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History of High Fidelity Headphones & Hearing Preservation

by May 12, 2015
Bose Noise Canceling Headphones

Bose Noise Canceling Headphones

Audiophiles from all eras are not only interested in enjoying the best sound experience via a surround system on its own, without compartmentalization. Sometimes the idea of getting away from it all is enjoyed with the use of those special headphones in isolation to privatize the experience. Many types of headphones have been developed over the years starting from the early first hand made earpiece headphones by Nathaniel Baldwin. These were later on expanded and improved by Berodynamic with their dynamic DT-48 headphones that continue to be in production today. This started the era of headophonia!

Koss BeatlesphonesAs technology improved, the first surround headphones made it into the market impulsed by Koss around the 1950’s in the US. These were designed for listeners to enjoy their new LP collections. Koss dominated the US market for a period of at least 15 years by improving the look and detail while decreasing their weight as well as the materials used. They were made popular as well by the fact that celebrities like Tony Bennet and the Beatles were using them. They even made a special pair called the “Koss BeatlePhones.”

As the years progressed and new technology emerged, such as the walkman and other portable electronics, Koss started losing the battle and Sony seemed to take over. Lighter headphones met the demand in the 80’s for those wanting to exercise and be on the go, so portability became a big trend. Some of the first Sony headphones that met this demand were the MDR-3L2 which had a circumaural can design that allowed via its foam padding to sit near to the ear due to the lighter built materials in them.

Just as we thought it couldn’t get any better, the more audiophiles based market needed a new type of headphone that could nullify or at least decrease the external noise for better enjoyment of the music fidelity. Therefore, in 1989 Bose, led by Dr. Amar Bose, came out with the first Noise Cancellation Headphones, which first made it into the Aviation Department and later on into the mass market.  Taking off from this direction, Sennheisser moved from being the top and revolutionary microphone inventor that perfected the aviation headphone and microphone market, to making one of the top and still acclaimed Electrostatic Orpheous Headphones with tube amplifier around 1991. Both electrostatic speakers and headphones made a revolutionary listening experience since there is no actual physical touch or connections to the piece allowing the sound to have less interference from coils or stiff cones. On the other end, this technology requires a high-voltage power supply to run them, meaning an amplifier, making them less affordable.

Sennheiser Orpheus Headphones

Sennheisser Orpheous Headphones

Small is the New Big - Portability Rules

iPod w phonesDue to the movement in trends and economy issues, we moved from the electrostatic ideals into once again a more portable and easy to handle headphones. In the beginning of the 2000’s Apple started toying and expanding this idea and after many models in 2008 the first Apple In-Ear Headphones were introduced to the market. This once again revolutionized the market and the customer lines would go out for blocks even before products were on the shelves (now is online pre-orders). Apple created a new arena to play with and many other manufacturers, such as Radius (which promotes wooden design earbuds), AbePlanet, Beats (by Monster, but now owned by Apple), Bose, Sennheisser and many others stepped in to play the game.

As technology moved into the realm of “wireless,” Sennheiser took back the reign on this one.  Utilizing the built-in radio frequency receivers in the headphones allowed for a wire-free living style. Now you can go running, walking or move around without the chance of getting tangled up, no pun intended. What made these headphones more engaging is the fact that they can be attached to any other audio device equipped with a headphone jack by utilizing the radio transmitter which converts the audio signal output into a radio frequency. It then transmits it over the air and we can now hear it via the receiver in the headphones. The first model in this category by Sennheiser was the RS 5 in 1995. Needless to say, now the audiophiles have to deal with a new format filled with compression issues and low quality brought on by the use of the MP3’s.

