50 years of portable music: from the walkman to streaming

Music has accompanied man since prehistory, but until more than 145 years ago, music that had been recorded could not be heard (with the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison in 1877, which used an engraved cylinder). For nearly a century there were several outstanding innovations: the gramophone (which used flat records) and later the turntables, which reproduced the sound automatically thanks to electricity, but the apparatus that reproduced them could not be moved since the slightest vibration caused jump the needle to another point on the record or even scratch it.

The revolution came when the reproduction of music was freed from the plugs to be able to listen to it on the move, a possibility that came, first, thanks to the invention in 1963 by Philips of cassette tapes, with which the sound was not altered. although the reproductive system moved and that they had two faces with a total duration of about 90 minutes. Philips, a brand from the Netherlands, was also the first to launch a player for these tapes, the Philips EL 3300 boombox, also in 1963.

In the 1970s boomboxes became popular, bulky devices with gigantic speakers that were carried on the shoulder or by the hand going down the street, in the park, on the beach… usually with the music as loud as possible. They used a large number of large batteries, between 6 and 8 that did not last long because they had a high energy consumption, they were portable although uncomfortable and heavy. In Spain they were called ‘loros’ and in the Anglo-Saxon world they were known as boomboxes.

The walkman, a symbol of the 80s

To ease the backs and pockets of those who wanted to listen to music anywhere —and the eardrums of others— in July 1979 Sony released the first truly portable player, the TPS-L2 model, a small device that played tapes of cassette. It was barely bigger than one of those tapes – it fit in the palm of your hand – and quickly became popular as the Walkman. The Walkman was light, very comfortable to wear (a clip on the back allowed it to be attached to pants), not too expensive, it only needed two AA batteries to run, and it had no speakers, so it was listened to individually with headphones. The sound quality it offered was that of cassette tapes, but at the time it was more than acceptable and even played the music in stereo. Over time, the bass boost function came along, which reinforced the bass, and rechargeable batteries replaced batteries. Other novelties that were incorporated were the option to listen to AM and FM radio and the autoreverse function, with which when one side finished the device began to reproduce the other without the need to turn the tape over.

Sony gave birth to the idea and alone sold more than 200 million Walkmans over the three decades that the product was on the market, with different models, but other companies such as Aiwa, Toshiba and Panasonic embraced it enthusiastically.

The walkman became one of the icons of the 1980s, as evidenced by its appearance in the television series Stranger Things or in the film series Guardians of the Galaxy. It spread throughout the world with a speed and force only comparable to that of mobile phones during the last 15 years, and its name was associated with another English word, jogging, which defined the action of going for a run accompanied by a Walkman to make sport more enjoyable in the street.

While the reign of the walkman was at its height, a new format appeared that offered much higher sound quality, the compact disc, known as CD. Engineer James T. Russell had invented it at the end of the 1960s, but it was not used as a commercial support for the sale of music until the 1980s. The information is recorded by making microscopic holes with a laser in an aluminum sheet that is one of the layers of the CD. The player reads this information with a laser that shoots a beam of light at the surface of the disk and transforms the notches that it reads into sound (or images, since it was also used as a support for computer information).

The Discman and the MP3

On August 17, 1982, the first commercial CD came out and, a couple of years later, the Discman came out, successors to the Walkman, with remote control and digital quality in the recordings —which means a cleaner sound—. The CD format and the discman also spread very quickly and in a short time surpassed the sale of vinyl records and cassette tapes, which gradually disappeared, although the former are now experiencing a boom among retro lovers and the latter are still residual manufacturing.

Not all music playback formats succeeded and to prove it there is the minidisc that Sony released in 1992, which could be rewritten and stored up to 80 minutes of music, but it did not convince consumers.

The next big thing came in May 1997 with MPEG-1 Audio Layer III, a digital sound compression format known as MP3, which is still used in computers.

MP3 technology has been in the works since 1987 but when it was commercialized it was in 1998 when the Korean company SaeHan Information Systems launched the MPMan F10, the first MP3 player. For the third time in 30 years, everyone rushed to the stores to buy an MP3 player, with some models also allowing you to listen to the radio.

Along with the rise of the MP3 came the rise of piracy, which came to endanger the continuity of the music industry. Its advantage is that it allowed to compress the songs up to 90% and maintain an acceptable quality, so a player much smaller than a discman could contain many more songs.

In 2000, the file distribution service Napster provided the means for users to share their songs, record sales fell, record companies filed complaints because this distribution did not take into account the copyright of the performers and ended up closing in 2001 by court order, but he had already paved the way for free music.

The Apple iPod

Among the dozens of models that opted for MP3 music formats, there were some from large companies that failed to succeed (such as Microsoft’s Zune). The one that did succeed since its launch, on October 23, 2001, was the iPod, Apple’s version of digital music, with large storage for the time (between 5 and 40 GB) and a battery that lasted up to 10 hours. In the following 7 years, 14 different versions came out that were driven with a wheel and most had a screen. Interestingly, over time the iPod leaned more towards another music format, ACC (Advanced Audio Coding), which offers better sound quality with compression similar to MP3 and is also supported by other devices.

On April 28, 2003 iTunes was born to accompany the iPod, this application allowed to control audio and video from the computer, make lists, edit files and information, record CDs and, one of its key points, buy music, with a catalog of dozens of millions of topics. The user could also synchronize the songs that he had purchased on all his devices.

As usual in Apple, from time to time new iPod models with more capacity came out, some allowed to surf the internet and even had a camera. But that meant that older models were abandoned.

Music on demand as salvation of the music industry

When it seemed that the internet was going to kill the music industry through piracy, it became its salvation through music on demand, through applications such as Spotify (born in 2008) that host songs in the cloud. The application can be installed on computers and mobile devices such as tablets or, above all, smartphones, which has made phones the main way to listen to music in recent years.

Streaming music curbed piracy as the platforms do pay artists and record labels for the plays of their songs with part of the revenue from subscription or advertising. Although Spotify is the best known, there are many others such as Amazon Prime Music, Apple Music, Deezer or Soundcloud.

The success of phones—including the iPhone—as a way to listen to music without having a specific device ended with the success of MP3s and the iPod. In 2019 the latest iPod Touch model came out and currently Apple no longer manufactures them. In May of this year, it announced that it will continue to sell it while stocks last, although its workshops repair fewer and fewer models because they consider them obsolete.

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50 years of portable music: from the walkman to streaming