REVIEW - KOSS STRIVA Could Be the Next Big Platform to Enjoy Music
5/14/2012 by: Matt Brodnick
STRIVA - It’s sleek, it’s portable, and it’s cord-free. But will it define a new platform to wirelessly enjoy your music? A few weeks ago, KOSS Corporation announced their STRIVA WiFi Headphones series, and was generous enough to offer us a test drive of their Pro model.
If you haven’t already checked out my previous article about this exciting system, here’s the nutshell. STRIVA provides listeners control of their music via a WiFi hotspot, or through an ad-hoc CAP (Content Access Point) device that can transmit a WiFi signal from any stereo source. Their new website, myKOSS.com, manages your gear and provides access to many streaming music channels directly to your ears. There are two models in this series - the Pro, a compact on-ear headphone, and the Tap, a pair of in-ear buds. After spending a full week with the STRIVA Pro on-ear headphones, and having an exclusive talk with Mr. Koss Sr. himself (later in this review), here’s what I’ve experienced:
The Pro is much smaller than I had imagined. After opening the included carrying case it was clear that the STRIVA series was built for mobility. The frame construction is lightweight but durable. It’s almost hard to believe the complexity of hardware they fit inside, with KOSS advertising a maximum wireless range of 300 ft (90 m). The headband is adjustable, along with ear cups that fold flat for storage, or around your neck. Speaking of ear cups, the right side houses a navigation toggle, along with a touch-sensitive volume fader. Below that sits a mini-USB port for charging and initial setup.
And I thought the headphones were small... This is the CAP device. Sitting inside a large pouch resting in the carrying case, this miniscule gadget acts a TCIP/IP bridge that broadcasts any stereo audio source to the STRIVA Pro or Tap headphones. It’s very compact, and its pouch fits all of the extras packaged with the Pro. Did I mention this thing is tiny?
Next to the carrying case is a box of accessories, including two mini-USB to USB cables, two mini-USB to 3.5’’ TRS cables, two rubber bands to attach the CAP to a mobile device, and a USB-AC power wall charger.
How it Works
See that? That’s the STRIVA Core, a sandwich of microprocessor and WiFi components built into the Pro, Tap, and CAP devices. This battery-powered chip controls everything on the circuit board inside, from the WiFi and USB controllers to power management. With its onboard flash memory, any computer will recognize a connected STRIVA product as a removable device. You can charge the STRIVA devices with either USB or AC power.
STRIVA works in two different ways:
1.Standard WiFi mode: Log onto myKOSS.com, go through the initial setup, and then choose the internet streaming stations you want to listen to. Turn on the Pro headphones, it syncs to your WiFi network, and starts relaying information from the myKOSS servers. After that, you can navigate through the streams and channels with the headphone toggle, which I’ll explain further later in this review.
2.CAP Mode: After the initial setup, connect the CAP to any media player through an adapted mini-USB to 3.5’’ audio cable, and stream away with a battery life of up to 3 hours. Because the CAP and headphones are paired together at the factory, multiple listeners cannot connect to the same CAP.
Both the Pro and Tap models are capable of regular corded listening as well. Ditch the CAP, attach the longer mini-USB to 3.5’’ cable directly to your device, and you’re all set.
Syncing it Up
You first need to setup an account and register your STRIVA gear on myKOSS.com. Once that’s done, your CAP becomes married to your headphones, then the site prompts to enter your router information. When these devices are synced up, the necessary configuration files are also sent from the CAP to the Pro. From there, you choose a streaming radio station, and everything should be good to go, right?
Although this should be easy (hey, the literature says so), I experienced some bumps in the road to syncing up the Pro to a WiFi network. After multiple tries of entering my router information and registering my devices onto myKOSS, I ended up contacting their support hotline, which fortunately had a specific team for the STRIVA series. The Pro was finally able to connect and pull streams, but the signal would sometimes intermittently cut out. This may just be an issue with my router, since STRIVA recognizes most network protocols such as WPA and WPA2, however its performance may depend on how tight your router’s security settings are.
The CAP mode was much easier to get up and running. After both devices were configured in myKOSS, the Pro instantly recognized the CAP once I started to play music off my connected Galaxy SII.
Before diving into the music, I want to first explain a big difference in experience with this platform. STRIVA “streams” your music, meaning there will be a slight delay from your source. For example, any movement on my smartphone (play, pause, transport, next track) has about a 1.5 second delay from the CAP. This may be jarring to those who are used to other Bluetooth or RF headphones.
Listening to all genres of music was a treat on the Pro. These cans were able to handle most of the FLAC music files on my media player comfortably, with its rated 10Hz-20kHz response, however there seems to be an evident hiss depending on the volume. Because the Pro does not have direct device control via the CAP, there are two points of gain, on the device and on the Pro. So I needed to play around with both volume controls to hear the best fidelity. After futzing with both ends, the hiss was at least less noticeable, depending on genre. Anyway, the Pro has decent reproduction, catching the crisp highs and deep lows with little coloring.
