What Is an MP3 Player?

The iPod isn't the only digital music player

An MP3 player is a portable digital music player that can hold thousands of songs. The most well-known and popular model is the iPod, which launched in 2001 and changed the way people listened to music on the go.

While Apple no longer makes iPods, aside from the iPod touch, a handful of companies continue to sell them, and MP3 players remain a convenient way to listen to tunes while exercising or when you want to disconnect from your smartphone and other screens.

A person holding an MP3 player.

Claudia Rehm, Rech Chopsticks Images / Getty Images

The iPod Music Player

Apple was the top company selling MP3 players before it launched the iPhone in 2007. It had a range of devices, including the iPod classic, iPod Shuffle, iPod Mini, and iPod Nano. The iPod Touch has a touch screen and access to Apple Music, Apple Arcade, and FaceTime

Apple's iPods used iTunes to purchase and sync music and other media. The company replaced iTunes with Apple Music on Macintosh computers and will phase out iTunes on Windows by the end of 2020.

The most well-known companies making them now are SanDisk (maker of flash memory and memory cards) and Sony.

How MP3 Players Work

The name MP3 player stuck, even though many of these devices can play different types of audio files like Windows Media Audio (WMA), Waveform Audio (WAV), and Advanced Audio Coding (AAC). Some models have built-in FM radio.

These players don't need an internet connection to work, though some have built-in Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Most of the time, you need to connect to a computer via a USB cable to transfer songs, albums, and playlists. Players that can access the internet can download and transfer songs wirelessly. Bluetooth-enabled players can connect to wireless headphones and earphones for less risk of tangling wires.

Modern MP3 players have built-in solid-state drives (SSDs) that offer ample storage and have no moving susceptible to movement such as exercise. Early models of MP3 players (including the iPod) had hard drives with moving parts which sometimes caused the music to skip if you jostled it around too vigorously. Some players accept memory cards for extra storage.

Like smartphones, MP3 players use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Since music is their one function, MP3 players tend to have longer battery life than a smartphone. 

MP3 players come in many sizes and shapes; some have clips or armbands so you can attach them to your clothing or body while on the go. Some have water resistance to protect from sweat or even survive a dip in the pool.

Audio Quality and Compression

To enable storage of lots of files, MP3s and other audio files are compressed (lossy), so they take up less space, but at the cost to quality. MP3s can sound tinny compared to CD and vinyl quality. Some MP3 players can play lossless audio files like FLAC or WAV, but you might have to compromise on storage space.