MP3 players were once our go-to gadgets for audiophiles – it’s the thing you needed to bring on a long commute or on your way to work or school so you could listen to music on the go. Apple, in particular, was leading that stake in the 2000s to 2010s, as their iPod line was the most popular MP3 player.
But recently, MP3 players have lost their necessity due to smartphones, which can do the same thing and even more. Because of smartphones, people no longer have to bring other gadgets besides their phones.
Beyond the gadget, the MP3 format of music and audio files has also waned in popularity as streaming became more popular. Most people no longer need to download music and other audio files because they can listen to them anytime as they are connected to the Internet 24/7.
But it’s always fascinating to look back and see the history of the things that made our life a bit more enjoyable, like MP3 players.
What is MP3?
MP3 is a type of audio format that became a standard for audio compression that makes any music file smaller with little to no loss of sound quality. It stands for MPEG Audio Layer III. MP3 is part of MPEG (Motion Pictures Expert Group), which created a standard for displaying video and audio using lossy compression, wherein a random data file is irreversibly discarded, allowing the remainder to remain as a compressed version of the original.
What is an MP3 Player?
MP3 Players are portable devices operated using headphones and batteries. Some MP3 players feature an FM radio tuner inside them. They can be connected to devices like CD players to play the music directly obtained from the player’s memory. The CD players help you use MP3 players without them being connected to a computer.
Most MP3 players were portable devices that you could carry anytime, anywhere. The most popular of them was Apple’s iPod. Usually, MP3 players could also play other audio formats like:
- Windows Media Audio
- Advanced Audio Coding
History of MP3 Players
The Birth of the Digital Media Player
The thought about digital media players arose in 1981 when Kane Kramer invented the IXI. The IXI was approximately the size of a credit card that had an LCD screen. It also included navigation and audio buttons. The memory capacity was around 8MB, which could play not more than three and a half minutes of audio.
Then the hunt for better players started, and digital media players were invented in a row, one after another. The aim was to build a device that could play audio from 10 minutes to an hour. Later on, five different prototypes were invented in 1986.
The Development of MP3 Technology
An electronics and mathematics specialist, Karlheinz Brandenburg, often touted as the “father of MP3,” led a research program to create a digital encoding process.
In 1987, Brandenburg was involved in a project named EUREKA project EU147 with the Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB), a prestigious Fraunhofer research center in Germany. Brandenburg’s team started researching high-quality, low bit-rate audio coding, which later became known as the technology called MP3. Brandenburg has been researching methods of compressing music since 1977. Dieter Seitzer, who has been working on the quality transfer of music over a phone line, joined the project as an audio coder.
In 1988, the Moving Pictures Expert Group (MPEG) was established as a subcommittee of the International Standards Organization/International Electrotechnical Commission or ISO/IEC. The group gave MP3 its name, as the technology was named after MPEG Audio Layer III, the process of digital encoding by which audio is compressed in a file small enough to be easily transferred. In 1989, Fraunhofer received a German patent for MP3.
But the MP3 technology didn’t roll into the public right away. MPEG 1 standard was published in 1993, and MPEG 2 followed in 1994. Fraunhofer tried to develop the first MP3 player, but they didn’t succeed.
It was in 1996 when the US issued them a patent for MP3. According to Fraunhofer, what MP3 does is it shrinks down the original sound data from a CD by a factor of 12 without losing sound quality.
But as MPEG’s encoding system got out into the world, it was hijacked and adapted for widespread use by those who want to rip off their technology. A student bought professional-grade encoding software from MP3 and gave away their business model, which lowered its cost for encoders. Fraunhofer fought over their intellectual property, copyright, technology theft, and control. So in 1998, Fraunhofer began enforcing their patent rights and required all developers of MP3 encoders, rippers, and decoders must now pay a licensing fee to them. However, no licensing fees are required to simply use an MP3 player.
But the spread of MP3 formatting is inevitable due to its convenience and the way it saves storage. People would, later on, use their technology for the unauthorized distribution of music over the Internet.
