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What It Means to Wear Headphones at Work

·Tech Columnist

Nobody seems to agree just why Apple is buying Beats, as is rumored to be happening soon, to the tune of $3.2 billion. But given that Beats is primarily known for its line of conspicuously branded headphones, now seems a good time to consider why headphones have become so monumentally valuable.

Generally the rising interest in headphones is discussed as a side effect of the rise of smartphones, tablets, and MP3 players: We’re entertaining ourselves in public more frequently, from the kids enveloped in games in the back seat to the subway commuter lost in the new Black Keys album.

I think there’s another, less diversionary factor: Thanks to the rise of the so-called “open plan” office, an even less-private evolution of the familiar cubicle farm, headphones aren’t just a handy way to make a commute more tolerable. They’re necessary office equipment.

Headphones aren’t just the new hatthey’re the new walls.

Read more5 Headphone Styles That Make a Statement

The value of Crayola-splat styling
I reached out to a variety of open-plan-office denizens, from head honchos on down, to see how the evolution of headphone form and function is playing out in the workplace.

Turns out that at SoundCloud, the audio platform, headphones are literally standard office equipment: Every employee gets a pair of Urbanears headphones in her new-hire onboarding kit. “They’re nice because they’re all different colors and also extremely visible,” explains Diana Kimball, who works in the firm’s Berlin headquarters, “so you can tell when someone is ‘head-down’ or ‘open to conversation,’ based on whether they have a Crayola splat on their heads.” 

SoundClouders can swap these for Urbanears in-ear models, and many opt to use their own headphones or earbuds. (Kimball uses an in-ear Sony set.) “Headphones with mics in the cord are considered essential,” she adds, “because we spend so much time on Skype and Google Hangouts.”

RealNetworks’ Seattle headquarters used to be mostly offices, but in the fall the company moved into a space that’s almost entirely open plan.

“When I walk the halls now I see way more headphones, for obvious reasons,” says founder and Chairman Rob Glaser, the tech-audio pioneer. No single brand seems to dominate, but there are far more over-ear headphones than ear buds. 

Read more: 5 Ways to Practice Proper Headphone Etiquette

Still, he adds: “I think it’s more of a functional reality than a fashion statement; people want/need to isolate when they want to concentrate in an open-plan environment.”  


An open office plan.

Maybe so. But plenty of office workers seem to be aware of the big headphone brands, and what they signify — even if they’re a little shy about discussing the matter on the record. One employee in an open-office scenario told me he uses a Skullcandy set: “It felt young/skater-ish, which I’m decidedly not, but they were cheap at Radio Shack down the street.” He picked a model with black-on-black styling, making the logo as obscure as possible.

That’s not a fashion statement; it’s a plea for privacy.

Headphones are the new door
And what about Beats? The brand has made a fortune recognizing, exploiting, and accelerating the idea that what’s on the exterior of a set of headphones can mean as much to mainstream consumers as what’s flowing through the interior (and into your ears). But it wasn’t popular in the offices of my various informants.

That may be precisely because Beats, more than almost any of its rivals, has established such a powerful brand (by way of its many celebrity endorsements and aggressive marketing) that its meaning is just too specific. As one person I heard from put it, Beats are associated with high-school kids influenced by Lebron James and Dr. Dre, and with young Wall Streeters for whom it’s basically “just a conspicuous consumption thing.”

Actually, Beats’ domination of the high-end headphone market is even more stunning when you fully appreciate the degree to which audiophiles roundly dismiss its actual quality as a listening device. But this just speaks to the cleverness of founder Jimmy Iovine’s original insight: “Apple was selling $400 iPods with $1 earbuds,” as he has put it. Aside from dissing their quality, this suggests that as crucial as the white default earbuds were to the iPod’s rise, there was, eventually, something just plain unserious about them.

So while a typical office worker may not want to signal fashionability, there’s still more to office headphones than the pure function of blotting out distracting noise.

“The thing I love about headphones,” another open-plan denizen (and Skullcandy-wearer) told me via email, is that they are “a visual signifier that I AM WORKING AND THIS BETTER BE IMPORTANT IF YOU ARE GOING TO COME OVER HERE AND TALK TO ME. Like I imagine it might work if I had an office and could close the door.”

In fact, maybe that’s what distinguishes the perfect visual signal that workplace headphones can send: “I’m busy; I’m serious about what I’m listening to. These headphones aren’t just walls; they’re a door. And it’s closed.”

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. RSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.