Bring the Noise
The evolution of portable audio
By Matthew McKinnon

Fire, the wheel, penicillin, headphones: on a compilation of humanity’s greatest hits, portable sound leaps out as the lone thing we could survive without — but really, really wouldn’t want to. There is no medicine in a Walkman, an iPod will not feed your children, but go ahead and imagine/remember life without them.

Before 1954 and the pocket transistor, music was mainstream or bust, eager to please every listener from teenaged Tony to his grandmother when they gathered around the family radio or phonograph. Walking the streets meant enduring the sound of silence (or worse, traffic), riding in elevators was a death sentence soundtracked by… elevator music. Ugh.

Now it’s different. Modern technology has shrunk a world of sound to fit in the palm of a hand. Every innovation crams more content into less space, tightening the aural cocoons we have taken to wearing as second skins. Music, untethered, has fragmented into a thousand styles, each tailored to sate the varying passions of the globe’s listeners. Silence is a memory,

solitude a white wire. So how did we get here from there?

The pocket transistor radio, 1954

The marathon starts with a sprint — Electronics firms Raytheon, Regency and Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo compete to bring the world’s first pocket radio to market. All hope to use transistors, the new hotness in mid-century technology.

Regency wins the race. Its TR-1 costs $49.95 US (or about $350 US in today’s greenbacks), weighs a dozen ounces and has a battery that lasts 20 hours. The unit measures bigger than most actual pockets, but small enough to move music out of the den and into the streets.

TTK joins the fray in 1957, though the Japanese firm has two concerns. (1) Its radio, while better sounding than Regency’s, is barely smaller. Solution: Company salesmen wear shirts with oversized pockets. (2) Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo is a mouthful in any tongue and another company owns the TTK copyright. So, Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo Westernizes its name by merging the Latin word for sound, sonus, with the North American phrase “sonny boy.” Result: Sony.

The pocket transistor is a sensation, every teen’s most-wanted soundtrack to North America’s post-war boom. Music rattles over sidewalks. Rock begins to roll.

The boombox, 1976-1980

“Because the streets are alive with the sound of boom! Bap! / Can I hear it once again? / Boom bap tell a neighbour tell a friend / Every box got a right to be boomin’” — Michael Franti and Spearhead, Stay Human (All the Freaky People)

Hip-hop is born in the Bronx in the mid-’70s, a culture built on the four pillars of DJing (mixing records), MCing (rapping), tagging (writing graffiti) and b-boying (breakdancing). Around the same time, Panasonic, Sony, Marantz and GE introduce “personal stereos” — i.e. boomboxes. The machines offer cassette decks, AM/FM tuners, loud speakers, stereo sound and, in ideal cases, input and output jacks for connecting microphones and turntables. They function as mobile public-address systems, converting any park, corner or kitchen to instant dance floor.

The boombox, carried above the shoulder, blaring Afrika Bambaataa, Blondie, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, is the soulsonic force that spreads hip-hop’s message to every inner city. Detractors rechristen it the ghetto blaster, a name intended to degrade the device and its devotees; most of the latter shrug, push the volume to 11, and keep the party popping.

The Walkman, 1979

Germany, 1977: Inventor Andreas Pavel applies for the first of several patents on a “portable small component for the hi-fidelity reproduction of recorded sound,” which is a muddy way of saying he conceived the walkman. His Stereobelt is designed for two listeners, with dual headphone jacks and a “hotline” button that, when pressed, lowers playback volume to allow conversation (heard through the headphones) via a built-in microphone. (“Say Cindy, I don’t mind this tape, but Zuma was soooo much better;” “Oh totally. Like a Hurricane has nothing over Cortez the Killer. ”) Pavel makes several prototypes but fails to shepherd his device to market.

It takes Sony to make the walkman sing. Impetus for the company’s innovation comes from co-founder Masaru Ibuka, who requests an easy way to play classical music cassettes during long flights to America. Sony engineers rush to create a prototype. Ibuka falls in love on first listen. So does CEO Akio Morita, who instructs his design team to add a second headphone jack and hotline button. (Both features mimic the Stereobelt; both are removed from later models.)

Sony’s TPS-L2 hits Japanese stores on July 1, 1979. It costs 33,800 yen, or the equivalent of one month’s salary for the average adult worker. Street teams flood Tokyo to play demo tapes for pedestrians, most of whom speed from skeptical to thrilled in seconds. The machine’s initial, 30,000-unit production run sells out by the end of August; worldwide sales start four months later. The L2 is introduced as the Soundabout in the U.S., the Stowaway in the U.K. and the Freestyle in Sweden. In a short time, Morita orders global adoption of its Japanese nickname — the Walkman.

Sony moves 200 million units in the player’s first two years. The Walkman is linked to North America’s jogging fad, despite the illogic of dashing through intersections while listening to Hit Me With Your Best Shot. The portable cassette player becomes to the ’80s what the pocket radio was to the ’50s: a cultural phenomenon that changes the way the world experiences sound. Headphones become the ’80’s lasting fashion statement.

