The rise and rise of headphones

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 song `Wired for Sound’.

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. Portable music had arrived, and headphones were the medium by which we accessed it.

Headphones used to be about sound quality; today they form a part of one’s identity

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: his company Beats was sold to Apple for $3bn (Rs 1,994 crore) in May 2014, by which time our whole attitude towards headphones had changed. The texture of earpads and the colour of cables had become as critical to people’s `look’ as the cut of their trousers or the asymmetry of their haircut.headphones

Sporting a £700 (Rs 70,000) pair of cans no longer seems as ridiculous as it once did. The establishment of headphones as an integral part of our wardrobe has created an unlikely crossover between two normally incompatible elites: audiophiles (geek) and high-end fashion (chic). These two worlds often regard each other with contempt; the chic might strap on a pair of £1,599 (Rs 1,61,000) Audeze LCD-3s, all zebrawood, lambskin and planar magnetic transducers, and then use them to listen to a Spotify stream. The geek would look on, horrified, screeching something about putting ketchup on beluga caviar.

New brands selling designer models began to spring up -Urbanears, Sol Republic, Skullcandy, Frends -while existing brands tried to create products that satisfied our demand for something a little more eye-catching.The emergence of these larger headsets on the streets raised some eyebrows; for years, headphones had been hidden in our ears but these things were making a far bolder statement.It’s pretty safe to say , however, that the headphones flying off the shelves this Christmas say a little more about us than the pair Cliff Richard was sporting in Milton Keynes 34 years ago.

Today , headphones don’t just give us a “head full of music“; they reinforce our identity both inwardly , through any number of infinite digital jukeboxes, and outwardly, through bespoke, 3Dprinted earpieces, leatherette earpads, metallic detailing and distinctive silhouettes. We’re often told that the technology we buy reflects who we are. In the case of headphones, we’ve started to believe it.