I have sought here to theorize a notion of sonic homeliness, using insights from phenomenological philosophy to guide my analysis of experiences reported by headphone listeners. Homeliness, as I have shown, should never be conceived wholly in terms of a traditional, physical home environment. Instead, listeners use a diversity of lived experiences – both of previous homes and of broader experiences of comfort and security – to present their notions of homeliness in relation to their listening practices, with the homely characteristics of headphone listening understood in terms of embodied practice, technological mediation, sonic familiarity, spatial boundedness, and affective “refurnishing.”


My analysis here has shown that headphones enable their users to segment acoustic space (to varying degrees of efficacy) by setting up sonic “walls” between listening bodies and extraneous sounds, as well as to curate their experiences of familiar, intimate, interior space. This can often result in rich experiences of safety, security, comfort, protectedness, and “warmth.” Moreover, listeners’ reports of the “bounded” and “amniotic” qualities of headphone listening demonstrate that the body and its lived, spatial experience of sound must be at the center of such conceptualizations of sonic homeliness, with the most compelling insights detailing complex, sometimes paradoxical experiences: the acoustic space of headphone listening at once appearing within and beyond the listening body, and the sonic substance of the headphone-space simultaneously enveloping the body and being enveloped by it. I have aimed to nuance and develop the prevailing bubble model of headphone listening through foregrounding the dual mediation of embodied space performed by headphones, with the technologies placing material boundaries between the listening body and the wider environment as well as “refurnishing” a listener’s perceived bodily interior with a wash of sound – both of which listeners frequently describe in terms of felt “warmth” and comforting security. 


While never providing a functional substitute for home, headphones represent a fine example of a potentially “homely” sound technology, enabling listeners to carve out a sense of personal, private space within sometimes unhomely environments through their framing of the listening body as a bounded, protected acoustic territory. Conceptualizing headphone listening in terms of its homely affordances enables the production of a more personalized, detailed account of lived experience and elucidates the many ways which headphones perform valuable, “homely-making” roles for listeners in everyday life. These technologies can offer meaningful, rich experiences for listeners, affording a greater sense of spatial control and situatedness within otherwise compromised environments.


There are a number of avenues relevant to the study of headphone-constituted sonic homeliness that I have not explored here. For example, consideration of cases in which headphones do not afford a sense of comfort or security, such as their use as a weapon of torture (Downs forthcoming), could offer further nuance to phenomenological models of sonic experience. Greater emphasis may also be placed on individuals for whom physical space is scant and therefore for whom the homely affordances of headphone listening might provide a positive, though by no means substitutive, everyday resource. This may include groups such as those without fixed abode (Wareham 2017), including those seeking political asylum. In addition, much may be said about the perceived spatiality of audio content during headphone listening. Music-analytic approaches that foreground listeners’ attention to sonic spatialization in audio recordings (e.g., Clarke 2013; Dibben 2013; Moore, Schmidt, and Dockwray 2011) are valuable in their close attention to the phenomenological “space” of acousmatic sound and could offer insights into how certain virtual sonic “environments” afford a greater sense of homeliness than others. Alternatively, continued examination of the potentially negative implications of “sonic self-control” in public space (Hagood 2019; see also Bull 2000, 2007) could provide productive critiques of the more “positive” homeliness model provided here. Finally, a more contemporary account of the interpersonal dynamics of headphone use within the domestic spaces of physical homes, akin to those considered in media-historical work by David Morley (2000) and Tom Perchard (2017), could provide a fruitful addition to our understanding of the social dimensions of headphone listening in relation to notions of home (see also Thibaud 2003). 


With phenomenological ambitions at heart, the analysis I have provided here should not be considered totalizing, nor should the corpus of data that I have presented be regarded as cohesive in its generalizability. Instead, mine is a perspective that offers just one set of accounts of one broader aspect of sonic experience – though, in its detailed approach to the qualitative data and engagement with broader theoretical literatures, I hope that its prioritization of lived experience has provided an informative and nuanced account of contemporary listening practices and that it may therefore provide an empirical basis for further critical research into headphone use. 






I would like to thank all of the individuals who offered their time to speak to me about their headphone-listening experiences. Special thanks also go to Nicola Dibben, whose detailed comments on an earlier draft of this essay were of immeasurable import, as well as to Jacob Mallinson Bird, Anton Blackburn, and Komarine Romdenh-Romluc for their careful, critical readings of later versions. In addition, huge thanks go to Kate Wareham, whose involvement in earlier discussions of the ideas underpinning this paper was so valuable. Finally, heartfelt thanks to two anonymous reviewers for their generous and insightful comments on an earlier iteration of the article, and to Marcel Cobussen and the editorial board and guest editors at the Journal of Sonic Studies for their expertise, guidance, and support. Any errors are mine alone.