No Highs, No Lows, it must be Bose.

The title line of this blog is something that anyone who worked in the consumer electronics industry since the 80’s would have heard countless times from his or her peers.   (If you’re one of Bose’s attorneys, this isn’t a Bose bashing post) I’ve modified my views on the products Bose makes a number of times, sometimes in ways that I’m not exactly proud of.   I do think that a study of Bose, its marketing approach and position in the industry reveal a lot about the way markets work and how the way stuff is marketed impacts on what gets produced.  A fact that isn’t in dispute is that of all the electronic brands that were around in the 70’s and 80’s, Bose is probably the only one that has significant brand recognition in today’s world.  Mention the Name “Bose” to the average person, and they usually have a very positive association with the name, but inside the Consumer Electronics industry the name will elicit a variety of responses, some of them outright hostile.

Somewhere in the late 60’s/early 70’s, the hobby of Hi/Fi transitioned into consumer products and names such as JBL, Marantz, Kenwood, Pioneer, Advent, and Bose became (semi) household words, at least amongst baby boomers.    Many a dorm wall found itself finding space between Farrah Fawcett and the Lamborghini Countach for the TDK poster with the guy getting blown away by the JBL L-100 sitting in front of him.

The hobby of Hi-Fi had evolved into something akin to wine tasting in that a certain part of the appeal was the ability to display one’s taste and talent by the discrimination between distinctions the unwashed found impossible to discern.

There was a school of thought that one could also determine the quality of home audio equipment by testing it, rather than listening to it, a debate that hasn’t been resolved to this day, with most people picking a spot to defend somewhere in the middle.

The “subjective” school came to be represented by hobbyist magazines such as Stereophile, The Audio Critic, and the Absolute Sound, with a more “objective” approach being championed by such august publications as “Stereo Review” and “High Fidelity”.  

As the industry began to market its wares to “real people” instead of “Hi-Fi Buffs” (later known as Tweaks) it began to evolve into either mass market or high end products, with the mass market starting to be sold primarily in large box “superstores” that increasingly began to feature “discount pricing” as a means of motivating buys, while the “high end” products typically were distributed through smaller “boutique” stores that were often the same stores that had been selling to hobbyists in the 50’s and 60’s. 

Curiously, most stores of both types retained the same premise: customers would “audition” the products in a comparative “test drive” where they would listen to multiple products in a showroom equipped to allow instantaneous switching between multiple products.   

This methodology worked fairly well when the clients were people who had some actual idea of what they were looking for, but many people fell victim to unscrupulous salespeople, retailers and manufacturers who could be duped into buying something that might sound great in a gymnasium sized room filled with other speakers playing “Smoke on the Water” at high volume, but nasal and muffled when playing James Taylor at non-eviction volumes.  This was mostly done with loudspeakers, as it was easy to build an impressive sized box filled with large cheap speakers that you could sell at a discount and still make a lot of profit.   The “system” largely depended on the honesty of the person controlling the demonstration.

During the 80’s the industry slowly moved to the “one brand system” approach, which stacked a bunch of Asian made electronics in a cabinet along with some cheap, but large speakers, (usually made by some company in the US under contract, as shipping speakers made out of particle board from Japan wasn’t cost effective) the main advantage of which was that the entire system could be sold without the comparative demonstration of a commissioned salesman.  As the industry, by this time had trained people on the basis of price alone, taking the salesman’s commission out of the picture allowed an even lower price.

Bose’s first successful product, the original 901 loudspeaker system was a very unusual product based on a scientific study of how people perceived the differences between live and recorded music.   Dr. Bose, an MIT professor, determined that in a live setting that most of the sound reaching listeners ears had first reflected off one or more surfaces in a room, and during these reflections, the sound was altered in several ways.   This lead to the direct/reflecting principle that many of Bose’s products have featured since.  Bose spun off a line of speakers, all more conventional than the 901, but all of them featuring a controlled directionality feature of some sort.

Bose also took a somewhat unorthodox method of marketing its products.  When I worked for a Bose dealer in the late 70’s, we were not allowed to directly compare Bose products, (which were all speakers at the time) in an instantaneous comparative demonstration through any kind of switching device.  Along with this were more restrictions on how we could display or advertise the products.

While the mass market end of the industry was following the “more bass the better” mantra the ‘high end” speaker market chased the dragon of the “phantom image”, which is more commonly referred to as just “imaging”.   Researchers at bell labs had discovered the phenomenon of the “phantom image” when they noted that people perceived an image that seemed to sonically appear midway between two loudspeakers playing the same music that seemed to remove the music from inside the box: something they found to be pleasurable.   These people came to be known as “audiophiles”.  

With time, it was found the more accurate a speaker was in reproducing the signal coming into it was, the more realistic the “image” appeared to the listener.  (Or at least that’s the theory)  In addition to the speaker, everything else in the signal (all analog at the time) chain contributed to this accuracy, from the phono cartridge to the amplifier.   To back up these claims of accuracy a whole slew of “tests” and the plethora of statistical data generated from them were also used a marketing tools, as I’ve alluded to in the above objective/subjective paragraph. 

I fancied myself as an audiophile from the late 70’s through the 80’s.  I define “audiophile” as someone who listens to his stereo system as much as the music he plays through it.   Like looking at a spectacular panorama out of a picture window and saying:  “Man, that’s great glass!”  I still have a decent, if modest, system.  But I haven’t listened to “it” in years.  As long as it doesn’t call attention to itself in some annoying way, I’m fine with it.  It “images” really well, but I haven’t cared for a long time, any more than I listen for “imaging” when I listen to live music.    Not that I have anything against people who have audio equipment as a hobby, it’s fun as long as you don’t develop “Audio OCD”.

