The Evolution of Headphones

Technological advancement of the 21st century has improved almost every aspect of our lives. With modern gadgets, comfort and convenience are at their peak and further improvements are being made side by side. The case of modern-day headphones is pretty much the same. What once started off as a concept with wires and big ear covering speakers has now turned into miniature devices such as the Apple AirPods, Samsung Earbuds, and other such Bluetooth headphones. View here to learn more about airpod replacement

The Need for Headphones

The idea of inventing headphones only came when the need for multi-tasking emerged. People wanted to do other tasks whilst they were on the phone but due to one hand being occupied, many tasks could not be performed. For example, no one can bring a heavy tray from the kitchen to the other room with just one hand. As a result, the need for keeping hands operational while a person is on their phone emerged. 

Secondly, there was an increasing number of accidents seen when people used phones while performing some sensitive task. There was an increased number of accidents seen with people having one hand occupied on their phone or just using the ear and shoulder support. Therefore, it was quite essential to keep the hands free so that the driver has the optimal control of the car. 

First-Ever Headphones

The story of headphones evolving is quite an interesting one. French Engineer Ernest Mercadier patented a set of in-ear headphones for the first time in the year 1891. HE was awarded the US Patent No. 454,138. They were large speakers and were single-sided. However, there was not much development to these headphones as one such setup could cost about 5 pounds at that time which was considered a hefty sum of money. 

During the 1890s, further, development was seen at the hands of a British Company called Electrophone. This was a device that had massive earphones that were connected with a long rod from below the chin. Subscribers could listen to different types of performances, theaters, adios, and opera houses across London. It was seen as revolutionary and inspired by innovators as one of the most sophisticated ways for delivering audio. 

Things changed in 1910 when Nathaniel Baldwin invented a prototype telephone headset. Although he did this because he was unable to hear sermons on Sunday, his idea was remarkable. After offering it to the US Navy for testing, he immediately got the order of 100 sets. Baldwin’s success was just beginning because he was able to partner with many firms including Wireless Speciality Apparatus Co. to fulfill the many orders he was received by the US Defense Forces. The US Navy and others later used these devices during World War II.

How were Headphones Invented?

If we talk about the technical details, headphones that were first made were made with the telephone receiver earpiece. This earpiece, as we see today also, only provides a limited sound that can be heard in one of your ears at a time. This earpiece was connected with wires and joined to provide better audio at times of crowds, rush, or when a loud noise was not needed such as the situation of war grounds. 

The early headphone used moving iron drivers to connect the earpieces. Voice coils were used to wind around the poles of a magnet. The audio current passed through the coils and varied the magnetic field exerting a force on the diaphragm causing it to make a sound. The only issue was the requirement for high sensitivity therefore no damping was used. As a result, the poor sound quality was observed but the foundation of a future headphone was laid forward. 

Headphones in the 1920s.

Headphones in 1937

Although the idea of Baldwin had gained success there were significant improvements that could be made to make the invention an even better one. This was done by Beyerdynamic, an audio supplies manufacturing company. In 1937, the DT-48 was a model that was way better than the predecessors. With appropriate marketing strategies, it was soon famous among the public too as it was considered as the latest tech gadget. 

Since the Baldwin Headphones were only used for Defense purposes, the DT-48 rose in popularity quite soon. How were they different? They had a thin metal headband instead of the long metal rod mechanism which connected two cables to the earcups. A better, improved, and way more convenient design compared to the one that was prepared before changed the Military and Navy applications as well.

Further improvements were seen in 1949 when AKG, an Australian company, developed headphones that were quite stylish and did the same job as the DT-48. They were known as the K-120. The most interesting aspect was that during this time, the headphones were starting to become a fashion icon. 

Headphones Post 1950

By now, world war 2 had ended and the countries that were not previously participating in scientific advancement were also making a contribution now. Therefore, several developments were seen in Headphones and other equipment Post-1950s. The first pair of Stereo Headphones was created by John C. Koss named the SP-3. This was a new style for headphones which made them even more convenient. These put the sound straight into the ear canals making it an appealing invention for the youth. 

