Bring the Noise

The evolution of portable audio

By Matthew McKinnon
Rio PMP300, 1998
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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....

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