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When Were Headphones Invented

Last updated: 10 months ago
7 min read

Today you have the luxury of choosing between a wide plethora of headphone types, from over-ear, in-ear, wired, wireless, bone conducting, … you name it. However, every type has its beginning.

Let us take you on a journey from the first-ever headphone invention to the latest and greatest headphone industry can offer. Discover when we got:

  • First headphones
  • First earbuds
  • First Bluetooth headphones, and many more

And while we’re at it, let’s peek at what the future might bring.

When were headphones invented
CONTENTS (show more)

    1880: Gilliland Harness

    The first idea of a wearable speaker that sits close to your ears was born soon after the birth of the telephone.

    The latter was invented in 1876, boasting a rather clunky design. A more familiar cradle phone that you hold next to your ears came into use just a few years after.

    10 pound headphones Gilliland harness
    Harness freed up your arms, which is genius but rather awkward to use.

    However, Ezra Gilliland came up with the idea for telephone operators to wear the speaker and the microphone on their shoulders instead of holding the phone.

    People call it “the 10-pound headphone”, but technically that was a “Gilliland harness“, not a headphone. Nevertheless, the design was really bulky and heavy and didn’t catch on.

    1891: The First Earbuds

    First gadget that looked like in-ear headphones was invented about a decade after the Gilliland harness by French engineer Ernest Mercadier. “Bi-telephone’s” (as it was called) purpose was to make a telephone operator’s job a bit easier.

    First earbuds design
    The bi-telephone design ensured an easier wearing experience compared to a bulky and heavy harness.

    The design already included a rubber cover or an “ear tip” to prevent ear canal irritations and provide a little passive isolation.

    1890s: The First Audio Subscription Service (Electrophone)

    You heard it right; people of London could subscribe to listen to live theater shows via a telephone line. To do that, they needed to use an on-ear style of headphones that you held in hand.

    Electrophone first subscription
    As seen in the right image, up to 4 people could enjoy listening to live performances.

    The subscription to a private listening system “only” cost them £5 per year. That’s £822 or $1,044 in today’s money.

    1910: The First Audio Headphones

    Nathaniel Baldwin invented headphones that resemble modern headphones over 110 years ago in his kitchen. Not only did they look like typical headphones (headband, two padded earcups), but the transducers were also more sensitive and easy to drive without external power.

    First headphones Nathaniel Baldwin
    First ever true headphones that started it all.

    He later contracted with the US Navy to deliver 100 of his headphones, which is quite a task since Nathaniel made them all by hand. However, his biggest mistake was not to patent the design, considering it “trivial”.

    One interesting fact about the first audio headphones is that they had 2,000 ohms.

    Honorable mention: Beyerdynamic DT 48 in 1937

    Beyerdynamic, who was first making cinema speakers, made rather nice-looking headphones, the first ones from their still-running DT line (DT stands for “dynamic telephone”).

    Studio engineers and broadcasters used them, but they played in mono.

    1950s: The First Earphones

    The earliest mono earphones date back to the 1950s and were primarily used with small, portable transistor radios. Usually, there was just one earpiece.

    First earphones
    Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Higher-end earphones with better stereo sound started to hit the market around 1979, right around Sony’s Walkman launch.

    They were later renamed as in-ear monitors or IEMs because musicians initially used them and later massively funded them to replace monitoring stage speakers.

    1958: The First Stereo Headphones

    Two-channel stereo was developed in 1937 and originally intended to improve the movie viewing experience. After 19 years, stereo was finally available to put on your head.

    The first headphones (or stereophones) that could actually output stereo sound (each driver playing a different sound) were developed by John Koss, the Koss SP-3.

    Koss SP/3 first stereo headphones
    Koss SP-3 dynamic headphones on the left and Koss SP-3X on the right.

    Earcups were made of plastic to keep the weight down, with sofa-foam ear pads to improve comfort. The headphones were massive, as they housed a huge 76mm dynamic speaker made of paper.

