Many audio experiences require the use of headphones. They allow you to tune out the world while listening to music directly into your ears—but what is their history, and how do they work? Here’s a breakdown of your favorite cans if you’re curious.
A Brief History of Headphones
Headphones were invented in the 1880s and are still used today. To help connect phone lines, telephone operators used heavy speakers perched on their shoulders back then. Those speakers, however, weighed a whopping ten pounds!
The Electrophone Company, a British telecommunications company, developed a seminal set of headphones that hung below the face, known as an electrophone, in the 1890s. This device, similar to a modern-day stethoscope, consisted of earpieces connected to a y-shaped handle.
On one end, the electrophone would plug directly into a home telephone line, while on the other, it would cover the user’s ears. Users could listen to music broadcast over these lines using the device.
In 1910, Nathaniel Baldwin developed the first modern-looking headphones. Baldwin’s headphones, unlike the electrophone, sat on top of the head rather than below the face.
When Sony released the Walkman in 1979, headphones went from being large and cumbersome to being smaller and lighter. Despite the popularity of small, in-ear models today, some audiophiles still prefer larger, over-the-ear models.
The Secret Is in the Speakers
The speakers are the most important part of your headphones, and each speaker is made up of three main components. The voice coil, permanent magnet, and diaphragm are the three components.
The voice coil is a thin copper wire circle. This wire is suspended in the middle of a permanent magnet, which keeps the magnetic field constant. This field aids in the vibration of the voice coil.
The diaphragm is a thin membrane that connects the voice coil to the diaphragm. The part responsible for displacing air is the diaphragm, also known as the speaker cone.
How Do Headphones Create Sound?
Much of the audio you hear today begins as digital data that is converted to analog by a Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC). This digital-to-analog converter (DAC) converts a digital signal into an analog electric current, which speakers can use to reproduce sound.
These electrical signals came straight from the analog source media and passed through an amplifier to the speaker in devices made before the digital age, so there was no need for digital conversion.
Oscillating electric currents travel through the wires in headphones, just as they do in all speakers, to the voice coil. When current flows through the coil, it produces an electric field that interacts with the electromagnetic field of the permanent magnet. The voice coil vibrates due to the difference between the two fields.
The diaphragm moves with the voice coil when it vibrates. The diaphragm’s movement creates pressure waves (or sound waves) in the surrounding air.
The sound you hear is made up of these waves. The diaphragm vibrates quickly for higher-pitched sounds and slowly for lower-pitched sounds. The relative strength of the electrical signal determines the overall audio volume.
How are Wired Headphones Different from Wireless Headphones?
There are currently only two types of headphones: wired and wireless. Wired headphones use a traditional cable to connect to the audio source, while wireless headphones use wireless signals to reproduce audio. However, there are some other distinctions to consider before settling on your ideal pair.
Ease of Use
Wireless headphones are often more difficult to use than wired headphones. It’s as simple as unplugging the headphones and plugging them into a different audio source to change devices.
The wire, on the other hand, is the most significant disadvantage, as it must be physically connected to the audio source. This wire prevents the user from moving.
Wireless headphones score higher in this category because they are more convenient in comparison. You can move around freely with wireless as long as your Bluetooth connection is within range. If you want to switch devices, you’ll have to put in some extra effort.
Another significant distinction is the point at which digital audio is converted to analog audio. When using wired headphones, digital audio is converted to analog output using a DAC on the audio device (such as your computer) before being sent to the headphone speakers via wires.
Bluetooth audio, on the other hand, is frequently sent to headphones as data, which is then converted into an analog signal by the headphone’s built-in DAC.
The reason for this difference is that wireless headphones use a codec to compress audio data. A codec is a portmanteau for coder/decoder. Because data is removed in favor of a smaller file size, these codecs are often referred to as “lossy.”
These codes are used in wireless headphones because the less data transmitted over a Bluetooth connection, the more reliable the connection is.
Compression, on the other hand, has an impact on quality. Wired headphones, unlike wireless models, can deliver sound without lossy compression. That means wired models will provide more fidelity.
As a result, wireless headphones are rarely used in a professional studio setting. Latency is also reduced with wired units.
Audio Control and Power
Bluetooth headphones can give you more control over your music than traditional headphones.
While some wired headphones allow you to play and pause your music, many Bluetooth headphones allow you to change the volume, pause or play music, and skip or rewind tracks.
Some even allow you to call up digital assistants such as Siri. However, what you gain in convenience comes at the expense of audio quality.
Finally, wireless headphones require a battery to function. That means that if you run out of battery power, your headphones will stop working. Because wired headphones do not require batteries, they can be used whenever they are connected to an audio source.
Headphones are a truly amazing invention. While new brands may appear with new features, the core technology has remained largely unchanged for more than a century.
While some designs may change as technology advances, the classic pair of headphones will almost certainly remain associated with music for many years to come.
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