compiled by Bert Laney
from information and opinions provided by participants on the rec.audio.* newsgroups
New-comers to the audio newsgroups often ask about Bose. Their interest is often inspired by a sale, in which Bose speakers are offered at a seemingly irresistible price, and the poster feels a strong urgency to buy before the sale ends. If this FAQ does nothing else, at least rest assured that Bose products go on sale frequently and, when this sale ends, there will be another soon. In fact, you can often receive the sale price after the sale ends just by asking. So take your time, listen carefully, and compare!
The usual naive request for information about Bose is often followed by a flame war, to the original poster's great surprise. While Bose may be "The Most Respected Name in Audio" --- according to the Bose marketing department --- Bose gets little respect from most of the participants in the audio newsgroups. In fact, moderate to strong anti-Bose sentiments outnumber pro-Bose sentiments by perhaps 20 to one on the audio newsgroups! However, there are always at least a couple of staunch defenders of Bose. Perhaps because they face such overwhelming odds, the Bose defenders tend to phrase their arguments in sniping repetitive ways, which almost everyone else finds extremely irritating, especially after several months of exposure. The flavor of this debate has to be personally experienced to be truly appreciated. But, as a feeble attempt to duplicate it, here is the structure of a typical exchange:
Does anyone have any opinions about Bose speakers?
Five Responses: There are better speakers for the money including brands X, Y, and Z.
Bose Defender: But Bose speakers offer superior design. They're the most popular speaker in the world, and for good reason.
Ten Responses: Popularity does not equal quality. (Many long detailed rebuttals to the Bose defender. Tone tends to be slightly hostile since they've done this several times before. Some are very hostile --- "Bose sucks!!!")
Bose Defender: No. You're all wrong.
Fifteen Responses: What?! (Many more long posts explaining again why they are right)
Bose Defender: (not in response to anything in particular) But Bose is a large corporation with excellent customer service. Other smaller companies may fail, leaving you without service.
Twenty Responses: Good service for a poor quality product? So what? (Many more detailed responses about the problems they perceive with Bose, plus more "Bose sucks!!!" posts)
Bose Defender: Bose is a very popular speaker. More people buy Bose speakers than any other speaker, and Bose has very high customer satisfaction rates.
Twenty-five Responses: Agggh!! We just explained that quality does not equal popularity. Can't you read? Are you an IDIOT?
Bose Defender: No. I'm not the idiot, you're all idiots. This newsgroup is populated by a small clique of crazy "audiophile" types who spend hundreds of dollars for cable that doesn't even make a difference.
Newbie: (forgot about the newbie didn't you!) (in a weak voice) I want my mommy.
This goes on ad infinitum until everyone is heartily sick of it, and the debate fades. A few weeks later, someone asks about Bose again, and it starts all over again. It should be noted that not every Bose supporter always debates as described above, any more than every Bose detractor always debates by saying "Bose sucks!"
This FAQ is a summary of information and opinions posted on the net in the continuing Bose debate. It is intended to inform the beginner about Bose speakers in particular and, to some extent, speakers in general. Furthermore, it is intended to reduce the unproductive Bose flame-wars in the future; in this regard, at least, the FAQ appears to be successful. Since the first version appeared, the Bose flamewars have diminished to a trickle, with the few contributions usually rehashing yet again one of the points made earlier in the debate and summarized in the FAQ.
This FAQ is a living document, which will be changed as more information and opinions appear. In fact, I encourage and actively seek further contributions from both Bose lovers and Bose haters, and even the Bose corporation. In fact, in constructing the Bose FAQ, I approached a number of the debate participants and asked them personally for their input. In one case below, I have even quoted a debate participant directly. Unfortunately, the staunchest Bose defenders (and there are a few) have declined to contribute. Along these lines, it should be pointed out that responses along the lines of "you are wrong, wrong, and wrong" variety, i.e., statements that express disagreement but do not contain any useful or constructive information or logic are unlikely to be incorporated into the Bose FAQ, although I will be happy to point out how useless these sort of comments are to you if you care to make them.
While this FAQ contains some pretty pointed criticisms of Bose speakers, the reader should certainly not automatically dismiss Bose speakers on the basis of this FAQ alone. If it serves its purpose, the FAQ should raise enough doubts about Bose speakers that readers will want to compare for themselves. For this purpose, the FAQ provides the reader with detailed tips on how to perform a valid listening comparison between speakers, so that the reader can come to their own informed opinions. However, if you are starting this FAQ with a positive impression of Bose, do not by any means change your mind until you have had the chance to compare carefully, and have heard for yourself that other speakers often offer better sound quality. If you compare Bose with some of the better speaker brands (see section 2) and still prefer Bose then, truly, you have my blessing and the blessings of even the harshest Bose critic.