See:  Dumbing Down of Audio - Trading Quality for Convenience

Given the demand of mobility and increased traveling, ease of portability once again became priority and Bluetooth came in to take over the world. Not to put an “I told you so” tag on it, but thanks to this wonderful technology, more compression and resolution was born. This technology interestingly took the name from a Viking and former King of Denmark named Harald Bluetooth, who loved to help people communicate, ironically. Taking this into account, Bluetooth utilizes radio signals 1000 times weaker than the standard wireless technologies used by mobile phones to help in communication around the world.  It is secure too, so once a connection has been made no-one can listen in and there is no interference (unless you lose the signal) from other Bluetooth devices either. It works over distances up to about 33 feet and connected units do not need to have line of sight as long as a compatible Bluetooth receiver is around (cell phones, Bluetooth speakers, laptops, etc). One important aspect of Bluetooth technology that we cannot put down is that it continues to improve by adapting its quality. Now you can obtain near CD quality via Bluetooth by reducing the bit rate without affecting audio quality or introducing latency issues. Companies such as Sony, Vizio, Samsung, Panasonic and Plantronics are amongst the leaders in this technology. The Plantronics BankBeat Pro Wireless headphone is a sample in this line which reproduces the crisp highs, natural mid-tones and low frequencies of your kind of music. Plantronics included the aptX Low Latency codec to optimize the audio quality of music streamed wirelessly by increasing the usable bandwidth.  If your playback device has this codec, it removes lip-synch delays when you watch video as well.

RBH EP-SB Wireless Headphones

RBH EP-SB Wireless Headphones with aptX technology

Turn it Down!  What Did you Say?

turn it downAs these technologies continue to be exploited, both corded and cordless headphones, earphones, earbuds and earpods continue to get updated and "refined", while their appearance often changes to be more posh and promoted by celebrities in order to increase sales. No matter how much interference with your hearing they cause, especially the in-ears, they continue to be used and loved by all. Preferential use by Audioholics is given to “unamplified” sound technology, but we must agree that headphones can at least give you the solitude you sometimes desire for selfish but gratifying enjoyment. As one of the few females in this firm, the need for this type of gear is non-existing. Preference to true vinyl, CD’s, Bluray, HD track downloads is a must. Fear of early hearing loss is another problem since it is a fact that 1 in 5 teens in America alone suffer from hearing loss, according to the CDC, EPA and the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).  Most MP3 / iPod players can reach SPLs in excess of 100 decibels, equivalent to the sound level at a rock concert. At that level, hearing loss can occur in less than one hour / session if exposed on a regular basis. And how does this take place? According to the CDC hearing loss can result from damage to structures and/or nerve fibers in the inner ears that respond to sound. This type of hearing loss, termed “noise-induced hearing loss,” is usually caused by exposure to excessively loud sounds and cannot be medically or surgically corrected. Noise-induced hearing loss can result from a one-time exposure to a very loud sound, blast, or impulse, or from listening to loud sounds over an extended period. As you are aware, these sounds are prevalent in the MP3’s in order to obtain the desired effect during the listening experience.

Of course, government standards do try to protect consumers due to digitalization and the crazy need to listen to music loud, which does not help the cause. The EU standard stipulates a limit value of 100 dB(A) for MP3 players; however many devices are louder. The reason for this is that the measurements for the standard are based on a standard test noise, whereas contemporary music is digitally processed in such a way that continuous sound levels of up to 105 dB(A) can be achieved. Special headphones which are louder than the supplied standard earphones raise decibel levels even higher and thus further increase the danger of hearing damage. We can still enjoy our headphones and preserver our hearing. Take a look at the safety SUVA and EU Standards and see what YOU can do to enjoy and protect at the same time. The Swiss Accident and Insurance Fund (SUVA) have released the following guidelines recommending how to use MP3 players responsibly (according to the EU standard and with original headphones):

Loudness Table

Loudness Table vs Time - Source: SUVA

Other governmental companies, like the US Department of Labor, the Occupational Safety and Health Organization (OSHA), Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center and others, take this job seriously in promoting education and protection for noise induced hearing loss. They all have similar but different ranges such as the exposure measurement must include all continuous, intermittent, and impulsive noise within an 80 dB to 130 dB range and must be taken during a typical work situation. Needless to say, this can apply to any  use; whether working the AV Market of just simple enjoyment. .  

Once again, we can always enjoy but never forget that safety is the key. We can’t truly reject all technology, fads and new designs as long as our judgment prevails and sanity doesn’t fail. Technology continues to improve and new formats emerge that conceptualize the need for more clarity and better resolution without so much amplification. Be an Audiophile, but look out as well. As an old saying goes “If you can't hear the world around you, then something is wrong.”