The History of the Headphone

The headphone has a surprisingly long history that began in the late 19th century. Although technology, style and purposes changed greatly in subsequent decades, it has always performed the same basic task. These earpieces let people listen to words or music without disturbing others, and they block out unwanted noise from other sources. However, early equipment was far heavier and much less sophisticated than the headphones of today. It was primarily used for two-way communications. This great interactive on the evolution of the headphone is excellent.


The First Headphones

Operators at telephone companies used large mono headphones during the early 1880s. Their shoulders helped to support the weight of these clunky units. Significantly lighter phone headsets were developed in 1891. A short time later, wealthy individuals began listening to music at home with a service called Electrophone. It was created by a British firm that supplied listeners with live opera and theater broadcasts. The headset consisted of two large earpieces.

The Early 1900s

The headphone’s evolution hasn’t always been directed by big companies. An entrepreneur named Nathaniel Baldwin contacted the U.S. Navy in 1910 and supplied a sample of the communications headset he had invented. Officials were impressed with the product and ordered it after requesting a few improvements. However, they discovered that Baldwin produced the units at home and couldn’t assemble many. A large manufacturer eventually began making Baldwin’s headphones for the military.

The 1930s and ’40s

Dynamic headphones first appeared in 1937. Although it was still monophonic, the Beyerdynamic DT-48 greatly improved the audio quality that a headphone could deliver. Dynamic units remain popular today. Personal audio equipment didn’t make much progress during World War II. In 1949, the popular AKG K-120 headphones were introduced. They were so successful that AKG stopped making film devices; the company devoted all of its efforts to developing and manufacturing audio products.

Stereo Headphones

The world’s first stereophonic headphones came to be in 1958. They were introduced by a venerable audio equipment manufacturer known as Koss. The SP-3 helped it become a top headphone brand. This product’s usefulness was limited by the availability of stereo audio in the late 1950s. The next major development surfaced a year later when the first electrostatic headphones were unveiled in Japan. Koss began manufacturing an equivalent model about nine years later.

The 1960s and ’70s

High-end brands like Sennheiser and Onkyo achieved popularity in the 1960s by selling light, high-quality headsets. Koss cashed in on Beatlemania when it offered a Beatles promotional headphone. The next big development was Sony’s introduction of the MDL-3L2 model in 1979. It came with the Sony Walkman portable tape deck. This lightweight product popularized the use of headphones during travel and outdoor activities. The Walkman remained popular in the 1980s; a wide range of electronics brands introduced similar units.

Recent History

Several new types of headphones appeared during the ’80s. Compact earbuds, neckband and in-ear units became available. Some brands also offered large headsets with built-in AM/FM radios. The growing availability of cassette tapes and compact discs made portable listening more convenient. Mobile audio equipment didn’t make any tremendous advances during the 1990s, but Apple boosted the popularity of earbuds by supplying them with its iPod MP3 player in 2001. Other manufacturers also began to include them with many devices.

Today, headphones are a common sight in homes and public places. People regularly use them to hear CDs, MP3 recordings, stereo FM broadcasts or cellphone audio. While advances in headphone technology can no longer match those of the 1930s or 1950s, manufacturers continue to attract customers with new styles and convenient features. Thanks to skillful marketing, fashionable brands like Beats by Dr. Dre and Sennheiser have gained popularity in recent years.

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