A History of Headphone Design
Looking At the Past, Present, and Future of the Loudest Accessory
- Text: Kate Losse
When Sony unveiled the Walkman in 1979, it transformed the way we see and experience the world as we move through it. The advent of portable music turned headphones from a stationary device for work or home to an ubiquitous accessory—the original wearable technology. A genuine crossover between engineering and fashion, headphones demonstrate the way in which technological advancement has come to influence style in our culture—just count the number of Beats headphones on any subway or airplane. Headphones have become a crucial mediator of IRL social space, too. Anyone with a smartphone and a set of earbuds possesses the tools to build and rebuild ambient private spaces, sonically and even emotionally removed from their physical location. From their earliest deployment as military technology to their constant presence in the modern street and workplace, headphones’ perpetual relevance stems from the ability they give the wearer to isolate and create their own reality. We are now equipped to score our own movies.
Like almost all personal technology, headphones were a form of work gear before they became associated with leisure and pop culture. American switchboard operators from the 1890s through both World Wars wore a minimalist, wire-frame headset that held a single black bud to one ear. The headset was attached to a horn-shaped microphone slung on the shoulder. Workers at these switchboards—usually women—operated switchboards like a form of analogue social media, connecting homes and offices to each other via telephone by plugging and unplugging switches. The easily inserted yet secure headphone jacks used to connect early headphones to switchboards became the model for headphone jacks to the present day.
In 1895, the Electrophone was created to pipe live music performances into home headsets using switchboard technology. “To sit in one’s armchair and listen to the favorite items of Entertainment in Progress at London’s theaters and Music Halls is certainly an agreeable method of spending an hour or two,” read a contemporary advertisement. The Electrophone headset was shaped like a cross between a stethoscope and a tennis racket, and it held headphones to the ear from two sides of a hand-held stick. The hand-held design could be pulled away from the ears easily, creating a headphone use case that was more social than private. Rather than using headphones to escape the social, as later headphones would be marketed, the headphone created a group listening experience.
The modern headphone was invented by a technically-inclined churchgoing man by way of Stanford named Nathaniel Baldwin, who wanted to amplify the sound of sermons at his Mormon temple. Baldwin’s headphones contained a mile-long coil of copper wiring in each earcup, which received sound without using electricity, and set the precedent for the large cup shape of modern earphones. The headset’s earphones were connected across the head by two elegantly spaced bands. His design took off when the U.S. Navy bought them to outfit sailors during World War I. The military’s deployment of these headphones, which sailors used to isolate sounds broadcast from distant locations, lent them a more intense, solitary aesthetic than the hand-held Electrophone headset. An antennae-shaped brass spoke on each earphone, which allowed the headset to be adjusted to various sizes, completed the Jules Verne-esque steampunk look.
Inventor John Koss built the first pair of hi-fi stereo headphones to demonstrate the sound quality of his portable phonograph, which had an innovative “privacy switch” for personal, silent listening. It turned out that the headphones, which allowed people to listen quietly to stereos at home and were popular with military men returned from the war, sold faster than the stereo. Koss’ first set of headphones took the basic design of Baldwin’s Navy headphones and amplified it with bigger headphone cups and advanced stereo technology. Baldwin’s thin leather headset band remained, with padding added for comfort. Moving into the jet age of the 1960s, the Koss headphone developed a more future-forward, high-tech look, with broader headbands, radio dials, and noise-blocking cups reminiscent of fighter pilots’ headgear.
Koss’ headphone marketing kept pace with pop culture throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with advertisements featuring everyone from King Kong to the smiley face—the original emoji—wearing them, and by continuously releasing new designs like the denim-trim ‘Easy Listening’ headphones and the Pneumalite earcup, which mimicked the ear’s shape.
Koss was way ahead on branded collaboration, too. Long before Beats by Dre, Beatlephones launched as a Koss x The Beatles cobranded product. Beatlephones were colorful enamel headphones with photos of the Beatles on each cup. If the Beatles stickers seem corny in retrospect, the headphone design itself was a solid example of 1960s hard-cup headphone technology, with a wide headset strap, padded navy blue cups and metal hardware. The launch of Beatlephones extended the headphone market from hifi geek circles to the teen masses, setting the stage for future headphone launches focused primarily on youth.
After Koss made headphones popular as a way of turning up the stereo and shutting out the world, competitor Sennheiser invented a headphone design that would allow some sound in. The Sennheiser HD414 was the first open headphone on the market with ventilated cups that let external sound through, pointing towards a future where headphones would be worn in public rather than used indoors at home or office. The HD414’s bright yellow foam earpads and trademarked “Open-Aire” earphones had a lightweight, proto-80s neon vibe that prefigured the coming mobile tech era.
The release of the Walkman, the first super-light portable cassette stereo, transformed the existential function of headphones from a technology of quiet concentration to a way of creating freewheeling individual autonomy and wall-less privacy in public space. “The progress of sound continues, but what about Mankind,” a 1980s ad for the Walkman asked, making a grand claim for the Walkman as an entirely new sort of techno-human hybrid experience. The Walkman and its whisper-weight headphones—which were composed of a single thin metal band connecting two thin foam-covered earphones—could be worn in public in either on or off mode, generating a sense of mobile private space anywhere. With two headphone jacks for shared listening, the Walkman generated a boom in inexpensive aftermarket headphones, paving the way for future companies focused solely on headphone technology.
