An Interesting History Of Headphones

k240studioSome time ago I stumbled upon a nice article that proposed to be something of a history of headphones. It’s a fairly good effort on the part of the author. However, I would like to add my two-cents in reference to a couple of missing items that I think are significant.

When I was in school in the mid-1980’s I was studying music recording and broadcasting. I spent a lot of time in and around various recording studios around Toronto. The single most common headset that I saw at that time was the AKG K240 Studio monitors. These were the reference grade dynamic headphones used in many facilities at that time.

The K240s are genuinely, big-ole, cans. A circumaural headphone with a semi-open design they sound great, even today. They can be cleanly driven to excessive volumes if required. Fairly efficient, they can even be powered by a cell phone or iPod.

The very fact that that same model, or something very closely derived from it, remains available to this day is testament to their quality. When a year or two back I saw them available for under $100 (AKG K 240 Semi-Open Studio Headphones )I put them on my Christmas list, lucked out and received a pair. Highly recommended.

The author mentions the Bose Quiet Comfort line of active noise reducing headphones, citing them as being introduced around 2000. I don’t dispute the significance of Bose in making noise reducing headphones popular, or the date referenced. I think that the introduction of noise reduction headphones to consumers was in fact quite important.

Sony MDR-NC11The first noise reducing headphones that I owned were the Sony MDR-NC10 Noise Canceling Headphones. I bought a pair in 1997 at the same time that decided to adopt the use of the Sony Mini-disk format.

I was working on a significant project at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh PA. I made the drive from Toronto to Pittsburgh several times, stopping at an outlet mall just north of Pittsburgh where there was a Sony Store. That’s where I bought the Sony MDS-JE510 Minidisc Recorder. It came bundled with a portable player.

At that time I was travelling a lot professionally, and far too often found myself on the noisy turbo-prop powered DASH-8 aircraft that dominated regional air travel at the time. This compelled the additional purchase of the MDR-NC10s ear buds with active noise cancellation.

At $129 these were the most costly ear buds that I had every seen, but the noise cancellation was startlingly effective.

Powered by a single AAA battery I found that they not only suppressed ambient noise, but they imparted a pleasing kind of spatial enhancement to music in the process. I never quite understood if this was intentional, but I later found it similar to the effect created by the Carver C-9 Sonic Holography generator.

Over the years I bought three sets of MDR-NC10/11s. I would occasionally lose a set or they would get damaged in the rigors of air travel.

etymotic-er6i-black-cropI think that the article should also make reference to Etymotic Research. A company started in the early 1980s by an audiologist, Etymotic Research has gone on to create some of the finest “in-ear monitors” for use on stage and in-studio applications. Their current range covers all price points, including earphones designed to be kid-safe.

In recent years I have owned several pairs of their affordable, but now discontinued, ER-6 Isolator model. Their Etymotic Research ER-4PT MicroPro models are simply breathtaking…albeit at a price.

They also lead the way in offering custom fit ear molds, a practice adopted by Shure and Ultimate Ears. Most recently they have offered a smart phone app called “Awareness” (press release) that is designed to allow people to manage the background noise suppression experienced when using their hf5 or mc5 Etymotic headsets.

While AKG and Sony were already mentioned in the original article, I think that Etymotic Research is an innovator that should be included in any complete history of the headset.