Never before has it been as valuable as it is today: For most of its long history, headphones were a stopgap solution – for loud music or TV sound reproduction at night, for example, or when there was no space or money for decent speakers.
More than 100 years have passed since Nathaniel Baldwin, founder and owner of the Baldwin Radio Company in Salt Lake City, launched his headphones, known as “Baldy Phones,” in 1910. Today, this kind of listening is all the rage as an always-on hi-fi.
Walkman gave the first impulse
Admittedly, there was an interim high, dating back to the Walkman invented by Sony at the end of the 70s. Sony itself was able to sell around 335 million of these vest pocket cassette decks between 1979 and 2004. Other brands such as Aiwa and Sanyo also jumped on the bandwagon.
Later, mobile CD players were added, but they never quite matched the success of the mini-MC players. They were too shock-prone and consumed too much power besides, especially when their error correction and economy tracking was required by motion. Even the MiniDisc developed by Sony or the Digital Audio Tape (DAT) could not trigger a comparable mass movement as the analogue cassette Walkman.
Concert in the head
Naturally, these mobile devices encouraged the proliferation of headphones. But of all things, the sound quality of the cassette walkmans, which were quite common in the 80s, was limited by noise and mediocre treble reproduction. Therefore, they were mostly simple earphones. They were not very convincing, especially in the bass, and often reproduced voices quite artificially. Also the spatial reproduction, which is not a parade discipline of the headphones anyway, seems very cramped with such simple “lard drills”, as they are derisively called. The music plays in the head. Combined with the lack of diaphragm massage from the bass, these are idiosyncrasies that solidified the headphones’ image as an eternal stopgap.
iPod brought the turnaround
A new era dawned in 2002 with the iPod, which not only put Apple in a completely new light, but also helped the headphones to a boom that continues to this day. The iPhone of 2007 further strengthened the trend towards personal entertainment. Anyone who did not have headphones in their range as a hi-fi supplier now had to fear that they would be left behind. Admittedly, the iPhone also came with only simple earbuds. But the extremely natural sound quality of MP3 and Apple’s favored AAC audio files, based on a more modern codec, still allowed for a music experience far beyond the original Walkman.
The long battery life and especially the convenient access to “10,000 songs in your pocket” as Apple’s slogan announced at the time, did the rest. Never before have young and old people, men and women alike, listened to their music so often through headphones. Even classic loudspeaker manufacturers like KEF or Klipsch soon started to follow the trend.
10,000 songs from the hard disk
Finally, there was the perfect mobile player that made the entire music collection a constant companion on the hard disk, and later even from the hard disk. Best of all, the greatest musical geniuses in hi-fi history didn’t even cost a lot of money. What’s more, as one of the myriad smartphone features, almost everyone has had their hard drive player at their fingertips all the time for over 10 years anyway.
The iPhone and the Android phones that came later produced hi-fi offspring on an assembly line. Once you’ve caught the Everywhere Music Virus, you’ll almost inevitably want to upgrade, given the mediocre sound quality of the standard earphones. That’s why you see a lot of people with real hi-fi headphones now even on the subway.
Interaction boosts headphone industry
This is also due to an interaction between the ubiquitous smartphones and the headphone industry. Meanwhile, the formerly dominant 6.3 mm jack plug is available at most as an adapter. The 3.5 mini-jack has long been the standard even for high-end headphones. But change did not stop at such externals. A classic Sennheiser or Beyerdynamic headset could be connected to a smartphone with a mini-jack. However, the high impedance common in the home would get in the way of the fun.
A high-impedance receiver simply sounds sapless and powerless on a mobile device – so right to sleep. This is because the output stages of iPhones and the like cannot deliver high currents and voltages for reasons of price, space and, above all, battery economy. But they would be necessary to get a classic hi-fi headphone up to speed. After all, their high electrical resistance is the bane of good deeds: developers focused on home applications before the smartphone boom. There, however, the headphones have so far generally been operated as a problem solver at the potent headphone output of a hi-fi amplifier.
