I am excited to announce the launch of our latest multimedia project The Evolution of the Headphone. We tell the 120 year history through a combination of text, imagery, music and video, to create a unique immersive experience that is not to be missed. The piece is split into 7 key decades, from 1890s up until the 2010s, each of which saw significant developments in the headphone’s evolution. Check out the full interactive experience by clicking here.
Plug In Your Headphones
To get the most out of it, plug in your headphones or turn up your speakers, as each decade is accompanied musically by an influential song from the era. This feature adds a really interesting aspect to the history, reflecting cultural progress as much as musical developments.
The story starts in the 1890s, with the gigantic stethoscope-like ‘Electrophone’, which allowed the wealthy to connect directly to live theatres and music halls and listen through their telephone connection. This was accessed via a subscription service for £5 a year (£3000 in today’s money!)
The music properly kicks in during the 1920s decade, with a 1925 recording of St Louis Blues accompanying the story of ‘Baldy Phones’, which were crafted in a kitchen workshop and sold initially to the US Navy. The song, performed by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, is considered the first blues record geared towards cross-racial audiences – in a genre which had been almost exclusively black before this.
Scrolling through to the 1950s will get the whole office dancing (unless you did indeed plug your headphones in), as ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenson kicks in – the record widely considered as ‘inventing’ rock ‘n’ roll. This decade introduced both the ‘stick’ headphone popularised in so called ‘record bars’ and the Koss SP3 headphones, the first stereo headphones actually designed for listening to music.
The instantly recognisable beat of Billie Jean kicks in as the 1980s describe the revelation that was the Sony Walkman. The ‘portability’ of music required a lighter headphone, spawning the creation of the lightweight, foam covered MDR-3 headphones which were almost a tenth of other headphones available at the time.
2000s, and enter Apple, with the all-conquering iPod and their iconic white ear-buds which brought the headphone firmly into the fashion genre. iPod really took off thanks to the integration of their iTunes store and a complete music ‘ecosystem’, allowing digital music to be quickly purchased, downloaded and synced across devices.
After Apple officially announced the acquisition of Beats By Dre just the other week (for a cool $3.2billion), the 2010s decade brings us firmly up to speed. There has been much speculation around the acquisition, with many commentators suggesting that Apple were lured not just by Beats’ domination of the premium headphone market, but also by Beats Music, their subscription-only digital streaming service. This final chapter is aptly accompanied by Daft Punk’s smash 2013 hit ‘Get Lucky’, which broke Spotify’s streaming records within a week of its release.
The Evolution Continues
From the subscription-only electrophone in the 1890s, to the subscription-only streaming service freshly acquired by Apple, the evolution has come full circle. It remains to be seen how our listening habits will change as the world becomes increasingly connected, but you’d be a brave man to bet against headphones still being around 120 years from now.
For a more comprehensive headphones history, check out the interactive version now.