This Is A Journey Into Sound: A Look at Old-School Headphones


The first true headphone was made in 1910, but for the next forty-plus years they weren’t used for listening to music.  Headphones were worn almost exclusively by military personnel and telephone operators.  Using them for entertainment wasn’t a possibility until 1958 with the invention of the stereo headset.

In 1954, Texas Instruments worked with Industrial Development Engineering Associates (I.D.E.A.) to produce a device that would change the we listen to music forever: the Regency TR-1, the first commercial transistor radio. Now we could listen to music on the go – thus necessitating the demand for the headphone.



This all coincided nicely with the Baby Boom.  Suddenly you had the biggest generation in the history of the planet, all obsessively devouring this new music – and so, the headphone suddenly went from limited industrial use only, to being on the heads of tens of millions of youth.

So, let’s have a look at some headphone advertising from four decades past; in the 1970s, when the headphone was no longer a novelty, but still serious business for the music enthusiast.  Enjoy.




“Their sound is unmistakably natural, imparting a dramatic sense of realism to the music.  And they look as impressive as they sound!  The dual-tone color styling is most striking.  From the easy adjusting headband to the pillow-soft ear cushions, right on down to every other Pickering quality construction detail…”

Another 1972 Pickering ad below:




Adjusted for inflation, this 1973 headset costs around $115 USD… about the cost of your average Beats by Dre today.



One of my favorite ads of all time.  “The worst thing you could take to bed when you’re feeling warm and cuddly are cold, lumpy headphones.  You’d make out much better with Hear Muffs, the first headphones designed for comfort while lying down – in bed, on a couch, or on the floor.” (1973)



You can see how these headphone ads are targeting the booming youth consumer.  Just a few years earlier, most headphone ads were marketed to an older demographic (such as the ad above from 1966).



From the 1972 Speigel Christmas catalog.  Before the Apple Watch, we had the “AM Wrist Radio…. From Hong Kong.”



Also note that headphones were widely used in the education system during the seventies.  Many will remember the learning cubicles back in the day.



The 1974 Pickering Model OA-3 for expanded enjoyment: “outdoor, ball game, beach, indoor receiver” – the world is your oyster.



The urban dictionary defines the headphone as: (n.) A socially acceptable “I’m ignoring you.” device.  As this ad from 1974 illustrates, it’s easy to get lost in the sounds – and now that everyone has their earbuds in at all times, it really does lessen social interaction.




“When it’s time for some easy listening, my daughter Nancy and I get it on together.”

This sounds really bad out of context.



From the 1975 Sears Christmas catalog.  These headphones look so massive and heavy; I’m sure they were horribly uncomfortable.



This 1975 Pickering ad would appear in two sections on opposite pages in magazines.



The Magnaphone from Birmingham, Alabama, appears to not be a proper headphone, but rather a hearing aid akin to the old “ear trumpet” from yesteryear.



Remember the classic ’73 Hear Muffs ad?  Here we are a couple years later, and they’re still around.



This is insane.  No, it’s not a joke – this is the way we rolled in 1978.  The Concha Consciousness headset was obviously not a proper headphone – just a couple of wildly uncomfortable fake conch shells to strap on to your head and “tune in to nature”.



This advertisement form the close of the seventies featured a long description of this technological wonder:

“You’re standing in an open field.  Suddenly there’s music from all directions.  Your bones resonate as if you’re listening to beautiful stereo music in front of a powerful home stereo system.  But there’s no radio in sight and nobody else hears what you do.  It’s an unbelievable experience that will send chills through your body when you first hear it.

And nobody will know you’re listening to a stereo.  The entire sound system is actually draped around you like a scarf and can be hidden under a jacket or worn over clothes.  The Bone Fone is actually an AM/FM stereo multiplex radio with its speakers located near your ears.  When you tune in a stereo station, you get the same stereo separation you’d expect from earphones but without the bulk and inconvenience.”




Well, it’s 1984 and the headphone has made a big leap to coincide with the advent of the Sony Walkman – it’s now much smaller and portable.  This one actually has a radio connected to the headset, and it’s still relatively small – compare it to its predecessor in 1975 which was like wearing a helmet!

As we’ve landed square in the eighties, we’ll jump off here.  Just remember, one day our current earbuds and  big high-tech bluetooth headphones will look just as antiquated as the ones on this post.  Cheers.


Would you like to support Flashbak?

Please consider making a donation to our site. We don't want to rely on ads to bring you the best of visual culture. You can also support us by signing up to our Mailing List. And you can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. For great art and culture delivered to your door, visit our shop.