What Is A Portable Music Player?

Listening to music at a concert, in your car, at a party, or in your living room can be a fulfilling experience. Yet none of all that trumps the immersion, privacy, and portability that portable music players offer. Portable music players have always been a big deal because of the quality of the sound experience.

We will be diving into portable music players, but let’s attempt a simple definition before we get into that.

As the name suggests, a portable music player is a mobile device that allows users to play music (or recorded audio files) while on the go. Different audio players range from battery-powered devices with pint-sized loudspeakers to personal devices that are best used with headphones.

The more recent and more popular type of portable music player would be the digital audio player (DAP), an electronic device built to store and play digital audio files.

Some folks go on to describe the distinctions among portable music players. Say, for instance, the differences between a DAP and your regular MP3 players.

As the name suggests, MP3 players play MP3 files. On the other hand, DAPs can play various audio formats, including MP3s, lossy files, low-res, and hi-res.

There are also arguments that boom boxes, cassette players, and the transistor radio should be included in the audio player class.

The History of the Portable Music Player

If you went shopping for a portable music player, you’d be offered a range of state-of-the-art devices with great designs, magical features, and of course, a music experience to die for. A perfect illustration would be the iPod touch.

But it has not always been this way.

The portable music players we have today have undergone (and are still undergoing) massive transformations.

Here’s where we take a look at how portable music players evolved over the years.

We could trace the beginnings of the portable music player to 1954 when the first battery-powered transistor radio was created.

Transistor radios were tiny, and they enabled people to explore music while moving around. By 1963, Phillips invented the cassette tape player, which allowed the user to play the music recorded on cassette tapes. Then came the Sony Walkman in 1979.

The Walkman

Originally known as the “Sound-About” and “Stowaway,” in the US and UK, respectively, the Sony “Walkman” marked the first significant leap in the audio player industry.

Some folks believe that it was the earliest lifestyle device that granted the user an excellent status at the time (similar to what the Apple iPod is today).

The Sony Walkman was retired in 2010 after selling well over 400million units. We could say that the Walkman was the first truly portable music player there was.

The Disc Player

Sometime in 1984, Sony decided to stretch the frontiers of portable music players by introducing the Sony Discman.

The Discman was designed to be a mobile device that played audio CDs. While it was a great idea, it was a bit pricey and slightly cumbersome due to the size of the CDs. It also didn’t have great battery life.

Despite these drawbacks, the Discman still offered a better sound quality output than the Walkman.

The MP3 Player/iPod

This is where things got a whole lot more interesting.

Technological advancements led to MP3 technology, and so sometime in 1997, Saehan Information Systems launched the flash-based MP3 player. It is interesting to note the MP3’s humble beginnings: a paltry 32MB-64MB capacity device that allowed users to save some 6 to 12 songs on it.

Over time more companies went into its production, and so the designs and capacity continued to improve. With time the MP3 audio player rendered its predecessors redundant because it offered much more than they did.

The Apple iPod completely revolutionized the portable music player landscape when it was released sometime in 2001. The first Apple iPod was a small, sleek device that could manage a whole music library.

The Apple iPod is still sleek (if “sleeker” today). It combines a great storage capacity with user-centric features that makes it easy for 5year olds to use.

With the introduction of the iTunes Store, which makes it easy to access content online,iPod music players became a must-have for audiophiles and their ilk.

Today, owning an Apple iPod is a status symbol that most folks crave. The price of an iPod touch could turn heads in some third-world countries.


Although smartphones are not standalone music players per se, they can work as one as they often come with built-in MP3 players. Apple’s iPhone has taken that capability to the next level as it allows users to access music from its iTunes store and even stream music.

It is common to find smartphones replacing portable music players because the emergence of streaming apps allows them to access, organize and play music while on the go.

As a means of maintaining distinction, we will call the more recent portable music players digital audio players(DAPs) because of their proliferation and ability to play digital audio files.

