Interview: Michael J. Koss Introduces STRIVA Wi-Fi Headphones
Audioholics recently had an opportunity to sit down with Michael J. Koss, President and CEO of Koss Corporation and son of the company’s founder, John C. Koss. The historic company that produced the original Stereophones, the world’s first music headphones, has developed another first for the digital age - STRIVA, the world’s first wi-fi headphones.
But to describe the STRIVA line as merely wi-fi headphones sells the vision short. STRIVA goes beyond wireless by putting your head directly into the cloud, letting you create a personal Internet-radio experience that you can navigate right from your headphones. I also learned the system can be used to broadcast your own audio content through the Internet to your STRIVA headphones from anywhere to anywhere with wi-fi – but Michael Koss' enthusiasm for the STRIVA system is so infectious I’ll just let him describe it in his own words a bit later.
But first, I couldn’t help but ask for a bit of history on the company, and was treated to interesting anecdotes about Koss' early days as well as its legendary founder John C. Koss, who started the company back in 1953. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed speaking with the President of this much-admired American company.
Audioholics: Tell me about the new STRIVA headphones and exactly how its components work together – the headphones, the Content Access Point (CAP) and the MyKoss website
Michael J. Koss: We think it will radically change the way you interact with your music because there is no more need for wires. Take the CAP for instance. What’s going on inside the CAP could be used in software solutions inside other devices. So, we can embed the CAP and the Core (the system inside the STRIVA headphones) into other devices. So, whether it’s a speaker or a headphone you’d be able to stream music directly. But that’s only the beginning.
Think about having all the devices interact with one another (CAP, Headphone/speaker/playback system) the controlling software piece, the big switch is MyKoss.com… sitting on the Internet. So, the backbone conducting all those conversations is really the Internet… we're just riding it.
Audioholics: MyKoss.com, the switch that lets users setup playlists consisting of Internet radio stations (or content streams) into channels seems to have great potential. Is there any plan to expand it or develop relationships with content providers or other services like Pandora?
Michael J. Koss: What an excellent idea. If you think about the way Pandora works, it has its own proprietary player and we'd have to embed that player into the headphone. Right now there is limited space, the ARM processor has some limitations. But as time goes on that will expand, so you’ll have more and more room for memory and processing capabilities - so you can add players.
The way that the device is configured presently out of the box, it will work with Pandora or Spotify or any of the other systems – provided you use the CAP. As the CAP migrates into software, as opposed to hardware you’ll have a seamless opportunity to interact with your Spotify or Pandora account using your smartphone.
Beyond that, there is the possibility that we could have enough room on the micro-processor itself to embed those proprietary players on the product (STRIVA) itself just like you would on your computer. What this (STRIVA sytem) is, is a webserver that sits on your ear. Everything on the STRIVA Core itself is identical to what you have on your computer. It just doesn’t have a screen or keyboard.
Audioholics: What exactly does the STRIVA Core refer to?
Michael J. Koss: That’s the wi-fi engine and the ARM processor. There are three component parts, there’s the STRIVA Core (consisting of the wi-fi chip and ARM processor) which is inside the headset. There’s the CAP which will provide "Content Access Points" to anything that has an analogue output. Anything that has a headphone jack, the CAP will convert that analogue signal to digital, put it into IP packets and send it to the headphone either on an ad-hoc or infrastructure basis. And then there is the central switch (MyKoss.com).
The key thing about the switch that you were getting at… looking at it as a radio station… is that switch is set up with a sniffer function that goes out and polls the Internet and looks for independent music streams. There are about 25,000 free music streams on the Internet right now. It pulls all that data and looks at the meta tags and filters that data based on the quality of the stream. We don’t want to have streams that have lots of errors on them or serve low quality streams. Then it also categorizes them by genre. So when you set up your channels, you could setup as many channels as you want. One could be Country, one could be News one could be Classical, Hip-Hop – whatever you want.
What happens is that we're not actually rebroadcasting any of the data from the switch, all we're doing is sending the IP address that identifies the location of that stream to the headphones. The headphones make an independent connection using the IP address, to the radio station itself. So, again, the headphone itself with the STRIVA Core in it is its own audio endpoint, it is its own webserver.
Audioholics: I recognize some of the Internet radio stations being used through the switch. It uses a few familiar stations that I know stream better quality audio. I generally have a cutoff point of at least 128-bit audio when it comes to Internet radio.
