The other side of the Bose story

A reader who says he used to work in the retail side of the audio industry writes in truth-squad mode about my recent hymn of praise to Bose customer service. His comments are long and detailed, and they appear below the jump. He stresses that his comments are "personal opinions and observations, not allegations of fact" -- sounds just right for the blog world! -- and he asks not to be named.

Heart of his commentary: that Bose is a triumph of marketing rather than technology. Thus:

Bose® is one of the ultimate exemplars of so much that is right, and so much that is wrong, about the way our “free market” works... Among the real audiophile community, Bose products were not only never really accepted, they were universally scorned... The upshot is a speaker renowned, among serious audiophiles, for its utter inability to perform its intended function (among audiophiles, that is) -- the most pristine and accurate reproduction of the musical experience possible.

I'm no audiophile.I'm simply a guy who wanted to preserve some hearing despite sitting a few feet away from a roaring engine in a little propeller plane, and who also wants to preserve some peace of mind on commercial flights.

So all I can say is: as I pointed out in the post, I considered Bose's aviation headsets not worth their doubled price over other brands like Lightspeed. Also, i have always wondered whether the Bose Wave and similar products (much criticized in the reader's remarks, below) could possibly be worth their very high price. I am completely willing to believe that the Bose line in general illustrates the principle I laid out recently in the Atlantic, namely that a good brand name constitutes most of the "value," or at least most of the price, in many modern products.

Nonetheless, I still say these two things in Bose's favor: first, after trying alternatives, I think that the Bose "Quiet Comfort" headsets for airline passengers are very, very good and therefore "worth it"; and second, that the service I got in the Denver airport was more generous and helpful than it strictly needed to be. We don't just buy technology and performance specs when we lay down our money. We buy service and, yes, a "relationship" too.

For details, check below.

Reader comments begin:

Bose® is one of the ultimate exemplars of so much that is right, and so much that is wrong, about the way our “free market” works.

The founder, one Amar Bose, was, I believe, a prof at MIT at the time of the founding of the Bose firm, which I think was back in the late 50s or early 60s. He was doing research in acoustics, among other things. it’s long been considered an article of faith among audiophiles that one way of making an ideal electric-to-acoustic transducer — that’s “loudspeaker” in geek — is to create a pulsing point-source; a mini-sphere that grows and shrinks to create the sound waves that will emanate from it.

Dr Bose was experimenting with something that would approximate this ideal — a little 1/8-sphere that would sit in the corner (two walls and a floor) and, with the reflection from the adjacent surfaces, emulate this ideal transducer. He used very cheap, off-the-shelf 3” cone drivers (the kind that one finds in transistor radios), spread out over the 1/8-sphere surface to get the whole thing to behave like a pulsing sphere.

At some point along the way, his attention shifted from the mechanics of the sphere to the propagation of the acoustic waves, and their reflection off the adjacent wall/floor surfaces. His big commercial breakthrough — called the Bose 901 -- came when he converted the 1/8-sphere housing into a strangely shaped variation of a conventional box loudspeaker, with the following special feature: it would have ONE forward-firing speaker (the same little 3” off-the-shelf cheapie that he’d used for the 1/8-sphere model), and EIGHT rear-firing speakers — that would then REFLECT their sound off the back and side walls, so that most of what the listener would actually hear would be reflected sound. The idea behind this was that, when you attend a live concert or show, most of the sonic experience of your ears is, in the concert-hall or club environment, also reflected off the surrounding surfaces, and only a modest proportion is direct-to-the-ear from the instruments.

The resulting commercial product was a big success, largely because Bose had the stones to charge what was then an enormous price (I think it was close to a kilobuck at the time? But this predates me, and I’m just writing by memory here, not doing proper backup research) for the product — and because he was an MIT prof, and had inherent cred.

Funny thing, though — among the real audiophile community, Bose products were not only never really accepted, they were universally scorned. Here’s why: first off, the basic premise — reflected musical sound is a LOSS of information acuity, not a gain. In short, the music is smeared, blurry, indistinct, largely because in the home setting, you lose both the visual and acoustic cues that let the brain separate out and disregard most of the reflected sound, and to focus on the sound that “matters” -- the sound that DOES reach the ear directly from the instrument.

