The rise and rise of headphones: Why the set you buy isn’t just a question of sound quality, but identity

Nineteenth-century headphone pioneers could never have imagined the dizzying prices and high fashion kudos that a pair of ‘cans’ can fetch. And they can make musicians more money than, well, music.

Rhodri Marsden
Tuesday 01 December 2015 19:48 GMT
Headphones supplied us with our own, personally curated soundtrack to a film in which we were the protagonist
Headphones supplied us with our own, personally curated soundtrack to a film in which we were the protagonist

In the summer of 1981, Cliff Richard signalled to the world that it was time for us collectively to withdraw into our own private musical worlds. With a new Sony Walkman strapped to his belt and a pair of lightweight headphones on his head, he strutted through Central Milton Keynes shopping centre alongside legwarmer-clad dancers, all of them miming enthusiastically for the video of the song “Wired for Sound”. “Walking about with a head full of music,” he sang, “Cassette in my pocket and I'm gonna use it… Stereo! Out on the street you know! Whoah-oh-oh…” At that time, the role of headphones was changing quite radically: they were being vigorously uncoupled from radios and hi-fis, prised out of the bedroom and living room and thrust into the public arena. Wearing a pair of headphones outdoors was no longer the preserve of people trying to find Roman coins in fields while waving metal detectors. It suddenly stopped being a bit weird. Portable music had arrived, and headphones were the medium by which we accessed it.

For 30 years or so, that's the way it stayed. Headphones were merely functional items; you popped them on (or in) your ears and they piped in music from a 3.5mm mini-jack socket. Then, almost without warning, they became big business. Dr Dre's hunch that headphones might become a sought-after luxury item paid off in spectacular fashion: his company Beats was sold to Apple for $3bn (£2bn) in May 2014, by which time our whole attitude towards headphones had changed. The texture of earpads and the colour of cables had become as critical to people's “look” as the cut of their trousers or the asymmetry of their haircut. A whole industry sprang up to compete with Beats, and as headphone advertising became more aspirational we became more willing to spend large sums of money on them. Sporting a £700 pair of cans no longer seems as ridiculous as it once did – indeed, in the past few weeks Sennheiser has relaunched its upmarket headphone model, Orpheus, which originally sold for $16,000 (£10,500) when it was launched, back in 1991. Today, the price of this item, with its marble-encased amplifier and quartz glass vacuum tubes, has been upped to $55,000 (£37,000), presumably because there's a market for it. For years, we've been told by the industry that wearable technology is the next big thing, and we've largely remained resistant. But our attitude towards headphones isn't in the least suspicious. We've bought into the idea wholesale, and this Christmas a pair is a bankable last-minute gift option. Everyone needs headphones, and there are headphones for everyone.

The history of headphones, however, has had little to do with style; it's more a story of problem solving. Thomas Edison created a primitive version in order to listen to his new creation, the phonograph in the 1870s. The 1881 International Exposition of Electricity in Paris showcased a new service called the Théâtrophone, which piped operatic performances into wealthy people's homes over telephone lines. It eventually launched in Lisbon in 1885 (at the behest of King Luis), and subscribers to the service were provided with one of the very first sets of headphones. They were designed “to leave hands perfectly free” and were “mounted on a strap or band which goes over the head and allows the receiver (or two if preferred) to come close over the ear”. By the 1890s, this idea had spread to London: a company called Electrophone supplied headsets to opera lovers who were keen to sit in their favourite armchairs while listening to arias live from Covent Garden. You held the headset up to your ears by means of a handle; by 1908, they could be found in approximately 600 London homes.

At around the same time, in Salt Lake City, a young Mormon fundamentalist by the name of Nathaniel Baldwin invented the closest forerunner of modern headphones. Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, the US Navy had received “a pair of telephones” in an old baking-powder tin along with a letter from Baldwin, written in violet ink on blue paper, asking if they might like to give them a try. In the austere surroundings of his kitchen workshop Baldwin had managed to come up with listening apparatus that trumped the Navy's existing telecommunications gear, both in terms of sensitivity and wearability. He would later go on to describe his invention as “trivial” and refused to patent it, but headsets based on his design would end up being worn by the Navy's Radio Division throughout the war.

Radio communication continued to be the most obvious use for headphone technology; while headphones and music seem like natural bedfellows today, it took a while for them to get it together properly. As sales of gramophone records picked up in the 1950s, Beyerdynamic's DT 49 headphones started to become a common fixture in American record stores, allowing people to hear sounds before they bought them. The unveiling of EMI's first stereo recordings in 1957 gave headphones a new raison d'être, and the first stereo hi-fi pair is generally acknowledged to be the Koss SP3.