Michael J. Koss: That’s what we’re trying to do (with MyKoss.com).
You're About to Blow My Mind
Audioholics: I’ve noticed the CAP, (which allows you to stream music from any device with an analogue output) transmits quality audio, compared to other wireless-audio dongle solutions I’ve used.
Michael J. Koss: The CAP was designed specifically for that (good sound). But the CAP is really the most sophisticated part of the whole system. It does a really great job at A-to-D (analogue to digital) conversion and does a really good job at bundling the packets up. When you run in CAP mode it operates very nicely.
I don’t know if you realize, but depending on the order that you set everything up… you set up the headphones in CAP mode… broadcasting from your device to your headphone in an ad-hoc mode. If I do it the other way, in other words I start my music playing on my iPod or computer and I plug the CAP into that and I am making that analogue-to-digital conversion – because of the sequence of connecting everything, the CAP is now looking for a wireless router that it can tag onto. If you set that up through your MyKoss account, if it’s a password protected SSID (to) your router and you put in the password and security settings… what it will do is form an infrastructure relationship with the headphone by going through your router. In essence what you've done by setting up in that batting order, is that you can lay the iPod on your desk, leave the room and go wherever there's an open wi-fi access point and listen to that device on your headphone as a channel.
If you have MyKoss set up and do what I've just explained it will show Now Playing, My CAP it will show your CAP down there. That’s when it's playing in infrastructure mode.
Audioholics: I think you’ve just blown my mind.
Michael J. Koss: There’s more stuff that people find out about this as they use it. I got a really funny thing, right after we got these things up and running I went to the Apple Store and they have a wide open access point and I turned on my headphones and I was streaming (my) music directly to the headphones through that open access point.
Audioholics: I have used it to insert some of my favorite radio stations, like SomaFM for instance, into MyKoss channels using their .pls URLs.
Michael J. Koss: Perfect, you’ve done something that a lot of people are just discovering.
Audioholics: I’ll have to do some experimenting with what you’ve just told me about.
Michael J. Koss: It’s kind of amazing. In the illustration that I just gave you, once I leave this building and I leave the CAP plugged into my computer and I go to an open access point anywhere else in the world, it will play that music to me through that open access point as a channel.
Audioholics: Is the STRIVA Pro (the full sized headphone in the STRIVA line) based on any the designs of other Koss headphones?
Michael J. Koss: Well… we had to change the transducers because we wanted to make them more efficient because you have this chip amplifier inside the headphone. So, we had to do some changing there. But when you look across our line you really find it’s like common engines that we can use in different products, magnet structures in some products can be shared. But we always wind up custom tuning any one of the transducers we have based on the housing… A lot of that has to do with air-leak and seal and you know, when you have any kind of back-pressure behind the transducer it's going to change the reference bias of the magnet structure and everything else. So, that all has to be tuned and tweaked so I can’t say that I took the K.E. driver out of the Pro 4 and stuck it in this thing or anything like that.
When you look at the cup themselves, we also had to make accommodations to put other things into the cups that don’t (normally) exist, like the toggle switches and the USB port… so you have to play around and make sure you can balance everything out so you don't have too much leak and that has a lot to do with how the cushions fit and everything else. The thing that's shared… these are new cushions, different from anything that we have… We use the yoke from another product that holds the earcups on.
Audioholics: The headphones themselves look a little like the JR900, the other wireless headphone.
Michael J. Koss: Yes, that’s where the yoke comes in. Actually they're more like the QZ900s if you know those. Those are the noise cancelling [models]. It’s a similar yoke as that. But the other thing is we had to change even the inside of the yokes because there's a tap cord in this device because we're dealing with antennas and broadcasting and decoding all that tap cord wire has to be specifically shielded so we don't get any interference.
Audioholics: It's amazing how much must be packed inside the yoke, between processing, switching and the touch volume control.
Michael J. Koss: Yes, and the wi-fi chip itself is the size of a sesame seed, the STRIVA Core can fit on the face of a dime.
Audioholics: Are you guys in the process of developing the next step in the STRIVA product line?
Michael J. Koss: Yep, we have several other versions of products that will use the STRIVA core on the drawing board and in different phases of development right now.
Koss History: The Stereophone
Audioholics: Longtime fans of Koss rave about the longevity of its products, such as the PortaPro headphones based on a design that dates back to the mid-80s.
