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Why Are Headphones Called “Cans”?

Headphones go by many names. They’re also known as ear speakers, earphones, and, colloquially, cans. But why did the recording industry give the nickname “cans” to headphones?

Cans is an old slang word for headphones that originally came from the so-called tin can telephone that children used to play with. The term is still used today, mostly in the broadcasting and recording industry and among audio enthusiasts.

This article will look at the old tin can telephone technology that gave birth to “cans” and the history of the headphones we know and love today.

Headphones that are called "cans"

Why “Cans”?

The name headphones, primarily those used for monitoring while recording, evolved to phones and then to cans. “Cans” was a name given to a game of stringing two cans together to construct a primitive telephone.

If you’re old enough, you probably remember the old tin can telephone. Two kids would connect two empty cans with a string, and one would talk over one can while the other put the other can over their ear. The other person would hear them speaking over it because of the sound waves traveling over the tight string. It works surprisingly well!

This is probably where the name came from.

Looking at the shape of most headphones, especially those that sport an over-ear design, they look like cans on your ears. They also sound like someone’s speaking into a tin can telephone because of the echo.

Origin of the Colloquial Nickname ”Cans”

The name “cans” was once a slang term for an earpiece or anything that produced sound, which users had to listen to by placing it to their ear. At first, they were only used by radio stations and the military. But when they were later made available to the public, only the rich and educated could afford them.

In the 1940s, hipsters who sought a simpler spelling for headphones sparingly started using “cans.” They likened headphones to cans because they looked like a pair of “cans” put over the ears.

Also, the first-era headphones had inferior quality of sound. It was like listening to tin cans.

The name quickly caught on and was used by more and more people as headphones got more popular among the rich and the poor alike.

Today, the name “cans” has mostly disappeared, as most people refer to them as headphones and earbuds or earpieces. Nowadays, it’s a nickname used almost exclusively by enthusiasts. Many non-audiophiles don’t even know headphones were once called ”cans” — those who know find the name a little too tacky for their liking.

It’s safe to say the colloquial ”cans” hold a rich history on the roots of headphones, and people should keep using them. 

The History of Headphones

Here’s a breakdown of the headphones’ history over the years:

The 1800s

Before the Walkman, MP3s, and modern streaming services like Spotify, we had headphones, but they weren’t used for listening to music. Headphones were born out of the need to free people’s hands when they were on the phone.

Telephone operators first used headphones in the early 1880s, a single earpiece weighing over 10 pounds (4.54 kg) that users could perch on their shoulders for support.

Thanks to the electrophone system introduced in 1895, people could start playing the local opera house from the comfort of their homes. It was a costly service going for an annual £5 subscription (about £14,000/$18,500 today).

Still, it allowed users to listen to people singing in a large stadium from about a kilometer away using headphones that looked more like stethoscopes than modern-day headphones.

The Early 1900s

In 1910, Nathaniel Baldwin invented the first modern-like headphones ever. They were exclusively used by telephone operators and military personnel for at least four decades after. He handmade them in his kitchen and sold them to the U.S Navy.

Nathaniel Baldwin built the pair of “cans” to help him hear better at a Sunday service. He offered them to the U.S. Navy for testing, and the Navy soon bought 100 pieces from him. Wireless Specialty Apparatus Co. partnered with Baldwin Radio Company to open a manufacturing facility in Utah to fulfill orders. His inventions constituted the foundation for “sound-powered” or “non-electric” telephones, widely utilized during World War II.

In 1937, the Beyerdynamic’s DT-48 dynamic headphones hit the market. These headphones paved the way for the now commonly used electrostatic headphones in the “can” story. Dynamic headphones are still widely used even today.

The Late 1900s

In 1958, John Koss changed the “cans” game by introducing the first stereo headphones, the Koss SP-3. He called it the “private listening station.” As a jazz lover, Koss changed the way people used headphones from radio and aviation to using them for entertainment, like listening to music.

It had a turntable, speakers, and a privacy switch that allowed users to connect headphones to a port. However, most available headphones, like those used by telephone operators, shortwave radio users, and pilots at the time, were incompatible because they weren’t stereophonic.

So, they constructed a headband out of a bent clothes hanger and a rubber shower hose, which housed 3-inch (7.62 cm) speakers and chamois padding from a flight helmet.

Koss would dominate the headphone industry over the next few decades, all without a college diploma to his name.

The SP-3 headphones, which costed $24.95 (about $240 today), were the first of many that Koss would produce over the next six decades.

For many years, Koss set the bar for construction quality and audio, and they had nearly the entire market to themselves.

After launching the first stereo headphones, Koss released the first electrostatic model built in the United States. The ESP-6s weighed roughly 2 pounds (0.91 kg), so they weren’t exactly a set of earbuds, but they were still a long way from the huge pieces built less than a century ago.

When the famous Walkman, was introduced in 1979 by Sony, which sold over 400 million units, portable music players became a big hit. You could now easily walk around and listen to your favorite music wherever you were. Of course, that meant that lightweight and portable headphones also became very popular.

From then on, headphones had to be portable. At the same time, people have moved on from buying Walkman, the trend of listening to music wherever you go caught on and is still evident in today’s headphone brands.

The New Millennium

The 21st century came in with iPods and MP3 players, which some of us use even today. No matter the time of day, you could see folks with a white cord hanging from their ears and going down into their pockets. Apple has sold more than 300 million iPods worldwide since its introduction in 2001. They all came with a pair of earbuds, now popularly known as earphones. They were tiny compared to old-school “cans.”

In 2008, headphones became a fashion statement and not just a listening device. Big brands like Beats, UrbanEars, and SkullCandy, won the market with big flashy “cans” going for very high prices. Their products were popular among big celebrities, especially musicians and artists who love to flash their wealthy lifestyles. 

Some celebrities signed affiliation deals with these companies to advertise their products to the masses. Remember when Lil Wayne wore those 1 million dollar Beats headphones? 

Everybody wanted a big flashy, expensive headphone to their name.


The first headphones were a revolutionary invention. However, due to the similarity to the classic tin can telephone, people started calling them cans. The name has since caught on, and many people, although not as before, still call them ”cans” even today.