A Brief History of Binaural Audio

Binaural audio and “3D sound” might seem high-tech and futuristic, but the basic technology has actually been around for close to a hundred years.

Here’s a quick summary of the history of binaural audio:

The TheatrophoneIn 1881, French inventor Clement Ader setup the first binaural audio transmission by connecting a series of telephone transmitters across the front of the stage of the Paris Opera House. Listeners about two kilometers away were able to hear the action onstage by holding two separate telephone receivers to their ears.

The technology was later commercialized as the “Théâtrophone,” and used to broadcast opera, theatre, and eventually news bulletins to hotels, cafes, clubs and home subscribers. At the time, it cost 50 French centimes for five minutes of listening. The company ceased operations in 1932.

Then, in 1933, the telephone company AT&T made headlines at the Chicago World Fair by demonstrating the first head-based binaural system. They created a mechanical man with microphones for ears, nicknamed “Oscar,” which was set up in a glass room surrounded by listeners with headphones. The public was astounded to hear what Oscar was hearing in real-time, and the exhibit was a highlight of the fair.

Neumann KU series microphoneAt the 1972 International Radio and Television Exhibition in Berlin, the German microphone company, Neumann, introduced the KU-80, the first generation of commercial dummy head microphones. It was designed to test environmental acoustics, but listeners quickly discovered the potential it had for recording realistic radio drama. Neumann’s design for the microphone improved in later generations including the KU-81, and now the KU-100.

Today, the KU-100 dummy head still stands as a fantastic binaural microphone, and when paired with high quality preamps and a high-definition recorder, it is capable of making truly breath-taking recordings.

For much more detailed information about the science and technology behind binaural audio, check out some of the following links:

The Théâtrophone
AT&T’s “Oscar” at the World Fair

About the Author

Alex KallI'm the owner and head engineer here at Kall Binaural Audio. Aside from my career/love affair with binaural audio recording, I've worked as Symphony Nova Scotia’s stage manager and marketing coordinator, and am also a freelance bass player and designer.View all posts by Alex Kall →

  1. Paul PortegiesPaul Portegies04-11-2012

    Just came across your site and wanted to say…good stuff! Interesting stuff for my research.

    • Alex KallAlex Kall04-12-2012

      Thanks Paul, glad you’re finding our work helpful. If you ever want to chat about anything binaural, shoot us an email at [email protected]. Cheers! – Alex

  2. Pedro SantosPedro Santos06-05-2012

    Hey Alex, my name is Pedro and I’m a communication student from Portugal. I’m making a work about History of Binaural and HRTF and how to create a HRTF filter to monaural and stereo sound…
    I’m having so many difficulties, can you help me with this? It’s so hard to find something on the internet about HRTF!! And for a beginner like me to read something like a thesis is very demanding.
    If you can help me I would appreciate so much.
    Thanks Alex =) !!
    Pedro S

    • Alex KallAlex Kall06-05-2012

      Hi Pedro,

      Thanks for getting in touch. I’m happy to help anyway I can. Let me know what it is specifically you’re struggling with, and I’ll try to point you in the right direction.