Headphones: The complete history

The rise of the Walkman (1979 to 1990)

Sony Walkman
Denon AH-P1

What they got so wrong with Betamax, Sony made up for with a little box called the Walkman: on 1st July 1979, portability became king and headphones escaped the house for the first time. Sound quality might have suffered, but for $200 you could finally rollerskate while listening to Pink Floyd.

The Sony MDR-3L2 headphones were the Apple earbuds of their day, but with only one pair bundled in the box and two sockets for shared listening hundreds of third party knock-offs and fashion focussed alternatives flooded the market.

Denon even managed to predate Apple with their in-ear AH-P1 way back in 1981.

But it wasn’t all cute Californians on bikes in the 80s. Check out Eddie Murphy and his AKG K240.

Walkman image credit: pocketcalculatorshow.com

Noise cancelling (1989 to present day)

Bose noise cancelling advert

Spurred on by the pathetic headphones dished out on transatlantic flights, Dr. Amar Bose invented noise cancelling in 1979 – and made travel bearable again in the process. Admittedly, the first headset was designed for pilots and it would take until 2000 for the Bose QuietComfort (QC1) to make it onto the high street, but his patented Acoustic Noise Cancellation Technology was well worth the wait.

Any colour as long as it’s white (2001 to 2010)

Apple didn’t invent the earbud but with the launch of the original iPod in 2001 they made a pair of bog standard dirt-attracting, sound-leaking headphones the most desirable thing on the planet. Since that day Apple has shipped 600 million sets of the first generation of earbuds and their competitors have been playing catch-up ever since.

In fact, Apple’s dominance and the rise of the MP3 player meant the market was soon awash with cheap and cheerful headphones that didn’t have to sound nice to sell by the truckload.

Enter the Dr (2008 to present day)

Beats by Dr Dre
Wayne Rooney sporting some Beats

Back in the 90s Andre Romelle Young AKA Dr Dre was a promising young rapper with a popular beat combo called NWA – and odds were long that in 2008, the same guy would help to reinvent the headphone industry with the legendary Monster Beats by Dr Dre.

These were unashamedly expensive, subtle as a sledgehammer cans tuned to devour bass-heavy hip hop beats. Success was instantaneous and the Monster Beats by Dr Dre became – and somehow remain – the must-have accessory for every bling footballer and fashionista. Big was beautiful and headphones became the ultimate urban status symbol. 

But as we’re all now acutely aware, it didn’t stop with the good doctor: Will.i.am, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and, um, Basketball legend LeBron James all have their own signature designs.

Fashion first (2010 to present day)

Urbanears headphone collection
Chanel Imam in Skull Candy headphones

The success of Beats made headphones cool again – and the fashion industry wanted in. Brands such as Skull Candy, Urbanears and WeSc made a killing going after the hipster and extreme sport brigades, and thanks to the sky high price of Beats the kids were only too happy to part with £70 - £150 for this season’s colourway.

But it isn’t just for the kids. Traditional hi-fi brands are busting out the style with the likes of the latest B&W P7 and Kef M500 combining audiophile-approved sound quality and executive looks.

Read our Top 10 of the best headphones in the world right now