It is almost certain that right now, you have a pair of headphones nearby; you might even have them on as you read this. From the high-end professional headphones used by major music studios to the knock-off bodega earbuds that only work half the time out of the box--and never last more than a month or two at best--headphones are easily the most ubiquitous piece of consumer technology out there.
Given their continued and essential presence in our lives, it's amazing that they are a surprisingly old technology going back over a century. Early headphones may have been somewhat quaint by today's standard, but the fundamental technology has been around for more than a century now and hasn't changed all that much.
While not quite what we would think of as headphones today, the Electrophone was invented in the 1890s in the United Kingdom. It was a device that allowed the user to dial a switchboard operator who would then patch the user in to live performances and even Sunday church services in London. It operated for about 30 years and was ultimately supplanted by the rise of radio technology in the 1920s.
It was essentially the same idea as headphones are today. You put this silly pair of receivers on a stick over your ears, and you could listen to music on demand-ish, like an old-school Apple Music; you even paid a subscription fee.
In 1906, according to a full-page advertisement in a London telephone directory, there were 14 theaters subscribers could listen in to on any given night, while on Sundays there were 15 different church services they could dial into. The service was tiny by today's metrics, but it was growing in popularity. The Electrophone Company was founded in 1894 and had 50 subscribers by 1896. Its subscriber base had grown to 1000 in 1919, reaching its high watermark in 1923 with just over 2000 subscribers.
By this time, however, wireless radio receivers had taken off and the next year, 1924, the Electrophone Company had lost a thousand subscribers and went out of business in 1925.
Headphones from Nathaniel Baldwin to John Koss
While the Electrophone was gaining in popularity on the other side of the Atlantic, Nathaniel Baldwin was sitting at his kitchen table in 1910 tinkering with coiled copper wiring. Using over a mile of it per earcup, Baldwin had been hoping to find a way to amplify the sound of sermons at his local Mormon temple. He successfully created a device that could receive sound without electricity, and his initial design set the precedent of the earcup design for headphones that we still use today.
Private investors scoffed at the idea at the time, but the US Navy didn't. They instead bought dozens of the new devices for their radio operators, and the invention took off from there.
"The military’s deployment of these headphones, which sailors used to isolate sounds broadcast from distant locations, lent them a more intense, solitary aesthetic than the hand-held Electrophone headset," according to SSense. "An antennae-shaped brass spoke on each earphone, which allowed the headset to be adjusted to various sizes, completed the Jules Verne-esque steampunk look."
Several companies worked on similar devices for the next forty years, including the German firm Bayerdynamic, who produced the first dynamic consumer headphones in 1937. The next major leap came in 1958, however, when inventor John Koss invented the first pair of stereo headphones.
Originally meant to demonstrate the quality of his company's portable record player--which had a nifty private-listening switch--Koss' headphones proved to be incredibly popular just as rock and roll took over the music industry. In the 1960s, Koss cross-branded their newest headphones with the Beatles, creating the Beatlephones which were specifically marketed to a younger audience and starting a marketing trend geared toward the younger music listening audience rather than audiophiles.
From Sennheiser to Sony to Bose to the iPod
By the end of the 60s, Koss wasn't the only game in town anymore when it came to headphones. Companies like Philips were starting to put out more affordable headphones, but it was the Sennheiser HD414 that became the next major revolution in headphones. Jettisoning the thick foam cup, the Sennheiser HD414 headphones were an open design, making them lighter and much less bulky. They were an instant hit, selling over 100,000 units in 1969 and the design became the default headphone design for more than a decade.
Then the Sony Walkman happened. Released in 1979, Sony's portable music player harnessed the same lightweight, open design as the HD414 to create a highly-portable music experience that took the world by storm. While the headphones that came with the Walkman were generally awful sounding, third-party headphone makers cashed-in on the Walkman's--and later the CD-playing Discman's--blockbuster success to fill the gap.
As Sony was launching a new music revolution with the Walkman in 1979, Dr. Amar Bose was inspired by the awful quality of the headphones given to passengers during air travel and developed a way to cancel outside noise. Originally marketed for use by pilots instead of consumers, the technology made its way to the consumer electronics market eventually with the Bose QuietComfort headphones in 2000.
Then there was the iPod.
Apple didn't invent the earbuds--they'd been around since the earliest days of the Walkman--but the decision to go with the earbud design when they launched their new iPod MP3 music player in 2001 solidified the earbud as the de facto headphone design for the next decade. Apple ended up shipping 600 million sets of first-gen earbuds, launching trillions of knock-offs in the process.
What's Old Is New Again and Ditching the Wire
In 2008, Jimmy Iovine and rap legend Andre Young, known to the world as Dr. Dre, partnered to put out a new line of headphones, Beats by Dr. Dre. Designed to bring back the bass-heavy sound of the older headsets for a new rap and hip-hop influenced music scene, the old over-the-ear earcups made a comeback after nearly a generation of confinement to the homes of dedicated audiophiles.
In another major development at the same time, a century after they were invented headphones started going wireless with the introduction of Bluetooth technology.
Through it all though, headphones have still retained their essential function by helping provide the soundtrack to our lives. Technologies tend to come and go, but so long as there is music, headphones will be a part of it right up until brain implants deliver music as electrical signals directly to our neurons. Then as now, future audiophiles will insist that hi-fi analog headphones are still the only way to go.