The First MP3 Players
MP3 was first introduced in 1994 as an audio data compression device. It was established using a variety of techniques, including the psychoacoustic and FFT methods. This world’s first MP3 player was released in 1997, which is the MP Man F10, invented by the SaeHan Information System in South Korea. SaeHan is credited as the first company to invent an MP3 player.
The flash-based MP3 player came in 32 MB and 64 MB capacity, which meant you could either store up to 6 or 12 songs on it. It also had an LCD screen that showed old users what song was playing.
It was also in 1997 when developer Tomislav Uzelac invented the first successful MP3 player from Advanced Multimedia Products. It was called the AMP MP3 Playback Engine.
Soon after, two university students named Dmitry Boldyrev and Justin Frankel ported AMP to Windows to create Winamp, and in 1998, Winamp became a free MP3 music player, which took the success of MP3 to a whole new level.
In 1998, a 32 MB version of the MP Man F10 was released by Elger Labs. It was bulky and boxy and cost $250.
The Eager Labs released 32 MB version of the MP Man F10 for the first time in the American market in 1998. Though it was not user expandable, it was possible to be upgraded to 64 MB.
Samsung also threw its hat in the MP3 ring by launching Yepp in 1999. Yepp (which reportedly stood for “young, energetic, passionate people” was a series of portable music players. Other brands like Creative joined the MP3 bandwagon.
In 1998, another player with 32MB of memory called the Diamond Rio PM300 was introduced, and it hit the market soon after. The product was a hit, making the MP3 format even more popular, and it drew the attention of the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America). The RIAA sued Diamond subsidiary RioPort because it feared that music piracy would become rampant as people turned audio tracks into digital files and ripped CDs. Though that was what happened, they lost the lawsuit. A few months later in 1999, Napster was launched, bringing more problems for the RIAA.
The Portable Jukebox Players
The problem with the early MP3 players is that they lack enough storage. They are available in 32MB or 64MB of space, which is hardly enough to store even a full-length audio CD. Flash memory costs a hefty $3-$4 MB.
But in 1999, the release of the Personal Jukebox (PJB-100) broke the storage barrier. Boasting 4.8 GB of storage, this hard drive-based digital audio player was the first of its kind, preceding SanDisk Sansa, Apple iPod, and other similar players. The unit was expected to hold around 100 (45-minute) music CDs with this drive. Compaq Research designed and developed PJB-100, licensing the design and manufacturing to HanGo Electronics Co. of South Korea.
However, it was large and heavy and priced steeply at $799.
Another hard-drive-based product, Creative Nomad Jukebox, offered 6 GB of storage space but would set you back $500. Like the Personal Jukebox, it was still too big to carry around as a portable player.
Meanwhile, there are smaller players like the Ego and i2Go, configured with a 2GB Microdrive to make them more portable, but it costs too expensive at $2,000.
Apple Launches the iPod
In 2001, portable MP3 players became even more portable. That year, Intel launched the first roomy MP3 player with 128 MB, the Pocket Concert, for $300. Intel’s player was a success because of the low price and higher storage capacity, but the company killed it off when it shut down its home electronics division that year.
It was also in 2001 when Apple introduced the first iPod. Steve Jobs said “You can fit your whole music library in your pocket” when he unveiled the product. It had a 1.8-inch Toshiba 5GB hard drive and a black-and-white display. iPod was revolutionary because of its sleek design, large storage capacity, and ease of use. It was sold at $400, paired with iTunes software, and was only compatible with Macs. In the first 14 months after it was launched, Apple sold about 600,000 iPods.
When the iTunes Music Store became online in 2003, the iPod really started flying off the shelves. Apple released a new model almost every year, and people lined up to buy them. In 2004 alone, Apple sold up to 8.2 million units of the iPod.
Apple revolutionized portable music players that used MP3 in the 2000s, just like Sony did with the portable cassette player Walkman in the 80s to 90s.
