Updated: Jan 23, 2022
Walking back and forth from class to class, or just around the corner to my friend’s house you can see me wearing massive over ear headphones. As a style choice I prefer these large headphones because of the imposing stature that they naturally have. The basic colors of most headphones matched with the digital tumblr aesthetic that has become highly popular amongst our generation as well as your Pinterest home page. A love for bulky electronics might not be for all of us, but the classic quality of design that these headphones have will never go away. Timeless audio companies like Koss, Bose, Audio Technica as well as Sony have been featured so many times in design magazines that I grew up reading. Opening a new Wired or ID magazine I would go straight to the product section just to look at the headphones they suggested because the design of the headphone was just as important as the audio quality that went along with it.
Portable audio has not been around for a long time however. The first headphones made for home listening was made by Beyerdynamic in 1937, named the DT-48. Later in 1958, Koss created first stereo headphones, the SP-3. Right at the same time, the British invasion and youth counterculture took the world and popular music by storm. The new teenager identity, moving into counterculture movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s meant a complete shift in how we experienced sound and music. Music cultures and subcultures were combining at an increasing rate and personal soundscapes and visual cultures now included headphones in the picture. Introduce the Sony Walkman MDR-3L2, 1979. Personal soundscapes and visual culture collided head on. Although massively popular even among the fashion community, the Japanese tech was made more for portability of the music itself, rather than focusing on the design for a specific audience. A final overall change to personal soundscapes happened in 2000 when Bose released their first edition of the Quiet Comfort series, QC1, which allowed people other than pilots to use noise cancelling technology. With all these headphones now available to purchase at this point at the end of the twentieth century, the fashion and media industries had not fully realized the potential that personal music and visual cultures combined could have.
In 2001, Apple revealed the iPod and the white apple earbuds that came in the box flooded the world. Anyone could have hundreds of songs at their disposal and listen to it anywhere, just press play and put that little brick in your pocket. Despite having terrible sound quality, if you had one, you wanted to be seen with your little apple earbuds. They were part of an identity that Apple had created and sold. In 2008, Beats by Dre started through Monster Electronics and were grossly expensive. Most of us are familiar with the design and logo of Beats by Dre, as well as how ubiquitous the brand was in almost every setting. Music videos, artist interviews, street style in general, any athlete you could think of… you name it, they all included Beats by Dre. There is a long list of celebrities that have their own signature edition Beats. I can remember when everyone and their moms were getting Beats for their birthday and thinking that was the next best thing. With the popularity of rap rising in the early 2000’s, it was natural for an industry veteran like Dr. Dre to partner with Monster Audio and record executive Jimmy Iovine to create an accessory with a complex and luxurious brand identity, made with massive bass, studio quality audio if you paid enough, and a ubiquitous logo that made sure everyone know you had money and style.
Beats was bought out by Apple in 2014, and after than Beats have fallen off as a flex in my personal opinion. Even though you will see them around included in your most recent MacBook purchase as a student, the visual culture of Beats has run its course for the time being. What has been its replacement in the fashion community?
Personal identity and personal soundscapes have come a long way in only a few years. In 2022, are we going back to wearing wired headphones? I see the popularity of Sony over ear headphones because of their audio quality and simple design that goes with many natural aesthetics that we love. I also see a lot of fashion influencers wearing Koss PortaPro, which are a classic, “archive headphone,” if I can call it that, which have great audio quality and are clearly fashionable for the archive fashion enthusiast. More and more I see artists using the classic Audio Technica ATH-M50’s in interviews and behind the scenes coverage because after all, they are made for audio production and are known to have traditionally the best sound quality for the price. So how is our generation changing our own soundscapes so that they go along with our shifting visual culture? Many brands now market to fashionable crowds and have brand identity that are clear enough, but how are we sorting through those as a fashion conscious and ethically conscious consumers? Are headphones going to have another push of democratization like fashion has with massive secondhand sites like Depop or The Real Real? Does anyone have a headphone collection other than a pure audiophile?