By the way, since this FAQ first appeared, I have received many technical Bose-related repair and modification inquiries, especially regarding parts. Unfortunately, I do have not any special "inside" information about Bose, and thus I suggest that any such questions be directed to Bose Corporation. Here is some information to help you contact Bose if you need to:
Corporate Headquarters: 508-879-7330 (Laurie Whitely or Carolyn Cinotti)
Public Relations: 908-233-8800 (Borman Associates)
Consumer Response (Canada): 800-465-2673 (BOSE)
Consumer Response (USA): 800-444-2673 (BOSE)
Professional Sales: 800-996-2673 (BOSE)
Professional Technical Information: 800-994-2673 (BOSE)
Wave Radio: 800-919-BOSE
Acoustic Wave Music System: 800-282-BOSE
Home speakers and systems: 800-444-BOSE
Aviation headsets: 800-242-9008
Auditioner audio demonstration system: 800-469-7413
I also often receive questions regarding other Bose products, especially the Waveradio. This FAQ concerns *only* Bose home speakers, and does not concern other Bose products such as the Waveradio or their car stereo products. I do not have any special information to provide on anything other than Bose home speakers, since these other products have not been discussed exhaustively on the internet in the way that the home speakers have. However, having said this, from the few reports I have read, generally, the people who have tried the Bose Waveradio feel that it is definitely the best of its type, but that its type is boombox/clock radio/table radio. While it does offer excellent performance in this category, you will pay dearly for the performance it offers, and the Waveradio still cannot compete with even an equally-priced well-selected component stereo system, at least as far as sound quality goes, though it certainly is convenient and compact.
Finally, I occasionally receive questions about specific Bose speakers along the lines of "Are Bose speakers really that bad? Why do you think so? I just bought the AM5 speakers. What do you think of those?" First off, the FAQ is not intended as a blanket condemnation of Bose speakers; it merely raises questions, and then shows the reader how they can answer those questions for themselves. After all, speakers are largely a matter of personal taste --- there are literally thousands of different speakers available, and this would not be true if it were clear which ones were the "best." Furthermore, as far as my personal opinions about specific Boise speakers, as mentioned earlier, I do not have a personal opinion on any Bose speakers. This hopefully helps make the FAQ more neutral, but it also makes me a lousy source of specific opinions. I can say that I owned a pair of Bose 301 speakers for a number of years. At the time, I was quite happy with them; of course, I think my current speakers are much better, but if I had never shopped around, I would probably still happily own the Bose 301's. While I do not have any personal opinions on the sound of Bose speakers, I do feel that many of the arguments that have been made in favor of Bose speakers are weak, and this document reflects that judgement.
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Suppose that, for some reason, you either decide not to purchase Bose speakers, or you wish to compare Bose with other speakers. What other speakers should you consider? A complete answer to this question is outside the scope of this FAQ --- consult the "Good Sound for Cheap FAQ." But as a short answer, some brands names worth considering include PSB, Paradigm, Thiel, Mirage, Definitive Technology, B&W, Radio Shack LX5 (designed by Linaeum), Magnepan, RDL, KEF, NHT, Signet, Infinity, Spica, Energy, Quad, Martin-Logan, Celestion, Vandersteen, Apogee, Acarian Alon, and dozens of others. This is not to say that everyone loves all of these brands --- some people love them, some people hate them, and you should listen for yourself --- but most people on the audio newsgroups would rate most of these brands above Bose. Some brands names generally considered worse than, equal to, or at least not consistently superior to Bose include Polk, Technics, Klipsch, Sony, JBL, Kenwood, KLH, Pioneer, Cerwin-Vega, Advent, DCM, and dozens of others. Of course, again, opinions vary (Klipsch, in particular, has some strong proponents). Given the long list of worse speakers on the market, its actually rather surprising that only Bose receives such criticism on the audio newsgroups. Boston Acoustics and AR have and apparently still produce some excellent budget speakers but, unfortunately, many mediocre speakers as well.
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One of the issues used both for and against Bose is their marketing. In the loudspeaker arena, Bose has perhaps the largest and most effective marketing campaign of any manufacturer. What other speaker manufacturer runs television ads? The marketing budget is spent in several ways:
*Advertising. Part of the marketing budget is spent on advertising and obtaining positive reviews, so that consumers will know and feel favorable towards Bose products before they ever even enter a store. A recent survey in the Denver area showed that most people who purchased stereo equipment had already make up their minds about which brands to purchase well before they actually auditioned any equipment! Many personal anecdotes on the audio newsgroups support this conclusion. The fact that Bose speakers have such an excellent reputation among the public at large is partly a testament to their excellent marketing.
