President John Seaber built a headphone amplifier in an Altoids tin to boost his iPod. More than 15 years later, he’s heading up one of the category’s leading innovators.

JDS Labs germinated from a device Seaber made when he was in college. “It sold very quickly for five times the cost,” he remembers. “That was the bread and butter of the company for a couple years.”

It took a few years for the business to evolve beyond side hustle. Seaber says he wasn’t passionate about his day job, so he turned his focus when he moved the company from Missouri to Illinois in 2009.

Direct-to-Consumer Success

Annual growth regularly topped 300 percent after the move, with direct-to-consumer sales accounting for 90 percent of the take. Seaber says helping launch the now-retired open-source Objective2 headphone amp to cut through the industry’s “snake oil” in 2011 was a critical turning point for the company.

Subsequently, the Atom was a “smashing success” when the $99 amp first hit the market in 2018, selling out in a week, says Seaber. “We sold out within the first week with a production batch that we thought would have been fine for about six months. That trend continued, and the company doubled in size again very quickly.”

The Atom’s premium counterpart, the Element (starting at $249), also debuted in 2018. “The Element line was developed in-house in response to customer requests to have a more appealing design, aesthetically speaking,” says Seaber.

Talent Beyond Borders

Beyond its seven employees at an 8,000-square-foot facility in Illinois, JDS Labs has worked with a remote team for far longer than it’s been in vogue. “We bring in top talent for all of the programming aspects of the company,” says Seaber of his contractors. “We’re able to get the type of talent that we need without bringing people in-house.”

Bringing manufacturing in-house laid the foundation for sustainable growth. After working with contract manufacturers, JDS Labs bought its first CNC machine in 2015. Ever since, the CNC operation has been headed by Seaber’s business partner, Nick Amizich, who spun it off as a standalone company in 2023. JDS Labs remains a primary client and handles final assembly at its own adjacent space.

“When we were trying to build open-source projects, we had to rely on contractors for the enclosures,” says Seaber. “There were three trade-offs: You had to either pay a lot of money to get nice parts or you had to wait a long time or you had to reduce quality.”

“I tried to think of those three aspects of the triangle: Which one are you going to sacrifice and which one are you willing to pay for? You could usually get two out of the three.”

Problems Solved Together

Seaber’s inclination as an engineer was to outsource manufacturing, but Amizich saw bringing it in-house as a solution. Eight years later, the results are pretty clear. The cost of parts dropped by 50 percent, but it took a while to get there.

“We were both right,” says Seaber. “It was a mess, it was loud, it was expensive, but it solved all of our problems. We started paying very little for parts, we could make them at any time and have them instantly. . . . All of our concerns were right, and all of our opportunities were also realized.”