Five of the World’s Most Iconic Headphones


Merriam Webster defines it as ”widely known and acknowledged especially for distinctive excellence.”

Seems like a reasonable place to want to start a list about headphone designs that had a lasting impact on the hobby, and more importantly, on how the world views the head space as a whole.

The entire landscape of personal audio seems to be developing in a way that few could have predicted even just 25 years ago.

Then, headphone use was partitioned into mastering/pro-audio professionals, serious home head-units and portable use with lightweight on-ear ‘foamies’ or rubber-tipped ‘earphones’ that went along with DiscMans and Walkmans – with pro in-ear monitors seeing more limited use by musicians.

Then 2001 came and the iPod changed all of that. Five-thousand songs in your pocket and the promise of not only convenience, but of quality that the new digital formats brought to the table made people start to look at headphones with a fresh perspective in the portable market.

The game-changer combo.

The iPod wasn’t the first to the digital audio player game, but Apple was the one able to catch the imagination of the world with slick hardware/software implementation and ubiquitous ad campaigns structured around songs-of-the-moment that made you want one without hesitation.

The iPod’s release onto the consumer market was part of an ingredient in a perfect storm; riding on a wave that turned the tide from CDs to computer audio.

The digital-music pirating revolution then became fuelled by the fire lit by iTunes along with Napster as the world listened patiently to the sound of modems connecting before plugging in their 5-gig, click-wheel Molotov cocktail. Suddenly everywhere you looked little white earbuds were the most popular fashion accessory in the world along with a whole new mindset of listening on-the-go, and with it an appreciation for higher fidelity in headphones from the general population and a recognition from headphone manufacturers around the world that the game had changed forever when it came to the massive portable market.

That global influence alone makes a case for Apple’s earbuds being one of the most iconic designs in history – sure they weren’t even close to being the best sounding or most durable, but they were everywhere, and that gave them powerful leverage in the market. I mean, really, who can say they didn’t have a pair at one time or another?

Little white status symbols.

No, the iPod and its earbuds didn’t eclipse or threaten classic over-ear designs like the Koss Portapro, the AKG 240, the Stax Lambda or the Sennheiser HD600, but moving forward from 2001 the odds are there probably wasn’t a new design that came out from any manufacturer that wasn’t influenced in some way by those tiny white status symbols. Why? Simply because they were the 900-pound gorilla in the room due to their ubiquitous nature. What manufacturer wouldn’t have taken the contract to see their own portable headphones paired with an iPod?

So, while Apple earbuds made this list because of their strength in numbers, and their catchy white utilitarian looks, the other four designs I’ve included made it because the headphone community as a whole recognized them as important to the sonic development and social acceptance of personal audio. These designs grew the ranks of headphone audiophiles from the point of view of their aural prowess, advanced technical specifications, impact on the future of design, and the ability to modify certain aspects of their makeup to fine-tune their performance.

I have zero expectations that anyone will agree with all of my choices here, and in no way am I saying these are the five most iconic designs of all time, merely that they are five of the most iconic designs. There are many more I would have included, but unfortunately time limitations limit me to five choices. As with all things in this hobby, YMMV, and I look forward to hearing back from readers about what other headphones they think would qualify to make a list of some of the most iconic headphones of all time. With that said, lets move on to the other choices.

Koss Porta Pro

Ultralight and on-the-go.

With a lightweight industrial design that seemed inspired to work as well while jogging or working out as rollerskating (it was the early ’80s), the precursor of Koss’ Porta Pro – the Koss Sound Partner or KSP – became a sensation in its own right for music-conscious individuals on the go. Many of whom were pairing the KSP with a personal-audio tidal wave that hit shores that decade: the Sony Walkman. While Koss had their own portable FM/AM radio dubbed the ‘MusicBox’ which the KSP was built to compliment, it, and everything else of a portable nature, was being eclipsed by the Walkman – a sensation the iPod repeated two decades later. Building on the achievements of the KSP, the company released its successor – the under-$50 USD, two-ounce Porta Pro – in 1984. The rest as they say, is history. Few, if any other designs, were capable of achieving what the Porta Pro did with fit, looks, sound and the thing that sets them apart more than anything – price. The small on-ear Porta Pro is comprised of not much more than plain metal bands, unique plastic ‘d’-shaped yokes with small foam pads covering the roughly 30mm drivers and a sound categorized as well-balanced with surprising bottom-end heft. While the Walkman is long gone, the Porta Pro is still selling strong.

