Sound Off – A History of HitClips and Other Classic Portables

Remember HitClips? Even if this portable audio device wasn’t your thing, you probably had a Discman, Mini Disc, or MP3 compact disc (CD) player. While tiny digital devices able to store thousands of songs are now the norm, it’s worth listening to a little bit of history — audio technology has come a long way in the last twenty years.

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Discman

CDs have a place in audio annals for breaking the digital barrier. Their predecessor, the cassette tape, used magnetic strips for recording; CDs were the first mass-market music technology to rely on optical storage, and Sony’s Discman stands out as one of the best-known examples of portable audio.

The Discman got its start in 1984 after Sony scaled down the size and power consumption of portable audio devices — the first model was meant to be no taller than four CD cases high and half the cost of a full-sized home player. Portable CD player sales quickly became a battlefield as other tech companies picked up on the Discman concept, and CD production skyrocketed.

MiniDisc

In 1992, Sony tried to up the ante with the MiniDisc, a smaller alternative to the CD meant to compete with Phillips’ Digital Compact Cassette (DCC). While the system used a form of linear PCM (pulse-code modulation) digital recording to give audio quality similar to CDs and the 2004 Hi-MD improvement let users store up to 45 hours of music, the device saw limited adoption worldwide and was finally discontinued in March 2013.

HitClips

There were few other electronic devices so desired as HitClips in the early part of the new millennium. Created by Tiger Electronics, these tiny digital audio players played one minute long, low-fi clips of pop songs. Combined with high-gear promotion from big players like Disney, McDonald’s, and Lunchables, these clip-on players were a kind of status symbol for teen and tween kids. Though eventually sunk because of limited music selection and the burgeoning MP3 market, HitClips are still remembered fondly by a generation — and represent an evolutionary link between cassette singles and the ubiquitous MP3 player.

The MP3 CD

MPEG-1 (or -2) Audio Layer III files, more commonly known as MP3s, currently represent the bulk of audio files — from songs to ringtones to music used by smartphone apps and games. The MP3 CD was an effort to bridge the gap between the ultra-small file size of MP3s and dominance of CD technology in the portable market. By storing songs in MP3 format, CDs didn’t have to continuously spin to play, and since songs were buffered by random-access memory (RAM), dreaded “CD skipping” became largely a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the MP3 CD also faded quickly into history, replaced instead by smaller, sleeker players with built-in storage. These, in turn, gave way to smartphones, and the CD quietly faded away, still occasionally used but mostly ignored.

Your Discman, MiniDisc, or HitClips player won’t be getting an upgrade anytime soon, but it’s worth remembering the history of portable audio and its impact on the present — and hang on to your Apple iPhone, Samsung Galaxy, or Blackberry; someday, it may be a piece of nostalgia.