Time warp: A history of headphones

By Valens Quinn

In our noisy, busy world a good pair of headphones can transport you to a private, peaceful place all your own. It’s amazing to think that we didn’t have this ability – by non-herbal means anyway – until about 50 years ago.

Back in 1958, the first ‘modern’ stereo headphones came into being, thanks to entrepreneur John Koss. While telephone and radio operators had been using simplistic headphones and earphones from around the turn of the century, Koss designed his version specifically for listening to music, and they also supported stereo sound. Called the SP/3, Koss’s first headphones were marketed as an accessory to a suitcase-sized phonograph. As it turned out, nobody was interested in the phonograph, but everyone, especially the recording industry, loved his headphone idea.

Koss decided to invest in refining headphone technology, and made a number of improvements throughout the 1960s. While the SP/3 model used a basic paper cone speaker, the Pro/4 model introduced in 1962 had a microphone transducer, which offered much improved sound quality. And to keep ahead of the competition, in 1968 Koss’s company introduced what is thought to be the first electrostatic headphones, which used a set of stator plates per ear to vibrate air molecules and create sound.

It wasn’t until the ’80s that we started seeing smaller, cheaper and more portable models – and for many of us, these headphones were attached to Sony’s ubiquitous Walkman portable stereo. Compared to the more traditional circumaural headphone design, which uses large cups to cover the ear entire ear, these compact ‘supra-aural’ units had small foam-wrapped speakers that rested against the listener’s outer-ear. While audiophiles and the pros in recording studios tended to stick with the circumaural design for its superior acoustic properties, supra-aural headphones became very popular among the masses.

In the 1990s, the ‘earbud’ headphone was introduced, which consisted of small speaker ‘buds’ that could be placed directly outside the ear canal. These were cheap, small and convenient, but because they didn’t block outside noise, many listeners needed to turn the volume up to occasionally dangerous levels to drown out noisy environments.

Similar to earbuds and emerging at around the same time were ‘canalphones’. These also fit into the ear but as the name suggests, they are inserted into the ear canal itself, and act like an earplug, drowning out ambient noise. Acoustic quality is better as a result but canalphones aren’t quite so convenient, especially when it comes to sharing your waxy pair with friends!

There are other headphone variations, such as the surround sound variety, which uses more than one speaker per ear to create the illusion of directional sound. Also, in 1989, Bose introduced the first commercial noise-cancelling headphone, which was used widely by pilots. Noise-cancelling technology has filtered down to many consumer ‘cans’ and offers a better listening experience in noisy environments, such as aeroplanes and trains.

Also, to break the confines of the cable, wireless headphones are now widely available, and use popular wireless standards including Bluetooth and digital radio.

So what’s around the corner? How about ‘bonephones’, which create vibrations against the head and transmit sound to a listener via bone conduction, negating the need for speakers altogether? The ability to have the ears uncovered, or for users to plug their ears (to, say, prevent hearing damage from the outdoor environment) are the principal benefits of bonephones, but as a new concept a lot of research is yet to be done on how well they re-create stereo and 3D sound.

Headphone buyers guide


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