Not to be confused with MP4 player.
An MP3 player or Digital Audio Player is an electronic device that can play digital audio files. It is a type of Portable Media Player. The term 'MP3 player' is a misnomer, as most players play more than the MP3 file format.
Since the MP3 format is widely used, almost all players can play that format. In addition, there are many other digital audio formats. Some formats are proprietary, such as MP3, Windows Media Audio (WMA), and Advanced Audio Coding (AAC). Some of these formats also may incorporate digital rights management (DRM), such as WMA DRM, which are often part of paid download sites. Other formats are patent-free or otherwise open, such as Vorbis, FLAC, and Speex (all part of the Ogg open multimedia project).
In 1981, Kane Kramer filed for a UK patent for the IXI, the first Digital Audio Player. UK patent 2115996 was issued in 1985, and U.S. Patent 4,667,088 was issued in 1987. The player was as big as a credit card and had a small LCD screen, navigation and volume buttons and would have held at least 8 MB of data in a solid state bubble memory chip with a capacity of 3.5 minutes worth of audio. Plans were made for a 10-minute stereo memory card and the system was at one time fitted with a hard drive which would have enabled over an hour of recorded digital music. Later Kramer set up a company to promote the IXI and five working prototypes were produced with 16 bit sampling at 44.1 kilohertz with the pre-production prototype being unveiled at the APRS Audio/Visual trade exhibition in October 1986. However, in 1988 Kramer's failure to raise the £60,000 required to renew the patent meant it entering the public domain, but he still owns the designs. In the year 1987 a German research institute, part of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, started the research program for coding music with the high quality and low bit rate sampling at its institute. The project was controlled by an expert in mathematics and electronics, Karlheinz Brandenburg.
The first portable MP3 player was released in 1997 by MP32Go and was called the MP32Go Player. It consisted of a 3GB IBM 2.5" hard drive that was housed in a trunk-mounted enclosure connected to the car's radio system. It retailed for $599 and was a commercial failure. Also in 1997, a handheld portable MP3 player, the MPMan F10, was developed by SaeHan Information Systems. The first handheld portable MP3 player released on the American market was the Eiger Labs F10, a 32MB imported version of the MPMan F10 that appeared in the summer of 1998. It was a very basic unit and wasn't user expandable, though owners could upgrade the memory to 64MB by sending the player back to Eiger Labs with a check for $69.00 + $7.95 shipping.
The second MP3 player needed was the Rio PMP300 from Diamond Multimedia, introduced in September 1998. The Rio was a big success during the Christmas 1998 season as sales significantly exceeded expectations, spurring interest and investment in digital music. The RIAA soon filed a lawsuit alleging that the device abetted illegal copying of music, but Diamond won a legal victory on the shoulders of Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios and MP3 players were ruled legal devices. Eiger Labs and Diamond and went on to establish a new segment in the portable audio player market and the following year saw several new manufacturers enter this market.
Other early MP3 portables include Sensory Science's Rave MP2100, the I-Jam IJ-100 and the Creative Labs Nomad. These portables were small and light, but only held enough memory to hold around 7 to 20 songs at normal 128kbit/s compression rates. They also used slower parallel port connections to transfer files from PC to player, necessary as most PCs then used the Windows 95 and NT operating systems, which did not support the then newer USB connections, at least well. As more users migrated to Win 98 by 2000, all players went USB.
At the end of 1999, a company called Remote Solutions significantly broke that barrier by utilizing a laptop drive for song storage rather than low capacity flash memory. The Personal Jukebox (PJB-100) had 4.8GB, which held about 1200 songs, and invented what would be called the jukebox segment of digital music portables. This segment eventually became the dominant type of digital music player.
Also at the end of 1999 the first in-dash MP3 player appeared. The Empeg Car and Rio Car (renamed after it was acquired by SONICblue and added to its Rio line of MP3 products) offered players in several capacities ranging from 5GB to 28GB. The unit didn't catch on as SONICblue had hoped, though, and was discontinued in the fall of 2001
There are several types of MP3 players:
- Devices that play CDs. Often, they can be used to play both audio CDs and homemade data CDs containing MP3 or other digital audio files.
- Pocket devices. These are solid state devices that hold digital audio files on internal or external media, such as memory cards. These are generally low-storage devices, typically ranging from 128MB-1GB, which can often be extended with additional memory. As they are solid state and do not have moving parts, they can be very resilient. Such players are generally integrated into USBkeydrives.
- Devices that read digital audio files from a hard drive. These players have higher capacities, ranging from 1.5GB to 100GB, depending on the hard drive technology. At typical encoding rates, this means that thousands of songs—perhaps an entire music collection—can be stored in one MP3 player. Apple's popular iPod player is the best-known example.
Generally speaking, MP3 players are portable, employing internal or replaceable batteries and headphones, although people are increasingly hooking players up to their car and home stereos—sometimes via a wireless connection—thereby turning them into portable jukeboxes. Some MP3 players also include FMradio tuners .
