Walk into your nearest electronics store and you'll probably be bombarded by different brands of headphones. If you've ever sought out a pair online or from a shop that specializes in headphones, you've probably come across a lot more. These headphones come in all shapes and sizes, with designs that offer better comfort, a more stylish look, or higher-quality sound. You can find bargain earbuds for less than five dollars, or you can spend $55,000 on the Sennheiser Orpheus.

All of this mania started more than a century ago, in the 1880s, when radio and telephone operators used single earpieces to hear weak broadcasts or telephone calls more accurately. Within a decade, the growing popularity of music and news broadcast over telephone lines - the Electrophone in England, the Theatrophone in France, and the Telefon Hirmondo in Hungary - would spawn an early predecessor to the modern stereo headphone that looked more like an over-sized stethoscope.

In 1910, the Mormon inventor Nathaniel Baldwin invented what could be considered the first modern headphone. He assembled these in his kitchen and sold them to the United States Navy. While these crude headphones took the first initial steps toward our modern headphone landscape, the C. Brandes Inc. headphone company would contribute more to the development and consumer appeal of this new invention.

In the company's 1922 pamphlet, "The Beginners Book of Radio," then-president of Brandes couldn't have been clearer about the prominence he attached to headphones:

"All the rest of the outfit may perform efficiently, but if the 'phones are badly designed and poorly constructed a good percentage of the feeble little currents that are led into them will be destroyed and the signals, speech or music will be greatly reduced in volume. We must come to look upon the 'phones as the instruments that convert the electrical impulses or currents into audible sounds. This delicate process must be effected with the least possible waste since we can readily understand that no part of these feeble currents can be lost.

So many beginners make the mistake of buying a good receiving set without laying emphasis upon the 'phones they purchase with it. The price of a receiving set is immaterial since the 'phones that are purchased with it determine its efficiency and sensitiveness. A $100.00 outfit will perform like a $15.00 outfit if the 'phones that are used are unable to make the most of the weak currents they receive from the detector. The mere fact that we cannot hear signals and music without 'phones should impress us with their importance."

Brandes' headphones, although sensitive, gained a reputation for discomfort, with many users ditching the headsets due to strong clamping forces on their heads. However, these early sensitive headphones would pave the way for better products from other manufacturers.

Around 1937, Beyerdynamic, a german loudspeaker company, produced the DT-48 headphone - the first ever to feature dynamic drivers. The enduring popularity of this design can be seen in the vast majority of headphones available today.

A mere six years later, American manufacturer John C. Koss would debut the first stereo headphones. Koss, a musician and audiophile, brought headphones from radio operators to the masses, and over the ensuing decades would further enhance his designs to include the first high-fidelity model in 1958.

During this time, audio companies the world over began to crank out their headphones. Cinema equipment rental house AKG offered its first headphone model in 1947. Stax introduced the first electrostatic model, the SR-1 in 1959, while Sennheiser, a company known for voltmeters and microphones, produced the world's first open headphone in 1968. In 1974, the phonograph cartridge manufacturer Audio-Technica burst out onto the headphone scene with the ATH-700.

By the late '70s, headphones were going portable. Sony Walkmans came with the now-iconic portable headphones - light, cheap, and surprisingly decent.

Around this time, another new design gained momentum as well: orthodynamic or planar magnetic. Companies such as Fostex, Yamaha, and Audio-Technica offered variations of this design that challenged the dynamic design first pioneered by Beyerdynamic some thirty years earlier.

The '80s also saw further improvements, like the in-ear and earbud designs.

The '90s would see the first Grado headphones, handmade at a workbench in a Brooklyn townhouse by the company president and CEO. The neckband-style headphone appeared in 1997 - the same year that Klipsch introduced a monitor earphone for performing musicians.

At the dawn of the new millennium, Bose introduced their Quiet Comfort noise-cancelling models. Around the same time, Apple packaged their ubiquitous white earbuds with every iPod, ensuring the popularity of that design. Towards the tail end of this decade, Shure would crank out their very first earphone. And in 2008 - a year that will go down in infamy for all audiophiles - Beats By Dre appeared, embarking on a marketing blitz that turned a shit headphone into Betsy the Cash Cow.

Today, there are more brands than ever before to choose from. Designs vary widely, with some manufacturers embracing more than one design for their headphones and earphones.

And while the overall look of these headphones has fluctuated over time to include growing trends in fashion and comfort, the need to accurately or pleasurably reproduce sound hasn't wavered. In fact, thanks to this growing technology, audio systems, in general, are experiencing a new birth. With high-quality MP3 and AAC files at the tips of people's fingertips, and lossless streaming options like Tidal offering instant, high-resolution gratification, more headphone users are now turning back to the source for improvement. Companies like FiiO, who once concentrated almost exclusively on amplifiers, are seeing a snowballing interest in portable players. And where Apple began that interest with the iPod, other brands like Sony, Astell & Kern, Cowon, Pono, and HiFiman have now overtaken it as dominant players in the burgeoning market it helped to create.


This post was written by Carroll Moore from Audio46.com as part of Audiophile Week, a partnership and celebration of audiophile culture from Audio46 and The 405. Carroll Moore is a Tech lover and audiophile headphones enthusiast, and Photographer. Audio46 is one of the USA's leading headphone specialty stores serving headphone lovers with outstanding content, customer service and expertise. They offer a huge selection of headphones under $100 as well as high-end headphones.

Want to Win $100 Gift Certificate to the Audio46.com headphone shop? 
Click Here and Enter to Win!