When was the last time a tech purchase made you laugh with delight? For me, it was the first time listening to my favorite songs on a set of Apple AirPods Max headphones, which allowed me to hear things in those songs that I had never heard before. It doesn’t matter to hear what the artist was playing: sometimes I think I can hear what the artist was thinking.
Wireless headphones have come an incredibly long way in a very short time. But their history goes back further than you might think and includes incredible innovations.
1880s: the headphones that would give you a headache
Headphones were not originally designed for music. They were designed for telephone operators who needed to physically connect everyone’s phone calls. The first model, unveiled in the 1880s, didn’t look much like today’s headphones either: it was more like a telephone cut in half and strapped to your head. And it weighed around 5 kg, the equivalent of 111 pairs of AirPods.
The first headphones were designed by Ezra Gilliland, a friend of Thomas Edison who also designed the telephone switchboard and served as a model for many models to come: they were not headphones for fun. They were tools for the workplace, things you couldn’t wait to snatch at the end of the workday.
1890s: the original headphones and Spotify too
If, like me, you thought earpieces were a very modern invention, think again: they’ve been around since 1891, when Ernest Mercadier patented his “bi-telephone” and proposed using rubber covers to make them more comfortable. As with Gilliland’s carrier telephones, the bi-telephone was intended for use by telephone carriers.
The same decade saw the invention of the record player, a sort of pre-digital Spotify where you could put on headphones, tune into a switchboard and listen to live performances from London theatres.
1910: the first headphones that looked like headphones
Nathaniel Baldwin invented the first recognizable headset in 1910, selling them to the United States Navy for use by radio operators. His headphones featured a new, more sensitive type of receiver that Baldwin refused to patent because he thought his invention was “trivial”. But he patented the design of his headphones, which you can still see in over-ear headphones today.
1958: the first stereo headphones and the first cans made for music
You can thank John Koss for everything you listen to your music on today: his Koss SP-3 headphones not only introduced stereo listening, they were the first boxes designed specifically for personal music listening. . Koss was a big jazz fan and wanted to recreate the excitement of a live musical performance so you could enjoy it anywhere. Today, Koss is a major audio brand that manufactures every type of headphone and speaker imaginable.
1960s: first wireless headphones and open-back boxes
The first wireless headphones came out decades before Bluetooth. In the 1960s, several manufacturers offered solid-state radio headphones that allowed listening to the radio while looking a bit like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who.
Headphone design has really evolved over this time. John Koss – yes, him again – had originally imitated Baldwin’s navy headphones, but in the 1960s his headphones borrowed airline and military designs and introduced wider, more comfortable headbands and noise canceling earbuds to help you hear music more clearly. You can see the airline-style designs of the era in the image above, which is an RCA advertisement from 1972.
Koss didn’t just make headphones. He also struck deals, and one of his best was with the Beatles: Beatlephones were the first big-brand headphones and were selling like hotcakes when Dr. Dre was still taking his first steps, long before Beats.
There was another key development in the 60s: Sennheiser’s HD414, launched in 1968. These were the first headphones with an open back, allowing external audio input, providing more spacious sound and making them much more safe for on-the-go listening – something that was still relatively rare in personal audio. They also introduced something else that would soon become iconic: brightly colored foam ear cushions.
1970s: the future is orange (and blue, and…)
By the 1970s, headphones had become true consumer products and operated in two key markets: the teenage market and the audiophile market. And then Sony came along and changed everything. The Walkman, introduced in 1979, came with ultra-lightweight open-back headphones with a super-thin headband that let you wear them on your head or park them around your neck. Its brightly colored headphones were as iconic in the 1980s as Apple’s iPod headphones would be in the 2000s, and they effectively introduced the main character syndrome: with your walkman and headphones, you were the star of your own film with an incredible and ubiquitous soundtrack. .
1990s: all new retro
As new technology introduced higher quality portable music formats – portable CD players, portable DATs if you were loaded, and later Digital Compact Cassette and MiniDisc – portable headphones also improved, although you wouldn’t always know it given the shoddy models that often came in the box with new audio hardware. It was great for the third-party market, though, and the growing popularity of portable audio meant no one thought you were a weird loner if you wore your headphones out in public. In fact, they’ve become a sign of pride: in the 1990s, big, closed-back headphones were a sign that you took your music more seriously than the foam-eared brigade. Maybe you were a DJ!
With headphones being firmly in the trendy category, headphone design spread into all sorts of interesting places in the 90s: headbands, headbands, ear cups, ear cups and open ears showed up in all imaginable shapes and sizes.
2001: Apple changes everything
In 2001, Apple launched the iPod. You may have heard of it. It wasn’t the first hard disk digital music player and some would say it wasn’t the best either, but it became the Walkman of digital music and made digital music mainstream. The headphones weren’t exactly great, but they were a sign that you were cool enough to have an iPod, and the Apple-inspired commercials made them the stars of the show.
2004: sort of blue
Bluetooth, named after the 10th century Danish king Harald Bluetooth, was launched in 1999 as a way to wirelessly connect microphones and headphones. It wasn’t initially used for music because frankly the sound quality was terrible, but it became popular among business and professional drivers; For a time, flashing Bluetooth headphones made every street vendor or taxi driver look like one of the Borg from Star Trek.
That’s not to say there weren’t Bluetooth headphones for music; the first products hit the market in 2004. They just weren’t very good.
2007: the iPhone arrives
Like the iPod, the iPhone was not the first of its kind. But history repeated itself, or at least rhymed, and the iPhone put an iPod in everyone’s pocket. Intense competition in the smartphone market meant large sums of money spent on research and development, and the results – ever smaller and more efficient batteries; ever-improving versions of Bluetooth; software-based noise suppression; improvements in materials and manufacturing technology, etc., would soon impact all sorts of devices, including headphones.
Bluetooth headphones became huge in the 2010s, with brands such as Beats dominating the mass market. The sound quality wasn’t there yet for the audiophile market, but it was heading in the right direction.
Yes, Apple again – and stop us if you’ve heard this before. AirPods weren’t the first wireless headphones, and they weren’t the best either. But they were a huge hit and dominated the headphone market in 2020. They had been in development for a long time – the first recognizable patent was filed in 2011 – and part of their success was due to Apple abandoning the plug headphones from the 2016.7 iPhone, instantly making wired headphones extremely painful to use.
This decision may have been hugely unpopular and hugely criticized at the time, but it cemented the place of wireless headphones as the present and future of mobile audio and set the blueprint for what expect: great sound, easy pairing, and the ability to find them if you’ve misplaced them.
2022: What now?
The final step in wireless headphone technology is to overcome its Achilles heel: bandwidth. Bluetooth can only stream a limited amount of data, and in basic Bluetooth, that’s not enough for truly high-res audio. But Bluetooth aptX HD and Sony’s equivalent, LDAC, are vast improvements, and there’s also aptX Adaptive and aptX Lossless to take it even further.
I’m currently testing a pair of aptX Adaptive headphones and the sound quality is truly amazing – and the headphones cost no more than a pair of AirPods Pro. Just when you thought wireless headphones couldn’t get any better, they got even better.