29/07/2015

How we listen to music: Portable music players

Portable Music Players

The last post on Not If When was about the 'ownership' of recorded music, either in a physical/digital format or as a streaming service.  This leads nicely on to the next few entries which focus on how we actually listen to music.  

There is so much subject matter here that it can be broken down into a number of sub categories that can be discussed, such as; what devices we play music on at home, what portable music players exist, and beyond that, even things like the type of headphones we use.  
I've decided to begin the journey of how we listen to music with a post about portable music players.  The other subcategories I mentioned above will be discussed in future posts.

I believe it is now easier than ever for people to listen to music whilst out and about.  This is largely due to the rise of Smartphones.  Nearly everyone owns one and users have a whole host of options to listen to music.  They can sync with their home libraries, download tracks from digital stores or listen to streaming services.


When I was a kid I had loads of cassette tapes.  These were either purchased albums, mix tapes, copies of my mums vinyl collection or live sets taped off the radio.  I had a small Hi-Fi separates system to listen to these at home, but more importantly I had the ability to listen to them whenever and wherever I wanted with my Sony Walkman.

I was quite young when I first got a Walkman, possibly as young as five or six.  Looking back over my notes for this article made me realise that I have always been an early pioneer of portable music players and I plan to continue that in the future.

I owned the Sony WM-F5 Sports Walkman which came out in 1984.  It was bright yellow, splash-proof and had a built-in FM radio.  I loved it.  I actually found it fully working in my loft a few years ago and sold it on eBay for a good price.

I actively (not in a sports way) used my Sony Walkman for probably six years or so, which shows that back then things were built to last, rather than becoming obsolete after three years.  Over the years that followed I started to buy more and more CDs.  For a time I used to copy every album I bought onto cassette so I could listen to it on my Walkman, but around 1990 I upgraded and got my first Discman.

I was now able to listen to CDs on the go and it revolutionised my life.  Both the Walkman and Discman ran off AA batteries which seemed to last much longer than our current portable music players.  I would take the Discman everywhere; on the bus to school, in the car, on days out, on holiday - everywhere.

My Discman stuck around for a long time until something called a MiniDisc hit the scene.  Now the MiniDisc was a strange one.  The actual disc was a thin 6cm x 7cm square and held 74 minutes of music on it.  It basically looked like a smaller version of the floppy disc used in computers.  Remember them?  The MiniDisc player was not much bigger than the disc, which meant it was great for carrying around loads of music.  A quarter of the size of the Discman.

Although record companies released them, I never actually purchased any albums on the MiniDisc format. Instead I continued to buy CDs and copy them onto blank MiniDiscs, much like when I had a Walkman.  The really great thing about the MiniDisc was it was digital quality and the rechargeable battery lasted ages.

My very favourite thing to do with the MiniDisc player was to record shows off the radio.  It's easy to forget, but not long ago there was no such thing as Podcasts or 'listen again' so if you missed a show on the Radio you did not have the chance to hear it again.

When I was at University I religiously listened to one particular show on Radio One.  It was called 'The Breeze Block' and was hosted by the incredible Mary Anne Hobbs.  Each week she would have a guest artist create an hour long mix.  These were usually dance/electronic based, but that was never set in stone and some were really eclectic.  There were definitely stand out mixes over the years, including ones by Thom Yorke, The Avalanches, Orbital, Lemon Jelly and Chris Morris.

Every week I recorded the live sets onto MiniDisc and listened to them over and over again.  I actually have a load of them still in my studio and do listen to them from time to time. A number of the Breeze Block Mixes are also available online via sites like SoundCloud or Mixcloud and I really do recommend checking them out.  They sound just as good now as they did back in 2000.

So, I was happy with the MiniDisc but in 2004 everything changed again and I got my first iPod.

My brother and I both got iPods at the same time, he got an iPod mini and I got a third generation iPod with the then revolutionary Click Wheel.  Alongside the iPod came iTunes and a whole new digital way of storing music.  I actually had quite a few iPods over the years, upgrading them when new versions came out until I got an iPhone.  After that I elected to just use the phone to listen to music whilst out and about and that is what I am currently using today.

And that in a nutshell, is how I have listened to music on portable formats since being young.

As I said earlier, the rise of Smartphones really has made it incredibly easy for anyone to listen to music wherever they want to, which is a fantastic thing.  But at the same time there has also been the rise of something else which has had a massively negative effect on how we listen to music and that is the influx of rubbish and inadequate headphones.

Think about it for a second, all the headphones supplied with modern day portable music players/Smartphones are quite frankly a disgrace...


In the next post on Not If When I will go into a lot more detail about headphones, including a write-up about my recent visit to Flare Audio; a company who are revolutionising speakers and headphones.

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