by Rafe Arnott
Why did headphone culture hive-off from mainstream high fidelity? As a child growing up in the ’70s when headphone technology came of age, I can honestly say that I didn’t differentiate between listening to music through my father’s stereo in our living room, or listening to it through a pair of cans while lying on the rug between the speakers in that same space. It was just listening to music.
So what happened to headphones? Did the gulf dividing high fidelity and headphone fidelity just appear organically? Was it a conscience decision by people to identify more with the solace, and insulation that headphones seem to provide over two-channel listening? Or was it just marketing companies siloing-off another aspect of music reproduction for brand-identification, and profit? Was it the advent of portable music devices like the little pocket radio my grandfather used to listen to baseball games on in the afternoon quiet of the veranda?
The ability to take your music out of the traditional listening space and with you wherever you wanted certainly signalled a paradigm shift of how we viewed music’s place in our lives, and it’s social influence. You could argue that car stereos allowed us that freedom to leave our homes and take the music with us, but with that comes the tether of the automobile. No, headphones were different.
Same goes for portable stereos or boomboxes. Portable, yes, but free for all to hear, not something that is exclusively one’s own to experience, so again a very different context socially. The popularity of headphones paired with a portable music player boomed through the ’70s, ’80s, and ‘90s as did the popularity of the cassette tape. No coincidence to be sure. Cassettes are small, could be bought cheaply, and not only played in your home or car but in portable cassette recorders/players made ubiquitous by Sony and their Walkman. Ditto the Discman, and the continuation of the personal audio revolution via digital technology with the compact disc, and to a much smaller degree the DAT (Digital Audio Tape). Soon everyone was listening to music in the privacy of their own headspace while riding their bicycles, rollerskating, jogging, commuting on public transit, etc.
The advent of digital music formats like AIFF, WAV, FLAC…and the heavy hitter of portable formats, the Mp3 – particularly when coupled with the Napster online file-sharing craze of 1999 ~ 2001 – ushered in a new age of personal music portability that Apple almost exclusively capitalized on with their iPod to the tune of billions of dollars in profits. Thousands of songs in your pocket wasn’t just savvy marketing, it was the crystalization that what was once the domain of a two-channel home set-up, was now truly something you could take with you anywhere. Again, headphones seem to be about separation. Untethering. Perhaps even being antisocial to a degree. Which is funny, because some of my friends who are deeply committed to headphones, and headphone culture are the most fun individuals to spend time with.