The object that I have chosen to exhibit for this collection is a pair of white JBL wireless headphones. JBL is an American electronics company that sells sound equipment to ordinary customers, as well as to musicians and DJs. This particular model that I have acquired is the JBL TUNE500BT on-ear headphones. The way they look is very matte, uniform, and symmetrical. When one touches these headphones, they are solid, but soft in texture. They’re also foldable, making them travel-friendly. The part that goes around or on one’s ear is soft and cushiony. The same cushion can be found on the inner top part, where the crown of the head would usually be.
When wearing the headphones at any given time, I feel comfortable and supported. I can go running and do elaborate workouts without them slipping off or losing sound quality. The headphones connect to any device with a Bluetooth connection. One presses the button, and it turns on and connects to i.e., a phone with a music playing app. These headphones are very valuable to me, as they provide me with many unique listening and learning experiences. Additionally, someone I hold very close to my heart gifted these to me, adding an extra layer of value to this item.
The Significance of my Object
The most frequent medium I listen to on these headphones is music. Music is a medium that helps young people reduce negative emotions (Labbé et al., 2007). I, too, consider music to be one of the most relevant self-calming and soothing tools for myself. I often use it to regulate my mood, whether it is to calm down or to cheer up. This is especially applicable in the case of the pandemic.
As I had more time to focus on self-love and self-improvement, I found myself learning more every day by using these headphones. From new music to videos to podcasts, I used these headphones to consume content that was meaningful and useful to me every day. With more time to dedicate to important causes, I was able to fully dive into these topics that I don’t necessarily learn about in school, and educate myself on my own time and terms.
It is the experiences that this object gives me that matter the most during the lockdowns. These headphones represent a gateway to listening to a variety of content, as well as hearing details that otherwise couldn’t be heard in other sound equipment, such as the bass and when sounds bounce from only one ear to another. I simply have exceptional experiences listening to music with these headphones. Unsurprisingly, the intensity of the sounds makes me emotional, as music makes us feel a great range of emotions (Labbé et al., 2007). It has the power to uncover a side of us we didn’t know was there in the first place. I appreciate this feature because it gives me the ability to focus only on what I’m listening to and how I feel while doing so.
Music and other auditory content are often used as an escape from reality (Labbé et al., 2007). In the case of the lockdown, I used auditory content to distract myself from the boredom of staying at home. On my twenty-second birthday, the Netherlands enforced a 9 PM curfew, completely changing my daily routine from then on. Suddenly, if I wanted to have dinner with friends, we would have to meet much earlier than usual and rush through the cooking and eating processes. This was rather unfortunate, because after I would get my work done during the day, I would look forward to seeing friends and having fun, but that simply isn’t as possible or enjoyable anymore with the measures. Having further restrictions on my already withering social life (and social battery) created a higher need for escaping this reality, as it has been a very difficult year for the world.
Societal Relevance of Headphones
According to LSTN Sound (2020), headphones made their first debut as phone operator accessories in the late 1800’s, which consisted of a single earpiece that weighed over 10 pounds (about 4,5 kg). Headphones as they are known today were first popularized in Britain in 1890 through the Electrophone, allowing people to dial a number and listen to symphonies through two speakers wired together. Furthermore, the first successful set of headphones were developed in 1910 by Utah inventor Nathaniel Baldwin, who sold them to the US Navy, which used them to send and receive coded signals and sensitive headphones were used for work in the radio industry (Traynor, 2017). By the Second World War, more sophisticated versions of headphones were used, with headphone models advancing constantly for better communication between soldiers and sailors. The late 1950’s brought stereo headphones that came perfectly with the Baby Boomer generation entering their teens and the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. Noise-cancelling headphones were invented by Dr. Amar Bose, the founder of Bose Corporations, which was a game changer for pilots, as the company’s first generation of noise-cancelling headphones targeted noise reduction in the cockpit. These headphones became especially practical in the late 1980’s and are still widely used today. Since then, headphones have become as much about style as they are about sound quality.
It can be argued that objects produce effects by making us feel a certain way, thus having an impact that goes beyond its materiality (Hoskins, 2006). Since the birth of headphones to their contemporary usage, they have been used within a broad range of activities and professions. Radio communication, flying airplanes, and coordination were the early uses of headphones. Only 70 years later did headphones evolve into a tool that is used exclusively for music listening and creation with the invention of stereo headphones in 1957. This proves that material objects have biographies that continue to develop throughout its life cycle, how its users interact with it, and how this interaction changes as time goes by. Objects obtain uses and meanings beyond those that were originally intended by their creators (Dannehl, 2018, p.174). As headphones began as a tool for more efficient communication, they evolved into a staple for music lovers and as stylish accessories. This trajectory of objects’ lives can be understood as object biographies.
Having the noise cancelling feature on my headphones made me learn about the benefits of this technology for people with disabilities. One of my favorite shows of all time is Netflix’s “Atypical,” centered around a high-functioning teenager, Sam, who has autism. As a viewer, one follows Sam’s journey with everyday situations that able-bodied people don’t think twice about, such as going to the grocery store, parties, or generally loud, populated spaces that induce sensory overload. Much like I do, Sam uses noise-cancelling headphones to soothe himself in high-intensity and noisy environments, like the school hallway during break. Over the course of his high school years, despite his disability, Sam 8figures out where he will go to college, finds a relationship, gains more independence, and overall blossoms into a young adult. Although the show revolves around a high-functioning person with autism, it greatly contributed to breaking boundaries and negative stereotypes around people with disabilities. I rewatched the show during lockdown because it gave me hope for a different future, for my own growth and development. In a way, this show tells me that everything will be okay, which is something I know everyone would like to hear in this trying time. Because of my love for the show, I related to Sam’s character on another level. This opened up my perspective towards disabilities and how important noise-cancellation is for people with autism, epilepsy, or any other noise- and environment-sensitive conditions.
Overall, featuring my headphones in the COVID-19 3D collection gave this pandemic a new narrative that exhibits the individual stories of 28 students and how they made their lockdown experiences more bearable through material objects. Taking part in a collective effort to (re)assign meaning to objects was very insightful and valuable to me.
“Whoever said practice makes perfect was an idiot. Humans can’t be perfect because we’re not machines. The best thing you can say about practice is that it makes…better.” -Sam Gardner, Atypical.
Dannehl, K. (2018). Object biographies From production to consumption. In History and material culture: A student’s guide to approaching alternative sources. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. https://virtualexhibition.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/dannehl_object_biographies.pdf
Hallam, S. (2008). The Power of Music. Music Makes Our Lives Magical and Meaningful. Accessed online via: https://musicmagic.wordpress.com/2008/07/10/music-in-society/#:~:text=Music%20can%20promote%20relaxation%2C%20alleviate,development%20in%20the%20early%20years.
Harding, A. (2016). Introduction: Biographies of Things. Distant Worlds Journal. No 1. DOI:https://doi.org/10.11588/dwj.2016.1.30158 (Links to an external site.) URN: http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:bsz:16-dwj-301589
Hoskins, J. (2006). Agency, biography. And objects, In Tilley, C. et al. (eds.) Handbook of Material Culture, pp. 74-84. London: Sage Pub. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/288915635_Agency_biography_and_objects
Labbé, E., Schmidt, N., Babin, J., & Pharr, M. (2007). Coping with stress: the effectiveness of different types of music. Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback, 32(3), 163-168.
LSTN Sound Co. (2020, October 6). A Brief History of Headphones. Accessed online via:
Traynor, R. (2017). Headphones: They have Come a Long Way, Baby!. Canadian Audiologist, 4(1). Accessed online via: