Paper

In-Ear Headphones:
An Inquiry Into Its History, Technological Merits and Social Consequences

Abstract

This paper presents an inquiry into the history, technological merits and social consequences of in-ear headphones. Through a multifaceted examination into in-ear headphones, this paper synthesizes the research findings in regards to the preceding three areas of focus, as well as discusses the supplemental media components that help communicate the project to both an academic and a general audience. The primary findings of the project indicate that in-ear headphones display a non-linear history, innovation in the efficiency of its design and technology continue in industry, and that two main, negative social consequences arise—the potential for hearing loss and social isolation or loneliness.
Keywords: in-ear headphones, technology, stereo sound, hearing loss, social isolation

Introduction

Headphones are a small pair of loudspeakers meant for individual use. They are designed to be used close to one’s ears and to connect to a single source of audio. They are also known as stereophones, headsets, cans, or earphones, which is a special type that is designed for in-ear use (“Headphones”). In-ear headphones are the most modern type of headphones, an evolution on design that celebrates compactness and high sound quality. In-ear headphones are highly personal technological objects, which we constantly pair and un-pair with our digital devices on a daily basis. They have become a standard accessory that accompanies the purchase of many personal digital technologies, such as digital music players, mobile phones and tablet computers. As of late, they have even become a fashion statement, personalizing and accessorizing yet another part of one’s identity. In-ear headphones have the ability to transport one into another place and time, or can simply block out the current place and time altogether. There is ritual in their use, and appeal in their aesthetic. Most importantly, in-ear headphones are consequential as a technology whose penetration into modern day life is impressive and robust.

This paper explores in-ear headphones from both historic and technological contexts in order to better understand the social consequences that may arise from their personal/individual use and presence in society. This paper also attempts to “unpack” the technology in order to understand how it is or is not linear, efficient, apolitical and grand—tenets of the study of the fundamentals of technology.This paper begins with research focused on the historical and technical aspects of in-ear headphones in order to better understand the potential social consequences that may arise. In an attempt to study the technology as consequential, many questions emerge. How do in-ear headphones affect inter-personal relationships? What are their effects on industry as it pertains to consuming content, especially regarding television/film/media? Has their design been locked in, with more efficient alternatives perhaps available? One of the reasons we are studying in-ear headphones is because their design is a seeming evolution based on efficiency and compactness. Is their value related to actual audio quality, or the freedom and individual liberty associated with its use? Are in-ear headphones branded by aesthetic, akin to Apple’s iconic white ear buds? Answering many of these questions will aid in a better understanding of the technology’s place in society, both historically and temporally, allowing for a proper unpacking of the “black box.” In-ear headphones: liberating personal technology or social provocateur?

Context and Content

History
Like many technologies the history of in-ear headphones is nonlinear in its development, and an investigation into its past offers a sometimes surprising look into its origination. Its beginnings trace back to the early twentieth century with roots in the telephone. At the time, telephone users would hold a single, mobile earpiece up to their ear to hear the person on the other line while simultaneously speaking into a stationary receiver. What developed out of this telephonic earpiece was the desire to have dual earpieces as a way to make telephone calling a more comfortable experience (“Listen Closely,” 2008).

Interestingly, no one has been able to credit a single individual or organization for inventing headphones, alluding to its non-linear development. Some credit Nathaniel Baldwin for inventing headphones in 1910, perhaps because his company, The Baldwin Radio Company, subsequently generated $2 million in annual sales (Bagley, 2001). However, headphones development was also politicized with the involvement of the United States Navy prior to World War I when its Radio Division contracted out the custom design of headphones for use by its personnel. In fact, continued requests by the Navy’s Bureau of Steam Engineering for cheaper and more comfortable radio headsets acted as a catalyst in the continued innovation of the design of headphones at the time (Howeth, 1963). Moreover, a company called Beyerdynamic began marketing some of the world’s first headphones to consumers in the 1930s, furthering the perception of decentralized invention and introduction of headphones to the world (“Listen Closely,” 2008).

It was not until the 1950s, however, that headphones truly hit the mainstream. In 1958, jazz musician John C. Koss invented stereo headphones, which finally provided full amplitude of sound. His headphones and his company were a commercial success with musicians and consumers alike buying his portable headphones. They were successful because audio playback hardware at the time was exceptionally heavy and not portable (Holmes, 2006 p. 162). Koss’ rather large design was the industry standard until the introduction of Sony’s Walkman in 1979, which established smaller, lighter headphones designs well into the 1980s and 1990s (“Listen Closely,” 2008).