The design was quite appealing for other tech firms which believed that headphones are soon going to become a great tool for personal listening. Koss, a US-based firm, developed the ESP-6 in 1960. These were electrostatic headphones and the reason why they got so popular was the exceptionally low weight of only 2 pounds. Since the decade of 1960 to 1970 was the one with rock and roll music gaining popularity, Koss was able to dominate the entire market. Furthermore, Koss and the music band Beatles came into a sponsorship alliance. With the rise of the Beatles, Koss developed the “BeatlesPhones” which had a sticker of the band on them. 

Read more about the interesting happenings of the 1960s that shaped the pop culture of the era – Interesting Trivia About 1960s Pop Culture.

Further improvements by many companies were also seen. However, there was no major change to the overall shape, design, and audio quality which was being delivered to the users. 

A pair of supra-aural (on-ear) headphones model SR-60. 

Perhaps the revolutionary change was seen with the concept of Sony Walkman coming in. This was probably the one thing that increased the demand for portability as well as items such as headphones. The Sony Walkman was introduced in 1979 which was a battery-operated portable stereo player. Side by side, it came with the portable headphone named MDR-3L2. With a simpler on-ear design and a music player in the pocket, the symbolism of being cool was seen among the youth. 

Other brands soon followed this because Sony Walkman became one of the hottest selling items in the market. Phillips and Onkyo entered the market starting a competition based on various factors of product and price differentiation. During the 1980s, the next pair of headphones was made with a major difference. The wires in these headphones were smaller and thinner compared to the Sony Walkman. Moreover, the in-ear buds concept was introduced and full ear covering was no longer there. 

Sony Walkman was a very popular MP3 Player

2000 and Onwards

If we compare the advancement of 100 years with the few years of the 2000 century, there is a remarkable difference. In these few years, the headphone design improved on a major scale. For the first time in the market, the noise cancellation headsets were introduced by Bose. They had a better audio quality and reduced the external noise to maximum. These headphones turned a blessing in areas with high noise such as airports, construction buildings, as well as generally crowded areas. 

In 2001, Apple entered the industry and introduced the iPod with white earbuds. Thin wires and very small earpieces came along with a music player which again made it a fashion icon. The white earphones became a statement of style. 

What was more interesting post-2000s was that all of a sudden, big headphones were again introduced in the market. With very soft earpieces with foam and big-sized headsets, they offered high-quality sound. With artists such as Dr. Dre starting their own line of headphones, headphones were being sold in quantities of millions per month. Beats by Dr. Dre still remains one of the most popular brands of headphones.

Learn more about MP3 Players and how they evolved – A Quick Guide to MP3 – What it Is and How it Changed the Music Industry.

Modern headphones had maximum comfort for the ears

The Biggest Leap

If we talk about the biggest leap of the era, it was the time when headphones became wireless. Firstly, it was the big headsets and not the smaller earpieces. The big headsets operated with the help of Bluetooth, a short-range signal communication technology. Bluetooth-enabled sets became popular soon for more comfort and convenience. Many people claimed that the wires often used to get stuck and were a bother. Therefore, wireless headsets were the perfect solution. 

Bass Boosted songs became more common. Therefore, the modern headphones also had certain additional settings for an improved bass quality. Equalizers were introduced that allowed the sound quality to be adjusted accordingly. In 2015, another major change was seen when W800 BT was introduced at the IFA Show in Berlin. These were individual earpieces that were completely wireless. Companies such as Apple and Samsung kept on improving the design. Today, we see the wireless charging pods as well as wireless headsets that are smaller than the size of a human thumb. The quality of audio has improved and the sound feels more real than ever. 

Today we can see on this chart provided by Illuminating Facts that wireless headphones are clearly dominating the market with products such as Airpods and others becoming increasingly popular.


size of the smart headphone market in the united states by product from 2014 to 2022 in million US dollars


From being weighed at more than 2.5 pounds to just 39 grams, the headphones have evolved in numerous ways. Companies like Apple and Samsung are constantly trying to eliminate wired headphones by promoting more wireless headsets as well as removing the “headphone jack” in most of their cellular devices. We believe that there are going to be more improvements in the headphone designs in the near future.