Types of Music Players

These devices take different forms based on their evolution over the years, and here are some of them.

Flash Memory Players

This is the smallest and earliest on the scene. Owing to its size, the first flash memory MP3 players could only store a limited music collection.

The good news is that improved models can handle up to 8 GB of storage, which is approximately 2,000 songs. Some models have media (video and photo) features and batteries that can last for a little over a day.

Hard Drive and Mini-hard Drive Players

These are slightly larger and have more weight than flash memory players. So, they can store more songs, and some can hold as much as 80GB worth of songs. Naturally, they have data, video, photographs, and video features, all of which take a toll on the device’s battery life.

They include many moving parts, so they are more likely to skip, hence anti-skip protection. 

MP3 CD Players and MiniDisc MP3 Players

This refers to CD players designed to play digital files burned on CD-R/RW discs and used in an MP3 CD player.

This DAP is much cheaper than the other two described, plus CDs are known to hold as much as 10 hours of music in addition to supporting MP3, WMA, and WAV formats.

They also have excellent battery life, with some models offering as much as over 30 hours of playtime while using one AA battery.

The Hybrid Players

 These refer to consumer products that are designed to have MP3 playing capabilities. Examples of these products include sunglasses, personal digital assistants, and even swim goggles.

Other notable mentions include:

Networked audio players:

These are MP3 players that require a wireless wi fi network to receive and play audio files. They are built to rely on a server from which they access the wireless wi-fi network, so they do not require local storage.

All that is required is a reliable wireless wi-fi connection. On the one hand, wireless wi-fi eliminates the need for storage. On the other hand, it limits its use only when a reliable wireless wi-fi connection can be achieved.

USB memory card audio players:

As the name suggests, these MP3 players need USB flash drives or other memory cards like the MicroSD card to access data.

Unlike the wireless wi-fi MP3 player, this device can not work with a MicroSD card. If there is no more space for storage on the MicroSD card, it won’t function optimally. One great MicroSD card option to explore is the SanDisk brand. The SanDisk MicroSD card offers loads of gigabytes in storage at an affordable price.

How Do Portable Music Players Work?

Portable music players are designed to playback sounds that are recorded in different formats and compression levels. To get the hang of how these music devices work, you need to be clear about the types of audio formats that they play:

Uncompressed Audio Format

This kind of audio format refers to audio files that have not been compressed. It is a kind of audio file that is directly converted to a digital format without being processed. They are the most authentic audio formats because they still preserve many critical properties of the recorded sound.

However, since they are not compressed, they take up a lot of space. Some examples of uncompressed audio files include WAV. AIFF and PCM.

Lossless Compressed Audio Format

Lossless compressed audio files result from compressing audio files so that they do not occupy a lot of space and are more manageable. The thing with these audio files is that they retain the file’s original data despite the compression, hence the name “lossless.”

They can also be returned to their decompressed states. Examples of this audio format are ALAC, FLAC, and WMA lossless files.

Lossy Compressed Audio Format

Lossy compressed audio formats are about the most petite audio file sizes as they undergo high levels of digital audio compression. The downside with these kinds of files is that they lose the file’s original data when compressed.

Consequently, the audio quality is affected in the process. Examples of lossy compressed audio files are MP3, OCG file, AAC, and WMA lossy file.

So how do these audio files relate to getting the best portable music?

Most audio formats use lossy compression to produce small media yet are compatible with the desired sound quality; MP3 is the most universally supported format. The audio format supported by a music player depends on the firmware it runs on, and with each subsequent firmware update, more formats are added.

So a player to provide the best portable music(preferably hi-res), the audio has to be in a format that it supports. Digital sampling is when audio waves are converted to a sequence of binary numbers stored in a suitable digital format.

So How Do Portable Music Players Work?

DAPs often come with rechargeable batteries, a 3.5 mm stereo jack, earbuds or headphones, and an external amplifier(DAC). Some of them come with both internal and external speakers. They function as a computer would.

