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The Boston Acoustics Micro Reference 90 Stereo Review Story

by October 27, 2020
Boston Acoustics Micro Reference 90

Boston Acoustics Micro Reference 90

I recently purchased a pair of Legacy Audio Signature SE speakers that I’m embarrassed to say, cost as much as a good used car. They sound amazing and I really like them.  I’m sure these will be the last speakers I'll ever buy as I've stated in my review.

The last line in my review is:

The Legacy Audio Signature SE is, by a wide and clearly audible margin, the best speaker to ever grace my personal listening space.

Remember that line...

I worked at Boston Acoustics (a leading manufacturer of home music loudspeakers until they closed up around 2012) from 1992-2003 in Marketing and Product Management. It was my job to do the market research/competitive analysis and propose new products, then work with engineering to bring those products to fruition. I have a professional background in both marketing and engineering, so I loved what I did at BA. I have recounted the story of the Boston Acoustics MR90 and my role in it many times before, but for those who haven’t heard it, the nickel tour is this:

Bose, the electronics industry’s largest speaker company, was killing the traditional speaker market with their compact 3-piece subwoofer-satellite AM-5. It was out-selling the rest of the speaker industry all by itself. BA needed an answer or they’d likely be forced out of the home speaker business. Their first 3-piece efforts (the SubSat 6 and 7) were well-designed speakers but sales flops.

 AM5

Bose AM-5 3-piece sub-sat system

I proposed the Micro Reference 90 Series: Cast aluminum satellites, highly-styled, weighing a ton, utilizing top-shelf separate midrange and tweeter drive units and a sophisticated crossover, coupled with a really gutsy 8-inch powered subwoofer. It was the absolute 180˚ diametrically-opposed opposite of the cheap plastic Bose cube with its single mediocre full-range driver and wimpy passive dual 5 ¼-inch “bass module.” I saw the ‘luxury” niche of the subwoofer-satellite speaker market as our opening. Plus, since we had a dramatically lower fixed-cost floor compared to Bose, we could price my proposed MR90 system at the same or lower retail price than Bose’s popular AM-5 system.

 MR90 sats

Cast Aluminum Micro 90 satellites, available in white or black

Andy Kotsatos (BA’s president) fought me tooth and nail all the way. He didn’t like any part of my proposal and wanted to go a much ‘safer’ route than the then-daring appearance of the MR90. After months of rancorous back-and-forth, he finally relented, with a threatening, “You better be right!” shaking of his finger.

I was right: The Micro 90 became the best-selling product family (from a dollar standpoint) in BA’s history and it made Andy and the company’s officers a veritable fortune. It added several million dollars in pure profit to BA’s coffers that first year alone, and then continued to sell like crazy for at least five or six more years. This, in an industry where an every-other-year model changeover is the norm.

The MR90 was introduced in October 1996, in time for holiday shipments that year. We wanted to get it reviewed by Stereo Review magazine as quickly as possible. Stereo Review was the industry-leading magazine and a great review from them—complete with juicy quotes that you could use in your upcoming magazine print ads—was a great way to jump-start a product’s market life.

So, we contacted Stereo Review and they said, sure, they’d love to review it. They gave it to Julian Hirsch (their senior reviewer) to do the lab measurements and basic listening tests and they’d have us send a full 5-speaker theater setup to David Ranada (their resident technical wizard) for a full home theater evaluation. Stereo Review’s two top guns. The pressure was on. Make or break. If we were “damned with faint praise,” as the saying goes, Andy would have my head. Only a flat-out 5-star review would do the trick.

It takes a few months for a magazine to conduct its tests and write the review. Then the review has to wait in the publishing queue to make it into the magazine. The review itself was actually published in January 1997 in the February issue of Stereo Review. We were in Las Vegas at CES (the Consumer Electronics Show, the industry’s biggest worldwide tradeshow) when the review broke. Please remember, this is 1997, well before the widespread use of smart phones, instantaneous communications, e-mails, etc. We got an advanced copy from the Stereo Review folks at the show.

The review was beyond 5-star. Way beyond. Strangers in the elevators were talking: “I have to get over to the BA booth and check out that new Micro Reference 90. Have you seen that review?” Yeah, I gotta get there too.”

Julian Hirsch’s half of the review was great enough, but David Ranada’s portion of the review contained the most memorable line: “By a wide and clearly audible margin, the Boston Acoustics MR90 is the best I have ever reviewed.

By a wide and clearly audible margin, it’s the best. The Best. By a wide and clearly audible margin.

We scoffed up every spare issue Stereo Review would let us have. We ran to the business office at the Convention Center and xeroxed a few hundred copies. This was the review of a lifetime and here we were at the industry’s biggest tradeshow, right when the review went public. Every buyer, every storeowner, every writer, reviewer and critic from around the world was there. Right there, when this once-in-a-lifetime review broke. We wrote more orders for the MR90 system than you could imagine. The first several production runs were completely sold out. We were ecstatic.

micro90 review3

Right about this time, the play Evita was popular and the song “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” was getting a lot of play. Our marketing manager, Stephanie Kellar, was a very musically-inclined individual. She started singing, “By a wide and clearly audible margin” to the same tune as “Don’t cry for me Argentina.” It fit and pretty soon, we were all singing it.

By time we got back to Boston after the show, the whole office had picked up on it. That line became our internal mantra. We used the line in ads, in our brochures and literature, in training materials, everywhere. We quoted that Ranada line so often and widely, that he made sure never to write anything that unequivocally great in a review again. He must have thought that people would think BA paid him off or something to write a line like that. For the next 10 years or so that he wrote for the magazine, he never said anything about any product from any company even remotely as “quotable” as By a wide and clearly audible margin.

One final thing: Julian Hirsch was the industry’s “dean” of reviewers. The oldest, most respected reviewer there was. I got to know him pretty well over the years, visiting him many times, explaining and demo’ing our latest products to him before he reviewed them. His famous Hirsch-Houck Labs (Gladden Houck was an early partner of his and the H-H Labs were well-known) were actually in the basement of his modest split-level home in New Rochelle NY.

The last time I was there was in 1998, two years after visiting him for the MR90 review. He was going to review a product of ours and he told me it would be his last review. He was going to retire. “I’m going to show you something now, but you can’t say anything to anyone,” he said to me. He took me upstairs to his living room. No one ever went to Julian’s living room. For decades, the whole industry wanted to know “What Julian used for himself” in his own personal music system.

“The time has come for me to downsize a little, to get rid of the big speakers I used to have. But I refuse to give up any sound quality. Smaller, yes, but they have to be top-notch, uncompromising, the best. The first time I heard them, I knew they were the ones.”

There in his living room, the living room no one had ever seen before, was a set of Boston Acoustics Micro Reference 90’s.

Now you guys are on the ‘inside.’ Now you understand the last line of my Legacy review. Twenty-three years later, I’ll call it writer’s prerogative.

 

About the author:

Steve Feinstein is a long-time consumer electronics professional, with extended tenures at Panasonic, Boston Acoustics and Atlantic Technology. He has authored historical and educational articles for us as well as occasional loudspeaker reviews.

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