MP3 Players overview

Jan 11, 2011 No Comments by

Back when Brylcreem ruled the waves, personal audio devices were necessarily limited in scope.  They played sound.  Vision was a peripheral pipedream, and in any case, who’s going to squint at a teensy screen?  How Fogies yearn for such innocent times.

Leaving aside tiny transistor radios, the introduction of the Sony Walkman in 1979 spawned a new generation of glassy-eyed yoof permanently wired to a pocket of jangling crap, empty heads bobbing as they slouched and shuffled around the streets.  It can’t be long now before personal audio devices are permanently implanted into those vacant domes.  Personally I can’t wait, especially if it means the noise stays inside their dozy skulls and doesn’t leech out to pollute an already filthy aural atmosphere.  Second hand smoke is just unpleasant; second hand Jay-Z makes my teeth splinter.  Where are the ‘elf and safety stormtroopers when you need them?

But when digital audio arrived Sony were looking the other way.  Steve ‘Big’ Jobs and Apple stole the market and now you’d be mildly challenged in the synapse department to consider buying any portable digital media device other than an iPod.  I say ‘digital media device’ because now they mostly all play video as well, even if you’ll need to go to Specsavers to see it.

And ‘MP3 player’ is not strictly the most accurate term for these things any more.  MP3 itself is an abbreviation of MPEG-3 which in turn is short for Moving Picture Experts Group.  This is a cabal of clever clogs who meet from time to time to develop new ways of squashing digital content into ever smaller formats so it can be stored and transmitted more efficiently.  MPEG-2 is a video codec, MPEG-4 can be audio or video.  Codec is a contraction of COmpression-DECompression (keeping up at the back?) and there are dozens of them.  Fundamentally codecs allow analogue source content to be compressed into a digital file and then decompressed back into analogue form so you can see or hear it.  So ‘MP3 players’ don’t just play MP3 files – they’ll play all sorts of other files as well.

Audio purists hate MP3 because it compresses the source material to such an extent that it can sound a bit rubbish when played over a decent hi-fi.  But if all you ever do is listen through headphones you’ll never notice this.  Or care.  Although you may well end up with tinnitus.  Having said that, such is the massively huge storage capacity of many of these wee things you could record or download at much higher quality and still be able to store thousands of tunes as well as films, or TV shows, or whatever.  How many people do you know whose iPod is full?

Of course, most phones can be music and video players (as well as cameras, GPS devices and much besides) but the industry’s grail – one device that replaces several individual ones – now seems unlikely even with the ceaseless advance of the iPhone.