Here are some of the components you’d find in a regular portable player like the MP3 player:

An input: this is usually a USB docking lead that hooks it up to an external device like a computer

A memory: this could be any of a mini hard drive or a flash memory that stores audio files

A processor: a component that reads the audio format and converts them to music

An output: It could either be a socket for plugging your headphones or a small LCD that shows what you are playing at the time.

Manufacturers of portable players often stipulate their electronic characteristics so users can quickly ascertain their maximum sound output level.

So when you switch on your device, it functions just like a computer would. The processor chip in the player loads an audio format and reads the ID3 index cards. Based on the mined data, the artist and track name of the audio are displayed on the LCD.

The next step is to read each frame of the audio file one after the other. The processor then accesses the header and the data and converts this digital information into sound frequencies. It is these sound frequencies that are decoded as music by your ears and brain decode.

So once the process has started, you get to select what you want to listen to using the LCD and the control buttons to surf through the DAP’s music library.

You can add music content to your digital music device by “syncing.” This is a process wherein you connect the portable player to a personal computer to run specific software (in some cases a special management software) that could either be gotten from CD-ROM or the manufacturer’s website.

The syncing process can be done manually when the software does not work out.

Another way to put some content on a portable music player is by accessing an online store for music content like Apple’s iTunes Store. These places allow users access to a vast array of content that could either be downloaded or purchased.

The sound gets through to the ears and the brain often via headphones or external speakers. Headphones are designed to transmute the DAP’s electronic output into sound energy.

However, what gets to your ear largely depends on the type of headphones; and how you plug them into the device. Different player-headphone combinations will generate different sound outputs.

Is A Portable Music Player Worth It?

Once upon a time, having portable music players was the best way to get “cool” status.

Beyond the status, having a mobile music device like the MP3 player offers a great personalized yet immersive listening experience. But that was all before smartphones could with music playing capabilities. It has gotten more interesting with music apps that allow people to stream some of the best portable music online.

The Walkman and the Discman were popular products in their day, and ironically, they were both phased out by a better technology: the MP3 player. Now things have come full-circle with some folks asking if having a portable music player is worth it, seeing that some smartphones perform nearly the same function.

The truth is that it depends on the type of person you are and how you choose to enjoy your music. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the reasons why portable music players are still in demand today.


Portability is the most significant selling point of portable music players. They are small and handy and easy to carry around while commuting or exercising, for instance. Users dont have to worry about the weight of the player.

For instance, a digital music player will be easier to handle than a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. If you have a smartphone with special music playing capability, you risk damaging it because you constantly have to carry it around.

With the regular digital music device like the iPod touch, the risk of damage is reduced since it has fewer parts and is a lot less light than a smartphone.

Longer playing Time

The digital music player is powered by rechargeable batteries built to play music for hours on end. If you opt to use your smartphone or tablet to stream or play music, you will not get enough playing time because of the limited battery life. Smartphones and tablets do not have the most robust batteries for one.

Then there are the apps that sap the battery life of these devices.

So opting to use such gadgets for playing music won’t cut it as far as playing time goes. On the flip side, the digital music player offers longer playing time because of the extremely long battery life built to have.

It takes about 3 hours to fully charge a digital music player, which you could go on to enjoy hi-res audio for hours on end depending on use and the device in question. The iPod touch has a great battery life that lets it go on for days if well managed.

Great Audio/Playing Experience

One of the biggest reasons this music-playing device is still in demand is its sound production quality.

Indeed, the primary reason why most people would pick a digital music player over smartphones is that they offer some of the best sound quality. If you are big on the sound quality that filters through your headphones, then a digital audio player like the Apple iPod touch(for example) is your best bet.

The mobile music player is designed to play any music format that comes its way, and most of them are meant to play lossless formats and codecs that deliver the best sound quality.

Unlike other devices that you could listen to music on, portable music players are designed to have a built-in audio jack and an expandable memory in most cases. Since the DAP is specifically built for playing music, its built-in headphone amp is often more potent than what you’d find in other devices for playing music.

