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A Sound Education

Now Ear This


"There is no reason that function should not be beautiful. In fact beauty usually makes it more effective."


The first earphone I ever used was one of those dinky white in-ear oval plugs with a perpetually kinked wire that came with cheap radios. It did the job, I guess. I could listen without disturbing anyone else, even though it sounded awful. What I also didn't like was the fact that everyone else in the house also used it. I could tell by the amount of earwax on the white ear plug. Yuck!

Then my sister got a real pair of headphones for Christmas. I don't remember the brand, but they sounded really good and looked like two big grapefruits halves. My sister was the musicologist in the family and introduced me to new artists and sounds, so she deserved them. She had an extra long coiled extension cord that everyone would trip over when she listened to records in the living room. The plastic ear cushions eventually hardened and made them uncomfortable to wear, so more headphones began appearing around the house as time went on, but none sounded as good as her grapefruits.

It wasn't until I started working in studios that I experienced what truly great headphones could sound like. To hear well-recorded music through AKG large diaphragm headphones was a revelation. And the noise-blocking Beyer-Dynamic headphones I had are still the best sounding headphones I've ever used.

Today I use headphones in the studio and on location as a tool, so I'm looking for accuracy along with noise-blocking properties. For my personal listening I use either my Apple Airpod Pros with noise blocking Comply Foam Tips, or some really sweet Shure Sound Isolating buds. Both have Bluetooth, so no tripping on wires!

Small headphones and earbuds, along with portable audio players, have really revolutionized the audio industry. Most know the Sony Walkman story: the miniature cassette player with small headphones got people out of their homes and freed us from having to carry around those huge boomboxes. The more recent story is of the iPod that digitized your music collection onto a pocket player with tiny earbuds. However, many don't know the story of the early designs that gave us this great technology we use today.

The earliest headphones should have been called "shoulder phones" because they weighed 10 pounds and required a shoulder cradle. Who would have thought that being a telephone operator was a back-breaking job?

1881 design by Ezra Gilliland

Although it would take another 100 years to get popular, earbuds were invented in 1891 and actually had rubber tips to seal out sound.

early earbuds

1889 design by Ernest Mercadier

Thanks to Nathaniel Baldwin, when we think of headphones, we picture two tiny speakers attached with an over-the-head holder. In 1910, Baldwin couldn't convince investors that his kitchen-table invention would be popular. But the US Navy listened, promptly ordering 100 sets for their radio operators. They didn't realize that Baldwin had to make each one by hand in his Utah home.


1910 design by Nathaniel Baldwin

Koss headphones were probably the most popular modern headphones in the 1960s. The first stereo headphones, John Koss's invention coincided with the birth of rock-and-roll and Beatlemania. Before Dr. Dre's Beats, Koss was getting celebrity endorsements for products like the Beatlephones. These pedestrian-quality headphones are highly sought after by Beatles collectors.


The Beatlephones, design by John Koss

The big and bulky closed ear designs began to give way to lighter open-air designs in the 1970s like Sennheiser's HD 414 headphones. The Sony walkman introduced even smaller headphones with their Walkman, but these lacked in fidelity, especially bass.


Sony Walkman, 1979

Today the big sellers are the re-invented earbuds. Even larger over-the-ear closed-back headphones have made a comeback, thanks to Bluetooth technology that frees us up from cords. What's next? Commercial R&D departments are developing light, cordless over-the-ear wireless pads that conform to your ear, and possibly even into your ear canal. Customized in-ear earbuds already exist (like what stage performers discretely wear for foldback audio), but are very expensive. Instant conforming ear pads would be groundbreaking if the price point were right. I can envision a custom kit that would scan your outer ear and ear canal, be sent to your 3D printer, and finished by inserting the electronics and drivers. What would really be cool is if you could customize the exterior of your ear pads. I would make a pair that looked just like Spock's Vulcan ears. Live long and rock on.