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The Life and Times of Home Audio Innovator Henry Kloss


Tom Mathew

Audio pioneer Henry Kloss.

The acoustic suspension revolution
In 1954, Edgar Villchur, a teacher at New York University, came up with a concept for a radically new loudspeaker design. Since the mid-1920s, virtually all speakers were based on the "hornless loudspeaker" of Chester Rice and Edward Kellogg, which used mechanical springs to pull the drivers back into place once they had fired, and provided an ultimate limit to the drivers' movements. The Rice-Kellogg model had serious problems — the limitations of the mechanical springs caused severe distortion in the low frequencies, and the design required extremely large cabinets, making them useful for places like movie theaters, but completely impractical for home use.

Villchur discovered that if he reduced the size of the speaker cabinet, he could use the cushion of air inside the sealed enclosure as a kind of "air spring." A good analogy would be if you were standing inside of a balloon filled with air, and pushed against the membrane, it would naturally snap back into place once you stopped pushing. This ingenious design allowed the drivers to produce deep bass tones with minimal distortion. And the reduced size of the speaker cabinets made Villchur's design much more practical for home use. He called it "acoustic suspension."

Villchur built a prototype and shopped it around to a handful of major speaker manufacturers. No one was interested. Just as the big technology companies of the 1970s would be slow to recognize the possibilities of the personal computer, big audio manufacturers of the 1950s didn't grasp the implications of a compact, high-fidelity speaker for the home.

The project appeared to be dead in the water.

Henry Kloss to the rescue
Enter Henry Kloss. One of Villchur's former students, the 24-year-old Kloss was building speakers for mail order in his Cambridge loft. He was born in Altoona, PA., and went on to study engineering at M.I.T. When Villchur demonstrated his prototype to Kloss using a few LPs (including an E. Power Biggs record with massive low-frequency tones), Kloss was immediately impressed with the sound. He also saw the great potential in marketing the new smaller speakers for use in the home. He offered his loft in Cambridge to manufacture Villchur's acoustic suspension speakers under the company name Acoustic Research (AR).

Since they didn't have enough money to hire an engineer, Kloss took the lead in designing the production model for the world's first acoustic suspension speaker, the AR-1. At roughly 25" wide, 14" tall, and 11" deep, the AR-1 was smaller than any other loudspeaker on the market and had essentially flat low-frequency response down to around 40 Hz. No other speaker could compare.

Kloss quickly assembled several AR-1s in time for the New York Audio Show in September 1954. Again, the experts didn't get it. One critic complained that the AR-1 had the lowest efficiency of any speaker on the market. Another offered this bit of faint praise: "If your space is limited it's a fine speaker for its size." But it didn't take long for the acoustic suspension speaker to catch on with the public at large. In the following years, the AR-2 and AR-3 built upon the success of the original. A 1958 advertisement showed Louis Armstrong editing tape in front of an AR-2 speaker. The home hi-fi industry had begun in earnest, and Henry Kloss had set out on a career that would land him beside Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell in the Audio Hall of Fame.

Kloss's KLH-6 — the best-selling bookshelf speaker of the 1960s.
His mission
Henry Kloss's son David, upon his father's death in 2002, said, "His real big thing was not to make money, ever. It was to pay the bills, and get great stereos for the masses."

This was the hallmark of Henry Kloss's creative life — he didn't sit in an ivory tower theorizing about acoustics; he didn't build equipment with bells and whistles to distract from inferior quality or lackluster performance; he didn't create gear that was so expensive only a very few people could afford it. Throughout his life, Kloss made it his mission to seek out cutting-edge technologies and use them in equipment designed for the home at prices that many could afford. In short, he wanted to create home audio equipment that sounded better than anything that came before it, and to put that great-sounding gear into as many homes as he could.

The beat goes on
After his first big success with the AR speaker, Kloss went on to found KLH with Malcolm Lowe and Anton Hoffman in the early 1960s. There he made the legendary Model 8 FM radio with a high-selectivity tuner that could clearly reel in stations from a crowded FM band. Later, he created the KLH-6 loudspeaker, the best-selling bookshelf speaker of the 1960s. His three-piece suitcase stereos were incredibly popular with vacationers and college students. And he created some of the first audio devices to use transistors.

