd object. Looking around your home, what else is a large black plastic monolithic structure? I feel like we are beginning to blend our tech more seamlessly into our environment, but in a more sophisticated modern interior style, which most TV companies are starting to catch onto.
Samsung have taken a more artistic approach, successful in some areas, not so in others. Yves Behar's shot at it felt nice in execution, but seemed more appropriate in an art gallery than the home. The Bouroullec Brothers's Serif on the other hand was far more relatable. Beautiful in silhouette, material and details. Not forgetting Bang & Olufsen, who I feel have always addressed their technology in this light from the start. But because of the fast changing nature of TV technology, it never seems like a safe bet to invest so much in a TV which will be obsolete in a few years.
Sony on the other hand, feel like they have achieved a similar flavour, but with a better balance — an intermediary step away from our plastic structures without taking the full literal leap into "furniture" television. Something that feels far more accessible. The split 4-leg design of the Z9D Series for example, seems so obvious - beautifully symmetrical, structurally balanced with a little more furniture flavour without detracting from the screen as the focus. Paired with the technical quality of Sony's TV range, this could be a very strong move if we were to see similar details across their entire range.
Finally we come to Life Space UX, Sony's latest experience driven range of products aimed at transforming your living space. I'm never overly keen when a company "defines" a term or process like this as it makes the products feel more like a marketing tool than an actual product, but the objects which make up the range seem to deliver on their promise, showing great potential.
The flagship for this movement is their most science fiction product of them all. The Glass Sound Speaker (seen above as the LSPX-S1, a smaller, more consumable version of its older brother NSA-PF1, shown below). I love the use of glass, suggesting connotations of resonance and purity of sound, feeling like a modern interpretation of an old valve amplifier. Yet again the technology is the focus, which is strikingly beautiful and feels extremely futuristic. Maybe even too futuristic, especially in the larger NSA-PF1 model, which almost feels like it has been created as a movie prop rather than for use in the home.
Best of all? Life Space UX feels reminiscent to the principles of the original Walkman. New technologies which define the experience and the product, executed beautifully. I don't think the Glass Sound Speaker has quite the same appeal as a portable cassette player once did, but if Sony continue down this path of creating innovative technology and new experiences embodied in beautifully executed functionally driven products, I'd like to think that when the right technology comes along we may be welcoming Sony back to the top spot once again.