KOSS includes two differently sized rubber bands to keep the CAP attached onto your media player, but it looks like they’re both built for iDevices. I was a little bummed that I could not transport through my tunes directly with the Pro’s controls, but only from the device itself. Judging by the complexity of this hardware, I think this could be a possible change in future firmware updates. The only hardware change they would need is a micro-USB to 3.5’’ TRRS (three rings) connector from CAP to the mobile device, similar to the one they have on the PortaPro KTC.
Flipping through music streams on myKOSS was exciting in concept, but at the end of the day, you’re listening to compressed streaming media. That being said, Mr. Koss pointed out that myKOSS is always looking for higher-quality streams to give the best experience possible. The music channel selection is huge, and navigating through my preset alternative, jazz, punk, house, and classic rock channels was a breeze. In the Favorites section, you can review tracks you liked or disliked, and even add tags of your favorite artists to help STRIVA understand what you like. You can also add custom Shoutcast and other radio streams to your account, although it would be nice if myKOSS could also explore your own music stored on a host computer. So the standard WiFi mode is enjoyable for most audiences, but still has room for expansion.
Despite its smaller size, with decent padding and fit, the Pro headphones are actually quite comfortable. The longest stretch of time I wore them was about two hours, and I had no complaints. The headband height is adjustable, and the ear cushions fit snugly onto my ears. I’m neutral about rotating ear cups, but if anything this design allows better curvature with the listener’s head, giving it a more natural fit.
Upon powering up the Pro, a voice greeted me with “Searching for WiFi”, followed by a submarine-like ping sound as it sniffs for a signal. The navigation also announces battery life, switching streams/channels, liking and disliking tracks, and when there are connectivity issues. Your music momentarily dips when the voice cuts in, and automatically reverts back. With so many prompts, I was almost expecting it to let me know I’ve “arrived at my destination”.
The 5-position navigation toggle controls power and switching between streams. Pushing and holding down the toggle button turns the Pro on, and can even switch the device to CAP mode. Flicking it to the right or left switches streams, and holding switches channels. Think of the up and down positions as “Like” and “Dislike” buttons - use them. The more you interact with myKOSS, the more it learns about your tastes, and can automatically skip songs that you are tired of hearing. Also, it’s a good way to build your “Favorites” list on your account, in case you want to look up the artist later.
The volume slider is a touch-capacitive bar that will, as you probably guessed, fade the volume on the headphones end. However, I found this bar to be very sensitive, sometimes finicky, and difficult to smoothly fade up and down. Several times, I experienced trying to slide my finger against the raised edge, all the way to the top, only to have the volume raised halfway. Then when I try starting midway, the volume immediately shot up to max, causing me to jump out of my chair. Like any other pair of headphones, be careful during your first use.
Mr. KOSS Himself
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity and pleasure to speak with Michael J. Koss, President and CEO of KOSS Corporation, about the origins and user experience of STRIVA, and what to expect in the future...
Matt Brodnick: Tell me the story behind the STRIVA series - what drove the vision to create this platform?
Michael J. Koss Sr. : The overarching piece of information we received that was consistent through all of our interviews was that people were sick and tired of wires. We’ve always known that wires were a problem, starting back when my father built an early ‘infrared-phone’ prototype back in the 70’s, but you had to carry around two shopping bags full of batteries to get the thing to work. [chuckle] I mean, since then we’ve had infrared, 900 MHz, and Bluetooth models, so we’ve been able to do this before. But we wanted something with TCP/IP, and an increase in range, usage, and fidelity.
MB: Why WiFi?
MKS: Not only do you get increased range and super fidelity, but we had room for so much more. Listening to your music streams from any WiFi hotspot is a big plus. We first made the CAP to work in ad-hoc mode to turn anything to a WiFi signal, but we also found out that the CAP device can also act in infrastructure mode, meaning that it could broadcast its content to a wireless access point. So with myKOSS, you can probably hook up the CAP to your Satellite radio at home, and then listen in remotely from your office. So that’s great.
MB: Let’s talk about the advanced technology the goes into STRIVA Core. The hardware must be pretty small to fit into these devices.
MKS: If you take all the WiFi components, along with the microprocessor itself, they will all fit on the face of a dime - that’s the STRIVA Core. It’s very very tiny, and takes up such a small percentage of the circuit board, which is why we can make something like the Tap in-ear buds, coming soon. So it’s doing all the heavy lifting that, say, the media player on your smartphone would be doing, except it’s all built into your head - a webserver inside your ear. The only difference is, there is no screen or keyboard. That’s why we have myKOSS.
MB: Who would be ideal targeted listener for the STRIVA series?
