The world blocks its ears: The unstoppable rise of headphones and especially Beats by Dr Dre

You can’t help wonder how aliens might interpret our relationship with our headphones


The morning commute in any city has always had a certain insect-like quality, as hordes of us proceed at speed and in large numbers to a destination in order to carry out humdrum activities. A few decades ago, we suddenly gained antennae of metal, plastic and foam rubber, and these seemed to bestow upon us a dreamlike, somewhat glazed expression as we moved about. Of late, those antennae have been getting bigger, more colourful and much more expensive, and if the belaboured analogy wasn’t already apparent, I’m talking about headphones. An item once heavily invested in only by geeky audiophiles has, in the last couple of years, become an essential fashion accessory, with its off-duty place around the neck as important to one’s overall look as its position across the head. We’ve been persuaded that we need these things, and we’ve obediently gone out and bought them.

The trend has largely been driven by Beats, the headphone company and music streaming service founded by the rapper and entrepreneur Dr Dre, and bought last week by Apple for $3bn. Our adoration of smartphones is accelerating the trend. Why stick with barely adequate earbuds provided by your phone’s manufacturer when Dr Dre has promised that Beats headphones will let you hear the music “the way the artists hear it”?

The accuracy of Dre’s promise has been ferociously argued during Beats’ rise to prominence. The consensus from audiophiles is that Beats headphones generally provide a “visceral bass thump” that might be a world away from the sound an artist originally intended; if anything, the effect is more akin to that of burying your head in a bass speaker at a nightclub.

But that’s what many people seem to want, and it certainly hasn’t affected sales; celebrity endorsements from the likes of Lady Gaga, Wayne Rooney and Justin Bieber have helped Beats to outflank competitors such as Sennheiser, which is now having to think more about style and not just about content. Beats, for its part, has received plaudits for one of its final pre-Apple headsets, the Solo 2, which tones down the bass a bit. Phew.

One alarming consequence of our obsession with headphones is the damage they can do to our hearing, something that noise-cancelling headphones can help with by allowing lower volumes of music to be heard above extraneous racket. Another is the way they allow us to shut out the outside world, thereby increasing our sense of social isolation.

As we proceed hither and thither, spurning contact with each other in favour of beats and rhymes, you can’t help but wonder how alien observers would interpret our relationship with headphones. Maybe they’d misinterpret them as life support systems. But maybe that’s almost what they are becoming.

Twitter: @rhodri

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before