Moving on, Henry Kloss founded Advent in 1967, but still kept some ties with KLH. He soon teamed up with Ray Dolby, and together they built the Model 40 open-reel tape deck with Dolby's "noise reduction" technology (they built it at Advent for KLH). As the first Dolby B Noise Reduction tape deck on the market, the Model 40 dramatically reduced annoying tape hiss, and paved the way for the cassette tape to become a viable home audio option. A few years later, Kloss built the Advent Loudspeaker, the best-selling speaker of the 1970s.

A method to the madness
Although Henry Kloss products dominated the home audio marketplace in the '60s and '70s, he maintained a distinctly seat-of-the-pants approach to research and development and design engineering. He continued to make many of his speaker parts in-house, sometimes employing unorthodox methods of production. With his famous Advent loudspeakers, Kloss created the cone material using (among other things), chopped up grocery bags, orange light bulb dye, and a blender! And the shape of the cone was based on a sketch he had made on the back of a napkin.

Kloss's approach may have been unusual, but his goal was always to build equipment that would last. A few years before his death, he told an interviewer, "Today, people don't think in terms of buying something that 20 years later they'll be glad they bought and will still be using." He lamented today's "disposable lifestyle" and felt it was hurting the quality of home audio equipment. He added that customers believe that "things are so cheap that I'll buy it, and if I like it, then O.K.; if I don't like it I can always get another one."
The hits just keep on coming
In 1972, Kloss turned his attention to home video for the first time (he once claimed he had never watched TV until he decided to build one!). The result was the Advent Video Beam 1000 — the world's first home projection TV. He continued to dabble in video through the mid-eighties, improving his designs and issuing less expensive models.

In 1988, he returned to audio with a new company called Cambridge SoundWorks, a direct mail-order business. Always on the cutting edge, his new projects included compact satellite speakers with centrally located woofer units (the precursor to modern-day sub/sat systems), as well as surround sound and computer speaker systems.

It was his growing concern about the diminishing quality of home electronic equipment that prompted Henry Kloss to enter into his final project — the Model Table Radio series from Tivoli Audio.

The Henry Kloss Model One mono table radio.

Model Two stereo table radio.

Model Three clock radio.

First came the Model One, an elegant mono table radio. Tivoli Audio CEO Tom DeVesto, who worked with Kloss before at Advent and Cambridge SoundWorks, simply said, "the Model One radio is so impressive, I started a company to sell it." True to Kloss's life-long philosophy, the Model One (like the Model 8 and his other classic radios of the past) features a minimalist front panel design — just a tuner dial, a volume knob, and an AM/FM/Off switch. As usual, the simple exterior concealed sophisticated internal circuitry.

Kloss borrowed technology used in cell phones that allows the radio to deliver crisp, warm sound from even marginal signals. And the tuning dial is geared down to a 5:1 ratio, so turning the dial results in smaller, more precise movements of the tuning mechanism. The $99 Model One outperforms radios costing hundreds of dollars more. And in an era where stereo and surround sound dominate the home audio landscape, the clean, simple mono sound of the Model One has been incredibly popular to the amazement of the industry.

Next came the Model Two, a 2-piece stereo table radio, and then the Model Three with a built-in analog alarm clock. His final offering was the PAL portable radio, which features a weather-resistant cabinet suitable for outdoor use. All of the Tivoli Audio radios carry the Henry Kloss stamp of solid build quality and unparalleled performance.

The legacy of Henry Kloss
By the time Henry Kloss died in 2002, he was a legend in the field of home electronics. A/V buffs idolized him to a point that sometimes made his family uncomfortable. Strangers would stop by his house or call out of the blue to ask for replacement parts on gear they bought 30 years ago, or just to chat and ask questions about the equipment they loved so much. "He'd always humor them," his son David recalled. He'd sometimes even rummage through his basement for a replacement dial or knob for one of the radios he had created decades before.

Arguably, no one has had a greater impact on the way people hear music in their homes than Henry Kloss. He improved the fidelity of home audio, pioneered space-efficient gear that was suitable for the average house, and did it all at a cost low enough to allow "the masses" — not just the wealthy — to afford it. It's a testament to his superior craftsmanship and forward-thinking designs that his gear will be enjoyed by audio fans the world over far into the future.

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