They seem ubiquitous now. At the gym, on the bus, in the grocery store, headphones are part of our aural landscape.
It wasn't always that way. Decades ago, if you wanted to hear music, you either went to a concert or listened on a mono record player in your home.
Then, in 1958 Milwaukee entrepreneur John Koss invented the world's first stereophones to "create a personal listening experience." Now you can listen to the new Daft Punk album or latest This American Life episode just about anywhere.
That ubiquity has been good news for Koss' company, the Milwaukee-based Koss Corporation. His son Michael took over as CEO more than 20 years ago. And he says the biggest change he's seen in the headphone industry is in sheer numbers.
"It isn’t uncommon today – in fact, we’ve done research and said, 'Bring your headphones in – we want to talk to you about your headphones,' people will bring six headphones in," he says. "They’ll bring the headphone in they wear at night at home, they’ll bring the headphone they work out with, the one they wear at the office, the one they commute with."
The younger Koss has also seen the size and appearance of headphones change a lot over the years. But he says reproducing quality sound in Koss headphones has stayed pretty much the same as it was 65 years ago.
“We tend to use the same old electro-mechanical device design that was first created to move a lot of air," he says. "The more air you can move, the better.”
With the increasingly popular, smaller headphones like earbuds, it's harder to move that same amount of air and achieve the same “deep bass sound” as produced by the larger, over-ear types (circumaural phones). That's why some earbuds sound like you’re listening through empty cans of tomato bisque.
Koss says even with good earbuds, users are tempted to crank up the volume.
“The problem with noise," Koss says, “is when it is continuous at a specific threshold, that’s where the damage seems to be done.”
So, he says, riding your bike and listening to music loud enough to hear over the wind is probably not a great idea. Gratuitously loud noises can cause serious damage to your ears.
Koss says another limitation of earbuds is comfort, so the company has created a whole new line of fitness headphones aimed at women.
“What we found was a consistent concern that women expressed that the earbuds that they had didn’t fit right, and that they were falling out and didn’t fit in their ears correctly… For years no one has done anything in this market [for] women," Koss says.
His fitness earbuds are specially sized for smaller ear canals, so when running they’ll stay in place.
(Edited by Stephanie Lecci)