In-ear headphones are a fairly recent innovation in the over one hundred year history of headphones, largely evolving from the increasing obsession over compactness. Like its many predecessors whose designs evolved over the years with innovations fueling advancements, its origins remain inexact. However, most agree that it came into existence during the 1990s as personal music players continued to be popular (“Headphones”). Apple, the fashionable computer and electronics company, has also helped popularize in-ear headphones in the new century by bundling their now-iconic white earbuds with every iPod and iPhone purchase. As will later be explored, the success of in-ear headphones as a consumer product as well as its pervasiveness in everyday life poses potential social consequences. What are the implications of this seemingly banal technology when every individual is seemingly “plugged in”?

Technological Merits
In The Routledge Guide to Music Technology the authors define headphones as, “An audio device designed to fit over the ears, presenting each with a mini loudspeaker. The purpose is to allow for individual listening, without disturbance to others nearby, and to focus the listening experience by eliminating much environmental noise” (Holmes, 2006 p. 133). This very rudimentary definition helps explain the function of in-ear headphones, and in particular points to individual listening and environmental noise as tenets of the technology, which are both later explored as social consequences. However, by “opening the black box” of in-ear headphones technology one is able to better understand the underlying technical merits and can look to the future for continued innovations.

There are four main types of headphones: circumaural, supra-aural, earbuds/earphones, and in-ear monitors/canalphones. The first two types are over-the-ear headphones, while the second two are in-ear headphones. Circumaural headphones, sometimes called full size headphones, have circular pads that surround the ear and are often large and heavy. Supra-aural headphones have circular pads that sit on top of the ear and are smaller and more lightweight than circumaural headphones. This type was often bundled with personal music players in the 1980s and 1990s, demonstrating mass adoption. Earphones or earbuds are small headphones that are placed directly outside of the ear canal, and are the most popular type of headphones because they are lightweight, compact and inexpensive. This type continues to be bundled with digital music players and mobile phones. Finally, in-ear monitors or canalphones, so called because they are inserted directly into the ear canal, are excellent at blocking outside noise because of their snug fit, but are often more expensive because of advanced noise-canceling technology (“Headphones”).

All headphones utilize transducers to power them, with the majority using the dynamic driver principle. An electroacoustic transducer is defined as, “Any type of device that either converts an electrical signal into sound waves (as in a loudspeaker) or converts a sound wave into an electrical signal (as in the microphone)” (“Electroacoustic transducer”). Transducers are the backbone behind all headphones and most loudspeakers, too. The earliest headphones transducers utilized moving iron drivers, which physically moved to create soundwaves and produced low sound quality (“Headphones”). Today’s headphones utilize the dynamic driver principle, which is the most common type of transducer that powers most all in-ear headphones, headphones and loudspeakers. Dynamic drivers work by feeding an audio signal through a tiny, lightweight coil of wire that turns the coil into an electromagnet. Sound is produced when the coil is lowered into a constant and powerful magnetic field, which is located in a focused area that is usually conical in shape (this is why in-ear headphones are shaped the way they are!) Finally, this combination of the produced electromagnet with the fixed magnetic field reacts, produces varying, repelling magnetic fields that produce sound (“Dynamic”).

While it is transducers that power in-ear headphones, other basic technological elements apply, creating rich, affordable sound for consumers. Most in-ear headphones exhibit low impedance, while other types of headphones exhibit high impedance. Acoustic impedance is essentially a mathematical equation that denotes sound frequency and energy. It is most useful, however, in determining requisite levels of power or energy to efficiently power in-ear headphones (“Acoustic impedance”). In-ear headphones and most other personal types of headphones that are used with personal music devices require low power, exhibiting low impedance, while more commercial types of headphones that are used in studio settings require high power, exhibiting high impedance (“Headphones”). In this instance, this personal technology is actually very efficient in managing power resources. Additionally, “Headphones may transmit monaural signals, when both ears receive the same signal, or stereo signals, when the left and right ear receive the same portions of the signal as full size loudspeakers do” (Holmes, 2006 p. 162). Most in-ear headphones today transmit stereo signals because it offers a fuller and richer sound experience.

