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Bose: Legitimate Audio Company or Slick Marketing?

by January 03, 2019
Bose: Speaker or Garbage Can?

Bose: Speaker or Garbage Can?


The mere mention of the company’s name conjures up all manner of reaction, response and opinion from the audio community. The self-appointed cognoscenti of the audio world have decreed that Bose products are decidedly inferior to even the better mid-line brands of audio components, are decidedly not of audiophile quality, and in some cases, derive their success more from marketing sleight-of-hand than from legitimate engineering excellence or widely-agreed-upon sound quality.

Yet they are by far the biggest-selling brand of audio products in the world and the name Bose is known well beyond the usual limited confines of audio enthusiast precincts.

How can this be? If their products are truly mediocre, how can the company have enjoyed such success for so long a period of time? After all, sooner or later, negative word of mouth will eventually scuttle a truly deserving evil entity. How has Bose dodged the bullet for so long? Bose apparently does not covet the attention of the rabid audiophile; it seems like they’re more than content to sell their products to the Great Unwashed, the Unenlightened, the Unknowing. Are their products a farce? Is Bose a phony wizard that’s ripe to be exposed behind the curtain at any moment? Let’s step back and try to take a reasoned, factual, unemotional look at the company, its background, its technical resources, and yes, its famed marketing.

Why Do Audiophiles Hate Bose YouTube Discussion

Their Beginnings

The company was founded in 1964 by Amar Bose and his top student from MIT, Sherwin Greenblatt. The very first Bose product was a corner-mounted home loudspeaker called the 2201. It was designed to take advantage of corner mounting’s uniform boundary reinforcement properties to deliver a consistent power response to the listening field. The 2201 used multiple angled drivers and equalization to achieve its aim, but the speaker’s unconventional shape and high cost limited its appeal and it was soon discontinued.

Grille off Bose-2201 

Bose 2201 (grille off)

Bose did not market any additional products after the 2201 until the introduction of the legendary 901 Direct/Reflecting speaker in 1968. According to research done by Bose, the majority of live musical sound in the typical symphonic venue reached the listeners’ ears by way of indirect reflection, rather than directly from the instruments to the audience’s ears. Therefore, according to Bose’s thinking, it made sense to develop a speaker that propagated most of its sound by way of indirect room reflections. Bose decided that eight rearward-facing drivers and one forward-facing driver would yield the ideal mix of direct vs. reflected sound in the typical home listening environment and that arrangement would most closely replicate the sound field of the typical concert hall.

Editorial Note on Direct vs Reflected Sound:

Bose’s corporate literature stating that eight of nine drivers facing the rear would yield an “89/11%” ratio of reflected to direct sound is ludicrous. Even a forward-facing speaker—“100% Direct”—doesn’t actually deliver all—or even most—of its sound directly. Room reflections always comprise a major component of a loudspeaker’s sound. The percentage of reflected sound increases with greater listening distance [the reverberant field vs. the direct field] and also with wider dispersion, since more off-axis output means more room reflections.

Remember, in the late 1950’s/early 1960’s, classical music as performed in acoustically “ideal” concert halls, such as Boston’s Symphony Hall, was the sonic reference standard to which home audio systems aspired. The same is certainly not true today, but this was the driving audio design impetus at that time.

The result of Bose’s research was the 901, a singularly iconic-looking audio product on its “trumpet” pedestal stands. As most people know by now, the 901 used nine identical 4 ½-inch full-range drivers, equalized to reach the frequency extremes at either end of the audio spectrum. Bose intentionally wanted to avoid the crossover phase shifts and interference effects that afflict even today’s best multi-driver loudspeakers with crossovers. The 4 ¼-inch driver he devised yielded an almost perfect compromise to being able to be EQ’d for low bass (nine 4 ½-inch drivers have roughly the same radiating area as a single 12-inch woofer), while still being small and light enough for decent natural HF response before EQ. With constant updates and improvements over the years, the Bose 4 ½-inch driver is, in fact, an outstanding unit—excellent, smooth response, high power-handling and virtually bullet-proof reliability. That driver deserves audiophile respect, not derision.

901 Series II w EQ on stands\

The Always Controversial Bose 901

The 901 Reviews by High Fidelity Magazine and Stereo Review in 1968
The 901 got great reviews from the major enthusiast magazines and the company’s sales took off.

Julian Hirsch of Stereo Review magazine, the dean of reviewers at the most widely-read audio magazine in the country, said, “I am convinced that it ranks with a handful of the finest home speaker systems of all time,” and, “I have never heard a speaker system in my own home which could surpass, or even equal, the Bose 901 for overall “realism” of sound.

High Fidelity Magazine said it had a  “…neutral, well-balanced, transparent quality on all program material” and ended their review by saying, “You’ll be reluctant to turn it off and go to bed.

