A Complete History of Portable Music Players


A portable music player is a consumer electronics device that allows users to listen to recorded music on the go. It is battery powered, and in some cases, accommodates the use of headphones for personal listening. Some early music players did not store music, but rather played music stored on other media.

From phonograph to record player

The first successful attempt to record sound signals was achieved in the late 1850s by Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville who invented the first sound transcription device, called the phonautograph. It was able to record music, but did not support audio playback.

The Phonautograph

Inventor Thomas Edison furthered the work done with this technology with the invention of the phonograph which pioneered recording and playback, and paved the way for future innovations.

Edisons cylindrical Phonograph

Flat discs, much like LP records, were used just over 10 years later on the gramophone, marking the start of the rise of the music industry. The gramophone operated on a hand-crank. In 1925, electric record players were introduced to the market.

the gramophone by Edison

It’s successor the electronic record player

Although it did not contain recorded music, the first portable transistor radio debuted in 1954. Called the Regency TR -1 radio, this device was available in a variety of colors and featured an analog tuner.

The Regency TR-1. Sold in 1954 for $49,95

Among the first attempts at taking recorded music outside of the home for personal use was in 1965 with 8- track tapes that are played back in the car.

8 track tape device + tapes for home use

the car version of the 8 track

However, in 1962 the KLH Model 11,, developed by Henry Kloss, was the first transistorized stereo system that ran on A/C power. It featured a record player, amplifier, and speakers that folded together easily for the purpose of transporting the system. While these devices were not portable by today’s standards, they are major milestones in the evolution of the portable music device.

the KLH model 11

Timeline of the Evolution of Music Players

To gain a better understanding of the evolution of portable music players, the following timeline of when various music players were introduced into the marketplace offers a glimpse of how they have developed, culminating in the high technology portable music players of today.

Year Released

Music Evolution

1857 Phonautograph invented
1877 Phonograph invented
1888 Gramophone invented
1925 Electric record player introduced
1954 First portable transistor radio
1962 Transistorized stereo system
1965 8- track tapes introduced
1979 Walkman introduced
1983 Discman introduced
1992 Minidiscs introduced
1998 MP3 file format introduced
1999 First hard-drive based MP3 player
2001 iPod Classic introduced
2002 iPod Classic Generation 2,, introduced touch sensitive controls
2004 – 2005 MP3s become smaller (iPod Mini,, Nano,, Shuffle )
2005 Players incorporate video playback
2007 – 2008 iPod Touch,, incorporates applications and touch screen

As with any electronics, technology advances often result in more capabilities in a smaller overall package, as is the case with music players of today.

Portable Cassette Players

The Sony Walkman revolutionized the industry with its introduction into the market in 1979 in Japan. The self-contained portable music system, which came with lightweight headphones, played cassette tapes and was capable of Hi-Fi stereo sound.

the 1979 Sony Walkman

Although early versions were a little bulkier, the refined Walkman was considered innovative due in large part because of its size, as it measured only slightly larger than the cassette tape itself and ran on AA batteries. Several companies were quick to adopt this technology and came out with competing products.

the Walkman with radio

The use of cassette tapes for portable cassette players was innovative, as the media was less bulky than 8-track tapes and users were able to move from song to song more easily. Some portable cassette tape players also had the ability to play AM/FM radio.

Portable CD Players

In 1983, Sony partnered with Philips to create the D-50 which became commonly known as the Discman . It played compact discs and was the first portable digital music player. The Discman certainly made music portable, but it was less comfortable due to its larger size. Users were also limited to the number of songs that could be contained on one disc.

the Sony Discman

The Discman was just slightly larger than a CD case. Over the coming years, discs became smaller and music players became lighter, more compact, and pocket-sized.

The other issue with portable CD players was that if bumped or jarred in any way, the laser beam orientation system could be affected, causing it to skip music. This issue was later addressed by creating a buffer which was used to read ahead and store music. If the disc skipped, the device would pull data from the buffer to continue the music until the buffer was empty. Eventually, anti-skip technology was developed.

The rise of CDs signaled the end of cassette technology in the late 1980s, as CDs produced higher quality sound and the ability to easily skip tracks rather than forwarding or rewinding tape.