AKG 240

Studio favorites.

Look at almost any rock recording studio photograph going back more than four decades and odds are you’ll see two things: white-drivered Yamaha NS10 monitor loudspeakers (launched in 1978) and a pair of semi-open back AKG 240 headphones (originally brought to market in 1975). Neither was known as being expensive, but both were known to be tremendously revealing of recordings. The K240 is still available for less than $100 USD online and still sports a 30mm dynamic ‘Varimotion’ driver and still is one of the most-recognized designs out there with its black and gold color scheme, oversize-wire curved yoke/chassis, headband and vented diaphragm. It quickly became a favorite of studio engineers, producers and musicians because of its ruthless accuracy, open sound, tight bass response, and ‘iconic’ midrange. Add in their 240-gram weight and they were easy on the head for marathon recording sessions. The fact that the design has barely changed in more than 40 years (other than the changing of six passive radiators around the driver initially meant for bass boost) helps cement them as a headphone done right with mass appeal from not only music professionals but critical audiophile listeners too. Not normally two groups that agree on sound, but here the K240 brought disparate camps together.

Stax SR-Lambda

Electrostatic icon.

Earspeakers, not headphones, and for good reason, because when the Japanese company Stax introduced the first Lambda in 1979 they looked more like pair of loudspeakers with a headband joining them than any other headphone on the market. They didn’t clamp your ears or head so much as hang off it, leading some to joke that you might as well wear bookshelf monitors. They weren’t far off, as the design was basically an electrostatic speaker in miniature. Looking back, it’s probably hard for many younger headspace enthusiasts these days to understand what the fuss was around the Lambda because we now occupy a place in this hobby where electrostatic or planar magnetic designs are more mainstream than fringe. But, that’s exactly because of groundbreaking designs like the SR pushing the engineering envelope of the time. Sure, you have to have a dedicated amplifier/adaptor to drive the units, but any good open-back, over-ear design usually needs a real amplifier to get the best out of them – just with electrostats it’s not an option. It paved the way for many other sound engineers, audio designers and manufacturers to take the risk and drive personal audio into unheard of technical-specification territory. Known for its exceptional resolution, distinct spatial clarity separating voices and instruments, timbral accuracy, transient speed and distortion-free presentation, the Lambda embodied all the attributes we’ve come to expect, nay, demand from modern headphone design implementations today. Forty years on the SR-Lambda/SRD-7 experience can still be found online for between $500~$900 USD.

Sennheiser HD 580/600/650

The HD trilogy.

The Sennheiser HD series has been causing tongues to wag since the introduction of the HD 580 in the mid-’90s. It wasn’t an easy-to-drive over-ear, dynamic-driver, open-back headphone at roughly 300 Ohms, but it presented an incredibly linear frequency response, which was coupled with almost no coloration, punchy dynamics, and a weight of just 260 grams. Add-in a sub-$400 USD price tag and it was a hit with the burgeoning headspace community. The HD 600 came out in ’97 and the love affair with headphone audiophiles continued through to present day after the 2005 launch of the HD 650 cemented the trilogy’s sound-quality/value status. The build quality, while good, isn’t generational – you won’t be passing a pair down to your children unless you handle them with care – but they’re well known as a headphone that is easy to take apart, modify or repair (earcups, headband pads, etc.) which endeared them even more to the personal-audio community because when you tinker with something, you become more emotionally invested in it. While the price has steadily risen – a new 650 goes for $650 USD – the praise for the design has barely changed in the intervening years, with the overall consensus remaining that this is one of the most important headphone designs in the history of the hobby, and that its design contributed to untold imitators.

Andrew_Patrick's picture

Rafe, What about the Sennheiser 414. They were quite revolutionary as an open air headphone back in the late sixties. Also a staple in recording studios much earlier than the AKG.

RussellD's picture

I don't agree about the accuracy of the Sennheiser 580/600/650. Thay sound veiled to me. Koss Porta Pro??? Koss Pro 4AA, now that was a classic and iconic. It even sounded tolerable. What about the AKG K-1000? After 30 years it sells for almost double what it cost in 1998 dollars. Speaking of AKG, the 240 being sold today almost no sonic resemblance to the 600Ω 240 DF which was designed by the same man who designed the K1000. Another iconic and groundbreaking earphone was the Etymotic Research ER4S which started the entire expensive in-ear monitor craze and still sounds better than most of them.