For most city dwellers, headphones have long been a must. Someone is comfortable with wireless, someone is a fan of the 3.5 mm jack, and some even see them as a hobby and collect a collection. But where did it all begin? What did music lovers listen to at the end of the 19th century, where did the earbuds come from, who invented active noise cancellation, how did the headphones become wireless and what will happen next?
1891 – French engineer Ernest Mercadier invents the first headphones
The idea of headphones in the 19th century literally hovered in the clouds. In 1875, Alexander Bell patented the telephone, the invention quickly gained popularity. There are many models of devices and accessories for them. One of them was the headphones of the Frenchman Ernest Mercadier. It is curious that they were in the form of “gags”. Along with this, the Electrophone System company appears in England, which installs microphones in concert halls and invites subscribers to listen to symphonies and theatrical pieces by telephone by subscription – 5 pounds a year. And for an extra pound, you can connect a second speaker, which makes headphones in demand.
1910 – Engineer Nathaniel Baldwin develops headphones for the US Navy
The world needed headphones for the second time with the advent of radio. At the beginning of the century, the American electrical engineer Nathaniel Baldwin patented a set of headphones with a piezoelectric speaker and a very high impedance – about 8 thousand! The piezo crystal degraded due to improper storage, the headphones needed low humidity. Nevertheless, the excellent sound quality allowed the model to find its place in history: the headphones are used by the military. The US Navy orders 100 pairs, unaware that the inventor is making them by hand in the kitchen.
1937 – Beyerdynamic launches the first DT-48 dynamic headphones
The dynamic loudspeaker did not appear until 1925, at about the same time as the amplifier and electric phonograph. There is a need for headphones without compromise in sound quality, reliability and comfort – not only for the military, but also for recording studios. The German company Beyerdynamic produced the DT-48 model from 1937 to 2012 with minimal changes and stopped production only when it could no longer purchase the necessary materials for the membranes – the model turned out to be so iconic. During the war, production was suspended, but was resumed after it, and in the fifties the DT-48 reached its peak of fame. Beyerdynamic is still one of the premier studio headphone manufacturers.
On the road to glory
1958 – John Koss releases the first Koss SP-3 stereo headphones
Surprisingly, all headphones until the early sixties were able to play music only in mono. Firstly, they were most often used by pilots and the military, and secondly, the music itself was also predominantly in mono. Unsurprisingly, when a friend came to engineer John Koss to listen to a binaural tape recording, they couldn’t find the right headphones for the job. I had to make my own. The Koss SP-3 has revolutionized the world of personal audio. Koss headphones dominated this market throughout the sixties, and in 1984 the company introduced another iconic model – Porta Pro, which is still being produced today without any changes.
1959 – Stax launches the first SR-1 electrostatic headphones
A year earlier, the first electrostatic system for ordinary consumers appeared – Quad Electrostatic. The technology is fundamentally different from conventional speakers, in which a magnetic head with a cone connected to it oscillates. Here, in an electrostatic field, the mylar membrane itself, less than a hair thick, vibrates. This allows for perfectly flat frequency response, outstanding dynamics and incredibly natural sound. The original SR-1 will become the prey of collectors, and electrostatic headphones will not gain widespread popularity due to the high price and will remain the lot of music lovers and audiophiles, although they will receive an ideological continuation in the form of magniplanar headphones.
1968 – Sennheiser launches the first HD 414 open headphones
Those were the times when the headphones looked like huge black mugs, weighed like a dumbbell, and were closed, that is, insulating from external sounds. All this met the needs of the military and pilots, but not ordinary consumers. The German company Sennheiser produces open-type headphones: lightweight, comfortable and with excellent sound. In the first year alone, more than a hundred thousand copies were sold, and for the entire time – a record 10 million. These headphones brought the world to the era of portable audio and became one of the first hi-fi headphones.
The era of portable audio
1979 – Sony launches Walkman and MDL-3L2 headphones
The headphones are supplied with the player, but in a separate box. This combo instantly takes the world by storm, completely changing the way you listen to music. It is now available not only in a room with a tape recorder and speakers, but also on the road, in nature, in flight – anywhere. The headphone model quickly received thousands of clones. The sound quality was not the most outstanding, but the buyer got the opportunity to listen to Pink Floyd while riding a bicycle. What else do you need to be happy in the late seventies?
1979 – Bose invents noise canceling headphones
The technology itself was patented by MIT doctor Amar Bose in the late seventies and tested on technical aviation headphones for transatlantic flights. Accordingly, for the first 20 years, the technology developed and was applied mainly in headphones for pilots, military, construction workers and other professionals who are faced with constant annoying noise. Only in 2000, the first noise canceling headphones for ordinary consumers, Bose QuietComfort, was released, and after a while the technology will be finalized to impressive results.
1995 – Soundman Van Halen invents the prototype of modern “plugs”
How did modern plugs come about? In the late fifties, Westone began manufacturing in-ear hearing aids. In the mid-eighties, together with Sony, they released the first headphones, and a few years later, together with Shure, they made in-ear monitors with a reinforcing structure for musicians. In them, the membrane is driven not by a magnetic coil attached to it, but by a movable armature, which makes the sound clearer and cleaner. Seeing his chance here, Van Halen’s sound engineer John Stowe already makes two-driver armature monitors to expand the frequency range, and releases them under the Ultimate Ears brand. They are becoming the standard among musicians. After that, the technology goes to the people, many clones appear – from cheap plugs to expensive armature models with monitor sound that can compete with over-ear headphones.
2005 – Bluetake launches the first i-PHONO BT420EX wireless headphones
The idea of getting rid of the ever-tangling wire has been in the air for a long time. Back in the early nineties, the Koss company released the JCK-300 headphones, which are connected to a source via an infrared port. The idea is so-so – you need to sit in front of the transmitter and be within sight, so as not to lose the signal. The technology did not gain popularity, but at the end of the decade it is replaced by …