The Opportunist Who Launched a Market
John Koss remembers well when his partner, engineer Martin Lange Jr., called to him from an upstairs room. “He said he thought he had something,” Koss said.
Lange and Koss were working on a portable phonograph player, a private listening unit that would include a set of headphones. “But we couldn’t find any (headphones) that would do the job. They were all made for warplanes and communications, “ Koss explained in a company video.
Lange had rigged a prototype stereo headphone using an old World War II Air Force headset, rubber bands, cardboard and two tiny speakers. “It didn’t look like much,” Koss recalled.
But Ted Heath and his Big Band Orchestra’s album, an early stereo recording, was on the player. “I hooked it (the prototype) all up in the back of the speakers and turned it on and wow! It was terrific!” Koss said. “I’d never heard anything like it! My God, the big sound just bouncing all over!”
A month later, in a hotel room, Koss and Lange demonstrated the unit to attendees of a local hi-fi show. “You’d put (the headphones) on their head, and their eyes would pop open! Holy Mackerel!”
The headphones, not the player, were the hit, and Koss and Lange’s 1958 invention would kick start a headphone market that is slated to total more than $965 million in 2013, according to Consumer Electronics Association research. Headphones and ear buds are expected to be the most popular CE device given during the holiday season.
Anxious to Do
Lange ran Koss Corp., engineering and production—handling warranty repairs in the 1970s, packaging production in the 1990s, and remaining an active consultant to the company until his death in 2009. But Koss? “I was just more of a sales guy, an opportunist,” he said.
The son of a salesman, Koss started his own sales career fixing up spare bicycles and selling them at a profit. He played trumpet in high school, with his own band at local dances and touring with a band of adult players. He later attended the Milwaukee School of Engineering but never finished. “I was too anxious to get out and do things.”
Married at 22, Koss persuaded his young bride to spend their $200 in wedding money to start a business—instead of buying furniture. “I went down to Chicago and bought a few broken down television sets, brought them back and fixed them up,” Koss said. Thus began the JC Koss Hospital TV Rental Company, a business that Koss eventually sold.
He “messed around” with a few other businesses before working with Lange.
Developing the personal listening system—with portable phonograph and headphones—“was all connected to his love for music,” said Michael Koss, Koss CEO since 1991 and the eldest of John Koss’ five children. “He wanted to put people front and center, back into the music, make it sound like a live setting, very intimate, so the listener was one with the band.” That love informed how Koss crafted his headphones’ sound. “He wanted it to be as exciting as possible,” Michael said.
John Koss has always been a people person, said his other son, John Koss Jr., the company’s vice president of domestic sales, and he always had drive. “If he had an idea on something, he’ll work it to the end and be very passionate about it,”
For example, the elder Koss had to fight to make headphones a viable product.
“We needed jacks on the front (of the players and receivers) to really make it go, but that, of course, was extra cost, and the manufactures were a little slow to adopt it,” said John Koss.
So he campaigned high-fidelity pioneers Sidney Harman, H. H. Scott, and Fisher and Avery Fisher to build headphone jacks on the front of their receivers. At one point, Koss was in a taxi with Scott. “I said, ‘You know, it’s too bad your receivers are so great, Hermon, but you don’t have the plug in there like Fisher does.’”
“Whooo boy! That kind of swung that!” Koss laughed. “A week later we found out Scott was going to put it in his receiver.”
Over the decades, Koss has weathered the storms of bankruptcy (in the 1980s) and embezzlement (in 2009), but has survived to field a full-line of headphones—from ear buds and in-ear FitClips to full size electrostatic headphones—amid a booming market and lots of competition.
“We hung in there, and it turned out well,” Koss said “I’m most proud of the fact that we were the first ones to develop hi-fidelity headphones. It took a lot of work, but it turned out to be a pretty big thing.” DS