There are many factors to consider when choosing vintage headphones, but the most important features to look out for are style, connectivity, and overall quality. These three criteria are important whether you are looking for vintage headphones to actually use or just to collect. Headphones that have an attractive or rare look can be prove disappointing if they do not actually work, or will not connect to modern devices. It is usually a good idea to look at headphones in person before buying them and do at least a bit of research into the headphones’ make, model, and general manufacturing notes.
What makes something “vintage” is largely a question of interpretation when it comes to headphones. To some, headphones are only truly vintage if they were in the heyday of their use 50 or 60 years ago, and were likely used in airplane cockpits or professional music recording. For others, the term is looser, and can include stereo equipment manufactured as recently as 10 to 20 years ago, as long as it embodies a certain older, more primitive look. The first part of choosing vintage headphones is deciding what exactly it is that you are after.
Next, you will need to decide on the style and color that you are going for. Retro headphones come in a wide range of different looks. Most are of the cup variety — that is, large ear cups connected by an overhead band — but their shapes, sizes, and materials vary tremendously.
Overall quality and preservation is important at this stage of the selection process. Even a really well-made headphone may not be your best choice if it has not been well maintained. Older headphones were usually lined with foam that acted as sort of a seal between the user’s ear and the outside world. While this is still the way many modern headphones are made, the foam of today is often more durable and age-resistant than the composites that were available in decades past.
Crumbling foam is one of the biggest drawbacks to vintage headphones. Ear cups that have been exposed to dry or humid conditions for prolonged periods of time often have liners that have become dried and crumbly. Degraded foam cannot act as a good conduit for sound, and can makes wearing uncomfortable for many people. Cup liners can usually be restored or replaced, but this adds to the total cost. Modern repairs can also detract from the overall value of the headphones, which is a concern for serious collectors.
Another thing to consider is how well vintage headphones will connect to modern devices like stereos and portable music players. Music technology has advanced significantly since any period that could be considered “vintage.” This means that many used headphones may not be immediately compatible with today’s devices. Sometimes a simple adapter will make vintage headphones more universal, but this is worth looking into at the outset.
If you intend to get a lot of use out of your vintage headphones, battery life is also something to consider. Most older headphones require standard alkaline batteries for operation. As vintage stereo equipment ages, however, it often declines in efficiency. It is usually good to know upfront whether you will need to constantly purchase new batteries, or whether the headphones can carry a charge for awhile. Whether a manufacturer or third party salesperson is offering the headphones under any sort of warranty or quality guarantee is also something to look out for, as this can act as at least an initial indicator of overall headphone quality.