Wow. What reviews those were!

As their sales and profits grew, Bose introduced less expensive models using the 901’s basic design approach and coupled that with a very aggressive and effective national advertising campaign.

The 901 was followed by the 501—a floorstanding speaker with a 10-inch woofer and two angled cone tweeters designed to mimic the overall sound of the 901. The 501 was a totally passive speaker—no confusing equalization unit to insert in the system’s tape monitor loop, like the 901—so it was easier for the end user to deal with. The 501 was followed by the 301 and 201 bookshelf speakers, then came the 601 floorstander with two woofers and four angled tweeters. All were reasonably successful, but the 301 was a real standout sales performer.

The 301 was a horizontally-oriented speaker with a ported 8-inch woofer and two angled cone tweeters in a similar orientation to the 501. It was pleasant and spacious and had pretty good bass for a small bookshelf speaker. I remember going over a neighbor’s house and noting that he had 301’s. Unfortunately, they were mounted vertically, perched atop a 32-inch Sony CRT TV (this was in the early-90’s, before flatscreens), so the tweeters were facing up and down—towards the floor and ceiling. He obviously felt they sounded fine and I didn’t say anything. My neighbor was a fairly high-ranking executive at Colgate-Palmolive, well-educated, good income, liked music, but was obviously not an audiophile. This was the quintessential Bose customer. As a former boss of mine at another really well-known speaker company used to say, “We’re not here to save the world from bad sound. We’re here to sell stuff.” (Well, ok, ‘stuff’ may not be an exact quote.)

501 no grille   bose_501_2

Bose 501 with and Without Grille

bose 301

Bose 301 Without Grille

Home Audio Turning Point

The next really big turning point for the company occurred in 1987 with the introduction of their reality-shifting three-piece sub-sat system, the AM-5. Bose marketing people correctly identified and predicted a fundamental change in the way people wanted to use and interact with speakers in their homes. The college-age Baby Boomers of the 1970’s were all grown up now in the 1980’s. They were buying homes. They were starting families. Large Advents on cinder-block stands in a state university dorm room wouldn’t suffice any longer. Now, all of a sudden, appearance mattered as much as, if not more than, great sound.

The engineers at Bose took advantage of the well-understood concept of bass non-directionality and used that to make a three-piece subwoofer-satellite system. The non-directional bass would be reproduced by a hideaway bass module and the midrange and treble (not needing large enclosures) would be reproduced by small “satellite” speakers. Bose made the midrange-treble sat enclosures really, really small. Each channel had a pair of twistable cubes barely three inches HWD. They made them very swoopy and stylish as well, with a nicely tooled plastic housing. The AM-5 looked nothing at all like an old-fashioned speaker. You could mount the cubes on the wall or simply place them on the shelf or TV stand.

The bass module that was hidden behind the chair in the corner produced the bass, yet all the sound—including the bass—seemed to come from those two hardly noticeable cubes. The days of the two big wooden boxes were over for good. The amazing marketing people at Bose even came up with a great name to describe their new speakers: "Virtually Invisible".


Bose Acoustimass AM-5 Sub-Sat System

And so they were. AM-5 sales took off, and the old wooden coffin boxes of yesteryear were left standing in the dust. The age of dominance for the traditional wooden box speaker was over for good.

The AM-5 showed the speaker industry how a subwoofer-satellite system could make a home theater system feasible.

Audiophiles could complain all they wanted that the AM-5’s bass module with its dual 5 ¼-inch woofers didn’t really go below 50Hz, that there was a gap between the bass module’s upper limit of around 150Hz and the sats’ low-end of around 250Hz, that the bass module’s upper audible limit of around 150Hz rendered it somewhat localizable after all, that the sats’ 2 ½-inch driver died after about 12-13kHz, and on and on. As was the case with the 901 a generation earlier, audiophiles felt the AM-5 was a terrible speaker, bad-sounding, an affront to audiophiles’ sensibilities of refined, accurate sound. They were almost resentful of its sales success, feeling it was undeserving, if not an outright fraud.

It didn’t matter. The AM-5 looked great, it disappeared in the room, none of them ever seemed to fail, it came with speaker wire already stripped and tinned, and it sounded just great to the non-audio-hobbyist who bought it. It also had the undeniable ‘cool’ factors of those twisty cubes and the seemingly magic hideaway bass module.

The AM-5 did something else of extraordinary importance: It showed the speaker industry how a subwoofer-satellite system could make a home theater system feasible and workable in a normal living room. When Dolby Pro Logic multi-channel receivers became available in 1990, home theater would not have been anywhere near as successful and widely accepted by the mainstream buyer if the consumer had to somehow convince his wife to allow five big wooden boxes to be strewn around the living room in a visually-objectionable manner. But a hideaway subwoofer and five small, easy-to-place, barely-visible sats? No problem. The AM-5—for all its acoustic shortcomings—showed the industry how to do it.

