The History of Portable Music

Take the phone out of your pocket, open any music app or YouTube, and you instantly have access to millions of different songs at your fingertips. Portable music history has truly reached a fantastic point but things were not as easy as this.

The early days of portable music history

When attempting to define “portable music”, one might find it hard to reach a definite characterization. The transistor radio, for example, could certainly be considered as the first widely popularized portable music player.

Others might even consider the Boombox as a great example of portable music, even though its giant size had obvious limitations. Such devices certainly gave rise to the concept of taking music everywhere, but they were hardly personal devices.


Today, when we think of portable music, most of us tend to think of personal music players. In fact, most people would consider headphones to be a necessary accessory to any portable music player.

Walkman’s ancestors

Though the Walkman – which we will talk about in the next section – is probably the most recognizable personal portable music player of the decades of old, it was definitely not the first one.

That honor goes instead to the Stereobelt. Like the Walkman, the Stereobelt played cassettes and was more or less what you might be imagining. Andreas Pavel, the Stereobelt’s inventor, realized that listening to music on a personal level can transcend normal experiences.

Though he took his invention to many different companies, everyone told him the same thing; no one would be as crazy as to wear headphones in public.

It appears that Sony, however, took notice of his ideas at some point. The inventor and the company were actually involved in a legal war that started in 1980 and did not end until 2003 when Sony finally agreed to a cash payment and ongoing royalties to Pavel.

Other than the Stereobelt, another little-known device that could be considered a pioneer in the personal portable music history is the Panapet, developed by Panasonic in the early 1970s. This AM radio device is more a novelty item than anything else but it was still a valid example of early portable music.

Enter the Walkman

Sony’s introduction of the Walkman in 1979 pretty much changed the world of portable music listening. The lightweight device came with its own set of headphones and a huge marketing campaign by Sony made sure that everyone would want one.

The Walkman used cassettes and afforded people with the opportunity to not only listen to their favorite music on the go, but also to share it with others on the spot. The Walkman had a very wide appeal and proved extremely popular.

Sony Walkman

A few years later, in 1984, Sony also released the D-50, the first in what came to be known as the Discman line of products.

The Discman was pretty much the same concept as the Walkman only it played CDs which were actually developed by Sony and Phillips. As one might expect, this product also proved to be very popular as it allowed for a far more convenient experience when compared to the Walkman’s cassettes.

The first MP3 players

The first mass-produced MP3 player with flash memory was the MPMan, developed and manufactured by SaeHan Information Systems. The MPMan made its debut in Asia in 1998 and came to the other side of the pond only a few months afterwards.


However, the device was very expensive, highly inconvenient to use, and generally very restrictive. As such, it was a commercial and critical failure.

The first successful portable MP3 music player was the Rio PMP300, which debuted only a few months afterwards. This device was cheaper, could easily connect to a computer, and proved to be quite a success.

And then came the iPod

While the Rio PMP300 was a commendable attempt at popularizing MP3 players, the most successful portable player would arrive three years later.

In 2001, Apple released the first iPod into the wild and practically changed the landscape once again, much as Sony had done back in 1979. The iPod had been an incredibly popular device from the very start and had a huge impact in the industry at large.

iPod 1st Gen

For instance, users could now load up on thousands of songs in a single, portable device. Perhaps more importantly, people could also select individual songs instead of entire albums. This seemingly simple thing, along with the iTunes platform, pretty much propelled the digital music industry forward.

It is pretty hard to overstate just how much of an impact the iPod had, especially after 2003 when iTunes was released. And though it only worked on Macintosh in the beginning, Apple did realize that a Windows version would be advantageous and iPods suddenly reached a much wider audience than before.


This brief look into portable music history hopefully covered a basic but vital timeline that has culminated into us having access to any song right at our fingers at any given moment. With that said, the list is certainly not exhaustive.

If you have something you would like to share with us, please feel free to comment below!

By Adam Pothitos

Adam has been keenly interested in the mobile and marketing industries for as long as he can remember. He believes that the mobile and digital evolutions have completely transformed our world and wants to be a close part of that ever-shifting landscape. Towards that end, he has written for a number of online publications on matters of the mobile market, the computer industry, and all kinds of technology. When he’s not dealing with technology, he’s always interested in some good discussions on psychology.

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