Michael J. Koss: Not based on it, it IS it. (Laughs) It still has the same tooling. Before that, the other legacy product we have is the Pro4 AA.
But this starts a whole other chapter. When dad started this business, it’s funny because we launched this product in April and it was 60 years ago to the month that my parents received $200 dollars as a wedding gift to start the business. Actually, my grandparents gave them the money to go buy a living-room set and my dad convinced my mother to go buy 50 broken down TVs and fix them up and start renting them to hospital patients and that's how the business started. Up until this last year, we've been involved in headphones and we've made attempts to go into wireless, but we really think this is going to revolutionize the way people interact with music overall. We've shrunk this thing down to the point where you can put it in your ear.
Audioholics: It's wearable computing!
Michael J. Koss: Exactly!
Audioholics: So, the Koss Stereophone, that was the original music headphone, correct?
Michael J. Koss: Back then when dad did this, there had been headphones around. When dad started this business in 1953 it was the Hospital Television Rental Company, and he was a musician. He was interested in music because he played the trumpet and he liked listening to music himself. He and a friend decided to make a portable phonograph that you could carry around the house and listen to music without disturbing people and he wanted a gimmick to sell it. So he went to a parts store and he bought a headphone. Back then headphones were really sold for crystal wave sets… ham radio operators, and [headphones] had been used in military applications for pilots extensively through the war.
By 1958, stereo cartridges come in and you've got a stereo turntable built into a small suitcase that you could carry around with a small set of speakers and he (John C. Koss) decides to build this headphone in it. Well, he plugs it in and it sounded terrible. It sounded like two telephone transceivers because that’s basically what they were designed to do, send speech.
Because he'd been doing all this work on televisions he had a bunch of three-inch speakers laying around that he used to repair the speakers in the television sets. He and his engineer friend, Martin Lange decided to take those three-inch speakers and drill holes in the magnets, fish a clothes hanger through them, put a paper back on them, rip the pads off a flight helmet they found, wire it all up, put it on and dad said it was like being back in the band.
That was the first headphone that was designed exclusively for listening to music. It had a really nice, warm, big sound so people would put it on and it was like nothing they’d ever heard before, that was the first SP3 Stereophone in 1958.
Koss History: Headphone Jack
Michael J. Koss: When dad came out with this, there were no headphone jacks. He had to sell the whole kits so they could plug the headphones into something - there was nothing to plug them into. Then in the 60s, he went to a hi-fi show… at the time Avery Fisher and Herman Scott (H.H. Scott) had established brands and (Scott and Fisher respectively). [They] were rivals and it was rumored they had spies in each other plants.
Dad went to Herman Scott and said "Herman, you really ought to put headphone jacks in your products because then people could use them all the time. Right now when somebody goes to bed you have to turn off the stereo - you can’t have it blasting the in the living-room, people can’t sleep." He (Herman Scott) said, you know how much that is going to cost me to retool my plates and everything? Dad said: “Okay, fine. But I talked to Avery Fisher and he’s thinking about it.” Then he went to Avery Fisher and told him Herman Scott was thinking about it.
And the next year headphone jacks appeared. That's how we have headphones and then later it became an EIA standard… the old Electronics Industry Association. And that's how headphone jacks got onto products.
Audioholics: To this day the 3.5-mm jack is just a shrunken-down version of that headphone jack and now it's used by every kid with earbuds.
Michael J. Koss: Precisely.
That concludes our interview with Michael J. Koss. It’s easy to catch his enthusiasm for the direction of his company. Koss has always been a favorite of mine. Despite being a big, publicly traded company, it maintains that family-business feel. It also retains a customer loyalty that is the envy of the industry, partly owing to its highly successful lifetime warranty policy.
My dad had a pair of Koss Pro 4 headphones around the house when I was a kid growing up in the 1970s. That’s when I learned to put them on, sit back and really listen to the detail of my favorite music. It’s still one of my favorite hobbies - although I like to think my taste in music has improved since those days.
For the past week, I've been putting the STRIVA Pro full-sized headphones through the paces, and will provide a full report about how to do that personal Internet radio station trick Michael Koss was describing in the interview. Standby for a complete Audioholics review of Koss’ STRIVA wi-fi system. From what I hear, this is only the beginning.