Headphones: A History of the Original Wearable Tech
It is almost certain that right now that you have a pair of headphones somewhere nearby. You might even be wearing them 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.
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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 actually changed all that much.
Here we explore, briefly, some of the major milestones in the evolution of these now ubiquitous gadgets.
Proto-headphones were more like a shoulder-mounted boombox
The history and development of headphones started out back in the 1800s. One of the headphones' earliest ancestors was used by telephone operators.
Consisting of a single earpiece that rested on the operator's shoulder, the device was far from convenient. A single unit weighed in at around 10 pounds (4.5 kg), about the weight of a 1980s boombox.
It was invented by Ezra Gilliland, who was also responsible for the telephone switchboard and the magneto bell, and was designed to allow telephone operators to work hands-free and more efficiently -- in theory, at least.
Gilliland was a close friend of Thomas Edison, and built the first telephone exchange in Indianapolis in the 1870s.
A very early version of earbuds was patented by a French engineer
One of the earliest steps on the road to the modern pair of headphones was actually accomplished by French engineer Ernest Mercadier, who patented a set of in-ear headphones in the early 1890s.
He was awarded U.S. Patent No. 454,138 for, "improvements in telephone-receivers…which shall be light enough to be carried while in use on the head of the operator.” After some serious testing and refinement, Mercadier was finally able to produce miniature receivers that weighed less than 1 3/4 ounces (about 50 grams).
These receivers were even designed to be inserted into the user's ears. Given the time, this was an incredible feat of miniaturization and something that wouldn't be seen again until the development of earbud headphones.
Amazingly, Mercadier's earphones even had a rubber cover, “to lessen the friction against the orifice of the ear… effectually close the ear to external sounds.”
The electrophone was an early, but important, step
While not quite what we would think of today as headphones, 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.
The electrophone operated for about 30 years and was ultimately supplanted in the 1920s by the rise of radio technology.
It was essentially the same idea as today's headphones. It consisted of a pair of receivers on a stick, which you put over your ears, and you could listen to music on demand-ish, like an old-school Apple Music; you even paid a subscription fee (roughly £5 a year - a huge amount at the time).
In 1906, according to a full-page advertisement in a London telephone directory, there were 14 theaters which subscribers could listen in 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 proved popular.
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 by 1924, the Electrophone Company had lost around half of its subscribers. The company went out of business in 1925.
Nathanial Baldwin and his naval headphones
While the electrophone was gaining in popularity on the other side of the Atlantic, Nathaniel Baldwin was sitting at his kitchen table in Utah in 1910, tinkering with coiled copper wiring. Using more than a mile (1.6 km) of wire 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 bought dozens of 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. They included the German firm Beyerdynamic, which produced the first dynamic consumer headphones in 1937.
German pilots were some of the first people to experience stereophonic sound
An interesting development in the story of modern headphones was the fact that German pilots in WW2 may have been the first to experience stereophonic sound through headphones.
The book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, written by Friedrich Kittler, describes the innovative radar system used by the German Airforce during World War II. This system allowed headphone-wearing pilots to reach their destinations, and bombers to accurately drop payloads without visually seeing their targets.
“Radio beams emitted from the coast facing Britain…formed the sides of an ethereal trailing the apex of which was located precisely above the targeted city. The right transmitter beamed a continuous series of Morse dashes into the pilot’s right headphone, while the left transmitter beamed equally continuous series of Morse dots–always exactly in between the dashes–into the left headphone.
As a result, any deviation from the assigned course results in the most beautiful ping-pong stereophony.”
Whenever Luftwaffe pilots reached their intended target, the two signals would merge and produce a continuous tone. As Kittler writes, “Historically, [the pilot] had become the first consumer of a headphone stereophony that today controls us all.”
A few years after the war, AKG produced its first pair of headphones, called K120s. Built with design in mind, this model would prove to be incredibly popular and was enough to make the company shift focus from film equipment to audio gear.
The next major leap came in 1958, however, when inventor John Koss invented the first pair of true stereo headphones -- The Koss SP-3.
Early models consisted of mini-speakers covered in cardboard and sofa foam, but they had an immediate impact on the world.
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 started a marketing trend geared toward the younger music-listening audience rather than older audiophiles.
Just prior to this, in the late-1950s, a company called Stax debuted the world's first-ever pair of electrostatic headphones. Called SR-1, they would go into production at the beginning of the 1960s.
From Sennheiser to Sony to Bose to the iPod
By the end of the 60s, Koss had a number of competitors in the headphone market. Companies like Philips were starting to put out more affordable headphones, but it was the Sennheiser HD414 that ushered in the next major revolution in headphones. Jettisoning the thick foam cup, the Sennheiser HD414 headphones using an open design, making them lighter and much less bulky.
