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A Short History of Headphones

When one looks at headphones it becomes more than obvious that this object represents both one’s desire for privacy and one’s need for fun. With them, one can listen to music, audio books, recollect with their previous recording or even communicate with others. Still, the headphone technology changed and evolved quite a bit over the course of years. With this in mind, how did we come from first 10 pound heavy headsets to miniature, yet powerful, peripherals? In order to answer this question, here is a brief history of headphones.

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1.      The first steps

When we talk about the first headphones, what we have in mind are the 1880s and the aforementioned gigantic headsets weighing about 10 pounds. Nonetheless, these devices never really came to see a commercial use. The first such devices appeared in the 1890s in Britain, where one could pay an excessive fee of £5 a year in order to listen to performances from London theaters in their homes. 1891 saw a birth of first in-ear headphones which were also designed to cancel the outside noise, therefore providing a far superior quality of sound.

2.      The dawn of the 20th century

Speaking about modern earphones, it is inevitable to mention that their story begins in 1910 and the device that Nathaniel Baldwin invented for the use of the U.S. Navy. Even though these headphones were still far from what we have today, it is important to mention that they represent an important milestone on this journey of a thousand miles. In fact, they are even included on the list of the most influential headphones in history.

3.      The 1930s and 1940s

1937 was the year of the release of The DT-48’s, which were the first dynamic headphones to ever appear. These were much superior to the traditional armature type of speakers, seeing how they used a driver as a miniature speaker. Still, even though dynamic speakers have a much wider commercial use these days, armature drivers are still mostly used in IEMs. In 1947 AKG (one of the industry titans) was found in Vienna. Two years later in 1949, they designed the famous K120’s first in a line of numerous quality AKG headphones. Today, however, you can find AKG all over the world, AKG Australia being one of the most notable examples.

4.      The stereo headphones

The next two decades saw a birth of another headphone phenomenon, the stereo headphones. Even though this trend is a product of the 1950s, in 1968 the first US made electrostatic model was made by Koss. Most importantly, they weighed only 2 pounds, which made a massive difference when compared to some of the previously discussed models.

5.      The era of Walkman

Even though we had to go through some important moments in headphone history on this list, none of these milestones are nearly as important as the appearance of Walkman. This created a great need for portable headphones. Needless to say, this is what the 70s, 80s, and 90s were all about. Over these three decades, these headphones became lighter, more potent and they became better and better at canceling out the outside noise in order to provide one with maximum quality of sound.

6.      Present-day

Finally, we skip forward through several years of rapid development to arrive at the present date. These days we have massive studio headphones, wireless headphones, headphones you can buy for several dollars and those costing tens of thousands of dollars (even up to $120,000). These days, however, it seems to be more about the brand than anything else, which is why there is such a discrepancy in price even between top-tier devices. Even though the headphone market sees a ton of newcomers every year, some of the oldest brands like AKG, Sony and Bose still represent a major deal of the market.


Of course, this list is all but complete, but in order to tell a whole story in a limited space, we had to fast forward through years and decades, only to reflect on major milestones and industry events. Furthermore, seeing how the trend of commercial-use headphones never had more public attention than it does these days, it would be safe to assume that their story is still in its infancy. Only the time will tell where it goes from here.

Dan Radak is a marketing professional with eleven years of experience. He is currently working with a number of companies in the field of digital marketing, closely collaborating with a couple of e-commerce companies. He is also a coauthor on several technology websites and regular contributor to Technivorz.

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