*Sales Incentives. In many cases, the store and the salesperson earn higher commissions from selling Bose speakers than from selling other equally priced speaker. Of course, in other cases, the store may have greater incentives to sell other speakers, but it seems that Bose is well above average among mass-market speakers.
*Store Support. The marketing budget also pays for large numbers of marketers who work with the individual stores, encouraging stores to stock and sell Bose products, and arranging in-store promotions and sales. If the experience of some on the audio newsgroups is to be believed, Bose even sends marketers to the stores to pose as salespeople, who steer customers towards Bose under this guise.
These sorts of modern marketing techniques are, for the most part, only to be expected from a large and savvy corporation. Of course, the company with the best marketing does not always offer the best products, although truly unappealing products will fail regardless of marketing.
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One point often made in favor of Bose is their research. Indeed, Bose has a large and highly-trained scientific research staff. However, it seems that relatively little of this research filters down to their everyday speakers --- their basic speaker designs have remained largely unchanged for many years. This rather surprising conclusion is supported by comparisons with other industries. For example, Budweiser and MacDonalds also have large and highly-trained scientific research staffs, and yet continue to produce the same products year after year. In essence, most of the research is for purposes of hedging their bets and flexibility --- if the marketplace demands change, the corporation will have the research results in hand to react quickly. In the case of Bose, the research budget is still small compared to the marketing budget. Furthermore, the research makes good PR, and in fact justifies one of their well known marketing slogans --- "Better Sound Through Research."
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Bose has the reputation among the general public as a leader in innovative speaker design. This is partly the result of their marketing campaign, but also simply because they are unusual --- it is all too easy to confuse unusual with new or innovative. However, according to the historically knowledgeable on the newsgroups, most of the Bose "innovations" were actually devised years ago by others and incorporated into textbooks and commercial speaker designs pre-dating Bose by years and even decades. In some cases, Bose's patents are small refinements of long-established techniques. Thus, according to many on the newsgroups, Bose's main contribution is popularizing their speaker designs through aggressive marketing.
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There has been much discussion among the technically minded about the engineering/design aspects of Bose. This discussion can get highly technical, and those without the appropriate background may often be left not knowing who to believe. Without getting too heavily into the technical details, this section attempts to summarize these debates.
One of the most popular Bose product lines is the AM series of satellite/woofers. About this product line, John Busenitz says:
"The problems with the Bose AM systems are many. The woofers are too small to reproduce low frequencies at decent levels. In fact, a review in a recent Stereo Review noted this, saying that the response rolled off at around 36 dB below mid-50 Hz. The small enclosure and high order response are indicative of bad transient response/excessive group delay, which is evidenced by a simple listening test. There is a big upper bass peak, and the bass is boomy and muddy, IMHO. Also the LP filter is too high, and thus the bass module is directional."
"The crossover must be high, since the 2.5" drivers in the cubes are much too small to reproduce upper bass to almost any degree of satisfaction, while they are too large for high frequencies, where they "beam" and become directional. And, incidentally, don't have close to a 20 kHz bandwidth."
To be fair, many of the same criticisms can be leveled at many or even most satellite-woofer systems. Such systems are popular right now because of their modest space requirements. Their theoretical basis is that low bass frequencies are not directional, so that you can put the bass module anywhere in the room, even hide it, and it will still sound as if the bass is coming from the tiny satellite speakers. Unfortunately, as John says, in practice, most bass modules usually go too high in frequency, so that the resulting bass *is* directional. Then the bass will appear to come from a different location unless very carefully positioned relative to the satellites. Furthermore, as John says, the quality of the bass produced by the bass modules is often of questionable quality. As always, listen for yourself.
Now we turn to Bose's 301/501/701/901 line. In this line, everyone agrees that Bose speakers employ a highly unusual design. Depending on your point of view, you may say that this design is unusual because it is innovative and patented, or you may say that it is unusual because few others care to duplicate it. Regardless, there are few other speakers with similar designs, and certainly none with anything like the high profile of Bose speakers.
One aspect to this series is the "direct/reflecting" design. In other words, these speakers have numerous speaker elements, some angled forwards, and some angled backwards, and some angled to the side. In most speakers, there are only two or three speaker elements, all pointed straight forward. The Bose philosophy is to create a great deal of indirect sound --- sound that reflects off walls and furniture before it reaches the listener. Of course, all speakers inevitably create some degree of indirect sound, unless listened to in a specially treated non-reflective room, but Bose purposely creates a great deal more indirect sound. Some people feel that this strategy results in an unfocused diffuse sound, with unnaturally large stereo images, while others very much like this sound. You should listen for yourself.
