BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Stereo owners and lovers of radio everywhere should observe a moment of silence this week. On Thursday we saw the passing of an audio pioneer. OTM's Jad Abumrad has this tribute.
JAD ABUMRAD: To really understand what Henry Kloss did for home entertainment, you have to go back to 1950, a time when getting really good bass from your speakers, or even adequate bass from your speakers, would require boxes the size of refrigerators.
MICHAEL FREMMER: One was bad enough. You know to get the wife to go along with one gigantic thing was hard enough. But then when stereo came, came in, it was like: Two of these? I don't think so.
JAD ABUMRAD: Michael Fremmer is senior contributing editor to Stereophile Magazine. Luckily for him, Henry Kloss had just come up with a nifty trick that could get deep, rich bass tones out of a speaker that could fit on a book shelf. Hi-fi wasn't an industry yet -- just a group of tinkerers like Avery Fisher, Saul Marantz and Henry Kloss. Whenever any of them had an invention, they'd march down to Cortlandt Street in Manhattan, known as Radio Row, and hawk it directly to audio shop owners.
MICHAEL FREMMER: And Henry went in there and said I'm -- let me play this woofer for you, and they turned it on, and there was this incredible bass coming out of this little box, and they didn't believe him! They thought, they thought he was-- you know, a snake oil salesman -- cause they heard it, but they didn't think it was possible, so they, they didn't buy it! [LAUGHS] They, they passed on it!
JAD ABUMRAD: But before long, Kloss's AR-1 Speakers would sell millions and usher in a new era of portable audio gear. According to Fred Kaplan, staff writer for The Absolute Sound, this would be the beginning of a series of firsts.
FRED KAPLAN: You open up the suitcase, and there was a little turntable with two little powered speakers.
JAD ABUMRAD: The portable stereo attache case was called the KLH Model 11. All the rage in the '70s, it was the precursor to the boom box. Next Kloss took the standard cassette deck and gave it Dolby Hiss Reduction, making cassettes the dominant format for a time.
FRED KAPLAN: What he specialized in was taking things that were around, combining them into a package and putting them into something that looked good, that was designed well and that was affordable.
JAD ABUMRAD: Born in Altoona, Pennsylvania Kloss always kept the pockets of his tweed coat filled with transistors. Friend and colleague JAMES WILLENTZ describes him as a Disney caricature of a mad scientist.
JAMES WILLENTZ: In fact I, I recall many times that Henry would have-- have broken his glasses and have taped them together or, or maybe there would be a, a piece missing off of his glasses, and it just wasn't important enough to him to have to go, go handle that, cause he was too busy working on, on an new electron gun or a new type of phosper or, or a new way of building tubes.
JAD ABUMRAD: Willentz worked with Kloss in the late '70s on an ambitious experiment with home theatre. He remembers Kloss being nearly broke, without equipment, and using a lobster pot and a couple of Sears vacuum cleaners to develop a new style of TV tube. That tube would basically create the entire home theatre industry. But Kloss's company would flop. Still, Fremmer says, Kloss's handiwork could be seen every time you look at a Walkman or a small speaker delivering a lot of sound. He just worries that without Kloss around, the stuff will get smaller. It just won't sound any better.
MICHAEL FREMMER: No one wants big any more. Kids want these little plastic pieces of junk to put next to their computers. I feel really sorry. [OLD TIMER VOICE] I feel sorry for young people today. [LAUGHTER] I mean you know, MP3's - it's a terri-- it's -the sound is horrible out of an MP3. It's just not good sound. [FUNNY VOICE] But it's free! Free, and it stinks! Okay, that's, that's just - what a - what a great concept that is!
JAD ABUMRAD: Henry Kloss leaves behind two daughters, 7 grandchildren, legions of adoring audiophiles and a few hundred million stereo owners who probably don't even know his name. For On the Media, I'm Jad Abumrad. [MUSIC]