Who made the first headphones? What are headphones used for? How did we go from calling them ‘cans’ to Beats by Dr. Dre? And what does ‘wireless’ actually mean?

Simply put, the first pair of ‘headphones’ appeared in 1958 from a jazz musician.

Why the quotes? Read on if you want to know how those headphones became what we see today and what we might see in the future.

We’ll touch on all of these in this brief history of headphones, but first, let’s start at the beginning.

Who invented headphones and why?

The history of headphones is a bit tangled from the beginning and involves the opera, the telephone, and the US Navy.

In the 1890s Electrophone offered a type of headphone that looked like a stethoscope as it connected below the chin. It allowed users to plug in and listen to live opera performances in London.

While in 1891 the French engineer Ernest Mercadier developed a type of in-ear headphones to improve telephone receivers. He even thought to use the rubber strip around the edge to reduce friction.

But in 1910 at his kitchen table in Utah, Nathaniel Baldwin first created what we would recognize as the first ‘modern’ headphones. Baldwin sent a telephone headset prototype to the US Navy that was not taken seriously at the start. But after trying a pair, the Navy placed an order only to discover that Nathaniel Baldwin could only produce ten at a time.

Baldwin did not copyright his work and lost his rights reserved.

So when were headphones invented? John Koss, the founder of the Koss Corporation, created a phonograph that included a headphone jack. The Koss Model 390 was marketed as a personal listening device with its phonograph, speaker, and headphone jacks. Koss did exercise his rights reserved remains in the top tier of headphone makers today.

However, compatible headphones were not available in the commercial market. Like any good entrepreneur, Koss invented the Koss SP-3 headphones to go along with his phonograph. Additionally, the Koss Sp-3 headphones were the first stereo headphones.

Before Koss, headphones were primarily used by the US Navy, radio or telephone operators and within similar industries.

Eventually, in-ear pieces would be used by the deaf or anyone with hearing loss. This would build-up to the transistor radiator, which brought on the popular use of headphones technology.

We still have a long way to go in understanding the commonality of headphones today.

When did headphones become popular?

The transistor radio created the first major surge in headphone use. The Regency TR-1’s commercial success allowed users to listen to music anywhere. With their use of hearing aid technology and a 3.5 mm headphone jack they first made earbuds wildly popular.

In fact, the 3.5 mm headphone jack remains the most commonly used output for listening devices. Sony’s EFM-117J transistor radio in 1964 and their ever-popular Walkman in 1979, continued to use the 3.5 mm jack, ensuring the 80s headphones would continue this trend.

The popularity only grows today. Headphones are now available on flights, come with the purchase of mobile devices, and can be bought separately with significant upgrades.

When were wireless headphones invented?

Believe it or not, the first wireless headphones were around in the 1960s. These headphones cheated a bit. Or at least they did so by our modern standard of wireless.

I say this because they simply put the radio receiver inside the headphones. So they were wireless indeed.

But they were not sleek at all. They were heavy and clunky, but still wireless, right?

Our idea of ‘wireless’ first came about with BlueTooth in 1999. Named after the Viking Harald Blatand which translated means Blue Tooth.

This technology was designed to transfer data between two or more devices. It was first used for a mobile phone in 2000 and eventually used for stereo headphones in 2004.

Fast forward to 2020 and we can now get high sound quality from the popular Dr. Dre’s Beats, our telephone, and even in-ear headphones.

What about headphone design?

The history of headphones offers lots of design options. You can now go with over-the-ear, on-ear, or in-ear headphones options. At the same time, most headphones fall under two categories – open or closed back. 

The difference between open and closed-back designs is the ability to allow outside air into the cans or not. Closed-back headphones tend to contain the sound within the headphone cup, whereas open-back design lets sounds out into the environment making the soundstage much more spacious but with much less punch.

Headphones are everywhere. It may be hard to see the history, but when you know where they came from, you’ll see them differently. If you are planning to buy the top-of-the-line, audiophile-grade pieces, consider first reading some reviews of headphones with open back design – you are likely to be impressed by how much sound they can deliver for a reasonably affordable asking price.

Alternatively, if you like your sound contained, more energized, more amplified, and punchy, consider some of the best closed-back headphones in our other review.

Where are they going?

Hard to say, but with artificial intelligence and the expanding universe of wireless possibilities, there is so much left on the table.

Also, like cars, investments, and working out, headphone technology will only get better with time. It is already exceeding the capability of human ears, so convenience is where I see the focus is placed going forward.