A lot of the reason for some of the hostility toward Bose stems from the fact that Bose has never really catered to audiophiles.  Right from the start, Dr. Bose found most conventional systems to be artificial sounding and tried a different approach.   He was after people who just wanted to listen to music, not adopt a new lifestyle.   Indeed, Bose is currently famous for its tiny little speakers and “lifestyle” systems that can be tucked away in some unobtrusive manner that blends in with the decor and doesn’t dominate the room.   Bose relentlessly clung to paper cone speaker technology long after every other speaker manufacturer has abandoned paper for more exotic materials.  People have long accused Bose products of being “cheap” on this basis.   I remember hearing someone say “The Bose 301 (which was the top selling speaker in the world at the time, 1978) has less than $15 of parts inside and sells for $125. What a rip off!  Bose is just a marketing company.   You’re paying for advertising.”

On top of that, Bose also refused to play the “specs” game and has never marketed its products on the basis of technical specifications.  Bose has done a lot of market research and they actually know how their customers prefer their products to sound and they stick with that.   Bose has done an admirable job of convincing the world the products they make are great, but it took me years to realize that people also actually like the Bose products they purchase, and not because they’ve been duped, but because the products are meant to sound right to the people who use them. Bose is just in a different business with a different set of standards.

My moment of enlightenment came when a customer for whom I had installed about $800 worth of speakers in the ceiling of his bedroom turned on his wife’s Bose Wave table radio.   He turned it to his normal listening volume and it sounded great, warm, full and pleasant, if a little dull.  Not audiophile stuff, but he could care less.   The speakers I had installed, above his bed, sounded like crap at the volume at which he normally listened.  I might as well have glued a 70’s ghetto blaster to the ceiling.   And no amount to twiddling with his receiver’s knobs could render the sound he was after.   If you turned it up a little they started to sound OK, and they probably would create some sort of image to my customer lying flat on his back on the bed but he didn’t actually want to do that.   Now, he had told me to install “exactly what his friend had in his bedroom”, so I didn’t feel too bad.  But it was a painful lesson, nonetheless. 

The last piece of the puzzle is that Bose also has a unique “unilateral pricing plan” that its dealers must adhere to.  In other words, to be a Bose dealer you must agree to sell Bose products at a set price, or Bose doesn’t have to sell you products.  The contract is worded in such a way that you are not agreeing to price fixing, and I’ve long forgotten the exact verbiage except for that it contains the word “acquiesce”.

You might run that by your libertarian friends and see what they think.

When the industry began reaching out to “civilians”, many of the people who began working in the industry when it was hobbyist oriented hung on to the concepts and standards of “quality” they held to be the truth.    In the words of a former boss of mine, they were out to “Save the World from Bad Sound”.   This created a few problems related to the fact that most of the customers weren’t audiophiles.  This created an industry of people who wanted to sell Porsches to people who wanted to transport the soccer team to the game.  

Now, it turned out that a good way to sell speakers to consumers is to “teach” them how to look for a good speaker by “hobbyist” standards  and then “show” them what to “listen” for.   This was good for the salesman, as those speakers usually cost more money, but often customers spent a lot more money than they needed to for speakers that had capabilities they never would use.    A bit like buying a Ferrari if you never drive over the speed limit.   I always used to hope that they would enjoy listening to music if they could hear what things “really” sounded like.   I don’t think anyone was really harmed by this method, and it was certainly preferable to buying some overpriced monstrosity designed to fool people into thinking it was a quality speaker.

Bose products were never intended for audiophiles.   Bose speakers were and are designed to sound good to the average person who listens to pop music at volume levels that most people would use in their homes 90% of the time.    They may have used drivers (what speaker components are called) that were inexpensive to manufacture, and they may not have created the image that high end audio buffs look for, but they were far from being “junk”.   Over the years, I’ve noticed when I spot a Bose system in someone’s house, I ask them how they like them, and I’ve always got a positive answer and often the owners are quite enthusiastic about them.  

They are not the right speakers for everyone.  There are probably better speakers for people who like to listen to music with lots of actual Deep Bass at High Volumes.    If people are more of what you might call “active listeners” who are going to sit and listen to music and do nothing else, there are other speakers I might recommend.

It’s difficult to draw conclusions here.  The conventional wisdom in the industry is that Bose has thrived due to brilliant, if borderline deceptive, advertising that gives the impression of high quality when the products are actually cheaply made.    I’ve met literally hundreds of salespeople who have convinced themselves that they could always sell competitive products to customers who asked for Bose.   Sales figures for over 40 years would not support that notion.  Those same salespeople would also assume they were doing people a favor by selling them some “better quality” product.

The reality is that amongst mass merchandise products aimed at the average person, Bose products are among the best sounding, by any standard.  Compare Bose products to the rest of the stuff they’ve been selling at big box stores, (the ones that are still in business) and most of the time you’ll find this is true.  

All of the names on the list in the second paragraph, and quite a few other manufacturers that were once icons in the business have made speakers that Bose would have refused to put it’s name on.   Many of the “legitimate” companies that once catered to audiophiles later resorted to releasing inferior products that traded on their reputation for making quality products to sell products with a high markup that could be then sold at a discount from a list price nobody ever actually paid.  Most of those companies are no longer in business, or shadows of their former selves.

Author: fauxsuper

Guitarist since 1964, motorized vehicle enthusist all my life, Married with two step children. Born and rasied in Lebanon, Ore.

1 thought on “No Highs, No Lows, it must be Bose.”

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