Types of headphones (History, Wired and Wireless)

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To call headsets just an accessory would be an understatement as they have become an integral part of the modern lifestyle. Compared to different types of smart accessories, headphones have one of the biggest electronics market shares given their popularity.

But headphones had a humble beginning, similar to many other electronic devices that have become ubiquitous today. Use this post to learn about the history and evolution of headphones and the different categories of headphone models available. 

The origins of headphones

We largely associate headphones with music listening, however, the origins speak otherwise. Headphones were primarily invented for making the work of telephone operators at telephone exchanges easier as they had to juggle between various tasks and equipment. The initial idea, during the early 1880s, was to make the process of using the telephone receiver ‘hands-free.’

Here is a representation of how early headphones looked like and the way telephone operators would use them at work. 

Image credit: Amberley Museum 

Early developments of headphones

Soon after the popularity of the early headphones in the telephone exchange realm, the concept of having dedicated ear speakers for each individual was no longer limited to telecalling. Headphones soon entered the world of home entertainment in the late 1880s through electrophones. Electrophones were primarily designed to let users privately listen to live theatre and opera broadcasts.

Here’s a look into early electrophones that used headphones to let users listen to live broadcasts over telephone connections. 

Image credit: The Conversation

Here’s how electrophones were advertised as a device for personal home entertainment:

Image credit: The Conversation

One of the most important developments in the early headphones was improving portability. American inventor Nathaniel Baldwin pioneered in improving headphone portability with his original models that he painstakingly built in his kitchen. 

Here is one of the several Nathaniel Baldwin headphone models that were extensively used by the US Navy. 

Image credit: Radiodaze

Here’s an early advertisement for Nathaniel Baldwin headphones:

Image credit: Oldheadphones

The birth of stereo headphones

Nathaniel Baldwin headphones built a solid foundation for portable and personal audio listening. However, it was the invention of stereo headphones that was the most important milestone in paving the way for hi-fi personal music listening. 

In 1958, John C. Koss launched the SP/3 stereo headphone along with the SP/3 stereophone. This marked an important step for the development and growth of the personal music listening industry. 

Koss SP/3 stereo headphone:

Image credit: Koss

Koss SP/3 stereophone

Image credit: Koss

Shortly afterward, the personal music listening market saw different designs and iterations of stereo headphones from various brands. Another important milestone in the personal music listening realm took place in 1979 when Sony released its first portable cassette player, the Sony Walkman. 

The Walkman was revolutionary in its own right, but it also changed the approach on portable headphones by including a dedicated headphone that was one of the most compact models in the market. The Walkman headphone, the MDR-3L2 was also one of the most lightweight models of its time. 

Here’s the first Sony Walkman model, the TPS-L2, along with its included MDR-3L2 headphone: 

Image credit: The Verge

GIF credit: Marques Brownlee YouTube

It is safe to say that the original Walkman headphones, alongside the Sony Walkman and many other iterations of portable cassette player, played a pivotal role in re-defining the portable music listening culture in the 1980s. 

Here are some excerpts of the portable/personal music listening culture craze during the ‘80s: 

Image and GIF credit: CBS News

Image credit: Click Americana

Headphones in the 2000s and beyond

Since the inception of portable stereo headphones, modern headphones have developed leaps and bounds both in terms of form and function. Over the past two decades, significant improvements have been made in the headphone audio performance territory, the most important one being the introduction and development of new types of sound drivers. 

Here are six types of sound drivers that are available in modern headphones: 

Image credit: Taotronics

Due to the increasing ubiquity of smartphones and other smart electronic devices, the global headphone market is now one of the most lucrative sectors in the electronics accessory industry. 

The retail value of global headphone shipments reached a staggering US $44.6 billion mark in 2020.

Source: Statista 

What’s more interesting to know is that modern headphone requirements aren’t just limited to music listening. There’s also a high market demand for headphones in the fitness, gaming, and virtual reality domain. 

Source: Grand view research 

Bluetooth wireless headphones, including earbuds, are the new trend in the headphone realm and are consistently increasing in market value. In 2019, the global market valuation of Bluetooth wireless headsets reached more than US $60 billion. The valuation is speculated to reach more than US $120 billion by 2026. 

Image credit: Global Market Insights

Types of headphones available today

Headphones have evolved to the point that there are endless options for various types of models that cater to different requirements. Almost everybody is aware of the fact that there are different types of headphones available. 

However, not all consumers can find their way through the ever so confusing categories to get their hands on a pair that meet their requirements.  For this reason, we have carefully structured different types of headphones under two main domains, wired and wireless connectivity. 


Prior to the technological advancements in wireless connectivity, headphones have always been about wired connectivity. Although different types of wireless headphones have become highly popular, wired models haven’t become passé as there is still a market demand for wired connectivity. 

There is a large selection of different kinds of headphones in the wired connectivity domain. Although wireless headphones are more portable and easy to use, wired models have several advantages, with zero audio latency being the most important. 

Here are the different types of headphones available with wired connectivity: 

1. Over-ear (circumaural)

Over-ear headphones are the largest in size. They are the best for immersive audio as they use large-sized sound drivers ranging from 45 to 50 mm in size that cover a broad frequency spectrum. 

Image credit: Rtings 

The large-sized ear cups of over-ear headphones completely cover the ears, form a seal around them, and isolate surrounding noise. Apart from commercial models, professional studio headphones and aviation headphones also have an over-ear fit. 

Image credit: Audioxpress

2. On-ear (supra-aural)

On-ear style of headphones is a mainstream choice for lifestyle/entertainment-related requirements. They aren’t as large-sized as over-ear headphones or compact as in-ear earphones. Wired on-ear headphones are usually available at entry-level price points. 

