Sound Tube: The Surprising History of Airline Headsets


Vogue models wearing pneumatic headsets, which were à la mode in the 1960s. Photo via Getty Images

Before earbuds and noise-canceling headsets, passengers used stethoscope-like devices where sound traveled through a hollow plastic tube.

The jet age brought smooth, fast and comfortable intercontinental travel to the world. It also saw the introduction of early in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems that relied on fragile 16mm film and temperamental projectors.

If the film didn’t break, passengers could see the movie; but what about the soundtrack? Although the new jets were much quieter than the thunderous piston-pounding airplanes that preceded them, airlines were searching for a new way to deliver audio to passengers.

In the early 1950s, Rhode Island-based AVID Products (named after the acronym for audio visual instruction device) was a manufacturer of audio products and had added a new airline division that made passenger control units.

As Mike Twist, AVID’s president and CEO, explains: “In 1961, Trans World Airlines (TWA) approached AVID and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this crazy idea. What do you think about collaborating on building a headset for airline passengers?’ At the time, nobody was doing anything like that.”

In those days, before cheap electronic headsets, AVID designers took inspiration from a medical stethoscope and created the pneumatic headset. Two hollow, flexible, plastic tubes were fitted with soft earpieces and attached to a hard-plastic yoke that hung below a passenger’s chin. The end of the tubes had a connector that plugged into the armrest, where a small speaker and volume control unit was located.

“At one time, when pneumatic was the only option, we had a 97 percent market share,” Twist says. “The headsets were identical from airline to airline, but in the yoke was a blank space that could be molded with the individual airline’s logo.”

Pneumatic headsets were used through the 1960s and ’70s, but IFE technology changed with the 1979 introduction of the Sony Walkman portable audio cassette player. “The significant impact on our business was not the Walkman, but the headset packaged with the Walkman. That headset was the first mass-produced, low-cost electronic headset,” Twist explains.

“Almost overnight all of IFE went from pneumatic to electronic.” While pneumatic headsets are no longer used in airline cabins, AVID has found a new market for the almost 60-year-old technology. “We’re working on a full line of pneumatic headsets for health care,” Twist says, explaining that patients undergoing an MRI procedure can’t wear any metal or electronics while the imaging units operate. “Music can be channeled to the patient, but the headset has to be pneumatic.”