Only Pavel remains unimpressed. The inventor collects royalties on his Stereobelt patents from 1986 forward, though Sony refuses to concede ownership of the idea. The parties clash in courts through June 2004, when Pavel accepts a multimillion-euro settlement in exchange for dropping all legal claims against the company.

The Discman, 1984

Philips and Sony begin mass-producing compact discs in 1982, marketing the new format as an upgrade over vinyl, which degrades with repeated use, and hiss-cursed cassettes. Early public reaction is muted. While wafer-thin, pocket-sized CDs are portable, their players are most definitely not. (Philips’ 1978 prototype — the “Pinkeltje,” named for a gnome in a Dutch children’s story — required one cubic metre of electronic guts.) The world awaits a reason to get over the Walkman.

That reason arrives in 1984, when the head of Sony’s audio division challenges his staff to create a CD player shrunk to the dimensions of four stacked jewel cases. Result: the D-50, a portable player that is bare bones at best — it lacks even a repeat function — but sells for less than half the cost of Sony’s existing desktop model.

Sales soar. A wave of copycats follow, with Sony’s competitors slashing their prices to catch the D-50’s momentum. Music labels expand their CD stocks from dozens to hundreds to thousands of titles. In the coming years, the Discman supplants the Walkman in the ongoing battle for mobile pop supremacy.

Rio PMP300, 1998

In 1987, computer scientists at Germany’s famed Fraunhofer-Institut Integrierte Schaltungen research lab begin building MP3, a computer “codec” that compresses sound sequences by de-emphasizing or removing frequencies that the human ear cannot hear. MP3s begin populating the Internet in the mid-’90s. They move offline in 1998, when California firm Eiger Labs introduces the world’s first portable MP3 player, the MPMan. It is quickly outpaced by Diamond Multimedia, beginning with the Rio PMP300. The Rio is closer in size to a deck of cards than a Walkman, and can play about an hour of rewriteable MP3 audio. It costs $200 US, ships with software for converting CDs to MP3s and can manage 12 hours of playback on a single AA battery.

The music industry reacts as if shot. Diamond rolls out the Rio in September. The Recording Industry Association of America responds with a cease-and-desist lawsuit in October. The RIAA claims the device violates America’s Audio Home Recording Act, a 1992 bill designed to curb copying via Digital Audio Tapes (still another high-end audio format that failed to ignite consumer passions). A Diamond countersuit charges the RIAA with antitrust violations and unfair business practices. The U.S. Court of Appeals sides with Diamond the following summer, setting the scene for Apple to deliver the 21st century’s first perfect invention....

Apple iPod, 2001

Genius happens. Apple’s iPod, introduced Oct. 23, 2001, is sleek and white and wonderful, a palm-sized MP3 marvel that stores 60 hours of CD-quality sound. It is the instant acme of digital leisure. Critics charge that the machine is overpriced ($399 US) and exclusive (early models only function with Apple computers), grossly underestimating public thirst for science fiction made real.

Skip ahead to the present, and fifth-generation models offer Windows compliance, a colour screen, extended battery life and barely believable storage capacity: Apple’s latest units carry 20 and 30 days of music. The iPod shuffle, a cheap ($99–$149 US), entry-level player introduced this January, is as small as a pack of chewing gum and as light as a car key. Annual iPod sales have climbed near $1 billion US, dominating the MP3-player market. Rapper 50 Cent caressed an iPod in the video for his hit song P.I.M.P. ; NBA star Vince Carter has been fined for wearing his during game warm-ups; fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld is said to own 60, with laser-engraved contents listed on the back of each. Even noted luddite George W. Bush (see: second Kerry debate, “internets”) has embraced the technology — Time magazine included a photo of the American president “[listening] to Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl on his iPod” in its 2004 Person-of-the-Year coverage.

Burton Shield iPod Jacket, 2003

The iPod inspires a cottage industry of accessories: there are now more than 200 after-market products associated with Apple’s digital cocoon. Many are carrying cases, some more elaborate than others. Lagerfeld, for example, has designed a $1,500 US Fendi purse that can fit a dozen iPods. Burton Snowboards offers the Shield iPod Jacket ($360 US), with a specially designed chest pocket to carry the player and a “SOFTswitch” flexible control pad built into the left sleeve to control it. The pad runs the iPod’s play/pause, forward, reverse and volume functions. “Simply press a button on the sleeve and poof — the song changes. It’s like magic.” Headphone cords tuck inside the jacket’s lining, out of sight, deep inside the mind.

Dr. Michael Bull, a lecturer in media and culture at the University of Sussex in England, is the author of Sounding Out the City: Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life, a book about the social impact of portable sound. (Short answer: headphones + public space = private world.) He has asked thousands of iPod users how, when and why they listen to the devices. “[The iPod] is the 21st century’s first cultural icon,” Bull says. “It’s very much like the Walkman in that regard. Everyone says ‘Walkman’ rather than ‘personal stereo’ for a reason.”

The future of portable sound splits into two hemispheres: Apple versus everyone else. Apple is winning.