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What is Portable Audio?

A portable audio device.
The first portable audio players were released in the 1980s and played cassette tapes.
Cassette tapes could be played on a Sony Walkman.
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  • Written By: R. Kayne
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 15 April 2014
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Portable audio refers to mobile devices that can play digital music, such as MP3 players, cell phones, mini-disk players and boomboxes. A handheld digital voice recorder could also be considered portable audio, though the more common reference applies to musical electronics.

Today’s generation likely takes portable audio for granted, but it wasn’t long ago that the only portable music available came in the form of an AM/FM radio. The first portable tapes, popular in the early 1970s, were large 8-track cassettes that resembled today’s VHS tapes. Not only were they cumbersome, but the technology left much to be desired. Any song that began on one track and ended on another would have an unwelcome disruption of several seconds of silence at the seam, as the player shifted from reading one track to the next, often with audible clunking.

By the 1980s the cassette tape had improved enough to be well suited to musical recordings. One might consider cassettes to be the first viable form of portable audio. Being two-track tapes, cassettes eliminated the problem of a song spanning multiple tracks. The only “obligation” was to put no more than could fit on a single side so that a song would not be slung between side one and side two. Boomboxes with built-in cassette players hit their peak during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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By 1988, compact disks were making the scene, sharing the market with the steadfast cassette. The idea of not having to rewind or fast-forward to listen to a desired tune was probably a bigger plus to many people than the fact that CDs were digital rather than analog. With a modicum of care, the CD would not wear out. Moreover, any copies made from a CD sounded exactly like the master — one of the many advantages of digital technology. And CDs were a lot smaller than vinyl records.

However, compared to cassettes, CDs did have one drawback: movement causes jitter in a CD player, of which only so much can be corrected. Laser light technology in mini-disk portable players wasn’t a good fit for extreme skaters, boarders, bicyclists or active adults that had been using products like the Sony™ cassette Walkman&trade.

Luckily, with computers in every home, the marriage between digital music and alternate storage devices would soon reap a generous reward in the form of true, "indestructible," completely portable audio. Enter, the MP3 file.

With the advent of MP3 compressed music files, along with the development of flash memory devices like memory sticks and MP3 players, portable audio has become truly dynamic, adaptable and ubiquitous. Many MP3 players weigh scarcely more than a triple-A battery and are no larger than a pack of gum. Moreover, digital portable audio played back from microchip flash memory is immune to movement while being acoustically superior to previous types of portable audio media. Even nicer, songs can be readily transferred on and off of a portable audio MP3 player, although many models have enough storage for entire music libraries. How’s that for convenience!

From vinyl records and 8-track tapes, to cassettes and CDs, digital music files appear to have hit the pinnacle of portable audio perfection. If you haven’t yet treated yourself to a portable audio player, do yourself a favor and check them out at any local or online retailer of electronic products. See just how easy it is to take your favorite music with you!

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