SoundGearLab is supported by our readers. We may earn a commission for purchases made after clicking on links on this page. Read our affiliate disclosure for more information.
Headphones started back in 1891; from simple working headphones to noise canceling headphones and Bluetooth modern headphones capable of even more functions, headphones have truly revolutionized how we listen to music privately.
Headphones go by many names, such as headsets, earphones, ear speakers, and cans. All of which is pretty acceptable, by why cans?
The term “can” is a slang word that originated from the tin cans which acted as telephones for children in the past. Although not commonly used, the term is still used to this day in the recording and broadcasting industry.
In this article, we will tackle the history of headphones, why headphones are called cans, and many more.
Let’s get right into it.
Table of Contents
Origin of the nickname” Cans”
The term “can” describes earphones or other devices that make noise, meaning users would hear them when they wore these earpieces. The first use of headphones was limited to radio and military. Until, when the headphone designs became available, only wealthy people could afford them in the past.
In the 1940s, hipsters sought a simpler spelling of headphones, sparingly using “Can.” They also compared these headphones to cans because they looked like “tin cans” that sat over their ears.
Since the term cans are much easier to say and spell, it quickly became more popular term. Today, the term cans are rarely used as most people refer to headphones as earphones or earbuds. Many people don’t even know that headphones were once called cans in the past.
Nowadays, the term cans are only famous among headphone enthusiasts and professionals in the recording and broadcasting industry.
Why are headphones called cans?
Suppose you’re old enough to see how kids communicate privately with friends. In that case, you might have probably seen a contraption wherein kids would connect two cans with a string, allowing them to communicate without seeing each other, a primitive telephone.
Two kids would take two empty tin cans and connect them with a string. One would talk, and the other would put the can over their ear; the other kid would be able to hear what the first kid was talking about as the string allowed sound to travel through them; these were the basis for early headphones.
And now look at your modern headphones, especially those over ear headphones. Do they look similar? This is probably where the term originated, in the same sense that cans covered children’s ears in the past and the headphones we have now.
Nowadays, we use portable headphones to listen to music or watch movies, but headphones started in the past as a way for telephone operators to keep their hands free while talking over the telephone.
Telephone operators were the first group of people to use headphones in the 1880s; the headphones were a single earpiece that rested on people’s shoulders and weighed over 10 pounds, or 4.5 kilograms.
Shortly after the invention of headphones came the electrophones, invented in Britain in the 1980s. This subscription-based service allowed people to dial into a switchboard and start playing live local opera performances across London.
Contrary to the huge over ear headphones we currently have, the headphones during this era looked much more like a stethoscope used by doctors nowadays.
During the 1900s, a man named Nathaniel Baldwin invented the first ever design for modern headphones. He made the headphones by hand and offered his designs to the U.S Navy. The headphones were engineered so remarkably that it enticed the Navy to order 100 pairs shortly after.
Nathaniel Baldwin never invented the modern design for headphones for military purposes but built them in his kitchen to allow him to hear better during Sunday service. But the Navy never knew Baldwin was making them by hand, so Baldwin Radio Company and Wireless Specialty Apparatus partnered up to fulfill orders. His inventions became the foundation for sound-powered telephones used in world war II.
During this time, headphones were exclusively made for telephone operators and military personnel. And in 1937, Beyerdynamic’s DT-48 dynamic headphones became available in the broader market and became the catalyst for commonly used electrostatic headphones.
In 1958, a man named John Koss changed the headphones game from being strictly used for military purposes to ones that people can use to listen to music privately. The jazz lover John Koss designed his first stereo headphones named the Koss SP-3. It was made with nothing more than speakers covered with cardboard, a small foam, and a privacy switch.
Koss used a bent clothes hanger for the headband and paired it up with a rubber shower hose. Although its audio quality could never come close to the headphones we have now; its impact was revolutionary as it shifted the use of headphones from purely aviation and radio communication to something ordinary people can use.
The SP-3 headphones cost $24.95 (now $240 due to inflation), and Koss set the bar for high-quality headphones construction over the next six decades. They had the entire headphone market to themselves; most headphones in this time were constructed from their manufacturing facility.
After the first stereo headphones, Koss shortly released the first electrostatic model headphones named the ESP-6. These new design headphones were far lighter than the headphones in the past as they only weighed around 2 pounds or 0.90 kilograms.
In 1979, the famous Walkman breached the market. Introduced by Sony, the Walkman became a massive hit because of its revolutionary portable headphones, which allowed people to listen to music anywhere and anytime; it sold over 400 million units worldwide.
More extensive and bulkier headphones were a thing of the past, and lightweight and portable headphones were becoming increasingly popular. This sparked the future headphone designs also to be easy to carry around.
The year 2000 is regarded as the most revolutionary year regarding technology, as did the recent headphone designs. The 21st century came with iPods and mp3 players that even some people still use today.
With clever, colorful commercials, and genius marketing, over 300 million of these white music players could be seen everywhere since their inception back in 2001. Contrary to the bigger, and bulkier cans in the past, the AirPods became the catalyst for the term earphones.
7 years after, big brands like SkullCandy, Beats, and UrbanEars utilized headphones not as music-playing devices but as a fashion statement selling some of their headphones for under $1000 or more. They won the headphones market using bright colors and expensive price tags that enticed big-name celebrities to purchase them as a fashion statement and to show their extravagant lifestyle.