Noise-isolating and noise-canceling, as well as wireless listening technologies are currently driving the innovation in the field. Noise-canceling technology began early on in the history of in-ear headphones, again pointing to the non-linear development of the technologies driving its development. In 1933, a German patent was issued to Paul Lueg for his concept of active noise cancellation, which proposed the possibility of attenuating background noise by superimposing a phase flipped wave. It was not until 1978, however, when research and development of active noise reduction (ANR) headphones began in earnest under the leadership of Dr. Amar Bose. The patent from the 1930s was finally given momentum during this time as the invention of integrated circuits and miniature microphones enabled the existence of ANR headphones (Benoit, p. 1). It is important to differentiate between noise-isolating and noise-canceling. Noise-isolating technology simply isolates noise by design, exhibiting earbuds or pads that fit tightly in and against the ear canal, channeling sound into one’s ear while naturally blocking outside noise. This demonstrates that this technology is not in fact grand, but even banal because it is such a simple yet effective design. Conversely, noise-canceling technology is engineered to isolate one’s music by creating sound that cancels out unwanted, external noise (“An introduction”). It does this by utilizing tiny microphones on the outside of each earphone that take in outside noise or sound. Then, an inverse sound is produced and superimposed over the music, thus canceling out the unwanted external noise (Benoit, p. 5). Many noise-canceling in-ear headphones are high quality, but also much more expensive because of the advanced technology powering them.

Finally, wireless technologies also continue to advance and make its way to consumers. In particular, Bluetooth technology has been popularized during the last decade, though its effective use is mostly limited to mobile telephone earpieces and other small devices like the computer mouse. Like other technologies behind in-ear headphones, its development is non-linear with the first patent for “frequency hopping for secret communication” awarded in 1942. There remain challenges with adopting this wireless technology, mostly because it greatly reduces sound quality. Additionally, signal loss and interference are commonplace, so presently wireless in-hear headphones technologies like Bluetooth remain imperfect (“Listen Closely”). In addition to continued advances in wireless technology, the future of in-ear headphones may lie in using “human body communication,” which uses the body to transmit an electric signal to headphones, thus eliminating the need for both wires or otherwise (Fox, 2006). In this sense, one’s music becomes part of its body, a biological organ.

Social Consequences
In-ear headphones are verifiably consequential in social contexts, and the focus of this investigation into the technology. Academic literature into its pervasiveness in society and individual use sheds light on the implications this technology has on daily life and beyond. “Headphones are the norm. The new addiction replacing smoking, headphones frame the head and the perception of most urbanites today in some form or other. Whether one is commuting with an iPod, exercising to the radio, talking on a hands-free cell phone . . . or attentively listening to music, headphones create a mobile and continually changing architecture that follows the listener, wrapping him or her in a private bubble,” says Charles Stankievech (2007 p. 57).

The primary social consequences that arise from the use of in-ear headphones are twofold: hearing loss and social isolation. The potential for hearing loss is heightened with the use of in-ear headphones because, by design, they sit much closer to or inside the ear canal, exposing individuals to potentially harmful levels of sound. Researchers studied the effects of audiometry levels in individuals who were plugged in to personal music players. Their results suggest that long-term use of personal listening devices can, in fact, impair hearing function. The data also indicate that extended high-frequency audiometry is a sensitive method of early detection of noise-induced hearing loss (Peng, Tao & Huang, 2006). In fact, in 2008 Time published an article citing findings from the Archives of Internal Medicine, which quantified just how much of the nation is affected by hearing loss. Amazingly, the study found that 16 percent of Americans have an impaired ability to hear speech and that more than 30 percent over the age of 25—55 million Americans—have lost at least some level of high-frequency hearing (Blue, 2008). What is certain is the risk that in-ear headphones pose to one’s hearing, especially because their use is so pervasive in today’s society. Moreover, the potential for hearing loss is categorized as a negative social consequence because of how it affects individuals and their ability to effectively communicate.

The second social consequence is that of social isolation or loneliness, which is perhaps the more insidious of the two a again classified as negative. Crane (2005) suggests that the use of headphones may impede interactions with and feelings of being connected to others. The basic theory employed in this study was attachment theory, which feature two contradictory elements: (1) proximity seeking, closeness or feeling connected to a significant other while at the same time (2) using this connection as a safe haven to separate or become autonomous. Several attachment theorists believe headphones use tends to alienate those around the user who are often put off from making conversation. In addition, other researchers have theorized that a portable audio device may serve as a transitional object as one moves between close relationships (Crane, 2005). Moreover, research into the environmental and spatial existence of in-ear headphones users offers more credence on the potential for social isolation. Walker (2005) suggests that headphones can “impair the detection and localization of ambient sounds in the environment,” placing the individual at a disadvantage. In-ear headphones become an unintentional isolating device, a consequence of their very design of transporting users into the music they love.

