Apple’s innovation of listening to music in style stems from long history

By Pryce Jamison
November 29, 2020

Photo by Pestoverde.
Photo by Pestoverde.

Apple’s AirPods remain at the top of the market, as the headphones haven’t budged on the list of what’s currently the most trend-setting. At times they can seem unavoidable every time you turn your head and spot them at your nearest bus stop, school hallway, restaurant, etc., and with such an innovation of appearance, it’s essential to look back on the diverse history of these audio products that we put in our ears.

“In headphones, I usually aim for noise-cancellation with great sound quality,” Montgomery County Community College second year, Travis Tolbert, said. “And I would be lying if I said AirPods weren’t also a fashion trend, that I too have fed into.” The features we love for our headphones surely varies from person to person, but there was a time when popping a pair of headphones in our ears with the features we desire wasn’t so accessible.

Ernest Mercadier’s 1891 twist on headphones used in the telephone industry. Photo from @_skratch on Instagram.

Ever since the 1880s, there have been many variations of headsets that have been used for many purposes. Back when telephone operating systems would have the 10 pound headphones that needed to be held up, the 1891 improvement by a French engineer, Ernest Mercadier, introduced the first set of in-ear headphones that was a lighter weight and didn’t need to be held up, which innovated the area of telephone reception. This resting on the ear, style, paved the way for advancements that came soon after that such as the Britain electrophone systems that allowed opera enthusiasts to listen in on live performances. This also influenced the Nathaniel Baldwin invented versions that found its notoriety in the Navy, where sailors used it to isolate themselves from distracting ambient sounds in World War I.

Despite these early uses, the headphones with the modern day style was what became the most notable as headphones started to complement the music industry the most, giving listeners all across the world their favorite music right in their ears. Jazz musician and founder of Koss corporation, John C Koss, gave us the Koss headphones that dominated the market in the late ’50s and ’60s starting in 1958, helping it cross over from a military norm to a piece of technology that’s recognized by and accessible by all music fans and recording artists. These started out as the cover the whole ear type of headphones that were mini speakers that were made from cardboard and foam, but Koss would go on to release many improved editions that we know of as the first hi-fi stereo headphones, that had more style, look and size variation as more were released.  

The 1979 Sony Walkman, that made listening to music with headphones truly portable. Photo from wikimedia commons

In the 1970s and the start of the ’80s, Sony and Sennheiser capitalized off of these Koss innovations and came out with their own renditions for the masses, as their best selling headphones were more lightweight and allowed the ears to breathe while keeping the same quality and noise reduction Koss brought to the game. The 1979 Sony Walkman was what truly revolutionized the game as it came with a portable mini device, allowing listeners to take the music on the go when before, headphones were usually connected to a large in-home device, so Sony’s innovation became a pop culture phenomenon.

As the ’80s and ’90s progressed, many other companies such as Bose, JBL and Bang & Olfusen made headphones one of their leading focuses, which made for a diverse array of the product available in the mainstream. The possibilities seemed endless with how companies started to release many different sizes, shapes and sound quality features and earbuds and overall in-ear headphones started becoming more popular after years of the over the ear, types, being what was on the market. 

Aspects of the culture started to arise and we started to see innovations such as Dr. Amar Bose’s creation of the first noise-canceling headphones, Sony’s creation of the neckband headphones that wrapped around one’s neck, bluetooth technology with wireless ear pieces being introduced in the late 90s and the overall expansion of portable music devices in the 90s. You can see how future headphones were able to combine elements and continue to grow unique. AirPods are simply a product of separate elements being put into consideration to make something that the people can gravitate towards the most.

Early bluetooth technology that began in 1999 and trascended into the following decades. Photo from wikimedia commons.

Even with all the advancements throughout the 2000s and 2010s as companies like Apple and SkullCandy led the game with wired earbuds that focused heavily on top tier sound quality and bass, as well as 2008’s Beats by Dre that Apple would later acquire. There was always something that annoyed consumers as they pulled out a pair for a listen, which were the wires.

The way they can tangle and get in the way of everyday actions caused them to be yanked frequently, it was something many people lived with and preferred at first as they preferred to have the device right in their ear for a smaller presence on the head. 

When Beats released its wrap around the ear, headphones, that complemented gym workouts and many other physical activities, you could see the direction the headphone market was going in as the 2010s progressed, as other companies started to follow and are still doing so. The wire presence was starting to be noticed as more annoying to consumers, and even less of a fashion sense, so it comes to no shock to many how much AirPods connected with consumers when they hit the scene in 2017, helping Apple accelerate past companies with a longer history of making headphones.

Apple AirPods are 16.5 by 18 mm earbuds that are completely wireless and centralized around bluetooth connection when pairing with devices, that also comes with a wireless charging case that has more than 24 hours of battery life. It provides 5 hours of listening time on one charge and only 15 minutes of charging provides up to 3 hours of listening time. They are always automatically on and can sense and connect with your iPhone, iPad, apple watch, or Mac within seconds, as it is said that this super fast and staple pairing process is powered by the Apple H1 headphone chip that can switch music, gaming audio, a phone call, etc. smoothly from device to device with low latency. With the quick Siri access it also contains and and the overall high quality of the product, AirPods have shown to be the unique, versatile advancement in this field of technology that many feel they need.

It’s the understanding of what the people want and what hasn’t been done in terms of style that is key. Apple put everything onto the table such as bluetooth, an earbud appearance that fits right in the ear and even more portability with how you don’t have to have the headphones wired to a device. History was combined to make something that’s going to be on top for a while, and reading into the history of a culture itself can always give someone a clear understanding on why a trending innovation is where it is at this moment.

Pryce Jamison

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