Image credit: Rtings 

Unlike over-ear headphones, on-ear headphones rest on the ears and do not completely cover them. They do not form a seal over the ears and therefore do not completely isolate surrounding noise. 

Image credit: Audioxpress

3. Earbuds (supra/intra-concha)

Earbuds are one of the most compact types of headsets available. Wired earbuds are highly affordable and mainly cater to two different types of requirements, including entertainment, and sports. Some of the latest wired earbuds use dynamic drivers to deliver bass-rich performance. 

Image credit: Rtings 

Wired earbuds are poor at isolating surrounding noise as they rest at the ear canal opening. Also, they do not have rubber tips that form a seal on the ear canal openings. Wired earbuds are available as commercial as well as professional headsets. 

Image credit: Audioxpress

4. In-ear (intra-concha)

In-ear earphones are one of the most popular types of compact earphones. Wired in-ear earphones are just as common and affordable as wired earbuds. In-ear earphones are the go-to choice for lifestyle and sports-related requirements. 

Image credit: Rtings 

Most in-ear earphones use rubber ear tips that form a seal on the outer ear canal passage. This, in turn, isolates the surrounding noise to a significant level. Wired in-ear earphones also have replaceable ear tips that vary in size and materials.   

Image credit: Audioxpress


Wireless headphones have now become the norm as brands keep on making the push towards a wireless future. Similar to the way things are in the wired connectivity domain, there are almost all types of headsets available in the wireless connectivity category. 

Here are the different types of wireless headsets available: 

1. Neckband 

Neckband headsets dominated the wireless headset category before true wireless models were available. The market still holds a special place for neckband headsets as they offer some unique advantages, including better connectivity range and longer battery life. Neckband headsets are available in in-ear and earbuds styles. 

Image credit: Rtings

2. TWS over-ear

Over-ear headphones make up a big part of the true wireless (TWS) styles of headphones. Many modern TWS over-here headphones in the mid-range and premium price category come with several technological features, including active noise cancellation, awareness mode, and voice assistant support. 

Image credit: Rtings 

3. TWS on-ear

There are no shortages for TWS on-ear headphones as well. On-ear TWS headphones are a common choice for lifestyle and entertainment-related requirements. Many branded on-ear TWS headphones are now focused and launched on the entry-level affordable pricing segment. 

Image credit: Rtings 

4. TWS Earbuds 

TWS earbuds, such as the highly popular Apple AirPods, have become ubiquitous models in the true wireless connectivity category. TWS earbuds do not isolate surrounding noise which is the reason why many people go for them. 

Image credit: Rtings

5. TWS in-ear earbuds

TWS in-ear earbuds come as the perfect choice if you prefer noise isolation in a compact and portable form factor. Many top-tier in-ear earbuds also help you compensate for noise isolation by including awareness mode along with the active noise cancellation feature. 

Image credit: Rtings

6. Bone conduction 

Bone conduction headsets are in a league of their own. They are completely unique as they deliver audio through bone conduction technology and do not use ear canals. Bone conduction headsets are great for protecting hearing and staying fully aware of the surroundings with the open ear design. 

Image credit: Rtings

Interesting headphone facts (bonus!)

Can’t get enough of learning about headphones? Check out these amazing facts on retro as well as modern headphone models to get more intrigued and broaden your headphone knowledge palette:

Blast from the past

Jlab has a headphone model, Rewind, in its catalog which is a modern take on the retro Walkman-era headphones. Jlab Rewind elevates the form of retro headphones with wireless connectivity and tons of other modern features, including voice assistant support, and onboard controls. 

Image credit: Jlab

Wireless headphones are not a new concept

It may come as a surprise but the concept of making headphones wireless by letting go of the cord isn’t a modern concept. Panasonic was way ahead of its time when it launched the SoundBand in the ‘80s which was a portable and cordless stereo headphone that included FM. 

Unlike other radio headphones, the Panasonic SoundBand was highly compact and portable. It also had a foldable design which made it stand out from the competition. 

Image credit: Flashbak

Compact stereo player before the Sony Walkman

Although the Sony Walkman is credited for being the first highly portable compact cassette player, the concept of miniaturizing cassette players was not new at the time. German inventor, Andreas Pavel had already devised a personal stereo player, called the Stereobelt, and patented it in 1977. It is believed that Andreas took legal actions against Sony Corporation for intellectual property infringement, however, the case was dissolved. 

Patent diagram of the Stereobelt

Source: Wikipedia

The first bone conduction headphone?

To say bone conduction headphones are a modern innovation would not do justice to the Bone Fone that JS&A launched in 1979. The Bone Fone was designed to send audio through the bones for an open ear listening experience, a concept that is starkly similar to what modern bone conduction headphones are based on. It is also safe to say that the Bone Fone was certainly a one-of-a-kind wearable tech at the time. 

Image credit: The Atlantic

Image credit: Forces of Geek

Active noise cancellation had its inception in the ‘50s

Active noise cancellation is one of the most popular features in modern wireless headphones. However, the technology is originally a thing of the past. It was during the 1950s that Dr Lawrence Jerome Fogel created the systems for active noise cancellation technology and patented it. Dr Lawrence had specifically designed the active noise cancellation system to address the common aviation problem of loud levels of aeroplane engine noise in the cockpit bay. 

Source: Wikipedia 

A modern headphone innovation

Headphones have had their improvement, development days, but not entirely. This is because Human Headphones have just changed the game with a completely unique design. Yes, you read that right. Unlike standard wireless headphones, Human Headphones do not have a headband. Instead, they are two separate wireless ear pieces that automatically pair with each other when you connect them to your smartphone. 

They rest on the helix of the outer ear to offer a secure fit. The most interesting bit is they transform into a wireless speaker when you clamp the two ear pieces together. 

Image credit: Human

Image credit: Human

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