Bose Engineering

This is an important subject to tackle, because there is a terrible misconception out in the audio enthusiast community that Bose is weak or deficient when it comes to hard-core audio engineering. People think the vast majority of Bose’s efforts go into marketing, advertising, visual style and high prices, so everyone along the way makes big money. That’s the impression that most audiophiles have of Bose.

It’s as wrong and inaccurate as can be. Bose does not publicize its star engineers the way Hollywood touts a big-name actor or the way other speaker companies promote their celebrity designers, like Kevin Voecks or Andrew Jones. This is not a knock or negative comment about people like Voecks or Jones and I’m not implying in any way that they as individuals seek the limelight for purposes of self-aggrandization. But many speaker companies will, in fact, promote the notion that they have superstar designer “Joe Goldenear” at the helm and that since Joe is doing all our speakers, you should be impressed and buy our stuff.

Bose has a great roster of “name” engineers, they just don’t flaunt it. Case in point: There was perhaps no single loudspeaker that had a greater impact or got better reviews at the time in the late 1970’s than the Acoustic Research AR9. It was the first speaker that used a vertical line of drivers, intentionally, in recognition of the interference effects of side-by-side drivers. Since then, all tower speakers from every company have been vertically-aligned. It used Allison-styled side-mounted 12-inch woofers for uniform in-room bass response to achieve an honest in-room LF response of -3dB at 28Hz. It had a first-reflection-dampening “Acoustic Blanket” that yielded superb mid/high frequency imaging. It used a liquid-cooled 1 ½-inch dome upper mid and a 3/4-inch liquid-cooled dome tweeter for unrivaled dispersion and accuracy. It laughed at 400 watts RMS per channel. Its documented frequency response was ± 2dB 30Hz - 19kHz, in-room, as measured by Julian Hirsch. It was an amazing technical tour-de-force in loudspeaker design at the time, a landmark product. The chief designer and project manager for the AR9? Tim Holl.


Groundbreaking AR9 of 1978

Tim Holl then spent many years at Bose starting in the 1980’s following his tenure at AR. But no one ever knew because Bose didn’t promote it.

Snell Acoustics has certainly earned numerous audiophile accolades for a succession of brilliantly-designed speakers through the years. Any number of Snell speakers are deservedly high on the list of any serious audio enthusiast as examples of some of the best-sounding speakers anywhere. Snell’s head engineer for many years? David Smith. Smith is now at Bose and has been there for quite a while, many years. Again, Bose doesn’t flaunt Mr. Smith like he’s a product feature. But he’s there, along with several dozen other absolutely first-rate engineers, doing all aspects of audio equipment design.

Bose’s computer-design and technical facilities are right up there with some of the best brands. Bose even has a large anechoic chamber on premises, which most speaker companies do not. Whether mechanical, electrical, acoustic, materials, transducer, certification or any other area of engineering, rest assured, Bose is at the very top of the heap.

It’s not as if they tried to do a KEF Q350 bookshelf speaker and the best they could do was the 301 bookshelf speaker. The 301 is intentional. Bose’s engineering prowess is such that they could do Stereophile-recommended speakers in their sleep—if they wanted. Think people like Holl and David Smith don’t understand how to design superb speakers?

But Bose’s customer is not the audiophile, so logically, the fact that they don’t make audiophile products can’t be held against them. It takes real engineering horsepower to get things to always fit properly, look good, virtually never fail, sound like you intend them to sound and be ridiculously consistent from unit to unit (“Hand-tuned” is just another way of saying, ‘We have lousy quality control and we use really wide tolerance components that vary like crazy.’ I wouldn’t brag about that.).

There is also an unspoken thought among audiophiles that somehow, once an engineer gets to Bose, “He stops caring about real sound, he loses his ear, he gets brainwashed, he just wants the fat, safe paycheck, no one there will allow you to do a real product.” That’s so illogical and untrue as to not merit a response. So I won’t give one.

Bose Marketing

The main thing that really ticks audiophiles off about Bose’s marketing is that Bose doesn’t rely on specifications to market their products and entice prospective customers. There are two kinds of audio customers—Audiophiles (hobbyists/enthusiasts) and “regular” people—customers who simply buy an audio product to fulfill a need in their life, rather than satisfy an enthusiast’s desire for a particular solution. The difference between these two types of customers can be described as “process-oriented” vs. “non-process-oriented.” Hard-core enthusiasts in any field (cars, fishing, wine, whatever) love the process—the specs, the construction, the manufacturing methodology, the materials.

