Listening to music has been a passion of our species for millennia, and it’s certainly a passion that isn’t going away anytime soon! Throughout human history, capturing sound and music has always been a challenge and reproducing the same emotions as live music. Still, perhaps isn’t quite something we’ve managed just yet.
When asked for the oldest piece of tech that could replay music, most will mention the gramophone or record player, and we’ve certainly come a long way since then! From those old technologies through the modern day ipods and smartphones, the actual mechanism has changed very much. Ultimately all a music player has to do is play back recorded music. The big change has been in the media used to store the music, and the biggest change came about with the abundance of semiconductors, in particular, the transistor. Many purists will state that modern music players sound too sterile and cold compared to their old-fashioned cousins. But electronics seems to have weaved methods of reproducing sound in a way that incorporates the odd inaccuracies in music reproduction.
The biggest leap in listening to music on a personal level came about with the tape player. A device originally intended for dictation and journalism that hit mainstream markets with its ability to allow the user to listen to anything anywhere. Early headphones varied massively in quality of sound, as did the actual tape players, but nonetheless, the novelty factor alone provided huge excitement.
Prior to the advent of truly digital storage media, the tape deck faded away and in came the personal CD player, a device that was a victim of its technology. By nature, Compact disks are read by a tiny laser that floats just above the disk reading the pits on the disk itself and reproducing frequencies based on these. The trouble with personal compact disk players was owed to the fact that the laser would touch the disk if any sudden movement impacted the player. Being portable in nature, this was commonplace and gave rise to a whole new market of compact disk scratch removal tools, which were limited in their effectiveness!
The compact disk player hung around until digital storage media became affordable and small enough to become portable. Some of the early adopters of digital music players featured small 1-inch hard disk drives with capacities of around 5Gb, big enough for a lot of music and advertised as a personal jukebox! The next big move in personal music technology was the mass take up of the MP3 music format, which allowed music to be heavily compressed while retaining virtually all of the original quality. The MP3 music format took personal music players to the next level and brought about a wealth of players to the market.
As Internet speeds increased, and the MP3 format became widely known, people downloaded their music, often at the expense of the artist. Which brought rise to an entirely new era of intellectual property theft, with millions of suspects! Many of the manufacturers of personal music players offered some corporate responsibility, but ultimately consumers would rule the roost. That is until Apple introduced its iPod with a revolutionary way of acquiring music, typically for pennies per track. User’s loved the iPod experience with its clever trackpad, and the music producers were getting paid. Of course, there were some issues, most notably with the iPod only being compatible with Mac users for three years after launch.
MP3 players have evolved to using large solid state hard drives, and now often play MP4 videos as well, and have wireless connectively usually with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. The future seems to trend towards fully integrated devices with most listeners using a smartphone rather than a dedicated music player to listen to music and watch videos. The increase of faster internet connections looks likely to evolve into media being streamed rather than downloaded as with the legacy devices.
Home audio integration also shows massive improvements in compatibility with many smartphones now being part of the DLNA, allowing interoperability between smartphones, games consoles, televisions, and speakers. It certainly looks like the future of home entertainment will be a mélange of devices all talking to each other rather than simply the only device for all. Examples of this include home automation hardware and software where a smartphone can control sound, lighting and heating within a home, replacing the traditional remote control units and light switches. Traditionalists may dislike this uber-modern technology, but it’s certainly coming to a new home near you and is already in place in existing niche markets such as super yachts and recreational vehicles.