A Brief History of Headphones

Published On April 11, 2016 | Electronics

Headphones: a technology that most of us take for granted. Without them, how many of us wouldn’t make it through a day at the office? This simple technology is a lifesaver and a godsend. They help us kill the boredom of the workday, focus while studying, and allow us to listen to our favorite guilty pleasures, (“Toxic” by Britney Spears, anyone?) without judgment from our peers. Headphones are so pervasive in modern life, but this wasn’t always the case. Let’s give headphones the respect they deserve with a little understanding of their humble beginnings, to the gadget so many of us can’t live without.

Although headphones as we know and love them wouldn’t hit the masses until the 1950s, the existence of headphones dates back to as early as the 1890s with French engineer Ernest Mercadier and a British company called Electrophone. Independent of one another, Mercadier obtained a patent for creating a telephone receiver which could be used while worn on the head. He eventually developed receivers small enough to be placed inside the ear, an early precursor to the modern earbud headphones. Mercadier’s headphones were never intended for listening to music but rather for radio communication and telephone operators. This would change when Electrophone introduced a subscription service for people to listen to live London theater performances in the comfort of their own homes by wearing headphones and dialing into a switchboard.

Despite Electrophone’s revolutionary use of the headphone, it would still be many years before we would be rocking out with our Beats by Dre. Instead, headphones were primarily used as tools by the   military. In 1910, Nathaniel Baldwin sent the U.S. Navy a prototype headset and, when tested by Naval radio operators, they found his headphones to be a huge improvement over previous devices. Baldwin’s headphones were so much better in fact, that the Navy was willing to make due with only receiving ten headsets at a time because Baldwin was building them in his kitchen! The Navy eventually grew tired of the limited production and a factory was built in Utah where Baldwin worked with the Wireless Specialty Apparatus Co. to build some of the first mass-produced headphones.

The real turning point in the history of headphones as we know them, came in 1958, thanks to engineer and musician John Koss. After listening to an early stereo recording with military grade headphones, quite possibly Baldwin’s design, Koss was blown away by the total immersive experience listening to music through headphones provided. He wanted to share this enhanced experience with others, so he created a record player with speaker and headphone jacks. The only problem? There were no commercially available headphones. As a result, Koss developed the Koss SP-3 headphones and the design took off.

With the rise of the Sony Walkman in 1979, headphones were finally able to go mobile and quickly became one of the biggest trends of the 80s. The Walkman was available in wild colors with Sony’s MDR-3L2 headphones to match, sparking a trend in headphones as a fashion accessory. With the invention of MP3 players, the rise of smartphones and Apple earbuds, the Walkman lost favor, but headphones have remained as popular as ever, allowing us to enjoy our favorite music or podcasts anywhere we go.

But no one can talk about the modern history of headphones without mentioning rapper and entrepreneur Dr Dre. In 2008, Dr Dre introduced the world to Monster Beats by Dre, and headphones have never been the same. These headphones were the epitome of comfort, sound quality, and most importantly, style. With a hefty price tag, Monster Beats by Dre became a status symbol and must-have accessory. Beats by Dre started a headphone movement inspiring other artists, including Lady Gaga and Will.i.am, to release their own designs.

Thanks to in part to the success of Beats by Dre, today’s headphones are both fashionable and offer better sound quality then ever before. The V-Moda Crossfade M-100 headphones give users the feeling of listening to a live performance while also looking sharp. These headphones can be customized by changing the shield plate on the earpiece with laser engraving or a three-dimensional design all your own. In addition to fashion forward options, modern headphones are even available in wireless options, like the Plantronics BackBeat Fit, perfect for use while jogging or exercising.

Modern headphones have revolutionized how we consume music and other media, allowing us to be entertained wherever we go, but headphones are also changing the way we listen to music, making it a highly personal and intimate experience and helping us get through the dullest parts of the day. So the next time you put on your headphones, take a minute to appreciate these little marvels.

– By Layla Sundstrom, Contributor @layla_sundstrom

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