Great Inventions: History and Evolution of the Headphone

April 05, 2017

Great Inventions: History and Evolution of the Headphone

Headphones are ubiquitous in contemporary culture. Every street, bus, waiting room, and gym is stock full of people listening to music, podcasts, or audiobooks via portable headphones. 

Given the abundance of headphones in modern society it’s easy to overlook just how amazing this technology is. The small, earbud headphones that most of use daily didn’t evolve overnight. There is a long and storied history of invention, innovation, and marketing genius behind each stage of the headphone’s development.

Let’s take a look at the some of the major breakthroughs and products that led to today’s high-tech noise canceling. How about we begin, well, at the beginning.

First Headphones 

As with many inventions, the use we associate with the headphones today (as a tool for listening to entertainment privately) wasn’t the initial function of the invention.

The first headphones were developed in the 1880’s. They consisted of a single piece positioned over the shoulder and weighed an astonishing 10 pounds. These primordial headphones were used by telephone operators and had no commercial use.

The first modern headphones came onto the scene in 1910. Nathaniel Baldwin invented this product to be used by the U.S. Navy. These were the first headphones to have speakers for both ears and resembled the structure of large portable headphones that we see today in brands. While Baldwin found success selling his headphones to the military, he made the unfortunate oversight of failing to patent his design. Woops!

Stereo Headphones

Over the next forty years we saw a series of further innovations. Most notable of these occurred in 1937 with Beyerdynamic’s DT-48 dynamic headphones, the first-every dynamic headphone, and in 1949 with AKG’s K120 headphone model. The K120’s are super cool in design and resemble something one would expect to find in the Jetsons.

While both of these headphones pushed the limit on what people thought possible at the time, it would not be until 1958 that the next major breakthrough would occur with John C. Koss’ invention of the stereo headphones. Before Koss, all headphones presented mono sound. With stereo, listeners could enjoy the stereo recordings of their favorite rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and doo-wop artists.

Portable Headphones 

When it comes to the most important development in the headphone’s history, there is a strong argument to be made that it’s the Sony Walkman headphones.

But before Sony could drop their audio bombshell on the music listening world, two other innovations, occurring in 1959 and 1968, had to take place.

In 1959, the first ever electrostatic headphones, the SR-1’s, were revealed at a show in Tokyo. Nine years later, Koss (inventor of stereo headphones) unveiled the first US-made electrostatic headphones, called the ESP-6. These headphones were much lighter than all previous models, weighing in at a feather-light 2 pounds! Okay, maybe not feather-light, but a heck of a lot lighter than the first 10-pound ear cans!

According to The Absolute Sound, electrostatic headphones “feature extremely thin, membrane-like diaphragms, to which a conductive coating is applied, with the diaphragms suspended between sets of mesh-like panels called stators.”

After these hugely important developments in electrostatic technology, Sony’s Walkman hit shelves in 1979. The Walkman was the first portable music listening device ever created. It played cassettes and was small enough to fit in a pocket. Given the small size of the Sony Walkman, a corresponding pair of small-sized portable headphones was necessary. Thus, the Sony Walkman contained the smallest pair of headphones ever sold to date. 

Compared to all of the headphones that came before, the Sony Walkman headphones are incredibly compact and modern looking. These headphones truly signaled the genesis of a new age in headphone technology. For years, every headphone that came after the Sony Walkman would use their compact design as an inspiration.

It would be many years before the fundamental design of the Walkman would undergo another major revolution and fall to the pages of history beneath the new king of headphones – the earbuds.

Ear Bud Headphones

Throughout the 80s and 90s we saw another spree of innovations and design modifications, including the earbud, neckband headphones, and noise cancelling headphones.

Noise cancelling headphones, invented by Dr. Amar Bose, were initially created for pilots in the aviation industry who struggled from distraction and deafening noise in airplane cockpits.

While the earbuds and noise cancelling headphones were both popular innovations, it wasn’t until Apple’s iPod that a brand capitalized on the technology and dominated the industry with a combination of progressive technology and marketing genius.

There isn’t much left to be said about Steve Jobs’ iPod that hasn’t already been reiterated a hundredfold. In short, the iPod changed how people listen to music. No longer were people forced to listen to one tape or CD at a time, but they could upload hundreds of digital MP3 files onto one small device and carry it with them wherever they went. Along with the generation-defining iPod device came the iconic all-white earbud headphones.

It'd be hard to walk down a street in contemporary America without spotting someone who doesn’t have a white cord running up from their pocket into their ears.

Beats by Dre 

One of the last major players to innovate and bite off a major chunk of the headphone market was hip-hop producer and rapper Dr. Dre.

Dr. Dre and business partner Jimmy Iovine entered the fray in 2008, dropping their headphone brand Beats by Dre. The world would never be the same.

Beats by Dre ushered in a period of overpriced celebrity-endorsed products whose brand was as important, if not more so, than the actual product.

Beats by Dre are really good headphones with excellent noise-cancellation and bass-heavy sound quality that makes them ideal for hip-hop, dub step, electronica, and other type of dance music. Nevertheless, while the headphones are top quality, they are also extremely overpriced. Lil’ Wayne even purchased a $1 million dollar pair of diamond studded Beats headphones.

The greatest accomplishment of Beats was elevating headphones from a pragmatic tool for listening to audio, to an accessory and fashion item.

Who knows where the headphone will go next….

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