Headphones are a multi-billion dollar industry in 2023 and are only expected to keep growing at a rapid pace. Their annual volume is expected to rise to a staggering 1.32bn pieces by 2028.
Headphones have also made our lives infinitely easier by allowing us to listen to things privately and added features such as noise canceling. Our lives would be way different without these devices.
But have headphones always existed in the shape and form that they do today? How were the very first headphones invented, and how have they evolved since then? And what is to come in the future. We’ll answer all these questions and more today, so tune in and keep reading.
Earliest History of Headphones
Here’s a rundown of some of the very first versions of the headphones.
The 1880s – The Switchboard Operator by Ezra Gilliland
The earliest version of headphones started in the 1800s. They were different in shape and form. But their invention is why we have headphones as we see them today.
Ezra Gilliland invented the first-ever headphones, also the inventor of the telephone switchboard. His idea was to develop something allowing telephone operators to work hands-free.
What resulted was a device that weighed around 4.5 kg. It consisted of a single earpiece that rested on the operator’s shoulder. Needless to say, this device was far from convenient. But it was the start of a new technology.
1891 – Ernest Mercadier’s ‘Bi-Telephone’ – The First in-Ear Buds
French Engineer Ernest Mercadier patented what looked close to modern-day in-ear earphones in the early 1890s.
Mercadier managed to produce something that weighed less than 50 grams. He was awarded US Patent No. 454,138 for improving telephone receivers. This new design was light enough to be carried by operators.
The receivers were designed to be inserted in the ear and had a rubber cover. Their function also resembles modern earphone silicone buds with passive noise isolation features.
Their purpose was “to lessen the friction against the orifice of the ear… effectually close the ear to external sounds.” said Mercadier in his book Bitelephone.
1890’s – Electrophone and the First Listening Subscription
The electrophone was invented in the 1890s in England. They popularized tuning into live performances around the country, like Theatres, Operas, and even church sermons. These worked on a yearly subscription basis, similar to modern-day streaming services.
Hidden mics in theaters and churches captured the sound that was then transmitted to the home of listeners to enjoy.
It was slightly different in structure, though, resembling a modern-day stethoscope. There were a pair of receivers you would rest on your ears, connected to a stick at the bottom.
Despite the revolutionary idea, the service was low on subscribers, with only 50 subscribers in 1896. When they started seeing an increase in subscribers, wireless radio receivers made them lose half their subscribers, and The Electrophone Company went out of business.
The Evolution of Headphones in the 20th Century
Here is how innovators in the 20th Century took pre-existing headphone designs and made further improvements.
1910 – Nathaniel Baldwin – First Audio Headphones
Nathaniel Baldwin created a device to amplify the sounds of sermons at his Mormon temple. He tinkered around with copper wiring in his kitchen and created something that could receive sound without electricity. His design also shaped the closed-back ear cup we use for headphones today.
No investor was interested, but the US Navy caught their interest and ordered his headphones for their radio inventors. His invention took off after that.
1958 – John Koss – Private Listening System
Before 1958, headphones were limited to the military and telephone operators. This changed with John C. Koss, who invented the first SP/3 Stereophone for private listening.
These were the first headphones invented for private listening and popularized the culture of music listening.
1960 – Radio Headphones – First Wireless Headphones
Before Bluetooth was invented, there were still wireless headphones. These were called “radio headphones” and used built-in radio antennas to catch frequencies and speakers in padded ear cups. These headphones allowed people to listen without having any wires attached.
Radios were all the rage back then, so something like this was huge and gained popularity.
The Digital Age of Headphones
The digital age is when the pace of development started picking up speed, and many of the features we see today got developed.
1979 – The Walkman
Headphones were mainly used at home for many years because they were bulky and had no portable audio sources.
The Walkman revolutionized portable headphones, and they could be taken around anywhere.
Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka wanted something to listen to music on flights. The first Walkman was released in 1979 and became a huge hit.
Walkman also offered the chance to listen to your own music instead of the radio. So, the invention of the Walkman made cassette tapes more popular. The Walkman came with a headphone that had a metal headband and foam ear cups.
They didn’t offer the best quality, so the demand for third-party headphones increased, and competitors quickly started getting to work.
1989 – Bose Corporation – First Noise Canceling Headphones
Noise cancellation was a technology that had existed before 1989 but was not available to the regular consumer. Dr. Lawrence Fogel created it to reduce noise for aviation pilots. This technology protected their hearing and made communication easier.
In 1989, with the work of Dr. Amar Bose and the Bose Corporation, the world’s first commercially available Noise Cancellation headsets were introduced. They were called “Series I Aviation Headset” and had a battery life of 8 hours.