To justify the direct/reflecting technique, Bose has claimed that, in real life, about 8/9 of sound reflects before reaching the listener, and only 1/9 reaches the listener directly. However, these numbers apparently come from one set of measurements made in a concert hall, certainly an unusually reverberant environment. Furthermore, the recording picks up both the direct and reflected sounds, and adding more reflection at playback just adds synthetic reflections on top of real reflections. In fact, according to the scientists on the audio newsgroups, there are some well-established theories about the proper ratio of direct to reflected sound in playback --- based on many years of research rather than one perhaps misleading measurement --- which theories Bose speakers intentionally violate. If you really want to bring out the ambient reflected qualities of recorded sound, a better technique might be surround sound, where it possible to control the ratio of direct to indirect sound. The proper use of surround sound could fill another entire FAQ.
Before purchasing a Bose "direct/reflecting" speaker, especially one of their more expensive models, you may wish to compare them with other speakers which produce relatively large amounts of indirect sound -- this includes any planar speaker such as Magnepan, Quad, or Martin-Logan. Also, Shahanian produces speakers somewhat like Bose speakers.
Another aspect to the Bose 301/501/701/901 series is their use of multiple small speaker elements for reproducing bass. While most speakers use just one large high-quality expensive element for the bass frequencies, Bose speakers such as the 901s use many smaller lower-quality less-expensive speaker elements, wired together with complex equalization circuitry. While this certainly produces bass, many people feel that the deep bass is attenuated, and that whatever bass there is contains large amounts of distortion. Others apparently believe the bass is deep and of high-quality. Whichever way your opinions run, it should be noted that there are well-established theories about the size of the driver versus its lower frequency limit --- the bigger the driver the lower the frequencies it can naturally reproduce --- which Bose violates, or at least tries to circumvent in a highly debatable fashion. More specifically, John Busenitz says:
"When judging low frequency response, it is not only the total surface area that is important, but the excursion capability of the drivers and their resonance frequency, which determines the low frequency cutoff. Smaller drivers almost always have far less excursion capability and higher resonances than larger drivers. That is why Bose is pretty much alone in using multiple small drivers."
Of course, bass response is not just a matter of personal opinion --- frequency response in the bass regions is easily measurable, although it depends a great deal more on room acoustics and speaker placement within the room than the midrange and treble. Bose does not provide frequency response plots, feeling that they are potentially misleading. Reports on the internet have run both ways, with probably a slight bias towards reports of an inadequate bass response.
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Perhaps the most often repeated argument in favor of Bose is their popularity and commercial success. Bose is indeed one of the most popular speaker companies by any measure. Part of this is related to their effective marketing department. More importantly, Bose is indeed better sounding than many of its natural competitors. Despite their dominance in electronics, the Japanese mass-market companies have never managed to capture the full essence of speaker design and manufacture, despite many attempts. Even in Japan, US and other foreign speakers brands are surprisingly popular. Many first time buyers choose electronics by Sony, Pioneer, Techniques, Kenwood, etc., and simply assume that their speakers are of similar quality. Even worse, many people buy all-in-one rack systems, in which the speaker is invariably the weakest link, however large their size and however high the number of drivers and however impressive the frequency response curve printed on the plate on the front. In comparison to most Japanese mass-market speakers, Bose speakers are indeed a substantial improvement. In fact, since most appliance/T.V./stereo retailers (Circuit City, Best Buy, Sears, Wards, ...) mainly carry Japanese brands, Bose may be the best speaker available if one restricts oneself to such stores. Furthermore, even in the cases where a store carries better brands, their set-up is often not conducive to fine judgement calls. The speakers are placed cheek-to-jowl, and are all connected through central switcher of marginal quality, and on and on, as described below in section 14.
In other words, Bose's popularity can be ascribed to many other factors besides sound quality. In general, the short answer to the popularity argument is that popularity does NOT necessarily equate to quality --- just think of popular music such as "New Kids on the Block," popular fast-food restaurants, popular fashions from years gone by such as polyester leisure suits, and popular television programs such as "Full House." There are so many other factors which influence popularity besides quality that it is hardly a reliable indicator.
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One point made in Bose's favor is the quality of their customer service. Indeed, Bose generally offers excellent customer service and repairs. Of course, so do any number of other large manufacturers, such as Radio Shack, Infinity, and so forth. Small manufacturers can offer a personal touch often lacking from large manufacturers. However, their service is not necessarily as consistent, and they may not always survive in the competitive marketplace, in which case, of course, their customer service is no longer available. These are all part of the well-known trade-offs between large established companies and smaller companies.
When a speaker company fails, large or small, it may be difficult to obtain exact replacement parts. Paradoxically, lower quality speakers tend to use standard off-the-shelf parts, which are easily replaced years later, even if the company folds. However, most larger companies with any pretense of quality will use custom drivers, which are no more expensive in large quantities than standard drivers, and can be designed to meet specific needs, and give their speakers a distinct identity. While smaller companies may not be able to afford to order fully custom drivers, they often use some of the more exotic drivers which may not be available indefinitely, and they often make special in-house modifications which are not easily duplicated if the company fails.
