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The History of Headphones and Their Effect on Hearing & Hearing Loss

Smiling older man wearing wireless headphones enjoying popular music, using laptop, happy mature male touching headset, listening to favorite song, sitting on couch, elderly generation and technologyIf you walk into a modern office or look around a college campus, library, or a local coffee shop, you might notice that a good portion of people are working and/or walking around with small contraptions hanging from their ears. In today’s modern workspaces, you might find a team of people working in the same room each with their private soundtrack blasting through their headphones or tiny stylish earbuds. Today, there is an assortment of headphones and earbuds available for a variety of different uses and devices.

People of all ages partake in the ability to enclose themselves in their sound capsule and play whatever music or podcast their heart desires. Ever since the invention of headphones, this has been a real cultural shift: this apparatus gives people absolute control over their audial environment and grants them the ability to tune out whatever surrounds them in their real world. This is no big deal to people today, seeing as we have plenty of devices and applications vying for our attention. So we thought we’d take a look at the history of the headphones and examine whether there is any evidence that they affect hearing loss and/or hearing ability. 

It Begins in a Kitchen in Utah With a Little Bit of Electronic Tinkering 

The story begins as early as 1891 as a French engineer Ernest Mercadier patented a set of in-ear headphones. He was able to produce miniature receivers that were relatively lightweight. Around the same time, one very creative fella working in his kitchen table would draft a letter in purple ink on blue and pink paper.  This eccentric inventor—an electrician by day named Nathaniel Baldwin —working in Utah would be one of the first credited with creating an improved earpiece. In the early 20th century, it was not uncommon for the Navy to receive letters from small-time investors or business owners trying to score what would today be considered a type of government contract.

In 1910, the U.S Navy received a letter by Balwin claiming he had found the newest way to amplify sound using electric signals. In the note, he claimed that he had built a comfortable effective headset and the Navy asked for a sound test. They were all very impressed! They would quickly implement the technology and came just in time for World War I. Headphones changed the way many people listened to music and experienced music in the 20th century. Before headphones, music was always a communal experience, whether it was a family gathered around to hear the gramophone or a concert hall or street performance. Suddenly people were able to experience music in a completely different and isolated way. 

Stereophonics and the Further Innovation of Music Listening 

After World War II, the next big innovation in the engineering of these personal listening devices was soon born.  In the 1950s, John C, Koss invented a set of stereo headphones which were purposely designed for personal music consumption. Stereophonics played a big role in sparking the idea of bringing music closer to the listener’s ear. Stereophonic technology-enhanced sound quality. Koss’s initial prototype was constructed out of vacuum-formed brown plastic cups containing three-inch speakers protected by a plastic cover and foam ear pads. Then, of course, would come the Sony Walkman in 1979, which was a portable cassette player to be carried around by its listener. Originally, the device was called the “Sound-About” and was introduced in the UK as the “Stowaway.” It was a massive hit and it would lead later, of course, to the portable CD player, the small mp3 player, iPod, and so on. 

Headphones and Its Impact on Hearing

Headphones and earbuds are ubiquitous these days and are seen in every school, library, or walking path. According to some sources, 1 and 5 teens will experience hearing loss. This is a rate of about 30% higher than it was 20 years ago. Some experts have suggested that this may very well be linked to the prolonged and constant use of headphones. Listening through headphones for long periods with high volume can cause long-term hearing loss in younger people, according to some Osteopathic experts. 

What is too loud?

The common mp3 player produces sound up to 120 decibels, which is pretty loud. At that volume level, hearing loss can occur quickly, even after only about one hour and 15 minutes.  A rule of thumb suggested by some experts is that if you can’t hear anything going on around you as you’re listening with headphones, the decibel level might be too high. 

What type of hearing loss is caused by headphones?

Hearing loss as a result of prolonged excessive and loud use of headphones is usually one that happens over time. It is cumulative and occurs without any real warning. Yet, for many young children and teens who spend a lot of time on their devices and wearing headphones, signs like ringing, hissing, difficulty understanding speech, muffled hearing, and more can be a good indicator that it is time to pay a visit to the ear doctor. 

Here at Mission Hearing, we are dedicated to helping people that have experienced or are experiencing hearing loss. If you feel that you have experienced hearing loss and are looking to improve your hearing, call us today. Today’s technology with hearing aids means there are many possibilities, choices, and devices that fit any and all lifestyles. 


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