The profusion of portable music technologies in the 1990s—from cassettes, to CDs, to DAT, to minidiscs—lead to greater variety in product design and fewer iconic portable devices as a result. The movement towards smaller technologies like the minidisc player meant that headphones became smaller and cheaper as well. Plastic earbuds were shipped as stock headphones with many of the new music players on the market. Perhaps because of the waning style specs of the mass market headphone, the fashion and music underground took to using the robust, hard-cup headphones of the 1970s as stylish replacements for stock earbuds. The rise of rave culture, which began to focus attention on the DJ as a star on stage, created a new association of headphones not with privacy but with mass sociality and public performance. A person wearing headphones was no longer necessarily aloof and reserved—they might be the center of the party.
The launch of the Apple iPod in 2001 did for digital music listening what the Walkman did for portable cassette stereos in the 1980s. With its promise of “1000 songs in your pocket,” the iPod was smaller, lighter, and faster than anything before, and its iconic earbuds served as visual shorthand of this innovation. The iPod’s light, smooth, white headphones served as an instantly recognizable, branded upgrade on the unremarkable earbuds that came with most portable music players. Apple’s advertisements for the iPod smartly created a visual identity between the earbuds and the iPod itself, depicting Robert Longo’s dark silhouettes dancing while wearing the iPod, its high-contrast white cord flailing about. In these ads, the iPod technology is foregrounded while the wearer disappears in shadow, making the human user a kind of fashionable mannequin for the technology. Apple hadn’t had a must-have product in years when the iPod launched, but the world was hurtling rapidly towards digital media and the iPod’s sporty-punk simplicity became the new symbol of millennial modernity.
With the invention of Bluetooth technology in 1999, the headphone cord that tethered the headphone wearer to another source was finally made unnecessary. The first users of wireless listening technology tended to be businessmen sporting spiky single-ear headsets connected to their Blackberries, which gave Bluetooth a distinctly unfashionable vibe in its early years. Long before Demna Gvasalia’s 2017 officecore collection for Balenciaga, the khaki-wearing, office-park-inhabiting businessman was sporting his earpiece anti-fashion with pride. However, in the later 2000s and early 2010s, headphone makers like Bose and Beats began releasing Bluetooth headphones with a more classic and fashionable look, and Bluetooth’s initial fashion curse was lifted.
As if recapitulating the high points in headphone history, Beats by Dre launched in 2008 with a headphone line that expanded on many of the attributes that had already made headphones perennially cool: the technical heft of Koss’ stereo headphones, combined with the colorfulness and pop-orientation of Beatlephones, along with the technical advances of Bluetooth and noise cancellation. Beats even added a touch of minimalism to the mix, smoothing the edges of the traditional headphone and doing away with metal joints and hardware. With Beats, the headphone came fully into its own not just as a technology of individual control over privacy and sociality, but as pure fashion.
By the time the iPhone and other smartphones became ubiquitous in the 2010s, headphones were everywhere. With colorful Beats on one end of the hypervisible scale, a proliferation of new earbud and sport headphones offered less bulky designs to serve a world in which people carry and use mobile devices at all times. Brand collaborations, like Lady Gaga’s HeartBeats—diamond-cut fashion versions of everyday earbuds—extended celebrity and fashion brands into personal tech. Even neckband headphones, which in the 1990s featured zany curved earpieces and evoked an ‘Xtreme’ sports aesthetic, became more sophisticated and minimalist, as in Plantronics Backbeat Fit headphones. And new swivel technologies like the Oppo PM3’s made wearing headphones around the neck—almost as a form of jewelry—more comfortable, adding to the ease of the headphone-as-fashion use case. New internal technologies, like planar magnetic drivers, broadened the range of sound spec options and made shopping for the right headphones more complex than ever. But long-selling headphones like the noise-cancelling Bose QuietComfort, first invented in 1989 by an engineer hoping to combat airplane noise, continue to sell, too. In the 2010s there are headphones built for every aesthetic and scenario; the difficulty is finding the ones that suit your technical and style needs.
The Airpods, Apple’s latest attempt at evolving headphone design, are essentially two Bluetooth enabled white earpods with an inch or two of white tube attached to each, like dangling periscopes for the ears. While 2001’s iPod earbuds made their sinuous white cord a signature selling point, the Airpods are tetherless, using an accompanying white box for storage and charging. It seems as if the Airpod wants to do for the businessman’s Bluetooth earpiece what Apple did for the nameless 1990s earpod. If Apple’s Airpods capture our desire like the original iPod earbuds did—and early sales figures suggest they might—we may be approaching another sea change in headphone fashion.
The continued popularity of classic headphone shapes, though, suggests that traditional hardware isn’t going away. In today’s open-office work environments, headphones have come to serve a new need for privacy that goes beyond the way the first Koss headphones were marketed for quiet listening in a domestic context. In the absence of cubicles and walls, today’s workers need to signal that they are busy, and for this purpose, bigger is still better. The more the boundaries between work and social life dissolve, and the more crowded the world gets, the more the headphone in whatever fashion it takes is going to remain not just a transmitter of sound, but a crucial modern mediator of public and private space.
- Text: Kate Losse