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The Evolution of Headphones

by Rishikesh Kisla August 23, 2017 5 min read

The Evolution of Headphones

Headphones have a special place in every music lover's life. From listening to John Legend when feeling loved or electrifying EDM at a dance party, there is a headphone for every mood and music. 

Remember the time your mom told you to take these loud speakers off your ears? Little do they know these cans walk you through the clouds to audio nirvana.

But how were headphones invented? How did they evolve with growth in technology? Let's go!

First Electrophone poster in LondonElectrophone setup in 1890s

In the early 1890's, headphones were  single sided heavy speaker to hold on to the ear and communicate. This later evolved into a electrophone. It was a system consisting of a stethoscope type headphone connected to a switchboard. Using this setup, the people around London could tune into the live performances happening all over London. This luxurious subscription cost around 5 pounds a year then. This hefty setup was the iPod of their times. 

The first true headphones were designed by engineer Nathan Baldwin on his kitchen table. As much as people ignored his invention, the US Navy understood his insight and bought hundreds for defense purposes. 

A decade or two later, in 1937, Beyerdynamic invented the first headphone for personal listening. Until then, headphones were a tool in the armed forces. The DT-48 from Beyerdynamic was a on-ear type headphone with a thin metal headband with two cables to connect individually. 

Nathan Baldwin's first headphone designFirst personal headphones, Beyerdynamic DT48

In 1939, across the border, in Austria, AKG invented the K-120, a headphone that sold excellent sound as well as style. They were designed with an on-ear high quality audio driver and a thin chic looking headband. In short, the Beats by Dr. Dre of then.

Due to the On-going conflict in Europe, the production of these headphones was stalled during the second world war.

In 1958, Jazz musician and audio lover, John Koss saved headphones from going into the grave. With the invention of Koss SP-3, the first stereo over-ear headphones, revolutionized headphones for personal listening. They were just speakers wrapped in soft cloth and a split headband. Design was not a prime point but they inspired other audio engineers worldwide to get into the headphone market.

Koss SP3, first stereo headphonesKoss beatlephones popular in the US

In 1960s and 70s, Koss dominated the headphone market in US. This being the age of new teenage music, Rock and roll kept people engaged in music.With the rise of the Beatles, Koss endorsed the Beatlephones, a signature Koss headphone with a Beatles sticker on it.

Around the same time, STAX invented the first electrostatic headphones, the SR-1. They were the ultimate clarity headphones for then.

Then came a decade of standstill with no new inventions in the headphone industry.

All of a sudden, with an advancement in transport and logistics, there was a need for portability. This is the time when the most popular device in the industry was handy to every tom,dick and harry. In 1979, Sony introduced the Walkman, a portable stereo player. This came bundled with their first portable headphone, the MDR 3L2. It was a simple on-ear design with thin sliding metal headbands. Well, everyone born before the 2000s feels nostalgic and relates to this design. 

Not long after that, other consumer electronic brands like Philips, Onkyo got into the headphone game. They produced such reasonably priced headphones for the masses. 

Sony first walkman with MDR 3L2Sony's first neckband design On-ears

As fashion took a turn on the world, there came in the neckband design. Sony introduced a behind the neck band design with on-ear headphones. These wouldn't bother with your hair and looked cool with a minimalist design. This was the age of super aural designed headphones which sat plush on the ear with light foam padding.

Till the end of the century, these headphones ruled over the music of consumers.

While these headphones appealed to the masses, the professional and luxury audio brands shone bright in their niche. Sennheiser introduced the most popular open back transducer headphones, the Orpheus that came with it's own vacuum tube amplifier. At the same time, Beyerdynamic headphones were engaged in serving the musical needs of musicians and broadcast stations.

Sennheiser Orpheus headphone with Tube AmpBose QC1, first Noise Cancelling headphones

Bose made a mark with their Noise Cancelling technology. In the age when travel and noise was unavoidable, these headphones were a boon to your music. When Dr. Amar Bose invented Noise Cancelling headphones in 1989, they were acquired at the spur for in cabin pilots during Flights. Noise Cancelling was most beneficial for those taking flights and travelling frequently in trains. In 2000, Bose made the Quiet Comfot series QC1 available for everyone.

Other than on-ears and over-ears, in-ear headphones were also quite easily available by these consumer electronics brands. In 2001, there came a wave of cool and minimalist design. Apple introduced the iPod with those more than famous white earbuds. These earphones were the zenith of happiness for every teenager then. Donning a white earphone became a style statement. 

Apple iPod with earbud design headphonesSkullcandy lifestyle headphones

To add to the cool and funk, brands like Skullcandy, made headphones for the youth. It promised you the skateboarder lifestyle with their design.

Not long after the success of the iPod and earphones, all brands started making in-ear headphones that appealed to everyone because of the portable yet pretty good sounding nature of these earphones.

In 2004, Val Kolton introduced a headphone brand that appealed to DJs and musicians who loved bass in their music. V-Moda, brought quality audio with deep bass and durable style and design to every DJ and electronic music lover. These headphones were the epitome of style and audio for those in the electronic scene.

While none of the articles over the web mention, the first decade of the century was also the time when professional audio brands took a leap on the graph. When brands aimed at design and style, they compromised on the audio quality. Professional audio brands paid heed to the need of purists and professionals.

Beats lifestyle headphonesV-Moda M-100 DJ headphones

In 2008, two lifestyle brands made it huge in the headphone industry. Beats by Dr. Dre and Monster inspired the hip hop, rapper lifestyle with these cool looking cans. They partnered with celebrities and footballers to endorse their headphones. This appealed to every teenager who wanted that hip and cool lifestyle. Their design was simplistic with round on-ears that looked chic with a coloured headband. Focused on bass and good sound these headphones became the biggest trend in lifestyle headphones.

There are two sides to every coin. While the world was busy adapting to the cool and funky lifestyle headphones, the guys who were serious about audio got to work. This was the time when many professional and audiophile brands took a leap for the better. 

Brands such as Shure, Beyerdynamic and AKG were always present in the pro audio scene, but with rise in demand for quality audio, after 2011, many other Hi-Fi and professional audio brands started revamping their older models or brought in new headphones that appealed to the music lovers. 

With a history of over a century, headphones have today become an integral part part of everyone's music. People still debate over bass and pure audio, but to everyone's convenience and choice, there are loads of options for the perfect music companion.

Browse over our collection of headphones that cater to everyone's needs. Do call our Headphone Gurus if you're not able to make a decision about getting one.

Happy Listening.


Rishikesh Kisla
Rishikesh Kisla

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