Research Approach

Our research approach was to consult many works in order to gain a better understanding of the context of in-ear headphones as well as to determine what literature exists. The literature that focuses on the historical and temporal aspects of in-ear headphones were the most difficult to find. In fact, part of the reason this paper concludes that the technology’s history is non-linear is the fact that information on its nascent years comes from disparate sources and often overlaps. Both popular literature and academic literature were consulted, though academic literature comprises the vast majority of this paper’s research and findings. Moreover, simple encyclopedic knowledge of the technologies that power in-ear headphones, such as transducers or dynamic drivers, were difficult to contextualize because they provided no context or reference to in-ear headphones, due to the fact they are such rudimentary audio/sound principles.

Component Summaries

Every major and minor project component matches in design quality and aesthetic, resulting in a project that holistically presents in-ear headphones in a multifaceted, multimedia manner. Design colors, fonts and spacing, as well as language, are consistent across all of our platforms, reinforcing our intent to present our project’s information in a visually pleasing, minimalist air. Below are the aspects and considerations our group actively deliberated on for each of our deliverables.

Online
Our online presence is arguably our most robust project component, designed to be both an academic showcase as well as an online resource. In designing our website, inearheadphones.wordpress.com, usability was key in determining what to include on the website and how to organize the information.

It was decided early on that the site should act more like a website, as opposed to a blog. Key design considerations were made in order to reinforce the attributes of a website. These include: the absence of comments in order to make posts “timeless”; downplaying the reverse-chronological blog format by positioning all posts and a sticky “History” post “above the fold”; utilizing social media platforms like Twitter in order to connect the content with those who seek it and with industry organizations, as well as including sharing buttons on content pages; writing posts that inform readers of in-ear headphones, from its history, to its market, to its current consumer offerings (these posts also served as a “warm-up” for further academic research); presenting the site as credible by including both the Georgetown University and the Communication, Culture & Technology seals; including a casual “Polls” page in order to foment reader engagement; providing tags to communicate content themes; providing an “Updates” page so readers can track the project’s status; and formatting the website for iPad optimization.

Moreover, our main navigation bar just below the header is organized into two categories: main project deliverables (on the left) and ancillary project components (on the right). By doing so, readers know what is primarily important (the “meat and bones” of the project), and what is secondary. In order to differentiate between the two, and working within WordPress’ limited customizable options, the ancillary categories feature a “ / ” before page titles. We think this design choice works well. Moreover, the “below the fold section” has been formatted to reduce the original blog format by reducing the number of posts to just two as well as featuring hotlinked images on the left that act as resources. We are proud of our website both for the quality of content it presents and for its depth and breadth of presentation. We intend for the site to live on at the project’s conclusion, fulfilling its purpose as a resource for any casual visitor looking to learn more about in-ear headphones. We continue to actively make our website findable through search engine optimization, such as embedding our content on other sites, linking our web address on related websites, as well as other strategies.

Video
Our video focuses on the social consequences of in-ear headphones and is creatively driven by the inherent limitations articulated by the video component guidelines. Footage must be original, images and songs must be licensed, and interview subjects must be at least minimally informed on in-ear headphones. In order to fulfill these guidelines and still present a video that is compelling, it was determined that creating a stop animation video would be creatively rich. As such, all animation was drawn by hand, and hundreds of photographs were painstakingly taken one at a time, each at the slightest move of the paper animation pieces. The result is a fun, animated video that focuses on the social consequences of in-ear headphones by featuring two interviews, one with a concerned individual and one with an informed user. The concerned individual was posed questions focusing on their personal use, interactions with, and opinions on in-ear headphones. The informed user was posed questions focusing on the larger societal ramifications and how in-ear headphones users negotiate time and place. Unfortunately, our biggest challenge was finding interview subjects that are experts in personal stereo audio, as those we pursued either did not respond or refused to speak on the record and on camera.