John C Koss started out in business by buying broken televisions, fixing them and renting them out to hospital patients. That got him thinking about renting “portable phonographs” along with the perfect accompanying accessory: a comfortable pair of headphones. The SP3 headphones consisted of 3in speakers mounted in brown plastic cups, with foam earpads and a metal bar to sit over the head. They were activated by a “privacy switch” on the phonograph. The Milwaukee hospital patients who flicked that switch were among the first to experience a world of sound that had been specifically designed for private listening.

They loved it then, and we still love it today. Michael Bull, a professor in sound studies at the University of Sussex (and dubbed “Professor iPod” by Wired magazine), has frequently outlined the positive effects that headphone use has on our mental well-being. “Sole consumption is both pleasurable and controllable,” he wrote in a 2005 paper entitled “No Dead Air! The iPod and the Culture of Mobile Listening”. “Privatised and mediated sound reproduction enables consumers to create intimate, manageable and aestheticised spaces in which they are increasingly able, and desire, to live.” With the advent of the MP3 and cheap storage, headphones began to supply us with our own, personally curated soundtrack to a film in which we were the protagonist – and that made us feel great; at work we even started to believe that giving our everyday tasks a customised soundtrack would make us perform better. Science says precisely the opposite – that it damages our concentration and that we'd be better off working in silence – but there's a difference between efficiency and pleasure. Headphones shut out irritants, calm us down and take the rough edge off reality. They help us to cope.

All of this seems manifestly obvious in 2015, but when Sony made the decision in 1979 not to include an external speaker in the TPS-L2, the very first Walkman, there was concern within the company as to whether imposing headphone use on customers would prove to be a turn-off. That nervousness manifested itself in the inclusion of a hotline switch (which piped in ambient noise from the outside world that you could probably hear anyway) and two headphone sockets – one for you, one for a friend. These features would turn out to be superfluous; controlling your own personal audio space turned out to be the Walkman's main selling point. Initially launching in Japan, it eventually appeared in the UK as the “Sony Stowaway”, an attempt to seduce us with the romance of travel and the tranquillity of solitude.

We didn't need too much encouragement. By the time Cliff's video for “Wired for Sound” was first shown on British television, Sony's device was already a hit in the UK, with sales of 250,000 predicted by the end of 1981. “They shall have music wherever they go,” trilled the Daily Mirror, describing the Walkman as “the skateboard of electronics” whose popularity had “astounded the experts… This one should run and run.” In a press advert that summer, the MDL-3L2 headphones that accompanied the Walkman were described as “the smallest and lightest in the world… You'll hear all the bass and treble your ears could desire.” By today's standards, the sonic capabilities of those early portable headphones would have been pitiful, but we were so enamoured of the idea of portable music that we didn't particularly care. A few years later, earbud-style headphones came along, and they seemed like a slightly better bet; they were still cheap, but they were far less cumbersome, sitting gently in the outer ear, shutting out more of the outside world and bringing us closer to the music.

While we relished our new-found isolation, others were bemoaning the effect of headphones on society. In 1984, Professor Shuhei Hosokawa wrote an article entitled “The Walkman Effect” which took as its premise the idea that headphones were affecting our capacity to connect with other people. He wrote of a place that was “out of space and time, a placeless place, where the user is taken to be disconnected from the world around them”. Other academics would echo his thoughts: in 1989, Rainer Schönhammer, of Munich University, wrote of his belief that headphones interrupt contact between “normal” people. “People with earphones seem to violate an unwritten law of interpersonal reciprocity,” he wrote, “the certainty of common sensual presence in shared situations.” Many argued that headphones could hardly be described as evil when strangers barely talked to each other anyway, but the idea that we were becoming isolated, detached – almost narcissistic – gathered pace with the 2001 launch of the iPod and its accompanying white earbuds, designed by Apple's Jonathan Ive. The term “iPod oblivion” was coined in Australia to describe the absent state of mind attained by people who were now toting their entire collection of music while on the move. Shortly after a headphone-wearing cyclist rode into the path of a train in Melbourne, a policeman told reporters: “You call it iPod oblivion. I call it stupidity.”

Those omnipresent iPod earbuds would end up playing a big part in the development of headphone culture – not for any technological trail they were blazing, but because their quality was pretty feeble. Few reviewers had kind words to say about them; “tolerable” was probably the most complimentary. Excessive ambient noise rendered most free earbuds (not just Apple's) as good as useless; even after we'd turned them up to dangerously loud levels we still didn't feel sufficiently transported. We were told that we were in iPod “oblivion”, but we evidently sought oblivion of an even greater kind. People began to abandon the default earbuds in favour of better-quality headphones, and more specifically larger, closed-back models that dampened the sound of the outside world by around 10 decibels. Noise-cancelling headphones, initially popular with frequent flyers, started to find wider appreciation. (Noise-cancelling technology was first used by US helicopter pilots back in the 1950s; a microphone on the headset monitors external sounds, inverts the phase to create an “acoustic opposite” and feeds the signal into the headphones, cancelling out the noise.) The emergence of these larger headsets on the streets raised some eyebrows; for years, headphones had been hidden in our ears and the cables concealed underneath our clothing – but these things were making a far bolder statement. The world of fashion soon noticed, and decided to do something about it.