MP3 Players in Different Forms
By 2003, manufacturers were still experimenting with the designs of MP3 players. Sony’s Network Walkman NW-MS70D was one of the smallest MP3 players at the time, and it came with 256 MB of memory plus 128 MB via memory card. It can last more than 40 hours on one charge, too. Sony sold them for $300 apiece – the same as the third generation of iPod that year with 15GB storage. But unlike the disk-based iPod, the Network Walkman comes with a long battery life and audio-skip-proof flash drive that makes it perfect for going for a jog or for doing any outdoor activity.
The Era of Color Screens
Color screens became common on MP3 players starting in 2004. It was the year when the Creative Zen Media Center was released, packed with 40 GB of storage and a 3.8-inch screen. The device ran on Windows Mobile and was sold for $500.
Many other MP3 players could also play video files – thanks to a colored screen. Among them was the iRiver H300 series.
The first iPod with a colored screen was also launched that year, offering storage of up to 60GB for $349.
Flash-based MP3 Players
While color screens became the norm since then, there are flash-based players that were being designed to be extra portable. One of which is the iPod Shuffle which debuted in 2005. It had no display because it’s meant to “shuffle” songs hands-free. That year, Dell also released the $99 DJ Ditty, a basic MP3 player with 512MB memory, an FM radio, and a tiny display. But due to low sales, it was discontinued in 2006.
Microsoft Launches Zune
Perhaps it’s forgotten in the annals of history, but Microsoft also launched a Zune line of MP3 players, which was meant to compete against the iPod. In 2006, Microsoft introduced the first Zune, which offered 30 GB of storage, a 3-inch color LCD and an FM radio for $200. The main selling point of Zune was the Zune Music Pass, which is a subscription service that allows subscribers to download an unlimited number of songs for a $15/month subscription fee.
However, Zune cannot compete with the popularity of the iPod. Microsoft released only three generations of Zune players, with the last one launched in 2009. They even released one smaller Zune to compete with the iPod Nano. In 2012, all Zune devices, software, and services were discontinued. The company encouraged its users to switch to Windows Phone.
In 2007, the first batch of touch-screen-based music players appeared on the market. The first generation iPod Touch was released that year, with 16 GB of storage and a 3.5-inch capacitive touchscreen. That same year, Samsung also released the YP-P2 touchscreen MP3 player, also with 16 GB of storage. But Samsung’s player had extended use of Bluetooth connectivity to enable users to make and receive calls when they paired the YP-P2 with a Bluetooth phone.
In 2008, the top-seller MP3 players are those with large displays and easy-to-use navigation buttons. Players like the Sanza Fuse, with an integrated flash drive and a microSD expansion slot, were common. Sony’s E-Series Walkman MP3 players followed that trend.
The Smartphone Revolution and the MP3 Players’ Demise
For many years, phones already had built-in MP3 players. People who see no use in buying a separate MP3 player simply download MP3 and copy it to their phone so that they can listen to music with it. But when smartphones came, they became instruments for music as well.
The process of transferring songs on phones was cumbersome, but MP3-inspired phones were popular. Sony and Samsung had a range of phones that bet big on their music-playing capabilities.
The first generation of the iPhone was launched in 2007 – the same year the first iPod Touch was unveiled. The demand for smartphones boomed in the early 2010s as people switched from their 3G phones to iOS or Android-powered smartphones. These phones boast a large storage capacity, so most people use their smartphones to function as their MP3 players.
Then, it all changed when the apps arrived. Thanks to faster Internet speeds, you don’t have to download and store songs on the phone anymore. Music streaming apps became popular, changing the way people listen to music on the go. Instead of shuffling the same old tunes, people can now discover music and listen to it as soon as it’s released. Because of this, you will rarely find any portable music players being sold today. The last iPod Touch was released in 2019 and was discontinued in 2022.
The MP3 technology revolutionized the way we listened to music and enabled us to store and play music files on our computers, phones, and media players. Though streaming apps like Spotify have taken the place of MP3 players, they will always take a special place in our tech nostalgia-loving hearts.