These became available in first-class and business-class cabins in several American airlines. These headphones were provided to cancel out aircraft engine noises and protect hearing.
2001 – Apple iPods – First Popular Earbuds
Earbuds were first introduced in the 80s and 90s. They were small enough to fit inside the ear, and companies packaged them with portable music players in the 90s. Earbuds didn’t reach their popularity until 2001.
In 2001, Apple released their iPods and earbuds, revolutionizing headphone design. Until then, everyone had been using the foamy headphones with the Walkman (which didn’t sound great), so this was a welcome change.
These were tiny compared to other headphones and came with the iPod, which became a revolution in portable listening.
The iPod and their earbuds quickly became a style icon. If someone was caught sporting these on the daily commute, they were considered cool.
Just as trends go, the iPods gave rise to a lot of competition, and there was a massive demand in the market for lightweight earbuds.
2004 – The Rise of Bluetooth
Bluetooth technology existed before, but the first true Bluetooth headphones were introduced in 2004. It had been under work since the 1990s, but earlier versions were limited to calls; they couldn’t handle streaming music.
They were a dream come true in an era of tangled cables. They were smaller in size and also easier to carry around.
2015 – Okonyo – World’s First Truly Wireless Earphones
Bluetooth technology had been around for a while, but no one had created truly wireless earbuds. That is when a Japanese brand called Onkyo stepped up and revealed the world’s first truly wireless earphones.
The Onkyo W800BT contained all the control within the earphones, an on/off switch, volume controls, and a mic.
This doesn’t mean that it didn’t come without issues. They would not stand against the current wireless earphones with their bad connectivity and battery issues.
Ultimately, the W800BT paved the way for wireless earphones today.
Current Trends in Headphone Design and Innovation
Here are some recent innovations that have taken place in the world of headphones.
2021 – World’s First Solar-Powered Headphones
Just when we thought the evolution in the world of headphones had reached its peak, Urbanista, a Swedish audio brand, came up with the world’s first solar-powered wireless headphones.
The Urbanista Los Angeles headphones are priced at $199.0 and Rs 22,999. These headphones can convert all forms of indoor and outdoor light into energy used to run these headphones. They also have an active noise-cancellation feature.
You can use these outside or wear them indoors in a well-lit room, and they’ll keep adding energy. Urbanista recommends leaving them by the window when you’re not using them.
Since then, even Adidas has come out with their own pair of headphones that charge using solar energy.
2022 – First Solar-Powered Earbuds
Urbanista, the maker of the world’s first pair of solar-powered headphones, also came out with Urbanista Phoenix. The world’s first truly wireless earbuds that use solar energy also come with active noise canceling.
Urbanista joined forces with Exeger, a Swedish company that makes Powerfolye, a thin plastic film that turns solar light into energy. Urbanista Phoenix uses Powerfoyle on their charging case; the case is continuously charging, both in outdoor and indoor light.
The active noise canceling feature has a dedicated mic to pick up and filter out sounds.
The Future of Headphones
Compared to today’s smartphones and smartwatches, headphones still have limited features. They cannot go beyond the manufacturer’s pre-installed features and limited customization options, or can they?
What if headphones could install new features, and you could customize them however you wanted? This is the vision of Sonical, a company proposing a separate Operating System for headphones, earbuds, and others in the earwear category called CosmOS.
An OS’s ability to install new apps, upgrade to the latest processors, and much more make them useful. They will ensure a consistent experience throughout all the devices you’re using. If this becomes a reality, it will be a true game-changer in the world of headphones.
Sonical’s vision goes beyond audio features; they are thinking well being, gaming, augmentation reality, and much more. They even announced a partnership with Segotia to bring medical applications such as measuring in-ear heart rates and temperature. This technology will also cater to people with hearing problems and get audio augmentation and enhancement.
All of this sounds great in theory, but it’s still in the making and will take some time to come out. Sonical’s CosmOS is in the prototype stage of development, and we are eagerly waiting to hear from them.
Headphones have come a long way since their first version, weighing a hefty 4.5 kgs. Some of today’s headphones weigh no more than a few grams and are small enough to fit inside your pockets. They also come packed with features such as water resistance, active noise cancellation, and now even solar charging.
But just when you think innovation has reached its peak, there is still so much more to come.
Just as the users of early-stage headphones couldn’t have envisioned the headphones of today, there’s so much room for growth for every technology, more than we are capable of imagining.
Samreen Parvez found her love for tech by messing around with the settings on her family’s old digital cameras. This led to a passion for different gadgets and a fascination with all the things they can do. Her interest in all things tech related, combined with a love for writing and research, led her to craft content at Tech Wizard.