It should also be pointed out that, unless abused, speakers are fairly reliable. The most common source of damage to speakers is an under-powered amp, which can clip at high-volume levels, ruining the tweeters. Less commonly, a speaker may be damaged by too much sustained power, or a malfunctioning amp creating large amounts of low or midrange frequencies. However, aside from clipping, probably the most common source of speaker failure is the rotting of the foam surround, which occurs over 5-15 years. The surround is the flexible membrane encircling the speaker cones. Rotting can be avoided by using other materials, such as butyl rubber, instead of foam. However, many mass-market speakers, including Bose, employ foam surrounds, albeit with chemicals intended to inhibit rot. In the past, Bose has offered discounts on new speakers to owners of older Bose speakers suffering from foam rot. It is also possible to have the speaker elements "reconed", i.e., replace the surround, or to replace the speaker elements, although Bose has rarely offered to do this. Bose feels that their current speakers are not subject to foam rot.
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The audio newsgroups have a wide variety of participants with a wide variety of conflicting opinions and styles. For example, one of the most hostile debates aside from the Bose debates are those concerned with blind testing, as anyone who follows these newsgroups will quickly discover.
Despite their vigorous disagreement on many other topics, Bose is a topic about which all factions agree --- all factions tend to be strongly skeptical of Bose. Depending on their methods for evaluating audio equipment, some believe they have the measurements, the blind listening test results, and the theoretical and technical arguments to prove that Bose products have serious flaws; while others, drawing on their personal if non-scientific experience, think that Bose speakers simply sound much worse than a large number of other less costly speakers.
A gauntlet sometimes thrown down by Bose supporters is that all participants in the audio newsgroups are "audiophiles." While it can be used in a positive sense, the term "audiophile" is sometimes used to mean "anyone who disagrees with me" -- which obviously covers quite a lot of territory.
In the sense used in this FAQ, "audiophile" refers to anyone who cares about audio quality, and feels that quality can be reasonably well evaluated (well enough to make practical buying decisions) by informed individual listening, as described below, even if the listening conditions are not blind. By this definition, "audiophiles" are not confined to some small elite clique, as is often implied, but includes a wide variety of people. Of course, informed individual listening is only one approach --- controlled scientifically-rigorous blind listening tests and measurements obviously also provide very useful and convincing information, although, as a practical matter, this is often only an option for professional scientists and engineers, and it may be difficult to base practical buying decisions solely on such information in any event.
In all fairness, I should point out that, from time to time, "audiophiles" and others who have compared with a wide variety of well-regarded speakers will post a testimonial in favor of Bose. Usually, these are along the lines of "well, I once heard a demo of the Bose 901s, and they actually sounded pretty good to me although, I mean, I didn't buy them or anything, so please, please, please don't flame me."
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New comers to the audio newsgroups may wonder why the opinions expressed here are so different from what they've heard before. In particular, they may wonder how Bose could receive such positive reviews if their products are as poor as many people claim. The first point is that Bose has certainly received its fair share of negative reviews. Furthermore, many of the more ambitious magazines simply ignore Bose products. Finally, the US publications which regularly feature Bose may not always have the most proper or stringent standards. The purpose of this section is to describe the various major publications, to explain why their judgements may or may not be reliable, and to point the reader to major magazines other than those they currently rely on.
The six major US publications which review stereo equipment are Consumers Reports, Stereo Review, Audio, Stereophile, FI, and The Absolute Sound. The first two concern mainly mass-market equipment, the last three concern mainly "audiophile" equipment, while Audio attempts to cover both markets. In many ways, none of these publications is entirely satisfactory. A brief critique of each follows:
*Consumers Reports. They assess speakers using measurements and, to a lesser extent, blind listening tests. Their standards and testing procedures were designed many years ago, and are widely considered out-of-date and inadequate. In fact, after they negatively reviewed a Bose speaker, Bose sued Consumers Reports on the grounds that their testing procedures were faulty. While Bose lost the suit, it was on other legalistic grounds, and not because they failed to prove their points about CR's testing procedures. (Interestingly, Bose speakers have tended to rate quite well in Consumers Reports ever since.) A common opinion on the audio newsgroups is that Consumers Reports' speaker ratings are actually *inverse* to quality. In other words, the better speakers rate lowest, and the worst speakers rate highest. You should listen for yourself and decide. It certainly seems to be true that Consumer Reports opinions are not widely accepted by informed enthusiasts in most areas, including beers, cameras, and so forth.
