The rise and rise of headphones

“With the appearance of the MP3 and affordable storage, earphones started to supply us with our own, by and by curated soundtrack to a film in which we were the hero – and that made us feel extraordinary; at work we even began to trust that giving our ordinary errands a modified soundtrack would improve us perform. Radio communication kept on being the most evident use for earphone innovation; while earphones and music appear like regular partners today, it took a while for them to make some kind of breakthrough appropriately.”

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In the summer of 1981, Cliff Richard signalled to the world that it was time for us collectively to withdraw into our own private musical worlds. With a new Sony Walkman strapped to his belt and a pair of lightweight headphones on his head, he strutted through Central Milton Keynes shopping centre alongside legwarmer-clad dancers, all of them miming enthusiastically for the video of the song “Wired for Sound”.

“Walking about with a head full of music,” he sang, “Cassette in my pocket and I’m gonna use it… Stereo! Out on the street you know! Whoah-oh-oh…” At that time, the role of headphones was changing quite radically: They were being vigorously uncoupled from radios and hi-fis, prised out of the bedroom and living room and thrust into the public arena.

Wearing a pair of headphones outdoors was no longer the preserve of people trying to find Roman coins in fields while waving metal detectors. It suddenly stopped being a bit weird. Portable music had arrived, and headphones were the medium by which we accessed it.

For 30 years or so, that’s the way it stayed. Headphones were merely functional items; you popped them on (or in) your ears and they piped in music from a 3.5mm mini-jack socket. Then, almost without warning, they became big business. Dr Dre’s hunch that headphones might become a sought-after luxury item paid off in spectacular fashion: his company Beats was sold to Apple for $3bn (£2bn) in May 2014, by which time our whole attitude towards headphones had changed.

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