MP3 players: Remember them? The long-forgotten relic of a pre-smartphone era, from back in the day, when the iPod was Apple’s most recognizable product, and gently thumbing the wheel of the Classic was a tactile odyssey.
Today, Y2K fashion has come rolling back with gusto while wired earphones are making an It Girl revival. MP3 players haven’t quite achieved the same cult status, with only a niche demographic privy to it, so far.
Meet the people toting their portable music players against the barrage of smartphones: students trying to work around classroom regulations on electronic devices, audiophiles on a hunt for superb audio quality, and Type A podcast listeners looking to curate their content consumption. Turns out, there are tons of good reasons why people are still pressing play on their MP3 players.
From Gen Z to retirees, people who still swear by MP3 players told VICE some of their reasons behind the nostalgic choice.
Employee at a games company, United Kingdom
I never really owned an MP3 player as a kid. I sort of missed out on it at that time. But around the age of 16, I started to like a lot of old retro things—from retro computers to retro consoles and music.
I think the appeal of [MP3 players] is the retro style. For instance, I love the style of the 6th Generation iPod Classic—chunky boy with a wheel control—but also its price. The price was the main reason that I got it. I was originally using Spotify, but not only was it really expensive and unaffordable for a kid with no job, it also drained my battery so fast. And the ads—the ads drove me insane. On an MP3 player, you could have any MP3 file. For instance, you could have any song, from any site, be it an official song on Spotify or a fan-made mashup from YouTube, or even audio books. The choices are endless.
Cook, United States
Adam’s MP3 players. Photo: Adam
I have a smartphone but still prefer to use a dedicated device for music and podcasts. Using a dedicated device allows me to more carefully curate the content I’ll be listening to. Apps tend to overwhelm me with unlistened-to episodes of podcasts that I may not want to listen to.
I usually have three to six hours per day to listen to music or podcasts. Most podcasts I listen to are on the longer side, so only two or three usually make it to my ears on any given day. I can pick any that interest me that day to download as MP3 files to load on the player.
Artist, United States
I’ve owned several iPods in the past, including the Classic, and a couple of Nanos. I absolutely adored my 6th Generation Nano—the design was just so freaking cool. That said, I currently actively use the iPod touch and the FiiO M7, and the rest are just for emergencies. Sometimes I feel like Baby Driver with all of these things.
Linda’s MP3 player collection. Photo: Linda
My current employer allows us to listen to music with headphones, but forbids phones (and anything with a camera) on the production floor, so having a non-iPod, non-phone was essential. At home, I like to use one so my music doesn’t get interrupted by notifications or calls. Plus, it’s handy for exercising because I don’t have to use data to stream or only have part of my music collection clogging my phone storage.
I’d much rather run the risk of my player dying on me than my phone. So for me, it really is largely practical. I’m old enough that an MP3 player isn’t really nostalgic for me. That said, a lot of the digital audio players do consider aesthetics, which I really appreciate. The FiiO M7 I have has a metal body with a nice heft to it, nicely defined button controls on the side for skipping tracks or pausing, and—my personal favorite touch—an actual wheel that clicks to control the volume. It’s really nice to have a tactile experience with everything moving to touchscreens.
Software engineer, United States
Prashanth’s old iPod Touch, with a touchscreen that only partially works. Photo: Prashanth
So I am a self-confessed music snob and a bit of an audiophile. Most of the music I listen to are cinematic in nature, so I prefer listening to lossless digital music formats such as FLAC and AAC. Most digital streaming services offer compressed audio and for the longest time, I never had a premium subscription to any of them. So I have always preferred carrying my MP3 player with me, knowing that I will have my music with me even if there is no cellular service around. It was just recently that I got a six-month trial for Apple Music. A lot of their stuff is lossless, and I kind of like it, but I still prefer having my MP3s around, be it on an iPod or on a USB stick.
I’d like to think that for most people who listen to most of today’s “commercial,” “radio-friendly” music, there won’t be a significant reason to go lossless. But if you like stuff like classical, orchestral, or jazz, it is the way to go.
Student, United States
Kyle’s MP3 players. Collage: VICE / Images: Kyle
I have a smartphone but the pros of an MP3 player outweigh the cons of music services. As a student, I have very little extra money, so being able to use the music I already have is a help. I also don’t have to deal with the annoying ads that come with radio and free apps. Most professors will also let you have them out because you can’t look up answers on it, but you can record the lectures and fix your notes later.
The first MP3 player I ever received was a SanDisk Sansa Fuze that I continually repainted as a kid and still works to this day. In the past few years, I’ve been trying some cheap MP3 players to see if I can find a replacement. Currently, I’m using a MYMAHDI M230.
Retired just before the pandemic, Canada
I know I could use the smartphone in my pocket, but I don’t for a couple of reasons: Apple did away with the headphone jack! I find the wired headphones that come with the iPhone very uncomfortable in my ears. I spend a lot of time outside in my avocation as a wildlife photographer and I’m always afraid to use and lose expensive AirPods whilst traipsing through the woods.
I do—or did, grrr COVID—a lot of international travel. Typically, every 18 months I would head overseas for two weeks, mainly London, walking everywhere with my MP3 player going. I get a phone plan for the iPhone but mainly use it for the necessities of travel: looking up info, Google Maps, and texting photos to friends. Even—or especially—when in a foreign city, I need to immerse myself in the culture by listening to the local radio.
Basically, in a nutshell, if I need to look things up I use the iPhone, but for daily entertainment and news on the go, I use the MP3 player radio.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.