The Evolution of
the Headphone

120 Year History

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1890s

Music To Your Ears

In a pre-broadcast age, music was something you experienced live. At the opera house, or the music hall. Not in the home.

The Electrophone changed all that - a distributed audio system that relayed live theatre and music hall shows directly into the home.

For the first time ever, you could sit in your armchair and enjoy operatic performances, live theatre, book readings and even live sermons from churches.

You would do this with the world's first headphones.

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Users would connect to Electrophone via a telephone operator, and listen using large stethoscope like receivers, with the sound collected via rows of microphones installed in theatres in front of the floodlights.

The Electrophone was hardly a mass market product, as a subscription service it cost £5 a year (£3000 in today's money), reaching around 600 subscribers by 1908.

The Electrophone's days were numbered, however, as the expensive wired system would soon be replaced by broadcast radio.

The influence of these early day headphones should not be diminished. They are the reason why-to this day-some members of the older generation refer to radio as 'the wireless'.

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1920s

From the kitchen to the Navy

Fast forward to 1910. Nathaniel Baldwin, an electrical engineer in Utah, had grown increasingly frustrated that he couldn't hear Mormon sermons over the crowd at the Salt Lake Tabernacle.

Working alone in his kitchen, Baldwin designed the earliest predecessor to modern headphones: two sound receivers connected by a headband (apparently containing a mile of coiled copper wiring in each receiver!).

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Despite receiving no commercial interest for his headphones, the US Navy saw the potential benefits of using "Baldy Phones" to receive one-way orders over the noise of artillery fire.

The Navy placed an order for 100 units, which Baldwin fulfilled in batches of 10 still operating out of his kitchen workshop.

Baldwin soon abandoned his kitchen workbench, opening a factory, The Baldwin Radio Company, in 1914. Ever the inventor, he powered the plant with a hydroelectric generator he made out of bicycle wheels and piano wire.

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As broadcast radio took began to take off commercially in the early 1920s, Baldwin sold as many as 200,000 units a year-causing a raft of competitors to suddenly emerge.

Ignoring the Navy's suggestion, Baldin never patented his design, as he considered their invention 'trivial'.

Despite Baldwin's undeniable influence on the evolution of the headphone, some unwise investments and poor fiscal decisions soon led to bankruptcy.

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1930s

A Great Decade for Music

By the time the 1930s rolled around, popular music was beginning to take off.

The 1930s were indeed a great decade for music, with the invention of the electric guitar and the start of the swing era.

In 1937, it also saw the creation of the world's first dynamic headphones, Eugen Beyer's beyerdynamic DT48.

The most impressive thing about Beyer's creation was that he used the same technical principles employed today. Dynamic headphones remain, to this day, the most popular type on the market.

After World War 2 temporarily halted production, Beyer's DT48 headphones went on general release to the public in 1950, and were still being manufactured up until 2012.

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1950s

A New Kind of Sound

The 1950s saw the breakthrough of two significant musical developments: the adoption of vinyl LP records and the creation of rock 'n' roll.

As Elvis entered the building, rock 'n' roll soon took over as the popular genre, with many new records labels emerging to serve the growing market of post-war teenagers with disposable income.

One of the other notable innovations in this era was the 'stick' headphone, which found mass appeal in record stores, revolutionizing the way they did business.

Consumers could walk into one of these so called 'record bars' and listen to the record using the stick headphones.

For the first time ever, music had become tangible before purchase.

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In 1958, the concept of the 'headphone' changed irrevocably, as John Koss released the Koss SP3-the first headphones actually designed for listening to music.

From their roots in Nathaniel Baldwin's kitchen, through the technical innovations developed by Eugen Beyer, the headphone up until this point had primarily been used for radio communications.

The Koss SP3 are considered the first stereo headphones (sound reproduced through two independent audio channels) and their superior sound quality made them the perfect device for listening to music.

With the mainstream adoption of LPs, along with Koss's 'made for music' invention, headphones finally had a purpose for the masses.

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1980s

Walkman

Throughout the 60s and 70s, thanks to ongoing development and standardization, compact cassettes became a widely used medium for the listening of music.

It was not until 1979, however, that Sony changed the face of music forever, with the world's first portable cassette player. Enter the Sony Walkman.

The single most important development in the evolution of the headphone, the Walkman was one of the most successful consumer gadgets of all time-with cumulative sales well over 200 million units.

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To make the Walkman a truly portable device, Sony also developed a pair of lightweight headphones that shipped with the product.

Sony's compact, open air H-AIR "MDR3" headphones were almost a tenth of the weight of those previously available.

Sony's problem when marketing the Walkman was that they needed to convince the public to try this new way to listen to music.

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When presenting the design to his chairman Akio Morita, Sony's co-founder Masaru Ibuka reportedly said, "Try this. Don't you think a stereo cassette player that you can listen to while walking around is a good idea?"

Despite initial skepticism from retailers and public alike, the Walkman recorded unprecedented sales, with the name "Walkman" becoming virtually synonymous with "headphone stereo" products

Over the next decade, Sony's push for innovation led to Walkman stereos and headphones alike getting even smaller and increasingly portable. In 1982 they released the world's first in-ear headphones, the virtually imperceptible MDR-E252 earphones.

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2000s

A Thousand Songs in your Pocket

October 23, 2001; Apple's Steven Paul Jobs presented iPod to the world, and it hasn't been the same again since.

Despite Apple's claim that 'walking around with your entire music library in your pocket' would revolutionize the way music was consumed, the iPod was initially greeted by mixed reactions.

It wasn't until 2003 that Apple started to see big sales, after launching a Windows compatible iPod followed shortly after by the iTunes Store.

The ecosystem that Apple had developed was slick and well integrated, which, pared with their elegant design, set the iPod apart from its competitors.

By the mid-2000s, Apple's simple white earbud headphones had became the fashion status symbol.

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Apple's ear-buds, despite facing consistent criticism for poor sound quality, were shipped with all Apple's phones and music players, amassing over 600 million units sold.

With the release of the iPhone 5 in 2012, Apple relaunched their headphones as the 'ergonomic' Ear Pods.

Through years of ongoing iteration, earphones now also offer volume and playback controls, as well microphones for phone calls and voice control on some devices.

Whilst the Ear Pods still can't match higher end competitors in terms of sound quality, it is difficult to imagine a world where Apple's mobile products (with headphones in tow) aren't ubiquitous.

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2010s

The Fashion Statement

3 billion dollars. That's how much Apple paid to acquire Beats Electronics, the headphone brand developed by rapper Dr Dre and music producer Jimmy Iovine.

Launched in 2008, Beats has gone on to sell $billions and in the process capture over 50% of the premium headphone market.

Whilst often criticized for the quality of sound reproduction, Beats' success has come by establishing their brand as the fashion headphones of choice.

In a time when fashion, music and technology are becoming increasingly intertwined; to wear Beats headphones is to make a fashion statement.

Beats didn't advance the headphone technically. Instead, they changed what it means to wear headphones.

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Central to Beats' marketing strategy was to build brand trust through celebrity endorsements, from P Diddy and Ed Sheeran to Braziliazilian crown prince Neymar.

Beyond this, Beats realized that where their customers 'hang out' is on social media, where they could engage with their fans on mass through interactive channels and interviews with popular artists.

But Apple's acquisition of Beats is about more than just headphones. Beats Music, their established music streaming service, was a huge factor in the acquisition.

Where Beats Music differs from the likes of Spotify and Pandora is that it is subscription only, with no 'free + ads' option.

From opera wired directly from the theatre to the home, to the latest releases streamed digitally to your phone. This evolution takes us full circle.

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