MKS: Well, anyone who wants to get rid of cords, first of all. And if you look at all the ways you can connect, anywhere that has a WiFi signal, you’ll have all your music streams there. If you’re somewhere with no WiFi, use the CAP and listen that way. The myKOSS server sniffs through 25,000 known free streams, and sorts through the metadata to feed that data to your headphones. The listening experience is customizable, and it refines itself the more you use it.
MB: What are some other possible scenarios where listeners could enjoy STRIVA?
MKS: When I first demoed this as a prototype, I surprised everyone around me because I didn’t have my CAP with me, and there was no WiFi access point anywhere. They couldn’t figure out where the signal was coming from, and then I pulled out a MiFi puck. You can sync the Pro to any mobile wireless access point, so if you have a data plan, the headphones will work with those too. It will also search for open, unsecured WiFi access points, like at a coffee shop.
MB: Where is the music on myKOSS coming from?
MKS: The thing that makes STRIVA unique is the headphone will also work in infrastructure mode, so myKOSS sends specific IP locations to the headphones. So this isn’t a case of music streaming from the myKOSS server, instead myKOSS goes out on the internet and sniffs radio stations, and those stations are presented to the headphone as IP addresses. The headphone then looks them up and makes a direct connection to the station through the internet.
MB: What can the CAP offer for mobile devices that already have Bluetooth connectivity?
MKS: You get increased distance, up to 300 feet, and you can run it in infrastructure mode. So those are two big advantages. Also, I find you get much better fidelity than other systems we’ve architected, because you get pure digital-to-analog conversion.
MB: KOSS has had a history of wireless products, I remember the Cobalt Bluetooth from a few years ago. KOSS still manufacturers the JR900, which is also a powerful wireless platform. Why go for STRIVA, rather than the JR900?
MKS: I think you first need an interest in leading edge technology, because there isn’t another WiFi system like this out there. And what we’re seeing is people out there are always finding new unique ways of using it. Because of the technology, it will be easy for us to make enhancements as we go on. For example, we have the ability to upgrade the firmware on the STRIVA devices remotely, so we can immediately improve the experience for the listener. You don’t have to go back home to change your music, you can navigate it remotely. Along with a home base being tethered to one location with the JR900, these are all the things you can’t really do without STRIVA.
MB: What kind of future should we expect to see from STRIVA?
MKS: If you look at the right column of myKOSS, you’ll see spaces for widgets - that’s going to populate real soon. We’ll also be rolling out firmware updates in the near future, so the next time someone logs onto myKOSS, they’ll see a notification, plug in the CAP, and off it goes. There will also be some enhancements added, like tuning the headphone settings, and remember - this is all about customization. The more people that are in this ecosystem, it’s going to get better every day.
MB: I thought it would be cool if myKOSS could also explore my own library of music.
MKS: That’s an extremely good idea! Hmm... stay tuned. [laughs]
MB: Great! Well, thanks for your time, and I hope to see more from STRIVA soon!
MKS: Thank you!
I also gave a test drive of the Pro and CAP to musicians and tech enthusiasts in the area for a few days. Here are some snippets of what they thought:
“Wow, it’s light”
“I couldn’t get it to connect sorry”
“Why can’t I change tracks with it on my iPhone?”
“Rock, Ambient, and Electronic music sounds great. Classical, not so much.”
“I’m always walking around the shop, this would be great to have.”
“Why would I be more than 30 feet away from my phone?”
“The stream sometimes drops”
“My router doesn’t see it”
“I wish I could wear these at work.”
To The Point
So is STRIVA a “revolution” in the music listening experience? Perhaps, with all the possibilities built in. With a steady growth of what could be a new platform, I would say that it’s more of an evolution - it improves over time. The firmware and the myKOSS website are still labeled in the beta stages, and the scenarios where STRIVA could be beneficial to listeners aren’t immediately recognizable. For now, it’s difficult to gauge the potential success of what Mr. Koss firmly believes is a “bleeding edge technology”. WiFi headphones have popped up here and there over the past decade, but what KOSS is doing is looking to create a new niche of music enthusiast, one who searches for a consistent and convenient system regardless of location.
If you’re feeling adventurous, here’s another factor to consider: the Pro model is already available for sale off the KOSS website for $450 USD. Coming soon, for $50 more, the Tap in-ear monitors will also be in stock, cramming the same technologies into an even smaller package. Before succumbing to sticker shock, as most of those I’ve introduced STRIVA to had, there isn’t a similar system out there (to my knowledge) that offers any competition. It’s one a kind.
STRIVA yearns to be its own category of wireless entertainment, and KOSS needs to think of new ways to gather more listeners for their “revolution”. Early-adopters will either get a kick out of STRIVA because it has promise, or be confused about how it could fit into their mobile lifestyle. It’s very exciting in concept, however the execution, like the experience itself, needs some time to grow.
Special thanks to Matt Braun and Michael Koss Sr. for making this review possible, and to Hytham and Kevin at KOSS technical support for helping me get started!
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