The History of Headphones

Surprisingly, not everyone wants to hear our music. When we were pumping our LCD Soundsystem mixtape, others in the office said they couldn’t “concentrate” and they “wished we were fired.” For this, and for many other reasons, headphones are an absolute necessity in our daily lives. It was long before Steve Jobs produced white earbuds and Dr. Dre jumped in the game, however, that people began getting tunes pumped into their ear canal. Here’s basically how it all went down.

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1881 – Way before MP3s, dubstep and premium Spotify accounts, headphones had little to do with music at all. Back in the 1880’s, the first headphones (or at least their early ancestors) were used by telephone operators. It was a single earpiece that rested on the user’s shoulder and weighed over 10 pounds (kinda like placing a boombox on your shoulder). Source




1895 – Thanks to the Electrophone system, in 1895 folks could start rocking out to the sick beats of the local opera house from the comfort of their own home. Subscribers to the pricey service would listen through headphones that looked more like stethoscopes than a modern offerings as very large people produced very big sound on a stage miles away. Source




1910 – Nathaniel Baldwin began manufacturing the first modern headphones. He crafted them in his kitchen and sold them all to the U.S. Navy. This was the first time a pair of cans resembled something you’d see today. Baldwin never patented them, however, because he was an idiot. Source




1937 – The DT-48’s from Beyerdynamic became the first dynamic headphones to hit the market. Though it would be a few decades before electrostatic headphones came into play, this was obviously a huge leap forward in the can story. Dynamic headphones are, to this day, the most popular type on the market. Source




1949 – With design in mind, AKG produced their first pair of headphones, the K120’s. If they were reproduced today, they would sell like hotcakes at Urban Outfitters. This model, and other more popular ones that followed, were enough to make AKG quit the film equipment business and focus just on audio. Source




1958 – John C. Koss changed the headphone game in a way that would make Dr. Dre jealous. In 1958, Koss created the first stereo headphones (Koss SP-3) and launched an all out assault on awaiting ear canals. Over the next few decades, Koss would come to dominate the headphone industry, and he would do it all without the need for a pesky college education. Source




1959 – At a show in Tokyo, Stax debuted the world’s first ever electrostatic pair of headphones. The SR-1’s would go into production a year later. They are now extremely rare like an original pair of Nike Air Mag’s or a headphone user without hearing loss. Source




1968 – A decade after introducing the first stereo headphones, Koss unleashed the first US made electrostatic model. The ESP-6’s clocked in at around two pounds, meaning they weren’t exactly like putting in a pair of earbuds, but were still a long ways from the massive pieces created less than a century before. Source




1979 – If you had to pick the most important event in headphone history, you’d be hard-pressed not to choose Sony dropping the Walkman. All of a sudden, headphones had to be portable. Included with the purchase of the first Walkman were Sony’s MDL-3L2 headphones and everything you needed to rock out to London Calling while roller skating in your driveway. Source




1980’s – For the man who was prone to headphone hair, the 80’s offered the first solutions. Both the earbud and the in-ear headphone made their way onto the scene in the 80’s even though they wouldn’t reach their peak in popularity until one Steven Paul Jobs changed the music game years later. Source




1997 – If you wanted to keep your hair in check but also hated the fact that earbuds couldn’t isolate sound well, Sony thought you might like a pair of neckband headphones. You didn’t. Source




2000 – Screaming babies and loud snorers met their match when Bose unveiled their QuietComfort line. Though pilots had been using noise-cancelling technology for decades, now passengers could also get some relief on loud flights (or in front of the TV with a nagging spouse). Source




2001 – The iPod changed up the whole music universe. It became common to see people with a white cord running from their pocket to their ears multiple times a day. From their inception in 2001 to today, over 300 million iPods have been sold all with the accompanying pair of earbuds. Source




2008 – Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine joined forces and, along with Monster, created Beats by Dre headphones. Designed with deep bass and great sound quality in mind (this is debatable), the Beats line quickly grabbed a large market share and could be seen on just about every NBA player as they walked from the bus to the locker room. Source




2012 – Headphones have become as much about style as they are sound quality. This may never have been more relevant than when Lil Wayne wore these $1 million dollar pair of Beats. Source

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  • http://www.headphone.ph Melvin

    Well, it turns out those old headphones still look sexier than some of the modern headphones!

  • SavSci

    Only mentioning ipod and beats by dre in all of the 2000′s leaves the reader with a feeling of doom. They may be popular but they illustrate marketing development rather than technological development. Headphones are getting better, lighter, and cheaper, as long as you don’t buy one of those.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kristopher.spencer Kristopher Spencer

    Interesting that headphones after getting smaller and smaller have become large again and look not unlike models from the ’40s and ’50s. I suppose you could say there is a similar trend with mobile phones — they once were enormous, gradually got smaller, and now are getting getting larger again thanks to tablet-smartphone hybrids.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000781215794 Eric Marshall Schoonmaker

    So there is no way the 1895 picture is accurate. Zena Dare was born in 1887, so she’d be 7 in that pic. Looking at the source I can see it’s from a good bit later as well. Where did 1895 come from?

  • Terry Dupuy

    Take it from an audio professional, Sony MDR-7506′s ARE THE PROFESSIONAL STANDARD! Go into 90% of recording studios, and these are what you will find.