Short History of Headphones
Most music lovers use them since early childhood, and nowadays they are something so obvious that you don’t even realize what a life without them would be like. We also don’t wonder to whom we really owe this incredible invention. Now that’s a pity. After all, life wouldn’t be the same if we couldn’t listen to music years ago thanks to the portable cassette, AA batteries and our favourite headphones. Music dripping directly into our ears and following us wherever we go gives a feeling of freedom and allows us to forget about the world that surrounds us. If you are a Headphones Addict, if you have them on your head almost 24/7 wherever you go, be it grocery store or even your job then this article is for you.
Until recently, the obligatory equipment of every true music lover were headphones, a cassette and an angular pencil allowing us to extend the battery life. Today, we usually take our personal player or a smartphone for a walk with music, and the headphones can still be the same. Listening to music outside our homes has become absolutely normal and it would seem that this is what two loudspeakers were invented for. Because this is how the history of headphones began. Although, if you think about it more deeply…. Hold on tight, because we go back in time to the end of the 19th century, when Graham Bell invented the phone. It’s where the headphone was used to stick it to the ear so we could hear the caller.
Further development of this device was determined by the development of telephony and radio broadcasting, but while the ordinary user of the phone didn’t seem to mind holding a handset with one hand and a telephone with a microphone with the other hand (afterwards, as we know, a telephone handset was created, thanks to which one hand became free, but this is a completely different story), the telephone operators used telephone switchboards and employed switchboard operators who were connecting calls by inserting a pair of phone plugs into the jacks. They had to have both hands free to connect the calls. To make this possible, in 1881 a nightmarish device weighing about 5 kilograms was created, which was a frame placed on the body with a microphone attached to it and one receiver touching the ear. We really don’t know how these poor girls withstood the long hours of work in such a gutter! One of the first attempts to create what could be considered as headphones today was a device used in Electrophone system, which was created in 1895. The system itself used the existing telephone infrastructure to transmit sound, and it broadcasted concerts, theatre performances and church sermons.
The first man to use the human head to wear headphones was Nathaniel Baldwin. In 1910, he created the first prototype in his kitchen with a headband, so that he could finally keep his hands free. Do you think that the world was delighted with this invention and that Baldwin’s headphones flooded the market? What the hell! Poor Nathaniel had to go to great lengths to get someone interested in his invention. The only institution that was interested in his invention was the American Navy, which initially ordered 100 pieces. And then even more. Mr. Baldwin was finally able to redeem himself. Unfortunately, despite the fact that his company employed more than 150 people at some point in time, due to poor financial decisions, it went bankrupt after a while and left the owner with debts for which he was even imprisoned for two years. Well, not for the first time it turned out that the inventor’s talent rarely goes hand in hand with the business talent. In addition, Baldwin didn’t patent his invention, which deprived him of the powerful revenue from the sale of earmuffs by other companies. The end of the story is not a happy one – Nathaniel Baldwin died alone on January 19, 1961. But his invention had already lived its own life.
Despite Baldwin’s unquestionable success, the Chester Brandes Company, which began manufacturing the devices in 1919, is considered the first company to produce headphones for a mass audience. Headphones at that time were attached to radio receivers. When radio receivers started to mount loudspeakers, the popularity of headphones significantly decreased. They were most often used in telephony, which was what Eugen Beyer wanted to use, who in 1937 presented the first dynamic headphones Beyerdynamic DT-48. These were the first earmuffs to achieve commercial success, as evidenced by the fact that this model’s still produced today. In addition, the headphones were constantly used in the army, and the outbreak of World War II contributed to the continuous improvement of Baldwin’s invention. I wonder what the hippies and pacifists who listen to “All You Need is Love” by The Beatles on their mobile players think about it! After the war the headphones went underground again and were used mainly in recording studios, radio stations and, of course, in telephony.
War, War Never Changes… or Does it?
In 1949, another player appeared on the headphone market, which is still considered to be one of the top manufacturers of this type of devices. It’s an Austrian company AKG, which presented its first model K120. It turned out to be so successful that the company dealing with the production of sound equipment so far switched entirely to the production of headphones, achieving many successes in this field, the crowning achievement of which was the K1000 model considered to be one of the best models in the history of the company. However, looking at the construction of these earmuffs, one can conclude that they have little in common with headphones, because they resemble rather two speakers hanging next to the ears. Literally – shells don’t even touch the ears. The cosmic shape is explained a little by the institution that commissioned and financed the project – NASA. The production started in the mid-1990s and ended in 2006, and the K1000 is still shocking to this day.
Dynamics or Electrostatics?
The 1950s brought another novelty – Japanese company Stax presented the first electrostatic headphones SR-1 in 1959. And, truth be told, it became a world leader in the production of this type of earmuffs, which it still is to this day. The most famous model of the company was Omega headphones manufactured since 1993. It was their peak product, which was manufactured in just over 500 copies, and a dedicated amplifier with SRM-T2 symbol (with an external power supply SPS-T2) – was manufactured ten times less. Why? It was very expensive, and the headphones themselves could be connected to other amplifiers through a special adapter, so there was no need to buy one. Today, the amplifier itself is a sought-after collector’s item.