    That said, their sound was thin, bland, and purely midrange-centric (based on measurements). That’s rather disappointing, considering the price. Koss SP-3X were selling for $24.95, which is today’s equivalent of $256.

    About 8 years later, in 1966, Koss introduced Beatlephones, Beatles-branded stereophonic headphones, and the first example of how to use celebrities to market your headphones.

    1960s: The First Wireless Headphones

    First wireless headphones aren’t what you think. These headphones had built-in antennas to catch FM/AM radio waves, so you could only listen to your favorite radio station (not for streaming your music).

    Radio headphones
    $20 sounds like a bargain, but in 1960 that was equivalent to around $200 in today’s money.

    Because of the additional hardware and batteries to provide energy, these radio headphones were rather bulky, so the wearer looked a bit funny.

    On the other hand, they were a good solution for people who wanted to listen to the radio but had difficulties hearing it across the room.

    1968: The First Open Back Headphones

    It took Sennheiser 23 years to finally produce their first hi-fi stereo headphones, the Sennheiser HD 414, which were also the first open-back headphones.

    Sennheiser HD 414 original box
    Sennheiser HS 414 original packaging. Source: Head-Fi

    What made them popular was their lightweight, portable design and airy sound, thanks to their open design. Fun fact: Sennheiser still sells replacement parts for the HD 414.

    1979: The First Portable Headphones

    With the arrival of Walkman, Sony’s famous portable cassette player that sold over 200 million units, more efficient headphones were needed to run with low-powered devices.

    Sony MDR-3l2 were the first portable headphones to come with Walkman. However, people who wanted better sound quality searched for alternatives, so many other manufacturers started making headphones.

    Original Sony Walkman
    Sony Walkman’s design changed over the years, but this was the first ever version.

    The latter exploded in the 1980s and 1990s with the arrival of many other portable players. The first portable CD player, the D-50 or “Discman”, was also made by Sony in 1984.

    1989: The First Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones

    To protect aviators’ hearing and to ensure easier communication with the rest of the crew and the control tower, Bose introduced the Series I Aviation Headset.

    First noise cancelling headphones
    First active noise canceling headphones, Bose Series I Aviation Headset. Source: AOPA and Pop Mech

    Headsets were the first to use a noise-cancelling technology similar to the one we use today. They were powered by batteries (8-hour battery life) or by an airplane’s power.

    Interestingly, the idea of cancelling noise with the opposite noise dates back to 1933 by German doctor Paul Lueg. The idea first materialized in the 1950s, but only after Bose’s headsets, it became a staple in aviation and the military.

    1994: The First Bone Conduction Headphones

    Bone conduction was discovered in the 16th century, but it was first used in the 1970s to help people who are hard of hearing to hear again using BAHA implants.

    It took another 20 years to realize that sportspeople and even the military could use the technology thanks to full environmental awareness. So, the first bone conduction headphones, patented by Werner Bottesch, flocked the market.

    Mojawa Mojo2 O Bones transducers
    Bone conduction headphones today are small and inconspicuous, but they still suffer from rather poor sound quality.

    As a fun fact, you can order cartilage conduction headphones on Indiegogo that work by vibrating your ear cartilage and not the cheekbones.

    1999: The First Bluetooth Headphones

    Only a year after Bluetooth’s official introduction in 1998, the first Bluetooth headphone arrived at the COMDEX show.

    First Bluetooth headphone headset
    The first-ever Bluetooth headset displayed at the COMDEX show kickstarted the wireless revolution.

    It was basically the first hands-free headset for making phone calls while doing other things, like driving. The design caught on among businesspeople.

    The first stereo Bluetooth headphones were released in 2004, the same year as Bluetooth 2.0. Also, in the same year, Earl and Cedric Woolfork invented high-quality audio over Bluetooth technology.

    2001: The First EarPods

    At the turn of the new century, Apple announced the most iconic portable music player, the iPod, and with it, the EarPods.

    First Earpods design
    The first ever Apple EarPods have a shorter stem.

    MP3 players existed years before, but iPods made them cool. Apple also revealed iTunes and the new way of purchasing music digitally.