Poster
Our poster focuses on the technological merits of in-ear headphones, and greatly supplements our video that focuses on the social consequences. Synthesized researched findings are presented on the left, while the abstract and technological diagrams are presented on the right. This design placement was chosen so casual visitors to the poster can quickly scan the content on the right and understand the project and, if they remain interested, can then read in detail the content on the left, which includes our research findings. What’s more, we included some questions and results from our casual polls from our website in order to provide greater context and as a colloquial nod to our non-academic audience.

Interviews
Our interviews focus on the social consequences of in-ear headphones, providing rich content for our video. The concerned individual was posed questions focusing on their personal use, interactions with, and opinions on in-ear headphones. We intended for their interview to provide an approachable, relatable air to the video—to elicit a “Hey, they’re just like me!” reaction. The informed user was posed questions focusing on the larger societal ramifications and how in-ear headphones users negotiate time and place. This line of questioning was most useful in corroborating the same themes found with existing research in the field. Surprisingly, the majority of our filmed interviews were dramatically reduced to less than twenty percent of their original ten-minute length in order to fit within the time limits of the video. Our greatest challenge proved to be finding interview subjects that are experts in personal stereo audio, as those we pursued either did not respond or refused to speak on the record and on camera.

Survey
Our survey focuses on the outstanding research questions that result from our investigation into in-ear headphones. As indicated in the subsequent conclusion of this paper, future research should focus on the lived experiences of individuals who utilize in-ear headphones technology on a regular basis to better understand how individuals appropriate the technology in practice. How does daily use of the technology affect identity? How conscious are users of the “social wall” they erect when plugging in their in-ear headphones? As such, our future survey was divided into two sections: one is a multiple-choice survey based on the Likert scale and the second is open-ended questions for an interview or focus group. The questions were divided into the two different methodologies in order to provide greater depth into the subject, rather than simply creating a survey for a convenience sample.

Conclusion and Future Research

The primary findings of this paper indicate that in-ear headphones display a non-linear history, innovation in the efficiency of its design and technology continue in industry, and that two main negative social consequences arise—the potential for hearing loss, and social isolation or loneliness.

Research into the history of in-ear headphones indicates that the beginnings of the technology are inexact and that its development overlaps. For example, no one individual is credited with inventing in-ear headphones and multiple organizations, such at the U.S. Navy and radio companies, simultaneously developed headphones technology to serve their respective purposes. Moreover, patents were issued in different countries and for different technological merits at different times. This non-linear development corroborates the intent to explore the linearity, politicization, efficiency, and grandeur of the technology at the onset of this paper.

Innovation in the efficiency of in-ear headphones design and technology continue, with wireless and noise-canceling technologies leading the industry. In exploring the technological merits of in-ear headphones, noise-isolating technology is an efficient quality by design, as the earbud pads are designed to fit snugly in one’s ear canal in order to block outside noise. It is not grand in the least, and it is inexpensive and efficient. Wireless technologies such as Bluetooth, however, remain imperfect, perhaps due to its attempt at being grand. As it exists, the technology is also not efficient.

Finally, the negative social consequences that arise from the use of in-ear headphones are the potential for hearing loss and social isolation or loneliness. In-ear headphones sit either close to or inside one’s ear canal by design, exposing individuals to potentially dangerous levels of sound volume. This is corroborated by Peng, Tao & Huang (2006), as well as in other literature. Moreover, social isolation or loneliness is a great social consequence that can be considered insidious in nature. Crane (2005) used attachment theory to explain how individuals negotiate social isolation and loneliness as a result of headphones use. Walker (2005) suggested users must also negotiate their environment, especially in relation to space and time, as a consequence of using headphones. Such social consequences provide a humanistic view of in-ear headphones as a technology as much a part of individuals as it is a part of society.

Future research should focus on the lived experiences of individuals who utilize in-ear headphones technology on a regular basis in order to better understand its consequences. How does daily use of the technology affect identity? How conscious are users of the “social wall” they erect when plugging in their in-ear headphones? Further exploring the social consequences of in-ear headphones will help in better understanding the societal implications of this most-ubiquitous technology, a technology many take for granted. Moreover, it may elicit some positive social consequences like social comfortability or individual freedom or liberation for use. It will also help fill in the research gaps in the field, taking a more ethnographic and grounded research approach in investigating the consequentiality of in-ear headphones. Finally, future research into the biology behind hearing loss and noise-canceling technologies would provide greater insight into the potential health effects of in-ear headphones.

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