Philips Discman with radio

MP3 Players

The MP3 file format uses a compression algorithm that reduces the amount of data needed to store audio track information. The average size of an MP3 file is one-tenth the size of a file on CD.

In 1999, the MPMan was the first flash MP 3 player to be released, allowing high quality digital music recordings that do not skip when played to be transferred from computers to portable players. Developed by Korean company SaeHan Information Systems and imported to the U.S. by Eiger Labs, the player featured 32 MB of RAM and held an average of 32 minutes of music. It ran on a rechargeable NiMH battery pack and used solid-state memory.

the SaeHan MPMan

As technology advanced, MP3 devices became smaller, sleeker, able to hold more data, and more functional. Some of today’s MP3 players include the ability to play video as well as audio.

arguably the worlds smallest mp3 player

Apple iPod

The first entry into this market from Apple was the iPod in 2001. The iPod Classic combined 5 GB of hard drive space with a rechargeable battery pack. While it operated much like MP3 players introduced before it, it had a sleeker design and a unique and simple navigation system.

the iPod Classic 5Gig

iPods initially only worked with Macintosh computers, and the only way to import music to the player was from one’s own CDs or downloads from the Internet. In 2003, iTunes was launched, allowing users to legally download songs for a fee per track. Soon after, Apple introduced a Windows-compatible version of iTunes, widening the reach to more users.

Over the years, Apple continued to release smaller and sleeker versions of their portable music players, such as the Nano,, Shuffle,, and iPod Touch . Ultimately, Apple combined the functionality of its music players with cellular phone functionality with the introduction of the iPhone .

click image for larger version, the iPod timeline

Conclusion

Portable music players have undergone an interesting evolution since the beginnings as a transistor radio. That device, however, was the start of a major revolution in the music industry. People were no longer tied to their home or cars to enjoy their favorite music.

Music players followed the trend in music, as media such as cassette tapes, CD players, and flash memory evolved. The sound quality and consistency of music played also evolved with the technology, as well as the ability to carry more varied music in a smaller device. The interface has also evolved, from tuner wheels on radios, to function buttons on portable cassette and CD players, to touchscreen technology used on many digital audio players today.

Today’s portable music players include additional features and functionality, such as the ability to record and play back video, take pictures, and more. In the case of Apple, the combining of music technology into their iPhone allows users to carry one device that allows them to carry their entire music library with their cellular phone. And of course there is Google Glass which will bring us the future of portable music   Media devices

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About Mavadelo

Dutch, Pothead, Married since 1999, once homeless officially homed since uh...I guess somewhere around 2006. Music lover (anything but techno) Animal friend (in general, dogs and cats more specific, wolves rule though), Happy (most of the time) Pacifist, optimist but also sarcastic, cynical and philosopher (big word, if I find a better one....) oh... Gamer, PC freak, Software junky, bottom level hacker (lol i can "hack" some of my games but t.b.h others did the work, I just apply their knowledge) all around "can you fix my pc Martin" guy did I mentioned married?

8 thoughts on “A Complete History of Portable Music Players

  1. An excellent blog on the ‘Complete History of Portable Music Player’s’!!
    I enter with the transistor radio in the late sixties, which I thought was the coolest thing and you could take it with you everywhere!! Then the record player with 3 speeds to play my 45’s and albums on!!!!! Thought I was so cool and of course the 8 track tapes were in the cars we cruised in the 70’s!!!! Thanks for a walk down memory lane and very interesting to see the evolution that has taken place and can’t imagine what the future holds!!! Chatycat

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    • Although I was born 3 years after the introduction of the 8 track (yes I am from the best vintage year in history if I do say so myself) I can recall and have seen those before that time as well. My grand dad had an original Gramophone with crank, my first record player was the KLH model 19, I had a pocket transistor radio as well only 8 track I didn’t know about in my younger years, those never really got popular over here in Europe. We did use the Tape recorders though with multi tracks
      !http://img.tweedehands.nl/f/normal/164421886-teac-a-3440-bandrecorder-4-sporen.jpg

      Like

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