– William Gibson, quoted in The Economist
When a company is big enough to be known by just its acronym, it must be doing something right.
Founded in 1990 as Digital Theater Systems, their expansion into all forms of sound and entertainment technology led them to ultimately become simply DTS. You’ll find those letters on every kind of electronic listening device from laptop to desktop, headsets to automotive sound systems, DVDs, Smart TVs, and gaming and entertainment systems of all varieties. You don’t have to look far to find them. DTS is stamped on more than half a billion products a year.
When you meet DTS chairman Jon Kirchner, don’t look for a lab coat, calculator, or a clip board. He’s soft-spoken, boyishly collegiate, tall and fit, and shows no signs of approaching 50 years of age. Perhaps that’s the result of his Midwest beginnings. Or possibly it is because of his tight-knit family’s ultimate destination—Los Angeles.
A standout student and athlete at Crespi High School in Encino, Kirchner was recruited by many schools but chose nearby Cal State Northridge. Sadly, injuries sidelined his college basketball career. Going into his junior year, he transferred to Claremont McKenna College (CMC). There, he pushed his academic skills onto the front burner.
You might wonder how an economics major would find himself running one of the entertainment industry’s top tech companies. Egged on by a professor to attend a job fair on campus, he surprised himself with five interviews. Four of them led to offers and one, from Price Waterhouse (PW), became his choice.
After seeking advice from friends and acquaintances already in the job market, one message was repeatedly mantra’d. “If you want to succeed in business, get as much accounting background as you can.”
Why? The CEO illuminates, “Numbers is the language of business today, no matter the position.”
So from an econ major at CMC with additional studies in organizational psychology, Kirchner grabbed as much accounting as he could before graduation. At PW, he cut his chops in dispute analysis and operational restructuring. Essentially, he pored over ways to make companies run more efficiently.
At the age of 25 after nearly five years at PW, Kirchner moved over to DTS as their 11th employee. It turned out to be a nice fit. He was a numbers guy who understood entertainment. Having Steven Spielberg as one of the initial investors didn’t hurt this nascent company’s allure either. The timing couldn’t have been better.
Spielberg was underway with a 1995 movie that would be the first to be released in DTS surround sound. The film, Jurassic Park, became a benchmark of the audio experience. The sound emersion was heralded as loudly as the roars of the movie’s T.rex and velociraptors. DTS was well on its way and never looked back. It started with 876 specially designed playback units for theaters in order to deliver “the experience.” Now it’s hard to find a theater in the U.S. that isn’t equipped to deliver DTS Surround Sound.
Today, with more than 400 employees and 14 offices around the world, Kirchner, who was named 2012’s Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year of Greater Los Angeles, leads a global, cutting-edge company. From their headquarters in Calabasas, the 2013 revenues topped $125 million, and the estimates for 2014 are in the $140-million range.
RESIDENCE Hidden Hills
EDUCATION B.A. Economics, Claremont McKenna College
FAMILY Wife, Monica; son Justin (6) and daughter Melena (3)
MENTORS Paul Muff (Crespi High School basketball coach) and Dan Slusser (MCA/Universal & DTS)
TRAVEL DESTINATION Italy
LOCAL RESTAURANT Tuscany in Westlake Village
BUSINESS OVER A DRINK Malibu Beach Inn, Nobu, Pedalers Fork, Bel Air Hotel
INVENTION General purpose microprocessors
2013 REVENUE $125 million
Dolby Sound is Kirchner’s major competitor. Audiophiles have sometimes classified the differences between the two companies in somewhat simplified labels—DTS utilizes diffused sound while Dolby focuses on directional sound. What does that mean to the non-tech, lay person? Kirchner sums it up this way: Fundamentally DTS “designs for the future, as opposed to design accepting the limits of your current condition or the past…. We seek to provide immersive, engaging, 360-degree experiences that are better than anyone else can provide.”
DTS Sound is experienced in many more ways than just movies. As the production of electronic devices made their way onto the market, so, too, did the need to stand out. That’s where DTS rode in to the rescue. No longer was the consumer satisfied with tin-can sounding devices. They wanted their computers, their audio speakers, their cell phones, and portable gaming devices to have truer sound. Much of the development was done here while the manufacture of those elements was being done overseas. With his hands-on approach, Kirchner estimates he spends a third of his time on the road, much of it outside the U.S., forging new alliances.
When asked about the biggest innovation in sound that he’s seen in his 20+ years at DTS, Kirchner doesn’t hesitate. It’s 5.1 surround sound. It took the listening experience from uni-directional or simple stereophonics to a full 360-degree experience. Sound suddenly came at you from all sides.
Three elements have led to improvements in sound, according to Kirchner. They are processing power, increased bandwidth, and storage capacity. These are the foundations of the audio tech revolution. So what’s coming down the pike?
“I think we’re in the middle of living the biggest transition the entertainment industry has ever seen. We’re now in the digital delivery world. All of your content [is] being distributed online in one way, shape, or form, and your ability to have it portable, 24/7, in any environment, is a huge change for the industry. I would look for more of the same.”
There is one advancement that Kirchner excitedly pointed to as part of DTS’s burgeoning technology partnerships. It’s Headphone-X. “It literally picks up your home theater and puts it on your [cell] phone, and you can listen to that movie on a standard pair of headphones.”
If you want to hear the heartbeat of tomorrow, just put a stethoscope to Kirchner’s chest. Rest assured it’s receiving the signals from the future loud and clear – and very possibly in DTS surround sound.