From Iron to iPod: A Brief History of Headphones

Like most technologies today, we use headphones without much thought to their origin. But where did they come from? The journey of the headphone began more than a century ago.

In the early 1900s, sound was transmitted across telephone wires as electrical impulses. When these impulses reached their destination, transducers made of iron vibrated, which transmitted sound. These iron transducers enabled the creation of the first headphones, which were bulky, uncomfortable and not at all portable or flexible in the vein of modern headphones. Sound reception was not very good with these early models, but words could be made out well enough to give “moving-iron headphones” a home in the radio industry until the 1950s.

What happened in the ’50s that was so monumental? American inventor John Koss, whose microphone design and manufacturing business is still operational today, pioneered stereo headphones, which allowed average consumers in their living rooms to enjoy studio-quality audio recordings. Iron transducers were replaced by microphone transducers, and eventually Koss created the first electrostatic headphones. While stereo technology had existed since the 1930s, it was not until LPs, or long-playing record albums, went mainstream in the U.S. in the late 1940s and early ’50s that stereo headphones had a purpose for the masses. Electrostatic headphones employ a driver consisting of “a thin, electrically charged diaphragm … suspended between two perforated metal plates,” also called electrodes, that “create an electrical field” when the electrical sound signal is applied (“Headphones” wiki). By today’s standards these headphones were still pretty shoddy, but Koss’s discoveries would soon prove important to up-and-coming contemporary, Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation.

Tokyo Telecommunications became Sony, who in 1979 released the Walkman, a portable audio cassette player that revolutionized the way people listened to music. No longer was music relegated to the home, the car radio, or the jukebox in the bar — people could hear their favorite songs anywhere they took their Walkman, and booming sales around the world proved the idea’s popularity. Headphones were retooled with portability in mind, and the circumaural design replaced by a supra-aural design — headphones now sat atop the ears instead of around them, which was more comfortable for wearers and technically better at blocking external noise. The Walkman came with one pair of MDR-3L2 headphones, whose technical design remained the popular choice for personal stereos well into the 1980s.

As portable music players , or PMPs, continued to evolve, so did headphones. In-ear headphones, also called earbuds, earphones or canalphones, developed in the late 1990s, rising to prominence in the new millennium because of their small size, portability, comfort and negligible cost. While the circumaural or supra-aural designs remain the model of choice for DJs and professional music producers because they are better at isolating music from environmental noise, average consumers — the small “hipster” contingent aside — prefer in-ear headphones. Essentially in-ear headphones function like ear plugs, closing off the ear canal. This enables high-quality listening at lower volumes, but might also be dangerous: studies link improper earbud use to hearing loss.

Still though, in-ear headphones are today one of the defining technologies of Generation Y, the “Echo Boomers” who tend to reside on the more neoliberal and digital side of life. Commercially lionized by Apple in famous iPod campaigns, in-ear headphones are ubiquitous and symbolize the ease and comfort of modernity. It seems almost everybody owns a pair.


Carey, D. (n.d.). The History of Headphones – Life123. Articles and Answers about Life – Life123. Retrieved April 19, 2011, from

Headphones – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (n.d.).Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved March 21, 2011, from

Walkman – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (n.d.). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved March 21, 2011, from

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