The sudden explosion in the previously flatlining market for headphones in 2012 was nothing short of extraordinary. Celebrity endorsements, both paid and unpaid, saw Beats revenues soar by 75 per cent, with the retail headphone industry experiencing a 32 per cent lift overall. Headphones became the newest fashion accessory. New brands selling designer models began to spring up – Urbanears, Sol Republic, Skullcandy, Frends – while existing brands tried to create products that satisfied our demand for something a little more eye-catching. At London Fashion Week in 2013, the Serbian fashion designer Roksanda Ilincic sent her models up the catwalk wearing pairs of Sennheiser Momentums. The following year, Karl Lagerfeld chose Paris Fashion Week to unveil Chanel's Monster headphones, while in 2015 Dolce & Gabbana teamed up with Frends at Milan Fashion Week to showcase pairs that were studded with Swarovski crystals.

The establishment of headphones as an integral part of our wardrobe has created a curious and unlikely crossover between two normally incompatible elites: audiophiles (geek) and high-end fashion (chic). You regularly see similar products at similar price points being sold using vastly different spins: one for people who believe that they know their electrets from their electrostatics (“Precise imaging and superlative dynamic range… Large-aperture 53mm drivers and CCAW voice coils for superior sound reproduction”), and one for those who don't, and don't particularly care (“A refined glossy finish and polished accents… designed for sound, tuned for emotion”). These two worlds often regard each other with contempt; the chic might strap on a pair of £1,599 Audeze LCD-3s, all zebrawood, lambskin and planar magnetic transducers, and then use them to listen to a Spotify stream. The geek would look on, horrified, screeching something about putting ketchup on beluga caviar – but the question of whether we're experiencing music “properly” has always been a highly subjective one.

It's pretty safe to say, however, that the headphones flying off the shelves this Christmas say a little more about us than the pair Cliff Richard was sporting in Milton Keynes 34 years ago. Today, headphones don't just give us a “head full of music”; they reinforce our identity both inwardly, through any number of infinite digital jukeboxes, and outwardly, through bespoke, 3D-printed earpieces, leatherette earpads, metallic detailing and distinctive silhouettes. We're often told that the technology we buy reflects who we are. In the case of headphones, we've started to believe it.

Thomas Edison

Headphones timeline


In America, Thomas Edison, after spending five continuous days and nights perfecting the phonograph, listens through a primitive pair of headphones


The Théâtrophone, which used telephone lines to pipe music directly into people’s homes, launches in Paris


Around this date, the London-based company, Electrophone, introduces headsets which allow (wealthy) listeners to enjoy a direct line from their armchairs to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden


Approximately 600 homes in the capital are found to own Electrophone headsets

During the 1950s...

As sales of gramophones begin to climb steadily, Beyer’s DT 49 headphones start to appear in American record stores. Meanwhile, noise-cancelling technology is introduced among US helicopter pilots


John C. Koss founds the JC Koss Hospital Television Rental Company and pilots the Koss SP3 headphones among patients, enabling them to flick a ‘privacy switch’ on a phonograph


EMI reveals the first stereo recordings, giving headphones added purpose


Sony releases the TPS-L2, the first Walkman not to include an external speaker


The video for Cliff Richard’s ‘Wired For Sound’ shows the singer strutting through a shopping centre with the new Sony Walkman. A quarter of a million are thought to have been sold by the end of that year


In Japan, Professor Shuhei Hosokawa claims that using headphones is negatively affecting our ability to interact with each other ‘normally’


Sennheiser launches the first Orpheus headset model, retailing at £10,500 each


The iPod launches along with its distinctive white earbuds


Professor Michael Bull, or ‘Professor iPod’, writes a seminal paper on ‘the culture of mobile listening’


New brands, such as Urbanears, Sol Republic and Skullcandy, begin to flood the market


At London Fashion Week, Roksanda Ilincic sends models down the catwalk wearing Sennheiser Momentums


Dr Dre sells Beats, his brand of high-end headphones, to Apple for £2bn


Sennheiser relaunches Orpheus, now with a marble-encased amplifier and quartz glass vacuum tubes, for the new price of £37,000

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