Curious about a music player? Well, which one? Many things can be called music players. The things that come to mind include a person who plays music (musician), a musical box that uses pins on a disc, a record player, also known as a gramophone, a tape player that uses tapes magnetic tapes, and a cassette player. If those pique your interest, stay tuned – we might focus on them in the future. In this article, our goal will be primarily on the modern music player types, hardware, and software, in worldwide use nowadays. With that clarified, let’s answer the question – what is a music player?
Software music players
One way to reproduce music is through software. Technically, you still need hardware to achieve this. However, the hardware isn’t dedicated to music or sound reproduction alone – it can be programmed to do so. They typically have two things in common:
- They can open and play a wide variety of file formats, including .mp3, .flac, .ogg, .wav, .wma, .aac, .m4a, .aif, and more. The versatility is their biggest advantage. If a file format is unsupported, this can be changed with the next software update.
- They have media control icons for Play, Pause, Stop, Fastforward, Backforward, and a progress bar that can be interacted with.
We can separate them into three categories:
1. Pre-installed sound players
This software comes already installed in the operating system and requires no effort on your part. For example:
- Media Player came pre-installed in the early Microsoft Windows version. It was later replaced by Windows Media Player.
- QuickTime Player used to be the built-in Mac software for sound, video, animation, and more. The music part was later replaced by the iTunes application. Then, around 2019, iTunes libraries were transferred to the Apple Music app. The app is also a default one for smart devices using iOS.
- On Android, the default app used to be called simply Music. In later years, Google pushed its users to use the pre-installed Google Play Music, then the YouTube Music app.
- On Linux, due to its open-source nature, the sheer number of distributions, and constant visual and code updates, it’s hard to determine a pre-installed app.
2. Third-party music players
Third-party companies and solo developers create these players with different goals. It can be bringing support for new file formats, better visuals, add-ons, file organization, hardware or software acceleration, optimization, and even built-in audio compression. We also wrote about media players for iPad and alternatives to iTunes, if you’re interested. Here’s a quick rundown of popular players for other operating systems:
- VLC Media Player
3. Online audio players
There are many online music players. These can be:
1. Built into the website’s source code, playable without any additional extensions or software
A great example of this is when you want to listen to free radio or need websites to listen to music. Whether free or paid, they allow you to play, stop, fast forward, view tracklists and even create playlists, and all without any installation or configuration.
2. Built into the third-party or pre-installed software
We’ll mention two prominent examples – Spotify and Apple Music. Besides playing local files, both allow you to stream music to your device without downloading it. This ranges from their massive catalog of songs to radio station websites or podcasts hosted elsewhere.
Hardware music players
Second of the types of music players require hardware of various shapes, sizes, and functionality. There are 2 things they have in common:
- They primarily reproduce sound but possess other features
- Older versions required little to no software
- Newer versions rely on the software you either can’t customize or will have trouble doing so
We can split physical music players into two categories:
1. Portable music players
The oldest example that can qualify as a music player is a portable AM/FM radio device. It uses an antenna to catch radio waves, but besides turning it on or off and changing the frequency, you have little control. As technology developed, portable media players transitioned into devices such as Sony Walkman, which initially used cassettes. Then, their portable player started using miniDisc, DAT (digital audio tape), CDs, and finally digital storage as, for example, Sony NW-A55L.
Other examples include Astell & Kern and Pono Hi-Fi (high fidelity) portable players, Cowon Plenue D2, Apple iPod and iPod Touch, FiiO M11 Pro, and many others. Most of them can use internal storage, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi (Wireless Internet) to play music, rather than rely on the audio transfer through the wires.
2. Digital sound systems
You can think of sound systems as portable music players’ older siblings. In the past, you had to connect them to a playback device and relied on a small LCD screen or no screen. This is still the case, although they use a bigger, brighter, and sharper screen. However, you can also control them through a TV, smartphone, computer, digital media system, and use wires, your voice, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi. They usually come with a remote receiver and can play a variety of audio file formats from internal storage. Furthermore, they can recognize audio from external sources such as external HDD, flash drives, and SD cards.
The Future of Music Players
While music players, both in hardware and software form, have made significant strides, the landscape of music consumption continues to evolve. It presents the opportunity for even more advanced music players.
Mostly, there are three key areas where we might see development: AI-powered recommendation systems, immersive audio experiences, and integration with other smart devices. We are going to discuss them one by one.
AI-Powered Recommendation Systems
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has already begun to influence music recommendation systems. For example, Spotify’s ‘Discover Weekly’ and ‘Daily Mix’ playlists are generated using machine learning algorithms that analyze your listening habits and find songs you’re likely to enjoy.
As advancements in AI technology continue, we can anticipate music player software becoming increasingly adept at generating personalized recommendations. The AI-powered systems in the future might consider not only what you’ve listened to in the past but also when and where you were listening, the mood inferred from your recent activity, and more.
Immersive Audio Experiences
One of the trends in the music industry is the advent of immersive audio experiences such as Dolby Atmos Music and Sony 360 Reality Audio.
These technologies use spatial audio to create a three-dimensional listening experience that goes beyond traditional stereo sound. We may see future hardware music players equipped with advanced audio processing capabilities to support these immersive audio formats.
On the software side, music player apps might include support for converting regular audio files into spatial audio, providing an enhanced listening experience even for older music.
Integration with Other Smart Devices
The Internet of Things (IoT) has started to connect everyday objects, and music players are no exception. Smart speakers, such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, serve dual purposes – functioning as music players and control hubs for other smart devices.
Going forward, we may see music players become even more tightly integrated with our digital lives. For example, you might be able to start playing a playlist on your home smart speaker, then seamlessly transition to your phone’s music app when you leave the house.
Music players have come a long way from the days of phonographs and cassette tapes. They are not the same anymore. But, there’s still plenty of room for innovation.
The intersection of AI, immersive audio, and the IoT promises to redefine what music players can do, making them more personalized, immersive, and interconnected than ever before. So, when we ask what a music player is, it is hard to provide a specific answer. Because the answer will likely continue to evolve as technology pushes the boundaries of music consumption.