Tokyo Thrift: Sony's Eggo headphones were the Beats of the '90s

And I really want a wireless version

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Which is the Sony that stokes your nostalgia?

The world-dominating titan of the Walkman, Trinitron, and PlayStation? The experimental madhouse that shipped bizarre products like the AIBO and Rolly? These are good shouts, of course. But for me, it’s the Sony that pumped out product after product throughout the ‘90s with what was unbeatable attention to detail at the time; a futuristic and coherent design aesthetic connecting the countless DVD players, VAIO PCs, and MiniDisc Walkmans.

And there might be no more emblematic example of that than Sony’s groundbreaking Eggo line of headphones.

Tokyo Thrift is a new column on The Verge where Sam Byford, news editor for Asia, trawls the second-hand market to explore the history, design, and culture of Japanese gadgets. It runs on the last Sunday of each month.

sony eggo headphones Sam Byford

For the past few months, my primary headphones have been a set of MDR-D33 Eggos that I got for about $30 online. They were made in 1993, as best as I can tell. That’s the thing about Eggos — they have an iconic, timeless design that I lusted after for decades, but it’s oddly hard to find anything about them on the internet. I got in touch with Sony to see if the company had any more information, and the only thing they could send me was a photocopied Japanese press release from October 6th, 1992 announcing the November 21st release of the first two models, the higher-end MDR-D77 and MDR-D55. This was pretty helpful, as it turned out, because it confirmed much of what I’d suspected about the philosophy behind the products.

Eggos get their name, as you might expect, from the unusual upside-down egg-shaped housing. Even the way you put them on is weird; the back of the cup hooks behind your ear so that the whole thing is enveloped inside. This feels a little strange at first, but the design is actually brilliant — the headphones remain comfortable for long periods because there’s none of the pressure you get with on-ear models, and yet they can be far smaller than a traditional over-ear pair. They also double as handy ear muffs, which is always a bonus in a Tokyo February.

Compactness was the guiding ethos behind the Eggo design; the headphones were introduced the same month as the very first portable MiniDisc player and were intended to be used outside. The 1992 press release sells both Eggo models as palm-sized and easy to carry in a bag despite their high sound quality — much of this was down to the minimalist headband, which appeared to be little more than two thin pieces of rubber. But the nickel titanium material used inside was described as a memory alloy, meaning that it could "remember" and return to its original shape after being bent, aiding the headphones’ foldable and portable form factor. This does work in practice — Eggos fold down to the size of an apple, and you can throw them around in a bag without permanently distorting the headband.

sony eggo headphones Image: Sam Byford

But another function of the design is that Eggos just look really, really dope. Years before Beats turned the Western mainstream on to the concept of stylish cans, the discreetly futuristic Eggos managed to bridge the gap between Japanese street fashion and Sony’s cold minimalism. They’ve aged impeccably in that regard, although the build quality could have been better on my D33s — they’ve gotten pretty creaky over the decades.

it’s an odd feeling to use technology so old so effortlessly in the present

That aside, it’s an odd feeling to use such old technology so effortlessly in the present. The only things that date these Eggos is the lack of a headphone remote and the cable length that was clearly intended to stretch to a backpack, not a pocket. (Sony’s MZ-1, the first MiniDisc player, was not exactly the sort of thing you’d slip into your jeans.) Eggos were meant to be worn when out and about, and they’re as well suited to that now as they were in 1992.

And although I’m no audiophile, the sound remains decent, with subdued bass and a bright airy quality. While Sony marketed the Eggos as using a closed-back design, the drivers are partly exposed in the housing, which I think helps their sound quality a little at the expense of isolation; what the Eggos lack in punch they make up for in space. I’d like to hear the higher-end models as well to see how they’ve held up, but these D33s are absolutely good enough for my regular use today.

sony eggo headphones Sam Byford

If Apple really does plan to declare war on the 3.5mm jack this year, however, it’ll get more difficult for a lot of people to use older headphones in the future. So hopefully Sony’s listening, because I would pay a not insignificant amount of money for a wireless set of Eggos with more-or-less identical components and design. The company did introduce a sort of spiritual successor in 2006 with the MDR-D777SL and D-333LW, but they’ve been discontinued, too. The angular build wasn’t really eggy enough, in any case.

For most people, headphones don’t go obsolete. They don’t get superseded by models with faster processors or better screens. And in the case of Sony’s Eggos, they don’t go out of style; when I call them the Beats of the ‘90s, I mean that they were made in the knowledge that looking and feeling good is just as important as sounding good. What Sony has here is a wonderful design just sitting in its vaults, begging to be let back into the world without its unwieldy wires.

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