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Headphones: Accessory or Necessity?

Headphones are synonymous with personal identity, outfit styling and the new wave of user experiences. They serve as a functional and stylistic elevation to any outfit, and Pinterest boards are infiltrated with street wear statements and nonchalant headphone appearances.

Art by Lauren MacColl

Sentenced to tackling your mountain of canvas modules? Stuck on the T4 line after another train delay? Walking down to the shops to pick up your regular sweet treat? No matter what time, activity or chore, headphones have become a necessity for embarking on our tasks of the day.

The advent of headphones has given humanity the ability to ingest information while completing other activities. For all of us, it’s how we consume their regular podcasts, curate Spotify playlists, communicate with friends or relive lecture recordings. They provide that constant stimulation, when the pain sitting with our own thoughts is becoming more and more undesirable. For some, audio consumption has become a crux for productivity and sanity.

The first recorded iteration of a headphone dates back to 1891 when a French engineer, Ernest Mercadier, patented the “bi-telephone”. The original model was lightweight and intended for telephone usage only, but served as the building block for future audio technology.

Twenty years later, Nathaniel Baldwin came forth with the over-ear headphones in 1910, which enhanced the different output user-experience technologies to include two padded ear cups — what we know as headphones today.

Then, fast forward 40 years to 1958, competitive advances in the technology market triggered the birth of “the brands”. Jon Koss designed the first stereo headphones with the iconic Koss SP-3, which led to the Walkman in 1979, and then eventually the iPod and mp3 players of 2001.

But it wasn’t until 1970 that the headphone device, as a way to enjoy music, became a trending accessory in our everyday lives. Connected to the Walkman, a portable listening experience was now upon us. From here, headphones ranged in style, colour and design, with users even taking the liberty to decorate or personalise their own set.

However, despite sharing the same technology, we each have uniquely personal relationships with our headphones.

Now, headphones are synonymous with personal identity, outfit styling and the new wave of user experiences. They serve as a functional and stylistic elevation to any outfit, and Pinterest boards are infiltrated with street wear statements and nonchalant headphone appearances.

In 2019, ASOS released fake headphones to appeal to the growing trend of styling headphones as a fashion statement. The item was notoriously titled, “ASOS Design faux headphone earpiece in silver tone”. This ridiculous moment in fast-fashion history not only garnered critical public reactions, but reflected the growing fusion of fashion, image and branding in contemporary headphone experiences.

At times, we may find ourselves profiling others by their styling and use of headphones. For the cult classic Airpods, we might acknowledge them to be basic but functional — used by an average earphone wearer. If we see the over-ear padded Beats by Dr Dre headphones, we may reminisce on the 2014 cultural phenomenon that was deeply linked to street style status. Or, maybe we spot an enigmatic train passenger with vintage Audio-Technicas – acknowledging their esoteric style. Should we notice the newly introduced Airpod Maxes, observations of full wallets and clean aesthetics come to mind.

Regardless of what design or brand, headphones serve as an escape from our reality. and a way to enable our digital explorations. They have always been a standard pairing with any phone we purchase, but they are now not only an extension of the device, but an extension of us. However, capitalistic attempts at market dominance aside, our growing dependence on headphones raises new ideas about its place in the student experience.

At the University of Sydney, it is unlikely you will see a student without a pair of earbuds or headphones. Should you traverse any of the libraries or grounds, chances are that students have their heads down and the headphones plugged in. Headphones are tantamount to the contemporary student lifestyle.

Arguably, the era of COVID lockdowns, Zoom tutorials and Microsoft Teams work meetings escalated the importance of this tech accessory. We rely on headphones for the convenience of consuming our audio on the go. They comfort our commutes to campus, they aid us in our study sessions, and they allow us to deter any unwanted social interaction. We can watch TikTok on the go, scroll through Instagrams on the bus, Facetime our friends and catch up on our youtube subscriptions on the commute home.

Perhaps our emerging dependence represents our fear of silence, or our inability to consume only one input of media at a time. Is our newfound dependence on headphones a product of tech evolution, or a concerning change in behavioural patterns. Or both?

Maybe this analysis into the headphone’s personal use and function is too nuanced, and should consist of no more than us listening to good music whilst staring dramatically out of the train window.

But excuse me, now I must go. I’ve got to go listen to the entire Barbie soundtrack.

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