Second, and much more important: remember that the actual “driver elements” -- the parts that are vibrating and making the sound — in this very-expensive loudspeaker were STILL those very-cheap (like $1.69 at Radio Shack) little 3” transistor-radio speakers. In order to get them even to be able to reproduce the very high frequencies (which 3” drivers really are WAY too large, massive, and flexible to reproduce properly; it’s not a coincidence that in virtually every OTHER loudspeaker you’ll find out in the world, the “tweeter,” or high-frequency driver, is either a very small (1” or less) cone or dome, or a very thin ribbon or filament) and the very low frequencies (ditto, only in the other direction -- “woofers” tend to be BIG), the signal to the Bose loudspeaker has to be heavily “equalized” (artificially boosted to compensate for the natural unwillingness and inability of the driver materials to perform functions for which they were never intended). Pls note that this equalization also inherently involves loss of information acuity, and introduction of “noise” -- in short, the direct opposite of “accurate” reproduction.

The upshot is a speaker renowned, among serious audiophiles, for its utter inability to perform its intended function (among audiophiles, that is) -- the most pristine and accurate reproduction of the musical experience possible.

I remember when, as a baby audio-pile myself, I first heard a pair of 901s. I was horrified and appalled and totally failed to understand the attraction. Until, one time when I went to the symphony and DIDN’t have my usual starve-all-month-to-get-them 10th-row-center seats, but was stuck in the back, under both the first and the second balconies, and way off to the side, and having a miserable time. The sound was indistinct, smeared together, muddy, and completely without direction, and I was swearing up and down that I’d never again go to a concert in anything less than at least passable seats – when I suddenly realized that THIS WAS NOT THE FIRST TIME I’D HEARD MUSIC SOUND THIS WAY... Sure enough, the Bose 901 DID, in fact, accurately reproduce the experience... of the WORST SEATS IN THE HOUSE.

Funny thing, though. Although the audiophile community considered the 901s a joke and worse, the non-audiophile stereo-listener (I can’t even use the term “hi-fi,” as in “high fidelity” -- they’re not) was often very impressed. “You’re enveloped in the sound!” (Yes, it’s completely indistinct and there’s no directionality — if that’s a plus to your listening experience, you may very well like the Bose 901.)

But — again, let’s not forget those little $1.69 3” drivers — Mr Bose was making a KILLING! A product that cost maybe $50 to make was selling at over a grand! (Competitively-priced speakers from firms that WERE trying to make “high fidelity” products would generally have a construction cost of several to many hundreds of dollars.)

And on this margin — and the marketing muscle that such margin permits — Dr Bose has built an empire.

To me, and other members of the audio community, the most egregious of the Bose creations are his ubiquitous “WAVE” integrated music system (essentially a glorified boom-box: CD player, radio, amp, and speakers in one big plastic box — you’ve surely seen the ads in hi-end magazines [including the Atlantic, no?], or encountered the unit in the stand-alone Bose kiosks at many upscale malls), and his little table radio.

Both of these devices cost HUNDREDS more than... I was going to say “equivalent,” but that’s nowhere near accurate: they are INFINITELY superior... products from the many other purveyors (Sony, JVC, Yamaha, Denon, Aiwa, etcetcetc). A direct-listening comparison is a complete joke — even the very worst of the other-brand integrated mini-systems or table radios sound far better in every respect than the Bose products, even as they cost well under half what Dr Bose charges for his.

But, again, since the Bose products are primarily sold by mail- or phone- or web-order by advertisements, or in Bose-only shops or booths, nobody ever gets a chance to do a direct comparison — and with all the advertising that highway-robbery margins permit, very few would even think to do so.

The upshot is that one sees, in tens of thousands of hi-end homes and offices of affluent professionals, these products that are, quite literally, among the worst of their kind, on display... as not just functional objects, but a bit of a status symbol. It’s very much as if Taco Bell were the purveyor of the fine dining experiences provided when the elite run catered events -- except that I actually LIKE Taco Bell, and am told that Jullia Child actually liked their sister-company, KFC’s, fried chicken. And, of course, Taco Bell and KFC aren’t pretending to be haute cuisine.

I doubt that you’d get anywhere near as offended as I do by this — but it might still be an interesting experiment for you to make such comparison take place for yourself: get yourself a WAVE, or a Bose table radio, or a pair of ANY of the Bose “hi-fi” speakers, and set them up — blind, of course, so you’ll need at least one helper -- for a series of A/B comparisons with any of the competing products from REAL hi-fi firms. I would, if you were the betting type, be willing to lay BIG odds on the outcomes.

And THIS is why the nice salesman at the airport kiosk could just hand you a new pair of headphones: he was, quite literally, handing you, at best, about $20 worth of product — and, unbeknownst to him, getting a bonus of at least a mil worth of marketing value, unless perhaps you wind up doing the suggested experiments and agreeing with me on the comparisons.