    As for the EarPods, they came in a shiny white plastic housing and offered a decent sound for the time. Their design made them stand out, letting others know you have an iPod. The same fashion status symbol still applies to modern Apple headphones.

    2008: The First Beats by Dre Headphones

    Beats by Dr. Dre was founded in 2006 by Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. Two years after, the duo released Monster Beats by Dr. Dre Studio and started an aggressive marketing campaign, pushing their headphones into the hands of celebrities.

    Monster Beats by Dre the first
    First Beats headphones were made in collaboration with the Monster brand.

    The most prominent group to promote Beats products were athletes, primarily NBA players. Early headphones weren’t known for their excellent build quality.

    2015: The First True Wireless Headphones

    Onkyo W800BT are classified as the first true wireless earbuds available to purchase. They were bulky but, overall, very similar to the TWS earbuds of today.

    As with any first model, they had a few design flaws, like the lack of playback controls, poor battery life, and subpar audio performance. They were also pricey at around $300.

    Onkyo W800BT first true wireless earbuds
    Everything about Onkyo W800BT truly wireless earbuds was bulky, but the overall aesthetics didn’t change much.

    That said, Bragi Dash were also one of the first TWS earbuds, announced at the 2015 CES. However, their Kickstarter campaign had some issues, so they started shipping to customers too late to be called “the first”.

    They’re worth mentioning because they were much more ambitious than Onkyo, with active noise cancellation and better audio quality.

    Furthermore, somewhat true wireless designs appeared even before 2010, like Sennheiser MX W1, which came with a cradle for earbuds to charge and a separate transmitter.

    However, because you had to connect the transmitter to your audio device via a 3.5mm plug, the entire package was only partially wire-free.

    2017: The First AirPods

    After shaking the music and smartphone world with the iPod and the iPhone, Apple made the next big move by ditching the beloved headphone jack and introducing Apple AirPods.

    Apple AirPods 2 and AirPods Pro
    Comparison between Apple AirPods 2 (visually identical to AirPods 1) and AirPods Pro.

    What made them stand out was how small and light they were, how well they worked with other Apple devices, and the various features and controls they offered. The AirPods Pro model was released in 2019.

    AirPods are still the most-sold Bluetooth headphones on the market.

    Headphones of the Future

    In the near future, Bluetooth headphones will probably pack even more features than they do now. They could become a standalone device, like a smartwatch, locally storing music, measuring your heart rate, etc.

    Advancements in electronics manufacturing will also bring more powerful and smaller chips for ANC, DSP, and amplification. One day, in conjunction with newer Bluetooth versions, Bluetooth will transmit lossless audio data.

    Furthermore, you might see some new driver or battery technology for better sound and energy efficiency, but nothing regarding radical design changes.

    However, as Elon Musk’s Neuralink decided to start implanting chips into the human brain, you might argue that the next big step is to listen to music without headphones but via a brain chip.

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

    When were headphones invented?

    The first headphones (that look like the headphones of today) were invented in 1910 by Nathaniel Baldwin. However, the first stereo headphones meant for music listening were made in 1958 by Koss.

    Who invented headphones?

    American engineer Nathaniel Baldwin first invented audio headphones, but John C. Koss was the first to invent stereo headphones, the Koss SP-3. Moreover, Amar Bose was the first to invent active noise-cancelling headphones.

    Who invented earphones?

    Ernest Mercadier invented a bi-telephone, an earphone-looking headphone that you wear like a stethoscope. It was used only for telecommunication purposes.

    When did the first modern stereo headphones come out?

    The first modern stereo headphones for commercial use came out in 1958. They called them Koss SP-3.

    Conclusion

    Over 100 years of headphone innovation took us to where we are right now. And with the fast advancements in headphone technology, who knows what headphones might look like in 10 or 20 years? It’s going to be very interesting.

    What past headphone design do you find the most fascinating? Do you still prefer wired headphones over wireless, or have you already fully committed to a wireless future?

    Let us know in the comments.

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