20 Dec 2023

25 years of mp3 players

To read this article in German: 25 Jahre mp3-Player - GFU

  • Audio compression technology shaped the media culture
  • Accessories market with growth

25 years ago, at the end of 1998, the first mp3 player was launched in the USA. In Germany, the market launch followed, at the beginning of 1999. Mp3 compression technology not only established a new media culture, but also created new markets.

Initially, the internal storage capacity of these devices was only 32 MB. This was sufficient for around 30 minutes of music or approximately ten tracks, a fraction of today's possibilities. The boom in mp3 players in Germany began in 2003 with 870,000 devices sold. The sales success culminated in 2005 with more than eight million units sold per year. However, nowadays, things a very dfferent. In 2018, the year of mp3's 20th anniversary, only around 500,000 portable audio players were sold. In 2022 it was just around 250,000 units.

This decline is mainly due to the fact that playing mp3 files has long since become a matter of course: a large number of devices - from smartphones to tablet PCs and notebooks to car radios - is capable of playing mp3 files. In addition, streaming music has also gained enormously in importance: non-linear offerings such as podcasts, music streaming platforms and audio libraries are becoming increasingly popular. Online audio usage has increased from 58.3% in 2018 to 69.0% in 2022, which equates to 7.8 million new online audio users*.

The enormous spread of mp3 playback in many product areas is also ensuring the successful development of other market segments: for example, sales of headphones have risen continuously in recent years to more than 16 million units in 2022. The Society for the Promotion of Consumer Electronics in Germany, gfu forecasts sales of 16.5 million units (+ 1.8%) and revenue of EUR 1.4 billion (+ 6.8%) for 2023. Bluetooth speakers have also recorded growth over many years. This peaked in 2019 with more than five million units. In 2022, just under three million units (- 8.9%) were still sold.

The market success of mp3 was preceded by extensive technological and fundamental development. The "MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3" standard (mp3 for short) for data reduction of digital audio data was largely developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS in Erlangen. In 1994, scientists at the institute presented the first prototype of an mp3 player. This was the world's first music player without moving parts.

mp3 reduces the data volume of an audio file, i.e. of digital pieces of music. The process recognizes the signals audible to humans and stores them preferentially. This makes the file significantly smaller without any audible loss of quality and is only around a tenth of its original size. On the one hand, this enables extremely compact storage of audio data. On the other hand, mp3 laid the foundation for the transmission of data on the Internet or via digital broadcasting - and thus significantly shaped today's media culture.

For Fraunhofer IIS, the worldwide triumph of mp3 was a huge success. Substantial revenues flowed into the further development of audio technologies and made the institute the world's largest research team with over 500 employees in the multimedia sector today. Professor Bernhard Grill, Institute Director at Fraunhofer IIS, proudly reports: "Today we call mp3 our first generation of audio codecs, followed by AAC and HE-AAC, which have become just as widespread as mp3. We have now successfully placed the fourth generation of coding processes on the market: when making calls in the 5G network via our Enhanced Voice Service (EVS) codec, you can enjoy crystal-clear sound. The HE-AAC audio codec enables uninterrupted streaming even in the worst reception conditions, which is appreciated by Netflix, Facebook and Apple, for example. For Blue-tooth headphones, our LC3/LC3plus codec sets new standards in robustness, transmission reliability and audio quality. This means that several Fraunhofer technologies are used in every smartphone worldwide."

MP3 is not state of the art anymore, discover at IFA 2024 what is and what might be the next big thing!

*Source: Digitization Report Audio Trends 2022

Photo: Photo of mp3 player from Pixabay

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