I’ll always keep my first MP3 player.

I'll always keep my first MP3 player.

The iRiver iHP-120: A Nostalgic Journey Through the Golden Age of MP3 Players

Remember the days when MP3 players were all the rage? Before smartphones dominated the market, there was a time when carrying your favorite music in your pocket was a novelty. For some, the pinnacle of portable music was the iPod, with its sleek design and intuitive interface. But for a select few, the iRiver iHP-120 was the ultimate MP3 player of choice.

It was the spring of 2004, and I found myself parting ways with my beloved drum set in order to join the MP3 player revolution. Instead of opting for the trendy iPod, I took a different route and shelled out $330 for the iRiver iHP-120. Despite its clunky name, this brick-like device was a rugged and feature-packed alternative to the iPod.

While the iPod boasted a simple, minimalist aesthetic, the iHP-120 stood out with its black exterior, silver rails, and visible screws. It felt substantial in your hands, like a classic piece of machinery. And the features! Oh boy, did it have features. From a 1.8-inch 20GB spinning hard drive to a joystick on the front, this MP3 player had it all.

But that was just the beginning. The iHP-120 came equipped with an FM radio, an equalizer button, and a 3.5mm headphone jack, as well as optical/analog combo jacks for line-in and line-out. This meant that you could share your music with a friend by simply plugging in an extra pair of headphones. The package even included a lapel mic and a wired remote, complete with an LCD screen and three control dials, allowing you to control the player while keeping it safely tucked away in your backpack.

Sure, it may have been a tad excessive with all its accessories, and some features, like the remote and optical ports, were rarely utilized. But overall, the iHP-120 was a workhorse. It supported not only the popular MP3 format but also lossless FLAC and Ogg Vorbis, catering to audiophiles who craved the highest audio quality. It was more than just a music player; it became an essential tool for recording interviews and sharing scandalous stories with friends (with their consent, of course).

The iHP-120 found its place in the hearts of many, serving as a vessel for hours of musical enjoyment and a means of transferring files between library computers and dorm room desktops. It became a symbol of our musical tastes before the era of streaming services, where meticulously curated playlists coexisted with illegally downloaded tracks from questionable sources.

To protect this beloved device, users adorned it with gummy cases and belt clips. Online forums dedicated to the iHP-120 emerged, connecting enthusiasts who shared tips, tricks, and firmware upgrades. Some even went so far as to replace the device’s hard drive with CompactFlash card adapters, a nod to the dedicated community that thrived around this iconic MP3 player.

As time went on, the iHP-120 began to fade into obscurity. Enhanced smartphones with sliding keyboards and eventually iPhones took center stage, rendering the once-revolutionary MP3 player obsolete. However, those who held onto their iRiver devices continued to find solace in their faithful companions.

For me, the iHP-120 became a time capsule, holding within it the soundtrack of my life during those formative years. The hard drive became a trove of musical memories, containing everything from my favorite albums and mashups to recorded interviews and essays. It reminded me of a time when physical media was an integral part of our lives, with tangible cassette tapes, CDs, and DVDs acting as gatekeepers to our entertainment. In high school, portable CD players and enormous binders filled with discs were our musical lifelines.

Today, the landscape has drastically changed. Scarcity, a concept so familiar to those of us who grew up without streaming services, is foreign to the younger generation. The iHP-120 serves as a reminder of the overabundance we now take for granted. My kids, brought up in the digital age, have little interaction with physical media, making it challenging for them to comprehend a time when access to content was limited by physical ownership.

Recently, I stumbled upon my old iRiver iHP-120 buried in a drawer. As I turned it on, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia. It worked fine, but to my dismay, all the files were missing. I felt a strange sadness until I discovered the “rebuild database” option in the menu. With just a click, it miraculously found a thousand files in the recycle bin. Nothing had been lost; everything was there, just waiting to be rediscovered.

The iRiver iHP-120 may no longer be at the forefront of technology, but its impact on the MP3 player industry and its faithful users cannot be understated. It was a symbol of a bygone era, when the world of portable music was still evolving, and the possibilities seemed endless. So, here’s to you, iHP-120, for being a companion that not only provided endless hours of joy but also preserved cherished memories of a time when the world was a little bit different.

iRiver iHP-120

Photography by Nathan Edwards / The ENBLE