Design: Walkman NWD-W270 Series
On the track or in the water, a new listening experience that knows no bounds
It was 1979 when WALKMAN audio players first gave us the freedom to enjoy music easily whenever and wherever we pleased. The next step in this evolution is into the pool. Now you can bring your favorite tunes with you not only when jogging but even when swimming. The WALKMAN® W series invites you to enjoy another dimension of freedom in a new listening experience.
Producer and Designer
Producer and Senior Designer
Breaking the size barrier by throwing convention to the wind
Iijima: The W series is all about enjoying music as you stay in shape. You might say that we had already perfected the design of these players by the time we released the previous, third-generation model. It would be hard to make them any smaller, so the real question was how we could take them to the next level. They were also already splashproof, by design, but we were interested in making a player water-resistant enough to swim with. Around that time, one of us in product planning who happened to be a triathlete said he wished he could listen while training in the pool, so we decided to investigate it.
Trying out a prototype at a pool, I was surprised how interesting music sounded. Normally, you wouldn't hear any background music at a pool when you're under water. But when I wore W series headphones, music sounded the same to me both above and under water. It was a strange new sensation. That's when I knew we had to make them a reality.
When the project officially began, Morimoto was immediately chosen to lead design. Not only is he an experienced headphone designer, he was once on a swimming team. It's no joke to claim that extensive personal experience has a big impact on design.
Morimoto: On my high school swimming team, I always used to imagine how great it would be to be able to enjoy music in the water. I was very excited to be designing something I myself had always wanted. Field testing prototypes in the pool did reveal a few potential problems to solve, though. The first obstacle to overcome was size. Although the current model at the time was small enough, it still produced some drag in the water when I was swimming. Still, the internal components were already as small as they could be, with no way to make them smaller.
Iijima: We considered shrinking the battery, but that would sacrifice battery life. So, we took another look at the internal layout, this time focusing on the micro USB port. These are very versatile ports used for charging and transferring music, and it had been a natural choice for the W series so far, but we wondered if the port was truly necessary. Maybe that's where we would find a breakthrough for the seemingly impossible task of making them smaller. After much thought, we incorporated an original interface in the new W series player, instead of a standard USB port. This made the prototype about 30% smaller by volume than the previous model (NWD-W263). It was now small enough to swim with.
One size that truly fits all
One by one, we solved each of the other potential issues uncovered during field testing. In the neckband that loops behind your head, for example, it was hard to find the optimal shape and length. You might also wear them jogging, of course, so we had to make sure the neckband wouldn't get in the way as you run. At the same time, in the water, it had to stay in place and withstand the drag as you swim. Considering that head size varies by sex, race, and other factors, we carefully determined the optimal length for a one-size-fits-all band used around the world.
WALKMAN® NWD-W270 series
What length would fit most users comfortably? To find out, we tested prototypes by asking all kinds of people at a health club near our San Diego office to try them out. Ultimately, the results of this testing helped us decide the length and shape you see today. They also come with a tension band, which ensures a great fit for as many people as possible.
Algorithmic design for beautiful, effective shapes
Morimoto: Shape was paramount. Our main challenge was streamlining the contours to reduce drag from swimming as much as possible, but there was no precedent for submersible products at Sony, and there's a limit to how well you can design things by relying on conjecture and subjective field test values. That's why, on Fukuma's suggestion, we enlisted the support of a department at Sony specializing in computer-aided engineering (CAE). It was a design challenge we had never faced before.
Fukuma: Independently and with others, Sony has developed an approach to product styling and performance that leverages the power of computer simulations. We call this algorithmic design. To understand underwater performance for the new W series, we worked with a CAE department at Sony experienced in fluid dynamics analysis. We conducted many simulations to see how much drag the current model and Morimoto's proposed shapes produced underwater. To make the results more tangible for our design team, I requested not only numerical and verbal descriptions of the outcomes but also visual representations, in still images and animated sequences. Presented visually, the areas of maximum drag were clear for anyone to see. The CAE department's contributions enabled us to share this information in easy-to-understand formats, so that we could apply the analysis data intuitively and refine the design.
Morimoto: Our simulations showed that with previous shapes (which had rounded ends), water tended to get between the headphones and the user's face, making it easier for the headphones to come off. To have water push the headphones toward your face instead of away from it, we reduced the inner roundness as much as possible and enlarged the outer curvature. This effect of drag was one detail we would not have noticed without running simulations.