*Stereo Review. Stereo Review is widely considered an advertising format by those on the audio newsgroups. Annual subscriptions are available for very low prices, presumably subsidized by advertising revenues. As a matter of editorial policy, you will *never* see a bad review in Stereo Review. They claim that if they can't say anything good, its better to simply say nothing at all. However, they do give many people the impression that they will positively review almost any product from any advertiser. Assuming that they review products that they would not personally endorse, some people feel that they can intuit the reviewer's true feelings by reading between the lines, magnifying the gentlest criticisms to mean that the reviewer actually despises the piece in question. The joke is that a typical Stereo Review article concludes with "it has a handsome polished oak finish and, of all the speakers I have ever reviewed, this is certainly one of them." While non-judgemental people have their place, non-judgemental reviewers have a more limited usefulness.
*Audio. At one time, Audio was not that much different than Stereo Review. However, in recent years they have made an effort to beef up their content, and to improve their staff quality. While they may not feature many negative reviews, their style gives many the impression that their reviewers still have certain standards.
*Stereophile. Their reviews are usually based on unscientific listening tests done by one reviewer, although they occasionally conduct blind listening tests, and they always provide fairly good measurements for those technically minded enough to interpret them. Many on the audio newsgroups are put off by the paucity of scientific blind listening tests, and their espousal of sometimes outrageously expensive equipment ($2000 is sometimes cheap in this world) including various oddball "tweaks." At the very least, their reviews should be taken with a grain of salt, and the reader must take a good deal of effort to ensure that their tastes match those of the reviewers. Stereophile publishes a useful list of recommended components in the April and October issues. It is unlikely that a Bose product would ever be reviewed by Stereophile.
*The Absolute Sound. Provides an alternative to Stereophile, while taking the same general philosophy, except even more purist and (depending on your point of view) extreme. No measurements or blind testing. It is unlikely that a Bose product would ever be reviewed by TAS. TAS has recently been through an upheaval, and has suffered a long period with no publications. Even in its best days, TAS's publishing schedule tended to be a bit erratic.
*FI. A new magazine, heavily populated by writers that previously wrote for the Absolute Sound and Stereophile and, thus, not surprisingly, it has a similar style to those two magazines. Again, it is unlikely that a Bose product would ever be reviewed by FI. [note: Fi recently reviewed the Bose Wave Radio -JAB]
There are, of course, many smaller US publications as well as numerous foreign publications, especially British, which are beyond the scope of this FAQ. The fact that Bose does not even attempt to have its products reviewed in some of the more quality-conscious magazines is yet another sign that Bose does not really target its speakers at the informed enthusiasts, but is more interested in weaning the much larger general public away from the truly bad Japanese mass-market and rack system speakers.
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Like many large corporations, Bose has sometimes taken legal action to protect its reputation and patents. In some cases, this can be seen as the dark side to their marketing efforts --- not only do they disseminate positive information about Bose, but they also attack sources of negative information, as well as other speaker manufacturers. Besides suing Consumers Reports for their negative review, as mentioned in the last section, some other instances cited on the newsgroups include:
*Bose sued Theil to prevent them from naming their speakers with a .2, since Bose also named one of their speakers with a .2, and Bose felt that this might lead consumers to confuse Bose with Theil. Anyone familiar with the Bose and Theil brand names, and the vast differences in their target audience, considers this extremely unlikely.
*Bose sued Speaker Builder magazine for publishing the specifications of a bandpass enclosure that Bose claimed infringed on their patents. Most of those who read Speaker Builder consider this suit unjustified, and many still hold a grudge against Bose accordingly.
*Bose sued Cambridge Sound Works for their claim that they offered "Better Sound Than Bose For Half the Price." Bose also claimed that some of Cambridge's speakers resembled Bose speakers. For the record, the newsgroup participants generally rate Cambridge ahead of Bose.
*In the example that hits closest to home, after a student posted a negative opinion about Bose on the internet, Bose wrote a letter of complaint and, as a result, the student was called before the Dean, fortunately with no adverse consequences. (Unfortunately, after the first posting of this FAQ, one regular nuisance pro-Bose poster decided to emulate this behavior.)
[There was a lawsuit during the summer of '96 between Bose and Harman International/JBL, the former suing the latter for selling a speaker system that bore resemblance to the Bose AM-5 system. Harman International won 2 of 3 counts; they can manufacture and sell the loudspeaker system. They were not able to declare the Bose "Acoustimass" patent invalid. It should be noted that this is what I have heard second-hand. If any of this is inaccurate, please let me know -JAB]
Some people hold a special hatred of Bose simply because of their unusually litigious behavior. You may wish to factor this in when people tell you that "Bose sucks!" --- the Bose legal department as well as their rather over-reaching marketing claims may be having an influence on such opinions, separate from the true quality of the speakers.