Now, everybody wants to purchase these more enormous, modern designs cans.
Nowadays, companies are creating more and more advanced headphones. Headphones that could utilize recent technology to reduce ambient noise, headphones with a high-quality built-in microphone, and even bone-conducting headphones that even people with hearing damage could still use to listen to their favorite musicians.
Similarities and differences between older and newer headphones
Headphones (or headphone) in the early days and present are both considered listening devices, but other than that, headphones we now differ heavily from those in the past.
In the past, headphones started as devices that telephone operators and military personnel could only use. They were massive, heavy, and could not be brought around quickly.
Although the military still uses headphones for their communications today, headphones are not limited to that function. Headphones are readily available for consumers to use for listening to music.
In addition, modern headphones are much lighter, less complicated, and made with even better materials for their internal and external components.
Lastly, headphones in the past were only made with one design. Nowadays, headphones types are specified for many purposes. Here are the different types of headphones and their differences.
Over-ear headphones, otherwise known as circumaural headphones, are the biggest headphone types. This type of headphones block out most of the environmental noise, are super comfortable, and this closed-back headphone design is the most preferred for music producers and artists.
Over-ear headphones are the ones closely referred to as cans because of their ability to fully surround the ears, just like the cans in the past.
While they sound great and provide excellent passive environmental noise cancellation, over-ear headphones, also called cans, can be pretty expensive and are not as portable as other headphone types.
On ear headphones or supra-aural headphones, go over the head and rest on top of your ear. This type of headphone design is appropriate for athletes as they are more stable when running or exercising (though they are still over-ear headphones that you can use for working out).
Although on-ear headphones don’t provide fantastic noise cancellation as they allow noise to enter and exit, they make up for it with their lightweight design, making them super convenient to carry around.
Noise canceling headphones
Noise-canceling headphones block active environmental noise by creating equal and opposite frequencies that entirely cancel out the background noise.
Noise-canceling headphones are the most advanced type of headphones and are the most preferred by students for studying, live performers like Franc Ocean and commuters as their passive noise isolation and their active noise canceling capabilities block out the noise from other passengers and the high frequencies from the engines.
Noise canceling headsets are also encouraged for most people. When you have active noise cancellation, you are less likely to turn the headphone volume to its maximum, making them the safer choice if you want to avoid hearing damage.
While ANC headphones are fabulous, they can be pretty pricey, have a lower battery life, and their active noise cancellation feature will also negatively affect the overall sound quality.
Bone conduction headphones
Bone conduction headphones bypass the ear canal as these headphones use bone conduction technology which transmits sound waves through your bones directly through your inner ear and to your eardrums.
These headphones are fabulous for people with hearing issues; they are great for awareness as they don’t block out your ear canal and are pretty stable as they rest outside your ears.
However, they don’t have excellent sound quality, and they also don’t provide noise isolation.
They are powered with Bluetooth technology, allowing them to pair up with any device with a Bluetooth chip. Wireless headphones don’t restrict your movement, and some Bluetooth earphones also have touch controls, so you don’t have to access your device to skip a track or turn your volume up and down.
Although Bluetooth headphones have tons of benefits, they have issues regarding the sound delay, they quickly run out of battery, and some audiophiles even claim that wireless headphones don’t sound as good as wired headphones.
These headphones are made explicitly for DJs; they allow different tracks to play from either end. These headphones provide super-accurate sounds that enable DJs to be fully aware of the music they are playing in their speakers, enabling them to tweak whatever they have to alter.
Earbuds are the most convenient, light, and portable type of headphones on the market, and they are the ones that can be easily connected to your phones. While headphones started as bulky, earbuds are made with portability in mind. They provide a louder and more accurate sound as they deliver sound waves much closer to your eardrums as they are placed nearer your ear canal.
Earbuds provide little to no sound leakage, provide passive noise cancellation, and are the most preferred headphones for commuters and athletes.
While both wired and wireless earphones are relatively cheap and easy to carry around, users have concerns regarding hearing damage as they provide louder music, encourage the build up of ear wax, and provide a suitable environment for viruses and bacteria to thrive.
Frequently Asked Questions
What do you call headphones that go over your head?
The headphones that go over your head are called cans, more commonly known as over ear headphones. They have ear pads that fully encompass the circumference of your ears, providing you with excellent sound isolation from environmental noise.
What do you call the rubber in earphones?
The rubber in your earphones is called earphone tips. These silicone rubber tips are placed at the end of most earbuds and earphones, and aside from the comfort they provide, these rubber tips also help conduct sounds to your inner ears and even offer passive noise cancellation.
Are earbuds worse than headphones for your hearing?
Yes, earbuds are worse than headphones if you want to maintain your hearing health. Since earbuds rest inside your ear canal, they are placed nearer your eardrums, meaning the music they play is much louder than headphones, especially the over ear headphones.
In addition, earbuds also encourage the build up of ear wax in your middle ear and create a living environment for viruses and bacteria, which could also damage your hearing capabilities.
Headphones started as a device only a few groups of people could use. With the rise of recent technology, headphones are now more accessible to the general public and have tons more uses other than military, and communication such as for entertainment.
We hope this article has helped you become more knowledgeable about the history of headphones, the different types, and why headphones are called cans by some people.