Former homeless man finds success in the speaker business

Kevin Nelson was living on the street, but that only temporarily took him off track from his real goal: designing and building speakers.

Five years ago I wrote about a homeless man in California who wanted to start a speaker company. That man, Kevin Nelson, dared to be different: his speakers could produce stereo sound from a single box. He was way ahead of his time -- nowadays millions of Bluetooth speakers claim the same thing. But Nelson's speakers do a more convincing job of creating stereo. Nelson started working on the stereo from one speaker idea in 1989 and spent years perfecting the concept. He cooked up the name Zealth Audio early on and stuck with it.

Kevin Nelson and his Zealth speakers. Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Some time after I wrote that blog on Nelson, the Navy veteran suffered the loss of his mother, brother, and sister all in one year. He found himself living on the street while picking up day jobs here and there, and there were times Nelson literally gave blood to pay for the storage of his speakers. Through it all he never gave up on his dream of starting a speaker company. He eventually left California and went home to Nebraska, met his former high school girlfriend, and his luck turned for the better. He started buying cars to fix up and sell to help fund the start-up of the speaker enterprise. Like so many designers I know, Nelson started building speakers when he was a little kid, and he's still fascinated by sound.

Over the years I've met hundreds of people trying to break into the speaker business, and most of them -- even ones with lots of money -- have failed. Nelson is driven by passion and a belief in his sound, and his sales numbers are going up, month after month. So when I ran into him at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver last October, I was thrilled. He had a room at the show and was demonstrating his speakers, which sounded great!

He set up a new shop and demonstration room in Hastings, Nebraska so folks can drop by and hear his speakers. Nelson currently builds and finishes all of the speakers himself, but business is so good he might be hiring a couple of homeless veterans to help out.

Today, most Zealth customers buy stereo pairs of speakers, but a few buy just one. Prices start at $390 for a pair of Zealth ZAL22s.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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