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At this point, the FAQ has summarized most of the points raised endlessly for and against Bose. While you can read about Bose till doomsday, one listen is worth a thousand words. The remainder of this FAQ will explain how to go about listening and deciding on the merits of Bose for yourself. This is generic advice which applies equally well to any speaker brand.
While the next two sections are generic, and do not address Bose specifically, they are included in this FAQ for the following reasons:
*They rebut certain claims made in support of Bose. In particular, these two sections rebut the claim that most Bose purchasers make carefully informed decisions --- it seems highly unlikely that most Bose purchasers, or most purchasers of any speaker brand for that matter, have followed the demo procedures and principles outlined below.
*Without these two sections, readers may run off to the local appliance/T.V./stereo shop, compare Bose to obviously inferior speakers, in conditions which do not allow for meaningful comparisons in any event, and conclude that Bose is indeed the best speaker on the market for the money. While Bose may make superior products, its important to base such conclusions on a sound foundation.
*These two sections are aimed especially at readers who have already listened to Bose, and feel that their personal experiences have already definitively proven Bose's superiority. Hopefully, these sections will indicate some ways that your experiences may have mislead you. In other words, even if you think you *know* that Bose speakers --- or any other speaker brand for that matter --- are the best, these two sections may give you pause. Hopefully, it will inspire a few of you to reconsider your opinions, even if you ultimately decide that you were right in the first place.
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Listening is key, and this section will provide a few pointers on how to listen correctly and effectively.
To begin with, it helps to be aware of human psychology and how this can bias your perceptions. Some of these include:
Expectations. If you expect Bose to sound good, it is likely to sound good. Vice versa, if you expect Bose to sound bad, it is likely to sound bad. Try to keep an open mind. Better yet, try to compare speakers without knowing which brands you are listening to. In this sense, the less you know about the speaker you're listening to, the better.
Second Speaker Sounds Best. In a comparison of two items, people tend to prefer the second item. This is one of the bases of the Pepsi challenge --- present the Pepsi second. This effect is sometimes used by dealers to favor a specific speaker.
The Louder Speaker Sounds Best. In a comparison of two speakers, people tend to to prefer the louder one. Of course, this is not true if the loudness difference is large. However, small differences in loudness are not perceived as differences in loudness --- rather the louder speaker is perceived as "better." This effect is sometimes used by dealers to favor a specific speaker. This effect can be minimized by demoing speakers at a variety of different volume levels --- fiddle with the volume control as you listen!
The Speaker with more Bass and Treble Sounds Better. In a comparison of two speakers, people tend to prefer the one with more bass and treble. Again, like loudness, slight differences are not perceived as due to frequency response differences --- the increase in bass and treble is perceived as better. While increased bass and treble sounds better in the short run, it can become fatiguing in the long ran. Some speaker manufacturers build a slight contour into their speakers to help them sound more impressive in short casual demos, but the purchaser drawn in by this technique often lives to regret their decision. This effect is also sometimes used by dealers to favor a specific speaker. Playing with the bass and treble controls, and varying the volume (perceived frequency balance changes with volume), can help overcome this effect. If you find that, for some reason, you actually prefer increased bass and treble, most receivers have a loudness switch, and bass and treble controls, which can accommodate your tastes. However, if the bass and treble boosts are built into the speakers, it is nearly impossible to cancel them exactly using bass and treble controls if you later find this contouring tiresome.
Room placement. The sound of a speaker is greatly influenced by its location in the room, and its interactions with a room's acoustics. The sound is also influenced by listener position and listener height. For example, most speakers sound best if the tweeter is at the same height as the listener's ears, or slightly lower. While most speakers are designed to sit some distance from walls and other other obstacles, a few are designed for placement near or against walls --- these are usually smaller speakers using the wall for bass reinforcement. When placing speakers for demo, the dealer should know and follow the manufacturer's recommended placement guidelines.
Mood. In particular, it is more difficult to judge when nervous or under pressure.
Other factors. Color, size, styling, lighting, etc. can affect your judgements. I have even heard of dealers using small surround sound speakers --- used properly, listeners will not perceive the additional separate speakers, but will instead perceive the main speakers as better.
The only way to ensure a completely neutral assessment is a double-blind test, where neither the listener nor the conductor of the test knows which speaker is being heard, and where the speakers are heard in exactly the same location driven by exactly the same equipment. Unfortunately, a proper double-blind test is out the realm of practical possibility in most cases.
To summarize, while most dealers are honest, a few use human psychology to push specific speakers, the ones which earn them the most money, or perhaps the speakers that the salesperson honestly prefers, although their tastes may differ from yours. Even when a dealer is not purposely trying to bias the customer towards a particular speaker, it is possible and likely for non-sonic aspects to greatly influence judgements of sound quality. Being aware of possible bias factors, as listed above, can help save you from making some common mistakes.
