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June 11, 2015
By Alexander Lucas

In a move that many consider a major shift in the music landscape, Apple just announced the upcoming launch of their streaming service, Apple Music. With that in mind this week, we look back at some of the past advancements in portable music playback.

150 songs per ounce*

It is now standard for nearly any electronic device to feature storage and playback of digital audio files. While the iPod revolutionized the mobile audio industry upon its release in 2001, Apple was not the first to release an mp3 player into the market. Two other digital audio players launched a full three years before the iPod.

The earliest commercial player was the MPMan, produced by the South Korean company SaeHan Information Systems. The MPMan debuted to Asian markets in March 1998 and to North America one year later. The initial model held 32 MB of data and cost between $200 and $300. 

In September of the same year, Diamond Multimedia released their first player, the RIO PMP300. Like the MPMan, the Rio had 32MB and sold for $200. But the Rio soon ran into stiff opposition from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The RIAA had already begun fighting the distribution of mp3 files across the internet and they saw mp3 players as a new front line in that battle.

"The MP3 player has no function other than playing material that was stolen from record companies."

Frank Creighton, Associate Director of Anti-Piracy, RIAA

The RIAA filed a lawsuit against Diamond Multimedia and was briefly able to stop sale of the device in October 1998. However, by the end of the month, the lawsuit was thrown out and sales of the Rio resumed.

Ironically, the lawsuit brought more attention to the Rio player, which allowed for its dominance over the MPMan. Diamond sold over 200,000 Rio players after their lawsuit was settled. While impressive, Apple sold over a million iPods within two years of its release. 

* The original iPod could hold 5 GB, or approximately 1,000 songs. It weighed 6.5 ounces. Therefore, the original iPod could claim to hold 150 songs per ounce.

Home stereo on your shoulder

While the Sony Walkman would seem to be the next logical step in the evolution of portable music tech, the history and cultural impact of the boombox is much more interesting.

Phillips developed the first boombox, the Radiorecorder, in 1969. It was the first device to contain both a radio receiver and cassette player/recorder. Many manufacturers began producing their own boomboxes in the 1970s, first introducing the product in North America in the mid-1970s.

Several features made boomboxes a huge hit from the late 1970s through the 1980s: 

  • Portable (you could take both tapes and radio on the go)
  • Dual cassette (you could create your own mix tapes)
  • Home theater sound (high quality sound with deep, loud bass)

Movies from the 1980s are rife with imagery of teens with the boombox on their shoulder. What would "Say Anything" be like without that boombox scene? Or the riot scene in "Do the Right Thing"?

The power of the boombox's sound also led to a backlash, as municipal governments across the U.S. sought to ban their use in public places. Similar ban attempts are common now against "boombox cars."

Boomboxes are still sold today, but technological advances of portable speakers with audio inputs or Bluetooth have largely made boomboxes obsolete.

Man-from-Mars Radio Hat

As a final entry in this Tech Throwback, I wanted to include the Radio Hat. Not only is this innovation relevant to the portable audio history, but it also continues to prove that Google Glass was not the first dorky-looking tech invention. 

The Radio Hat was invented in 1949 by Victor Hoeflich, whose prior claim to fame was a machine that manufactured paper leis. As can be seen in the cover picture, the radio is contained in a pith helmet with a pair of headphones over the ears and a connected battery for your pocket. The Radio Hat could pick up stations in a 20-mile radius and cost only $7.95 (though that would be about $80 now).

While other battery-powered portable radios existed, the transistor radio did not exist yet. The Radio Hat's unique design and eight vibrant colors set it apart from its competition. What other product relied heavily upon its multiple color shells to market itself? The iPod touch, of course.

Did you miss our last Thursday Throwback? Check out past editions:

A self-styled storyteller, Alexander Lucas loves to share his vast knowledge of tech, innovation and design trivia. TEKsystems’ resident video designer is also an avid history buff and writes about technology innovation through time.

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