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Amar Bose’s Half-Century Obsession

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 the media yesterday 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 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 “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.” PAGE 2