Buds, Beats, in-ear, on-ear – there’s a style of headphone out there to suit everyone. But did you know that the history of headphone can be traced back to as early as 1881? Long before everyone was listening to their favourite songs on the Sony Walkman or the Apple iPod, the world’s first headphones were used by telephone operators and weighed an astonishing ten pounds.
To put that into perspective, that’s over ten times the weight of Dr Dre’s Beats range of headphones. So how did the humble headphones develop? And how did they become essential items used by music-lovers on every corner of the globe? Here’s a brief history of headphones, from the 1880s to today.
Back in 1881, headphones weren’t intended for music, but rather used by telephone operators. These heavy, bulky items consisted of a single earpiece and rested on the shoulder. During the following decade, the Electrophone system made it easier for people to listen to music from their own home. Just like with any new technology, these headphones were extremely expensive and only used by the rich and powerful. Similar in appearance to a doctor’s stethoscope, the Electrophone headphones may seem unrecognisable today but were a major trend at the turn of the 20th century, and involved people signing up for a subscription service to listen to their favourite music. The Electrophone switch-operator would connect the user to which theatre that they wanted to listen to, for example the Royal Opera House in Convent Garden, London.
Early 20th century
The first modern headphones were manufactured by Nathaniel Baldwin in 1910. These consisted of the “can” design that you still see today, and were made in his own kitchen before being sold to the U.S. Navy. However, despite shifting as many as 200,000 units per year by the early 1920s, Baldwin ignored the Navy’s advice and never patented the design.
It wasn’t until the 1930s until the first dynamic headphones were released on the market. Beyerdynamic’s DT-48s are credited as being the world’s first headphones to use the dynamic design, and were released in 1937. It would be another few decades before advancements in technology saw the creation of the headphones that we enjoy today, but it’s clear that the DT-48s revolutionised the way people listen to music.
Post-World War II
After World War II, the K120s were manufactured by AKG – a company who have previously been selling film equipment. These headphones were an instant success, leading the company to focus their business operations solely on audio equipment instead. Further developments in audio technology continued into the 1950s, with the first stereo headphones being created in 1958.
The Koss SP-3 headphones were developed by John C. Koss and marked a radical improvement in quality of sound. These stereo headphones remained popular for the next few decades, although only a year later the world’s first electrostatic headphones made their debut in Tokyo. It would be another ten years before these type of headphones would be made in the United States. Again, it was Koss that popularised the design – even though the headphones weighed a hefty two pounds.
Koss introduced various earphone designs in the 1960s as turntables and rock ‘n’ roll became popular. In fact, the Beatlesphones – manufactured by the company and featuring images of The Fab Four – sold out instantly around the world. To this day the Beatlesphones remain among the most sought-after pieces of Beatles memorabilia.
Onkyo, Philips, and Sennheiser would introduce their own headphone designs in the 1960s, with the latter manufacturing the HD 414 – the first open headphones in the world. 100,000 units of these headphones were sold by the end of the decade, popular in part because of their lightweight design.
The 1970s and 1980s
The Sony Walkman completely changed the way people listened to their music in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1979, portable headphones were included with the Walkman, and provided people with a way to listen to cassette tapes when they were out and about. The MDL-3L2 headphones became a huge seller, and soon other companies began to develop the portable headphones that we know and love today. The earbud earphone was introduced in the 1980s – a design that wouldn’t really take off until the popularity of the iPod twenty years later…
When the first iPod was released in 2001, the way people listened to music changed again. Just like the Sony Walkman was a game changer in the late 1970s, the iPod made earphone fashionable again. These earbud earphones still allowed you to style your hair without having to worry about it being flattened by bulky headphones, and differed from the black earphones (that were popular in the 70s, 80s, and 90s), by being white in design.
Over 300 million iPods (with earphones) have been sold since 2001, and the same design has been used for all Apple products include the iPhone and iPad. The popularity of earphones led to a plethora of unique designs that were manufactured by other companies, including earphone buds that featured cartoon characters, logos, and personalised designs.
Beats by Dr. Dre
When Jimmy Iovine and rap star Dr. Dre worked together in 2008, little did anyone know the traditional headphone design would soon be favoured by many over the modern earphone style. Beats by Dre provided enhanced sound quality and deep bass, and soon became must-have items. Commercials featuring the biggest sports and music stars wearing Beats soon appeared, and in 2014 it was estimated that Dr. Dre’s net worth stood at $500 million, making him one of the richest musicians in the world.
In 2012, the rapper Lil’ Wayne wore a pair of Beats headphones worth $1 million. Part of the success of Beats has been the various designs on offer – including Lamborghini Orange and Leopard Print – as well as a number of limited edition styles.
Now headphones have become much more than just listening to music. In fact, several of the world’s biggest cellphone manufacturers have created headphones that can control various settings on a mobile phone – ideal when a handset is in your pocket. You can now turn up and down the volume of your music, start a phone call, or activate take a picture with your cellphone just by pressing the controls or sensors on your earphones.
For a more comprehensive headphones history you can watch our interactive version of this infographic.