The following blog was originally published on TWICE.com
in 2007 after Dr. Amar Bose appeared before a group of journalists
invited to his Framingham, Mass, headquarters to audition a new speaker.
Dr. Bose put in an appearance and began to recount his experiences in
the audio industry.
Amar Bose was completing his
engineering doctorate at MIT in 1956 when he walked into one of two
RadioShack stores in the country to buy his first hi-fi system.
had no plans to launch a career in the audio industry, nor did he
foresee that his resulting obsession with acoustics and psychoacoustics
would be shared and taken in unexpected directions by the developers of
digital compressed-music formats.
More than 50 years after Dr.
Bose walked into that RadioShack store, and decades after other
acousticians launched their initial research into perceptual coding
algorithms for digital music compression, the Consumer Electronics
Association (CEA) will acknowledge the connection between Dr. Bose and
compressed-music formats in October. That’s when CEA inducts the
audio-industry veteran into the Consumer Electronics Industry Hall of
Fame along with some of the key MP3-format developers. The event will
take place at the CEA’s Industry Forum on Oct. 14-17 in San Diego.
Dr. Bose himself made the connection between his psychoacoustic
research and the MP3 format during a meeting with reporters and bloggers
to announce a new PC-speaker system. “What people hear and don’t hear
enables compression systems,” and “some of them are quite good,” he
Dr. Bose said he became obsessed with understanding what
people hear and don’t hear after he bought his first hi-fi system based
strictly on engineering specs and without listening to it in the store.
He said he was thoroughly “embarrassed” by his choice when he took it
home and turned it on for the first time. “I had no interest in
acoustics,” but the system “had about the best specs available.” The
disparity became “a problem that began to obsess me.”
his obsession, the first president of Bose Corp. would walk out on him,
and he would butt heads with powerful reviewers and competitors, some of
whom he said banded together to halt his company’s success after the
good reviews started pouring in.
Soon after playing three to four
minutes of violin music on his new hi-fi system, Bose asked a
RadioShack VP to borrow some speakers to test. (That relationship, he
contended, later led to the start of RadioShack’s Realistic line of
loudspeakers.) “In the acoustic lab,” Dr. Bose recalled, “none of the
speakers came close to their published specs.” He began to think that
the “industry is all corrupt.”
His obsession led him to build his
own speakers to meet the highest quantitative-measurement standards of
the day. Those speakers, he lamented, turned out “no better than the
speakers that were in the market.”
“I learned two things,” Dr.
Bose said. “Published specs did not reflect reality,” and second, “If a
product met the specs, the sound was not improved.”
he would eventually conclude, “are not an indicator of performance”
because “of the human element of what makes sound more accurate.” If a
product is superior, “people would come to appreciate it,” he concluded.
failing at designing an accurate-sounding speaker, Bose launched an
enormous” psychoacoustics research program at MIT, “and we’re still
slowly learning more about it,” he said.
One thing he learned
over the years was that the quantitative parameters of sound measured at
two nearby points in a room are wildly different. Thousands of peaks
and dips in frequency response, some up to 20dB, occur at points only a
few feet away because of phasing and room reflections, “yet people don’t
hear the difference,” he contended.
“There’s a world of folklore out there,” he also said. “No one can hear 1 percent total harmonic distortion.”
audio engineers pay less attention to conforming to the specs, he
continued, they enjoy “more freedom to pay attention to the things that
people do hear.”
In 1964, when he launched Bose Corp., Dr. Bose
continued his research into acoustics while marketing his company’s
first products: control systems for the military. Only later did the
famed 901 actively equalized speakers debut.
“My first president
said no one would buy it” because it had no woofers or tweeters and all
drivers were full-range,” Dr. Bose recalled. “My first president left
The 901s “caused quite a stir in the industry, he
continued.” It had eight full-range drivers facing the back of the wall
and one firing forward. People didn’t know how to measure it.” One
product reviewer sat them in an anechoic chamber and placed a microphone
in front, preventing the mic from capturing “80 percent of the sound,”
he said. The measured frequency response changed “enormously.”
influential U.S. reviewer, Norman Eisenberg, saw differently. Bose
remembers delivering the speakers personally to Eisenberg’s house with
his son in tow. That’s the way it was done back then because of
reviewers’ tremendous influence. Eisenberg listened and called them “the
most accurate sound I’ve ever heard,” Dr. Bose recalled. “That resulted
in more rave reviews, and we were able to survive.”
true in the case of Arthur Jansen, whose electrostatic speakers got a
bad review. “He was bankrupted by a bad review,” Bose contended.
“Reviews were very important in those days.”
With that experience
in mind, Bose fretted when Consumer Reports published a “devastating
review” that the 901 speakers “caused violins to wander about the living
room” and “a few other devastating things.”
“I thought we ought
to do something,” Bose said, but “I wanted to take a vote” of the
company’s 37 employees. On the one hand, he told them, “If we don’t do
anything, it will probably kill us.” On the other hand, Bose was a small
company with limited resources.
The vote was unanimous, but it
took 14 years for the libel suit to wend its way up the judicial system
to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1984 ruled 5-4 against Bose. The
court, Bose contended, “said everything in the review was false, but
freedom of speech protected the magazine.”
(In 1981, I
interviewed Dr. Bose about the lawsuit for a now-defunct trade
publication called HiFi Trade News. It was exciting to apply some of the
libel concepts that I learned a few years earlier in college, including
absence of malice and the potential chilling effect on free debate. I
also started to learn something about active equalization.
Unfortunately, the story isn’t archived on the web, and I don’t have a
A bad review wasn’t the company’s only challenge. “I
was so naïve about what goes on in business,” Dr. Bose said, recalling
“a meeting of five major speaker companies to stop Bose when the rave
reviews came out.” The rivals developed a 901 whitepaper outlining “what
was wrong with it [the 901].”
At one point in his career, Bose
said, “I seriously considered going back to government research work”
where engineers designed to spec.
As a result of his experiences,
Bose Corp. follows two rules. “We quote no specs, and an employee will
get fired if they disparage a competitor’s product.”
Dr. Bose has
also learned a few other things from his experiences. “I’ve learned to
calm down about those things since the ’70s.”