Bring the Noise

The evolution of portable audio

By Matthew McKinnon
Woman listening to music at night
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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? Click on...

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