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Amar Bose’s Half-Century Obsession

Framingham, Mass. — 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. 7/15/2013 05:04:00 AM

The following blog was written 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.

Framingham, Mass. — 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.

He 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 said.

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.”

Because of 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.”

Specifications, 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.

After 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.”

When 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 over it.”

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.”

One 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.”

That wasn’t 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 paper copy.)

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.”

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