A Brief History of the World’s First Headphones
Headphones have become an essential part of our lifestyle, that we use them to listen to music, watch movies, or take phone calls. We never notice the history of the world’s first headphones. When and how did they invent it? You must be curious about this, too, right? So, today we will explore in detail the world’s first headphones, including their pioneers, technology, and cultural impact.
Year of the world’s first headphones
1881 – 10 pounds headphones
Before the advent of MP3s, dubstep, and premium Spotify subscriptions, headphones were not primarily associated with music.
In the 1880s, the initial use of headphones was by telephone operators. These were cumbersome single earpieces on the user’s shoulder and weighed more than 10 pounds.
1890 – The beginning
The origin of headphones can be traced back to phone operators who used bulky single earpieces that rested on their shoulders and weighed more than 10 pounds.
Later on, the Electrophone was introduced in Britain in the 1890s. This subscription service, which costs £5 per year, enabled users to connect to a switchboard and listen to live performances from theaters throughout London.
In 1895, the Electrophone system enabled people to enjoy the music from their local opera house while staying in the comfort of their own homes.
Customers who subscribed to this expensive service would listen through headphones resembling stethoscopes rather than modern ones. This was because the performers on the stage, located miles away, produced a very loud sound.
1910 – The Navy
In 1910, Nathaniel Baldwin, an engineer, created the first pair of audio headphones that resembled modern-day couples. He made them at his kitchen table.
When the Navy ordered 100 pairs, they were unaware that Baldwin was handcrafting each one.
In 1937, Beyerdynamic (yes, the same company) created the first headphones specifically designed for personal listening, marking a significant development a decade or two after Nathaniel Baldwin’s invention.
Before this, headphones were primarily used by the military.
Beyerdynamic’s DT-48 was a basic on-ear headphone model featuring a thin metal headband and two cables connected to each earcup.
In 1939, in Austria, AKG created the K-120 headphone model.
The K-120 was stylish and had excellent sound quality, making it a popular choice among customers. Notably, this was the first instance where the appearance of headphones became a significant factor to consider when selecting a model.
In 1949, AKG introduced its first headphones, the K120’s, focusing on design.
If these headphones were recreated today, they would likely be a hit at stores like Urban Outfitters.
The success of the K120’s and subsequent popular models was significant enough for AKG to discontinue its film equipment business and concentrate solely on audio products.
1958 – Stereo
John Koss revolutionized the headphone industry in 1958 by introducing the first stereo headphones, the Koss SP-3.
The initial versions of the headphones were made by covering mini speakers with cardboard and sofa foam, but they made a significant impact nonetheless.
Unlike other headphones primarily designed for radio communication equipment and aviation hardware, Koss, a jazz enthusiast, created the SP-3 headphones exclusively for music-listening purposes.
In 1959, Stax unveiled the world’s first-ever electrostatic headphones at a show in Tokyo, Japan. These headphones, called the SR-1’s, entered production a year later.
During the 1960s and 70s, Koss established dominance in the US headphone market. This era saw the rise of youth-centric music genres such as rock and roll, which sparked a surge of interest in music consumption.
Koss continued to innovate in the late 1960s by releasing the first US-made electrostatic headphones, a decade after introducing the first stereo headphones.
The ESP-6’s, which weighed around two pounds, was not as bulky as earlier headphone models but still far from the lightweight earbuds we use today.
Sony revolutionized the headphone industry by making headphones portable by introducing the Walkman, a cassette player that sold over 400 million units.
Although the Walkman is now considered outdated, the culture it inspired – the ability to listen to music anytime and anywhere – has become more popular.
The 1980s brought solutions for those concerned about “headphone hair.” This era saw the emergence of earbuds and in-ear headphones, which weren’t widely popular until Steve Jobs transformed the music industry several years later.
In 1989, Dr. Amar Bose invented Noise Cancelling headphones, which were immediately acquired for in-cabin pilots. These pilots were exposed to extended periods of engine noise, which could lead to health issues such as deafness. Bose’s headphones helped prevent this occupational hazard during flights by canceling the noise.
In 1997, Sony introduced neckband headphones. Although MP3 players had already existed for some time, the introduction of the iPod by Apple in the early 2000s made portable digital music a mainstream phenomenon.
The company’s clever marketing and colorful commercials featuring ubiquitous white Apple-wired earbuds resulted in hundreds of millions of people adopting the device. This a potential solution for those who disliked earbuds and wanted to keep their hair in place while enjoying better sound isolation. However, the product could have impressed consumers.
In addition to pilots, Noise Cancelling headphones became popular among frequent travelers, including train and air commuters. In 2000, Bose introduced the Quiet Comfort series QC1 for commercial use, quickly becoming a legend in the industry.
2001 – iPod / MP3 Players
Although MP3 players had already existed for some time, the introduction of the iPod by Apple in the early 2000s made portable digital music a mainstream phenomenon. The company’s clever marketing and colorful commercials featuring ubiquitous white Apple-wired earbuds resulted in hundreds of millions of people adopting the device.
Val Kolton launched V-MODA in 2004, catering to DJs and musicians who desired a deep bass in their music. The brand offered high-quality audio, stylish durability, and a flashy design that perfectly suited the glamorous lifestyle of a DJ.
Brands like Beats, UrbanEars, and Skullcandy made headphones a fashion statement with their colorful designs and high prices. Therefore, several celebrities became affiliated with headphone brands, earning significant money through acquisitions.
The emergence of hip-hop and rap culture made headphones a symbol of coolness. In the professional audio scene, brands like Shure, Beyerdynamic, and AKG were prominent.
As the demand for high-quality audio increased after 2011, other Hi-Fi and professional audio brands updated their older models with a nostalgic appeal. They also introduced new headphones that catered to music enthusiasts, especially those who enjoyed bass-heavy music.
In 2012, the importance of style in headphones became as significant as sound quality. This was highlighted by Lil Wayne‘s donning of a $1 million pair of Beats headphones.
The launch of LSTN marked a significant step in the headphone industry as it became the first company to donate its proceeds to social causes.
Since its inception, LSTN has partnered with the non-profit organization Starkey Hearing Foundation and has helped over 30,000 individuals to hear for the first time.
In 2015, Japanese company Onkyo debuted the W800 BT, the world’s first wireless in-ear headphones, at the IFA Show in Berlin.
As a result, companies previously known for manufacturing loudspeakers and entering the headphone market jumped on board to make their wireless earbuds.
Apple’s latest Airpods is a modern evolution of headphone design, featuring two white AirPods with attached tubes that dangle like periscopes. Unlike the iconic iPod earbuds of 2001, the Airpods are tetherless and use a white box for storage and charging, with their sleek design and Bluetooth technology. The AirPods will do for Bluetooth earpieces what Apple did for 1990’s nameless earpads.
While traditional headphone shapes remain popular, headphones have become significant in today’s open-office work environments. Headphones now serve the need for privacy and signal that the wearer is busy. The world has become more crowded, and headphones remain a crucial modern mediator of public and private spaces. Headphones are a vital part of everyday communication, whether classic or contemporary.
Technology advancements and changing consumer preferences have shaped the evolution of headphones over a century. We would love to hear from you about what you found most. And fascinating about the history of the world’s first headphones. Please share in the comments if there are any significant developments or milestones that we may have overlooked. Additionally, feel free to share your bold predictions about headphones.