Different conditions prevail at the hi-fi system
There is enough power available at the stereo system and maximum sound quality is required. To achieve this, however, the moving masses must be kept as low as possible for perfect impulse fidelity. In addition to ultra-thin membranes, the voice coils must also contribute to weight optimization. Unfortunately, light drive coils with few windings of thin wire do not build up large electromagnetic fields. On the other hand, they have a high electrical resistance, which makes life even more difficult for weak headphone outputs on mobile devices.
New materials push the boundaries of what is possible
State-of-the-art high-tech materials and, above all, computer-aided development helped the designers to better understand the physical processes in the drive system. For example, the neodymium magnets commonly used today build up stronger magnetic fields than simple ferrite magnets. Technical progress has led to high-end headphones today being offered almost without exception with smartphone-compatible low impedances of around 32 ohms, whereas resistors in the high three-digit and even kilo-ohm range used to dominate the market.
Dynamic reproduction with a sufficiently high undistorted maximum level is therefore possible today with practically any mobile device.
For those who still aren’t satisfied with transient reproduction and level with his smartphone, there’s a remedy. The MP3 player boom also promoted the emergence and expansion of other product fields related to mobile music playback. On the one hand, there are dedicated Hi-Res players for the particularly demanding, which support not only MP3 or AAC, but also high-resolution music in the uncompressed formats FLAC, WAV or DSD.
As a rule, the small music machines also have very potent headphone outputs with downright overkill capacity for particularly high-efficiency headphones. But if you want to stay loyal to your smartphone, which you always take with you anyway, you’ll find a considerable selection of mobile headphone amplifiers for your desk and on the road today.
It’s hard to believe the dynamics and naturalness that are possible even with good, i.e. not so heavily compressed AAC or MP3 files from a smartphone in conjunction with an external headphone amp. The Bavarian headphone specialist Ultrasone even offers a mobile amp in postage stamp format for a small price. The practically draws its power directly from the audio output of the smartphone.
Since many of today’s earpieces are designed to be foldable, you can take your stereo system and your music collection with you wherever you go.
Digital technology on the rise in headphones
Fittingly, Samsung subsidiary Harman showed off Personi-Fi, a prototype app, at CES in Las Vegas a few years ago. In the future, this should ensure a more perfect sound that is adapted to the user. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re on the road with headphones, sitting in the car or in front of the stereo. The app learns the individual preferences and peculiarities of each hearing through a test. Then the profile should be available as an equalizer preset, so to speak, on all of the user’s playback devices via the cloud. Or it will be streamed to your headphones or speakers via Bluetooth.
Bluetooth is the new magic word right now anyway. Whereas in the days of analogue radio transmission, wireless receivers attracted attention mainly because of noise and tired sound, digital technology has overcome these weaknesses. Recently, wireless headsets have been getting smaller and smaller – no sign of the clunky TV wireless headsets of yesteryear. Joggers and other athletes who are bothered by long cables will find an ever-growing range of great-sounding wireless in-ears. Thanks to Bluetooth, they provide music with unprecedented mobility. In the near future, these small high-tech earpieces are even expected to replace the music source in the vision of the manufacturers – through integrated streaming via online music services.
Headphones can basically be divided into five categories. The following brief overview shows you the strengths and weaknesses of the different concepts.
Shell headphones are the classic design. They completely enclose the ear. This promotes shielding and wearing comfort. In addition, the shape allows large transducers for voluminous bass and high volumes. The housings are either open for airy reproduction or closed for high sound pressure in the bass.
They are often declared as on-ear headphones by the manufacturers. The headphone cup sits on the ear with pressure and is therefore usually perceived as less comfortable in the long run than constructions that enclose the ears. On the other hand, on-ears are easier to transport and promise rich bass.
Also known as Earbuds, these earphones are extremely small and robust, making them ideal for traveling. They are inserted into the ear cup and thus increase the risk of hearing damage due to too high volumes. In terms of sound, you should not expect miracles from this inexpensive standard solution, especially in the bass.
They are the absolute exotics among headphones. They offer a very spatial reproduction due to the inclusion of the outer ear transmission function. However, the actual goal, the outer-head localization with perfect front localization, usually remained a developer’s dream.