On the flip side, tablets and low-quality audio are not built for playing music. Although some of these devices are made with excellent DAC (digital to analog converters) and headphone amps, in most cases, the DAC cannot match those in the DAPs.

You also get a better playing experience with this kind of device because it mostly comes with physical “Play,” “Pause,” “Next,” and “Previous.” These buttons allow you to manage your music library a lot better as you don’t always have to open up your phone to control what you are playing from your music collection.

Better still, newer mobile music players are being designed to allow their users access music streaming services like Tidal and Spotify.

We believe that a portable music player is worth it if you are an audiophile who loves to savor every note in the hi-res sounds in your music collection. An MP3 player is also a great choice if you love playing music for extended periods while moving from place to place or exercising your body.

Do You Need An MP3 Player If You Have A Phone?

So do you need an MP3 player if you have a phone?

Well, that depends on the type of phone.

It is an easy choice if you choose between an Apple iPod touch(for instance) and a non-smartphone. If the comparison is between the same Apple iPod touch and a smartphone, it becomes more complicated.

Once upon a time, the MP3 player held sway because of its portability, audio quality, and storage capacity. That has changed as smartphones have been built to offer the same features. So both devices are portable and have great storage for your MP3 files. When you add the affordability and versatility (calls, messaging, chatting, and whatnot)of smartphones, the comparison between both devices appears valid. Plus, some smartphone brands have taken it upon themselves to design models with hi-res audio output that can easily compete with most MP3 players.

So it looks like it is only a matter of time before MP3 players go the way of the Walkman and the Discman, right?

Interestingly, iPod(the ultimate MP3) production is still high. Barring the status symbol thingy, there has to be a demand to still be in production.

So whether or not you still need an MP3 player after getting a smartphone depends on your preference when enjoying great sound music.

If you are big on exploring music from the iTunes Store or prefer the lossless audio format, then getting an MP3 player is a great idea.

If you prefer music streaming services, you might not need an MP3 player since that is the forte of smartphones. Although some MP3 players might support streaming, getting one to do the same thing your smartphone can do is redundant.

Then there is the thing with headphones. A class of premium headphones is primarily incompatible with smartphones since they are best suited for MP3s and other standalone music players. They are called in-ear monitors (IEMs), designed to create a tremendous immersive listening experience that you can get when you use them with MP3s.

Then there is the sound quality to be considered. Most MP3 players have a better DAC than you would find in smartphones, so they are bound to have created better sound quality.

If you are the type to listen to the high-resolution sound for long periods, you may want to get an MP3 for that. While your smartphone may play such high-resolution sound with excellent quality for a while, there are apps and other features that affect its battery life and prevent it from lasting long enough.MP3 players tend to have longer battery life and go on for hours because they don’t have to cope with these apps and features.

If you opt for an MP3 as a supplementary music device, you no longer have to bother with texts, emails, and calls that might come in while you are listening to your favorite song on your smartphone.

The good news is that you can get an excellent MP3 player at a reasonable price as most retailers offer great deals. Better still, these devices offer you impressive storage for your hi-res music since they can boast of storage that beats the average MicroSD card.

Add this storage to excellent battery life. Then an MP3 should be a great gadget to have, even if you have a smartphone.


Lovers of quality sound have always been thrilled by the possibility of listening to hi-res music personally. Sometime around the beginning of the 21st century, some bright minds made that a reality. Over time, portability and storage capacity soon became an issue until the first mobile players resolved it.

Over the years, these devices have evolved, and their most recent versions are different from their forebears as night is to the day (compare the first Sony Walkman to the Apple iPod touch).

This article has described the evolution of mobile music players, their types, and how they work.

You will also find some information about their relevance today, given that other devices are fast on the heels of this fantastic lifestyle product.

Hopefully, this article provides answers to how you can continue to savor high-resolution sound and get the best portable music without having to compromise battery life for a little bit.