They were an instant hit, selling more than 100,000 units in 1969, and their design became the default for headphones 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 blockbuster success of the Walkman--and later the CD-playing Discman--to fill the gap.
The 1980s saw the invention, well re-invention really, of the earbud. This decade also saw the emergence of the in-ear headphone.
While innovative, they would not really make much of an impact until the work of Steve Jobs.
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. So he developed a way to cancel outside noise.
Noise-canceling headphones were about to become a thing.
Originally marketed for use by pilots, instead of consumers, the technology eventually made its way to the consumer electronics market with the Bose QuietComfort headphones in 2000.
Steve Jobs and Apple make their mark on headphone history
Then there was the iPod.
Apple didn't invent the earbuds--they'd been around since the earliest days of headphones -- 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.
Bluetooth headphones were a major advancement in headphone technology
In another major development, a century after they were invented, headphones went wireless with the introduction of Bluetooth technology.
One of the first consumer Bluetooth headphones was actually released in the late-1990s. It was a hands-free mobile headset that earned the "Best of show Technology Award" at COMDEX shortly after its release.
At the turn of the Millenium, the first mobile phones with Bluetooth technology came onto the market, and a plethora of aftermarket Bluetooth headphone devices, like the Ericsson T39, began to appear, too.
Towards the mid-2000s, Bluetooth stereophonic headphones also made their debut. But it would take until the early 2010s for them to become widely popular, and truly viable alternatives to more traditional headphones.
Bluetooth headphones are now almost as ubiquitous as regular headphones today. But truly wireless earbuds – those without any wires connecting them – are still a relatively new technology.
Bragi’s Dash were some of the first to emerge, but these struggled to maintain a constant connection between the two earbuds. It wasn’t until 2016, when Bragi’s The Headphone, Jabra’s Elite Sport, and Apple’s AirPods came along, that the technology actually worked the way it was supposed to.
Since then, many aftermarket manufactures have jumped on the bandwagon, and you can now pick up a fairly decent pair for a price that won't break the bank. Although that doesn't necessarily guarantee their quality of build, sound, or longevity.
Some new developments, especially from Apple, are also refining Bluetooth earbuds to include noise-cancellation technology.
Whatever the case, Bluetooth earbuds are here to stay and are likely going to dominate the market in the not too distant future. For better or worse.
What could the future of headphones look like?
As we have seen, headphones have come a very long way since their early days in the late-1800s. Today, the market for them is worth billions of dollars.
With such demand, it is no doubt that manufacturers will be looking for the next "big thing" in the industry. But where could they possibly go from here?
The technology has already made massive leaps in miniaturization, sound quality, noise-cancellation, and wireless connection. What is there left to really improve?
Well, one area would be a move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to headphones or earbuds design. A Seattle-based company called Human Headphones are currently working on a potential market-shaking technology that could define the future of the technology.
In 2018, they launched the first true wireless over-ear smart headphone design. It features a 3-in-1 design that delivers over-the-ear quality, ear-bud convenience, and a powerful Bluetooth speaker.
These headphones claim to provide superior sound quality, capacitive touch controls, on-the-move communication, all-day connectivity, and much more.
“We founded Human to completely redesign both the form and function of modern headphones," said Ben Willis, Co-Founder and Chief Visionary Officer of Human Inc.
“Our goal was to create all-in-one headphones that are compatible with every aspect of a user’s day, whether they’re at home, commuting, or in the office.
“We’re excited to launch Human Headphones and bring customers a one-of-a-kind device equipped with the latest technology to deliver a seamless listening experience from morning to night,” he added.
One of the headphone's most unique qualities is their ability to adapt their physical form to the wearer's ear, rather than enclosing the ears or being jammed inside them. Not only is this more comfortable for the wearer, but it provides, so the manufacturers claim, an audio experience like no other.
“No other headphones adapt to your life the way Human Headphones do,” Willis added. “As such, these devices are poised to change how we interact with and use technology throughout our day on a massive scale."
Whether or not the market and the company's competitors will agree is yet to be seen.
The integration of renewable charging, smart wearable solutions, and innovations in hearing protection is another potential future direction for technology.
It is also quite plausible that the future may well include a custom-fit headphone or earbud design tailored to the unique shape of each consumer's ear, especially as 3D printing continues its penetration into society. But, as they say, time and tide will tell.
But we digress.
Through their long history, headphones have always retained their essential function of helping to deliver 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 are able to deliver music as electrical signals directly to our neurons.
Then, as now, audiophiles will no doubt insist that hi-fi analog headphones are still the only way to go.
Why do we do it, how can we stop it, and who else is at it?