Personal Music Players
Personal Music Players
A personal music player can be defined as any handheld, mobile device that reproduces music mainly for an audience of one. Transistor radios, miniature cassette and CD players, and portable MP3 digital audio players have all filled this market niche at different times.
Hand-sized personal music systems did not become possible until the invention of the transistor in 1947. Previously, audio electronics depended on vacuum tubes, which were bulky and fragile. Tube-based, battery-powered radios were available in the 1940s and 1950s, but were the size of larger toasters and could not be carried in one’s clothing. Transistors made miniaturization possible for the first time because they were smaller than tubes, required less power, and did not break easily.
The first personal music player, Texas Instruments’s Regency TR-1 (for “transistor radio one”), appeared on the market in late 1954. Retailing at $49.95 (about $345.00 in 2005 dollars), the unit was capable of receiving mono AM broadcasts only. Many competing models soon appeared, and millions of transistor radios were sold throughout the 1950s and beyond. They are still available today: it has been estimated that over seven billion transistor radios have been sold globally. Today all radios, portable or not, employ transistors, but the term “transistor radio” is still sometimes used to describe a handheld radio.
The early transistor radios contained small, tinny speakers and mono earphone jacks. They could be propped up for listening within a range of a few feet, held directly against the ear, or listened to through a single-ear earphone. For the first time, many young people became immersed in personal, isolated musical worlds even in public places.
The next major step in the evolution of the personal music player was the invention of the high-quality miniaturized cassette tape player. In 1979, the Japanese company Sony was the first to market such a device, the Walkman TPS-L2. The Walkman offered high-quality stereophonic sound through headphones. For the first time, a jogger, biker, or student studying in a library could experience head-filling stereo sound without being heard by another person a few feet away. Cassette tapes, increasingly rare in the 2000s,
were small reel-to-reel magnetic tapes encased in flat rectangular boxes. The tape was divided into four parallel monaural tracks, two of which could be played going in one direction (“side A”) and two of which could be played going in the other (“side B”). Analog sound signals were encoded on the tape by shifting the magnetic orientation of particles on the surface of the tape.
The Walkman had dozens of competitors within a year of its appearance. Other features soon appeared: built-in AM and FM radio, record capability, Dolby tape-hiss reduction. Prices dropped rapidly as sales volumes increased and the technology matured, following the usual pattern for popular consumer-electronics gadgets. The Walkman II alone sold over 2.5 million units. The word “walkman” became a recognized synonym for the personal cassette player.
The compact disc (CD) for digital music was introduced in 1982. In 1984 Sony was the first to market a portable player for the new music medium, the Discman. Portable CD players slowly overtook portable cassette players as CDs became the commercial music standard in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The next phase in the development of personal music systems was the elimination of removable media such as discs or cassettes in favor of built-in storage devices such as flash memory chips or miniaturized hard drives (rotating magnetic disc storage). Instead of being confined to the amount of music that could be stored on a single disc or tape, the new players were limited only by the amount of memory they could carry.
The first digital audio players units appeared in 1997 in Japan and 1998 in the United States and elsewhere. In 2001, the Apple Corporation released its iPod, a hard-drive based device that offered a user-friendly computer interface through Apple’s freely-distributed software product, iTunes. Apple also pioneered the online sale of individual songs, selling over a billion songs at $1 apiece through its iTunes store between April, 2003 (when the service was launched) and February, 2006.
The memory capacity of digital audio players is rapidly increasing: as of 2006, 80 GB (gigabyte) hard drives were common. It had become possible to carry more music in one’s pocket than could be heard in weeks of around-the-clock listening. Flash media players storing music on nonvolatile random-access memory chips were also competitive, though offering far smaller memory capacity than hard-drive players. Small video screens were also becoming commonplace, threatening to make the term “digital audio player” obsolete. “Digital media player” would be a more inclusive and accurate.