When auditioning speakers, its vital that you be familiar with the music. In other words, BRING YOUR OWN MUSIC. If you allow the dealer to choose the audition music, they may choose music which flatters the speakers in question. At the very least, if the dealer uses unfamiliar discs, you will have no idea what the music should sound like, and thus you will have no way to distinguish the sound quality of the disc from the sound quality of the speakers.
For myself, I try to bring one or two really good sounding CDs to test for the ultimate capabilities of the speakers --- but don't be surprised if CDs that sound good on your current speakers turn out to be mediocre on better speakers, and that CDs which sound mediocre on low quality speakers turn out to sound excellent on high quality speakers. In other words, if you've never heard your CDs on first-rate speakers, don't be surprised if your sonic judgements change as you hear them on more and more speakers. I also try to bring several CDs with known sonic flaws --- harsh treble, slight distortion on loud passages, tape hiss, maybe even some 78 transfers with surface noise ---- to see whether the speaker exposes those flaws, while still bringing out the better features of the music, so that the overall sound is still enjoyable.
You might also want to bring a CD containing lots of low frequencies, such as pipe organ music, to test the low frequency behavior of the speaker. The biggest flaw with most speakers, especially smaller and less expensive speakers, is either a lack of low bass or a poor quality low bass, in that the bass has a one-note thumping quality, instead of a continuous range of well-defined bass frequencies. If you can't afford the cost or room (true high-quality low bass requires large speakers and large rooms in which to play them) for a speaker with true high-quality deep bass, you need to determine whether the bass response is satisfactory on the types of music you listen to most often. Of course, when it comes to bass, some people prefer enormous quantities to quality, and I wish those people would stop driving by my house.
Having established some common pitfalls, now let us describe the proper set-up for listening.
Placement. In most cases, the speakers should be placed well away from walls and other speakers. Any nearby object or surface can affect the sound quality of a speaker. This is especially critical in terms of bass response --- speakers near walls or, especially, in corners will have more bass, although the quality of the bass can be worse, since the bass is reinforced at some frequencies and canceled at others, resulting in a uneven bass response. Some speakers, especially small speakers, are specifically designed to be placed near walls, and use the bass reinforcement as part of their design.
The best demos are relaxed, preferably in familiar surroundings, such as your own home.
Leave plenty of time. First impression are often wrong. Any change in sound is often perceived as an improvement at first, and only extended listening will tell for sure whether the change is for the better, the worse, or just different.
The speakers should be hooked up separately --- they should not be wired through a main switcher box. With more than two or three switches, most commercial switcher boxes are notoriously poor in sound quality, and will tend to make all speakers sound much worse than they should, and may obscure important differences between speakers. The store can use a *high-quality* switch between two or three speakers for the purposes of blind testing, but this is quite rare. If a store complains that it is too much trouble to wire the speakers individually, there are other stores which do. I've seen stores tediously and methodically disconnect and remove one set of speakers, and connect a second set of speakers, so that the two speakers are compared using the exact same system and in the exact same location.
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Besides offering demo conditions such as those listed above, here are some other things to look for in a store and its salespeople.
In most cases, these conditions are to be found only at dedicated stereo stores. While one might expect to pay extra for the extra service, these stores generally carry speakers starting for around $150-200, or only slightly higher than cheapest speakers in mass-market stores. Of course, they may also carry speakers well into the $1000s. For best service, visit the store at off-peak hours, when the sales staff is relaxed and can afford to spend some time explaining and demoing. The mass-market applicance/T.V./ stereo stores usually do not have adequate demo facilities and, perhaps as a direct result, tend not to carry the better speaker brands, since differences in sound are rarely audible under the circumstances. Rather than using sound quality, appliance/T.V./ stereo stores tend to sell speakers in the same way as appliances --- they stress brand name, price, sales and promotions, advertising, salesperson recommendations (their salespeople often lack a deep knowledge of stereo, or are not candid about their opinions), and features (including meaningless features, e.g., "Digital Ready" is an essentially meaningless term for speakers). While they may not offer adequate in-house listening facilities, most mass-market stores do offer liberal return policies, and I have often been encouraged to "try it and bring it back if you do not like it." However, unless you are willing to purchase a large number of speakers and return all but the one pair you like, this does not really allow for a wide variety of comparisons.
Unfortunately, lacking adequate local dealers, many people will be unable to demo speakers under the proper conditions. In this case, you may have to rely largely on recommendations. At the very least, hopefully these last two sections have given you some basis for assessing the credibility of any recommendations. If you must buy your speakers without a proper demo, make sure to get a money back guarantee. Good Luck!
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