The Era of Stereophony
Another breakthrough in our history is the emergence of the stereo effect, which was first used by John C. Koss, owner of a television rental company, who wanted to enter the audio market using a portable phonograph, which was presented in 1958 at the fair in Wisconsin. In order to better demonstrate the capabilities of his device and at the same time isolate the listener from the hustle and bustle of the show, he used SP-3 headphones with his own idea, in which the signal was emitted from the right and left channels. The exhibition was a success, but not the one Koss was thinking about. His phonograph didn’t arouse any interest, but everyone started to praise the incredible sonic impressions of the SP-3 earmuffs! The inventor wasn’t deaf to these opinions and abandoned the production of patefones and took on the headphones. Today, Koss is known primarily for his Porta Pro model, which has been produced in virtually unchanged form for more than 25 years. The end of the sixties of the twentieth century is the headphone debut of another company on the audio market. Sennheiser, because we are talking about it, already had a well-established position as a manufacturer of microphones with many years of experience. The history of the company begins in 1945, just after the end of the Second World War, when Fritz Sennheiser and his seven companions founded the company Laboratorium Wennebostel, which starts producing voltmeters and then microphones for Siemens. Thanks to this cooperation, Labor W, as the company was called in short, became a recognized manufacturer of electroacoustic equipment. In 1968, however, it was decided to try its hand at the consumer market. To this end, the company changed its name to Sennheiser Electronic and launched its first model of open headphones with the symbol HD 414, which turned out to be a great success. Their sales were counted in millions of pieces. Many years later, in 1992, Sennheiser produced a high-end, absolutely top tandem consisting of a tube amplifier and dedicated headphones called Orpheus, which immediately became a reference system and not only for the company’s products. Today, unfortunately, it is no longer produced and, what is more, it is quite difficult to obtain on the aftermarket. And when it appears there, the prices do not fall below one hundred thousand zlotys. It hurts, doesn’t it?
With Music on the Move
Despite the continuous development and growth of headphones sales in the audio market, the first boom for these devices began only in 1979, when Sony presented its first walkman TPS-L2, which included MDL-3L2 headphones. The world went mad about listening to portable music. The headphones were no longer used only indoors, they could finally show their greatest advantages. Thanks to them, you could listen to music literally anywhere. Seeing the success of mobile devices, Sony introduced the first W-EAR earphones in 1980, which, however, still remained on the headband, and not on the auricle, as it is in modern designs. Interestingly, the first earphones to hold on to the ear were invented in 1891 by the French engineer Ernest Mercadier, but his invention was not recognized and had to wait more than a hundred years for its time. Coming back to Sony, it is worth mentioning that the first device offering wireless transmission from the device to headphones was the walkman. The WM-506 and WM-F606 models (the latter with FM tuner) debuted in 1989 and both had such functionality. The Walkman receiver was the size of a modern player and of course required its own power supply, so it was not a very handy set. However, it should be remembered that the Bluetooth standard allowing to connect the handset without a cable to the phone (later it was also used for music transmission) was created only in 1998, i.e. 10 years later!
Dr. Bose’s Invention
The craze for portable cassette players had a direct impact on this, but the time of the tape recorders has passed and the headphones are holding on tight. The influence of noise was a big problem while listening to music in the hustle and bustle of the city. It was fought by better and better passive insulation, but it didn’t have enough effect, as Dr. Amar Bose found out when on a plane, he couldn’t focus on listening to music by buzzing his engines. And since he had a lot of time during the flight, he began to wonder what needs to be done to effectively eliminate the noise. This gave rise to an idea of active noise suppression called Acoustic Noise Cancellation, which was first used in 2000 in the Bose QuietComfort headphones. The device had built-in microphones that allowed for counter-phase noise to be generated, causing the signals to attenuate each other. The disadvantage of this solution is the need to provide power supply, which makes headphones equipped with noise reduction systems heavier than normal.
Cassette players were followed by a new portable audio source at the end of the 20th century, this time digital. After the invention and popularization of computer compression of music to MP3 format, small players started to appear on the market, allowing you to enjoy zero-one quality. However, the first model that caused a Walkman TPS-L2 revolution was the iPod presented by Steve Jobs in 2001. Apple, the iPod manufacturer, did not do well at the time, and it was the small white box with the same white headphones that started the period of prosperity, which lasts until today. Interestingly, white headphones have become a corporate symbol, and to this day, when you see someone on the street with white lozenges in their ears, you can be 99% sure that they have Apple equipment. In this way the headphones were used as a marketing gadget. A similar example of marketing success is the sale of probably the most famous headphones in the world – Beats, which entered the market in 2012 and are still fashionable today, because otherwise their success cannot be called. They are just like each other in terms of sound, but so what if showing up in company in earmuffs with a characteristic “B” on the sides evokes a sigh of jealousy and appreciation for the owner.
Over the years, headphones have come a long way – from strictly professional and military use to home use and finally being used in the streets, giving them their incredible popularity today. Today, headphones are produced by almost all major manufacturers in the audio market, even those who have never done so before. There’s no problem with the purchase, either – the multitude of types and models makes you dizzy and sometimes it’s difficult to choose something perfect for yourself. How to do it, what to pay attention to when buying headphones of your dreams? We will write about it next time, stay tuned!