Fukuma: The direction of water resistance changes a lot as you take each breath while swimming. To make sure we were reducing this resistance from all angles, we tested the shape in 3D simulations at the moment of maximum drag in freestyle swimming. In a consumer electronics project, it was a rare and valuable instance of close collaboration between design and CAE departments, as insight from simulations was directly applied to refine the shape. In the end, we succeeded in reducing the force of water pulling the headphones away to about one-third of the previous model (NWD-W263). Design based only on impressions from field tests is not persuasive enough, and design based only on simulations tends to be too theoretical. This time, we took the best insight from both perspectives to perfect the first WALKMAN® you can swim with.
Morimoto: As we refined the shape through repeated simulations, we also studied the shapes of orcas and other marine animals, as we considered what the shape should remind people of. We sought a synergy from both viewpoints, and this yielded an effective shape that also looks stylish. The resulting shape is composed of graceful, organic curves, although they are not easy to produce in manufacturing.
Good design continues even after the music stops
Morimoto: We also paid careful attention to the design of the charger. Only one end has the charging interface, so we did explore a charger only attached by that end, but it was hardly elegant, with the other end dangling free. We decided that the player should also look its best when it's just sitting there, so the charger holds both ends securely. This also makes it easier to pick it up after charging.
A special carrying case is also available for this W series model. Here, a highlight is the zipper, which creates a waterproof seal. You'll probably dry them off after swimming, but any water still on them would get your bag wet if you tossed them inside. That's why the zipper is a nice touch, because it keeps any moisture away from your bag. These are the kinds of WALKMAN® scenarios we imagine during design.
Colors that fit the strength of athletes, invigorating sports
Kawai: WALKMAN® colors are revisited from year to year, as we decide our color plans in general, but we questioned whether the color options for this special model should be bound by those strategies. This led us to take a fresh look at how to accentuate their compelling, fitness-minded features through their colors.
This is a player you can swim with. Colors reminiscent of coral reefs, tropical fish, orcas, or other sea life would be fitting. Besides these, other outdoors colors you might see on a hike would not be out of place. We explored a spectrum of options, including colors from nature—water, the sky, the sun, greenery, and so on—as well as soothing hues that resonate with water's therapeutic properties. But as you might expect, we decided to convey the theme of fitness directly. Black calls to mind athletic speed and strength. The fresh white is like light sportswear. The blue suits swimmers well, and the pink recalls the dazzling performances of synchronized swimmers. We insisted on a vibrant, aquatic blue, suggestive of how exhilarated and refreshed you might feel after swimming.
We narrowed down the body colors to black and white. This simplifies the color options to basic black and white, offset by blue or pink bands, if you prefer. For me, it was a challenge to see how distinctive we could make each option, just by using bands of different colors. The W series is mainly for jogging, exercise, and other fitness activities, so the power of black and the freshness of white seemed fitting for the base colors. Blue and pink accents are a good way to add fun through emotive notes.
Packaging that captures the action
Matsuda: Fit is very important in the W series, so our starting point in packaging design was a desire to show people how you wear them. Packaging for models sold outside of Japan often shows a front view, and they look great from that angle. This time, we took advantage of space in the packaging to show the elegant lines and curves—even the earbuds that fit in your ears. To do it, we created and tested several mock-ups.
At first, we thought gourd-shaped packaging might be cute, but we decided that it wouldn't fit the stylish, sporty image well, so we made the bottom more tapered. Round packaging is a clever way to show products from many angles, but another reason for the tapered bottom was to give the top part more volume, to make the product more prominent. Your gaze naturally settles there. We also worked with engineering to make the fasteners inside the packaging as small and discreet as possible, to showcase the product.
In each color, the packaging fully captures the energy and dynamism of sports. We chose background colors with impact. Not only does the product stand out in the packaging, the packaging stands out in stores.
WALKMAN® design that knows no bounds
Iijima: Never before have you been able to enjoy music in the water as you can with the W series, and you'll be pleased to discover what a nice listening environment it is. The sense of floating makes it even more relaxing, and you may wish you could stay and listen forever, if only you could breathe under water. Don't miss a chance to try listening to music this way.
We want the WALKMAN® W series to continue giving fitness enthusiasts a jolt of energy in this category of audio player. One way or another, we'll be pushing the boundaries so you can listen in more demanding environments, or enjoy music of even higher quality. Who knows, maybe space is the final frontier. We're committed to creating new listening experiences, through groundbreaking WALKMAN® players and unmatched innovation.
Text courtesy of Sony