To the infinitesimally small, and all the way back
When I was growing up and first starting to get into listening to music, I was encouraged by my parents not to inflict my evolving musical tastes on them. Headphones, then, were the order of the day. And back then, headphones were big. Never would I venture outside wearing a set, and neither did anybody else. But in 1979, if I remember correctly, something wonderful happened. I was first alerted to this certain something on a Friday afternoon listening to the radio. The programme was Radio One’s ‘Round Table’ – a forum for discussion on the week’s latest releases, with informed comment from guests who typically comprised DJs, music industry professionals, and a selection of starlets of the hour (plus, usually, a token blast from the past who was perhaps embarking on yet another revival tour).
I vaguely remember the programme being hosted by Mike Read, but it was fellow DJ and guest for the afternoon Annie Nightingale who was the centre of attention, by virtue of her set of miniature headphones. Now, remember, this was 1979, when your average set of headphones looked and felt more like construction workers’ ear defenders. So when Annie described her new headphones as being more like a piece of jewellery, I knew even without seeing them that here was something I wanted. But it got better, because newspaper and magazine reports started appearing, and it turned out that the tiny headphones shipped with a tiny cassette player – and stereo at that. Yes, the Sony Walkman had been born. It was music on the move: no more silent running – now you could be entertained while you jogged.
So there we had the state-of-the-art in mobile music reproduction in the late seventies. A cassette player small enough to clip to your belt, and headphones with earpieces little bigger in diameter than a 10p piece.
Of course, technology marches on, and in recent years those miniature headphones have given way to in-ear buds. When they first came onto the market, you could be out and about and nobody would even know you were wearing music reproduction apparatus, and may never have known were it not for the tinny sounding leakage that, generally on the train, was just loud enough to annoy, but never quite loud enough to enqble you to work out what the song was. At the same time, the music players themselves shrank and shrank, to the miniature MP3 players that we now all know so well.
But most recently, something curious has happened. Headphones have started getting bigger again. And the more fashion conscious you are, typically the bigger the headphones you’re wearing. People are exercising in them too; you’ll frequently see joggers breezing along with some garishly coloured over-ear appendage. I find it curious that we’ve seemingly come full circle. Is the large-to-small-to-large yo-yo effect something that occurs in all areas of technology? And while the reasons behind the size reductions are obvious, what drives the reverse scaling? Is it simply fashion, or is there something in there we could all learn from?
Mark Simms Editor
Industrial Technology - NEWS