Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tech - Bose Speakers

Bose-Ohs! Are those speakers just a bunch of hype?

By Radames Pera – INsite Tech Editor

Another bubble must burst and I have the dubious honor, or at least obligation, to be the pin bearer. Ever since I started my professional life designing and intalling home theaters and sound systems, 99.9% of the time anyone has ever asked my opinion on a particular product, the sentence always goes like this: “What do you think of Bose?” No joke. I can almost see the “buh” sound forming before they get to the end of the question. “Wow. Bose again?” I asked inside my head, before making the more polite reply in the form of another question, “Oh, do you own a Bose system?”

Answers are either A: Yes, or B: No. If A, then I insert my standard respectful response A1 - no need to ruffle any feathers at this stage of the game, they’ve already made their purchase and are living with it for better or worse: “Bose is a very respected name in audio,” says I, “you must be getting a lot of enjoyment out of it.” If B, then I carefully go to response B1: “Well, Bose is really over-rated, and over-priced. A lot of other brands are better, and cost less,” adding, “What Bose is best at is marketing – they’ve rested on their laurels for decades, particularly with speakers.”

At this point people who fibbed with either “A” or “B” get all red in the face and try to argue about the quality and reputation Bose has and blah, blah, blah. In those cases, I smile politely and don’t repeat my opinion. But if they act surprised and pleased to hear something different than what they were expecting, I’ll elaborate a little further, depending on their interest level.

Its not that Bose doesn’t know how to make really good speakers, it’s just that most of the stuff they sell is crap - “cubes” as they call them, with paper speaker elements that are too tiny to deliver good sound, augmented by awful sounding subwoofers. This is the bulk of their business. Yes, they were the first company to popularize the notion that little speakers could sound like big ones by conveniently leaving the large subwoofer box out of the slick magazine ads, creating the impression that all the sound comes from tiny speakers.

While somewhat of a novelty when first introduced about 20 years ago, many Bose buyers were a bit heartbroken when they realized that no sound at all would come from the tiny cubes unless they found a place to put the relatively large bass box/amp somewhere in the room. And, that all wires had to run to that bass box first, from each speaker, not from the head unit (aka “tuner”) as is normally the case. Only then could it even come close to sounding like it did in the store.

But even in the late ‘80s when Bose introduced this concept, there were several small speakers already sold by companies like Jamo, ADS, Polk, and a couple of others that sounded pretty amazing without a clunky subwoofer attached.

To be fair, Bose released their first commercially (and acoustically) successful product, the 901 speaker in the late ‘60s and have been refining the“reflective” speaker concept ever since. They do make a great sounding (though quite expensive) professional line of sound reinforcement products that many musicians use and travel with, but their home entertainment line is outperfomed by many other lesser-known companies at considerably lower prices.

Their official slogan is “Better Sound Through Research”, though a more appropriate one, at least in consumer electronic circles might be, “The Illusion That Smaller is Better”. After all, they did singlehandedly convince the public that you didn’t have to have big speakers to have “big sound” and did help usher in an era where the husband got to have his home theater and the wife got to get rid of the monolithic speakers he’d dragged through life since college. That’s a success story right there.

Dubbed the Acoustimass Speaker, it used the aforementioned cubes which could be mounted high up on a wall to deliver reasonable sound when properly coupled with the weak bass sub. Oddly, the sub also doubled as the system amp, and while this proprietary approach allowed the tuner-preamp-CD player to remain very small, it rendered the system incompatible with most other brands of gear, hampering its expandability. Bose’s huge success with this gave rise to a host of popular brands offering their own all-in-one entertainment systems, also known as “Home Theater In a Box” (or HTIB).

Concurrently, Bose marketed the hell out of another over-priced product, the Wave Radio, which used a series of tubes (not like the internets!) to enhance bass response in a small-ish package. Buyers who forked out the dough got an oversized clock radio with pretty decent sound for a Master Bedroom or Kitchen application. Your Grandma might prefer it to a readily available (and way better sounding) boom box perched on her nightstand, but to me it always felt like Bose was trying to fleece older folks with those obsequious Paul Harvey Talk-Radio ads.

Perhaps Bose’s best innovation came with the evolution of the Acoustimass system in the mid ‘90s. Once again, they figured out a way to cram a Dolby Digital system – which included a preamp, AM/FM tuner, and DVD player into a curvy little silver chassis. This system came with a quintuple array of cubes, another weak subwoofer (again doubling as the amplifier) and best of all, an industry first: a remote control that didn’t require pointing at the equipment.

To this day, with any other piece of home entertainment equipment (except Sony’s PS3 game sytem) you still have to point the remote directly at the gear you want to control. The Bose remote uses RF (radio frequency technology) allowing power, volume, preset and track controls without pointing - even from another room. But once again the downside is it’s a Bose-proprietary thing - only their equipment can be controlled. Why big name manufacturers haven’t all gone to this is a mystery to me.
Luckily, there are a few third-party remotes that do RF with more flexibility than Bose ever had (see my tech column in the April Issue of INsite.)

In the end, Bose has gotten by a long time with a couple of fancy tricks - they aren’t really purveyors of quality. If you’re in the market for an HTIB, give ‘em a listen, then compare them to the more reasonably priced competition…you’re sure to get more bang-for-the-buck with another brand.


Over the past 22 years, Radames has professionally designed and installed hundreds of fine home theaters and multi-room audio systems across America. Please address questions and comments to:

1 comment:

  1. Hi Radames,

    I was about to buy a Bose Wave Radio, would definitely like to consider any alternative.

    Thank you