Many MP3 players can encode directly to MP3 or other digital audio format directly from a line in audio signal (radio, voice...)
Devices such as CD players can be connected to the MP3 player (using the USB port) in order to directly play music from the memory of the player without the use of a computer.
Modular MP3 keydrive players are composed of two detachable parts: the head (or reader/writer) and the body (the memory). They can be independently obtained and upgradable (one can change the head or the body; i.e. to add more memory).
Well-known MP3 players include:
(There are many software-based MP3 audio applications available for most computer platforms, such as Winamp, Musicmatch Jukebox and iTunes for Macintosh and Windows for PCs; see media player.)
A 2003 display for the iTunes Music Store ushers in a new age for the music business, shortly after its introduction. The iPod helped turn around Apple's fortunes and brand identity, while the creators of the MP3 had regarded a portable player as a mere storage device. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images hide caption
A 2003 display for the iTunes Music Store ushers in a new age for the music business, shortly after its introduction. The iPod helped turn around Apple's fortunes and brand identity, while the creators of the MP3 had regarded a portable player as a mere storage device.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
"The death of the MP3 was announced in a conference room in Erlangen, Germany, in the spring of 1995."
So opens Stephen Witt's How Music Got Free, an investigation into the forced digitization and subsequent decimation of the music business, from which it has only very recently started to recover. That ironic conference room eulogy actually took place just before the compression algorithm caught on (don't worry, we'll explain in a bit). Soon, the MP3 not only upended the recording industry but, thanks to the iPod, also contributed to Apple's late-'90s transformation into one of the most successful companies in history. (On Tuesday, the tech giant passed $800 billion in market capitalization, the first U.S. company to do so.)
But now, 22 years later, the MP3 truly is dead, according to the people who invented it. The Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, a division of the state-funded German research institution that bankrolled the MP3's development in the late '80s, recently announced that its "licensing program for certain MP3 related patents and software of Technicolor and Fraunhofer IIS has been terminated."
Bernhard Grill, director of that Fraunhofer division and one of the principals in the development of the MP3, told NPR over email that another audio format, AAC — or "Advanced Audio Coding," which his organization also helped create — is now the "de facto standard for music download and videos on mobile phones." He said AAC is "more efficient than MP3 and offers a lot more functionality."
As Witt illustrates throughout his excellent opening chapters, the MP3, before upending the musical world as we knew it, almost died in the research lab. The team of engineers that invented the format was attempting to make it possible to send audio over telephone lines, which could only transmit small amounts of data. Fraunhofer — in competing for the legitimacy it needed to persuade tech companies to actually use MP3s, and so actually make money — hit numerous speed bumps. It was repeatedly beleaguered by clever corporate sabotage and later by piracy. Other failures hinged on the need for the world to catch up with the technology's possibilities: Along the way, one computer engineer on the team had a patent for a music streaming service denied by the German government because it was technologically absurd at the time. Another innovation the team failed to leverage? The portable MP3 player.
In early 1995, the format was on life support, with one licensing deal being the use of the technology by hockey arenas across the U.S. (That spring meeting in which the MP3 was declared dead came months later, after another failed pitch that denied it being standardized and widely adopted.) A little later, Fraunhofer began giving away the software that consumers needed to turn compact discs into MP3s at home. The rest is recent history.
So is it the end of an era? We may still use MP3s, but when the people who spent the better part of a decade creating it say the jig is up, we should probably start paying attention. AAC is indeed much better — it's the default setting for bringing CDs into iTunes now — and other formats are even better than it, though they also take up mountains of space on our hard drives.
And it's not just that more efficient and complete ways of storing music have been developed. There was a deeper problem. The engineers who developed the MP3 were working with incomplete information about how our brains process sonic information, and so the MP3 itself was working on false assumptions about how holistically we hear. As psychoacoustic research has evolved, so has the technology that we use to listen. New audio formats and products, with richer information and that better address mobile music streaming, are arriving.
Deezer, a music streaming company relatively popular in its native France, launched in the U.S. offering "high-resolution" streaming, for double the price of a Spotify account. Tidal did the same. Neil Young tried his hand with the hotly tipped Pono. While all three are not exactly taking over the world — Pono, in fact, is officially dead, rebranded "Xstream" — the record business has put its stamp of approval on the idea, at least. "Master Quality Authenticated" is a promising new technology that uses a type of audio origami to spare cellular data when necessary and to "bloom" in quality when it's not — though it has drawn pointed criticism for being a closed loop that allows for recording industry cash-ins. It wouldn't be the first time.
The formats that convey art and media to us also delineate that media; vinyl records require a session-interrupting flip, which The Beatles brilliantly exploited by creating an infinite loop of gibberish at the end of Sgt. Pepper's second side. The VHS tape in both image and sound was as soft and fuzzy as a worn teddy bear, while new high-definition televisions render images perhaps too robotically, tracking movement like T-1000. The MP3, as mentioned, enabled millions or billions of song listens, just with incorrect biological assumptions. The lesson seems to be, simply, that our media will always be as exactly imperfect as we are.