In audio, hard-core enthusiasts love things like Burr-Brown D-to-A converters, HDMI 2.1, 48mm XMax excursion, 210 watts RMS/ch, 4Ω, 20-20kHz, <.05% THD, 4th-order Linkwitz-Riley crossovers with film capacitors, anodized aluminum cones with overmolded ART butyl surrounds, die-cast aluminum heat sinks, etc. The process rules for the audiophile as much—if not more than—the actual sound itself.

But to non-enthusiasts—like the Bose customer—specs are unimportant. Those customers respond to the experience, not the specs. The process is not the issue. The final result as perceived by them is what counts.

Apple StoreA good parallel to Bose is the way Apple markets their products. Apple concentrates their marketing on giving the customer a taste of how satisfying and enjoyable an experience they’ll have using the Apple product. The process and specifications are not their marketing focus. For instance, when Apple introduced the iPod portable music player, they didn’t harp on sample rates, GB storage capacity, channel separation, signal-to-noise ratio, headphone frequency response or any traditional audio specification.

Instead, they made a compelling case for what a satisfying, enjoyable experience the iPod would deliver: Smaller and lighter than any previous portable player—you’ll hardly notice you’re wearing it. Carry 1000’s of songs with you instead of mere dozens—and no need to lug around that cumbersome CD case. The battery lasts all day, so you don’t have to worry about needing another set of Energizers halfway through the afternoon. And it sounds great—clear and lifelike.

They described a great user experience, without mentioning a single specification, material or manufacturing method. Customers couldn’t buy them fast enough—Apple spoke directly to their wants, even if the customer couldn’t necessarily verbalize their own wants and desires beforehand.

This is exactly what Bose does and why specifications are unimportant to their appeal. However, sometimes their tightly controlled marketing message would run afoul of a troublesome audio writer or critic and sparks would fly.

Bose AM-5Bose was famous for its tightly-choreographed, dramatic, almost theatrical press events when introducing a new product. The AM-5 was particularly noteworthy in this regard. Bose knew the AM-5 was a winner. They knew that most people—neophyte customers and seasoned audio critics alike—would be surprised by the “bigness” of the sound coming from those small cubes. So Bose came up with the “unveil”: A dramatic presentation tactic where it looked as if Bose was playing these brand-new big floorstanding speakers at the press conference, only to lift and remove the hollow “dummy” speakers away at the most opportune moment, revealing the diminutive 6-inch double cube on each channel. The bass module was hideaway in nature—so it was hidden away. All the sound that was thought to be coming from those floorstanders was in fact coming just from the cubes! It was one of the most memorable audio presentations in audio history.

At another press event for a different product, the late Peter Mitchell—the brilliant, Boston-based researcher and engineer who founded the nationally-known Boston Audio Society—was so pointed and unyielding in his questioning as he pressed certain technical points that Bose clearly did not want to discuss that Mitchell was banned from all future Bose press events.

Mitchell, like all audiophiles, was a process guy. What was the process, how did it work, what are the specs, how was it made, what was the background research. The process. Remember, the process rules in the rolling green hills of Audiophilandia.

But Bose doesn’t live there. Neither do its customers. That’s not a criticism of Bose nor is it a compliment to some boutique audio manufacturer. It’s just a statement of the way things are. Bose is an experience marketing company, not a process marketing company. That is simply an observation of the different paths successful companies can take.

Successful Business Marketing

Bose established unilateral pricing to maintain dealer profitability and to avoid mistakes over-distribution made by other companies.

From a business marketing standpoint, Bose was careful to take steps to ensure their dealers’ profitability and avoid other companies’ mistakes of over-distribution. Acoustic Research (AR) was a leading technological speaker company in the 1950’s-70’s, but their marketing policies were not dealer-oriented and dealers made little money selling AR speakers. The AR line—despite great reviews in the magazines and strong customer demand—received poor support from the dealers themselves.

Bose wanted to avoid that at all costs. They established a policy they called “unilateral pricing,” which meant that before Bose allowed a dealer to carry the Bose line, that dealer would have to agree to sell Bose products at retail prices that Bose dictated. This meant that all Bose dealers would earn the same profit margin on their products, so they’d be enthusiastic about selling Bose speakers.

However, because Bose speakers and complete systems delivered their sound in such an unconventional manner, they couldn’t be displayed and demonstrated in the same way as other speakers. They required more space, literally more physical “breathing room” around them to let their reflected sound billow out and envelop the listener. Soon, Bose was dictating to their dealers that they set up a separate Bose section of the store away from the other brands of products in order to give Bose equipment a proper demonstration. Bose felt they were dealing from a position of strength, since customer demand for Bose was very high and dealer profitability on the line was quite good.

Editorial Note about Bose Demos by Gene DellaSala:

Bose separated demo rooms was a brilliant tactic to also avoid having their products directly compared against their competitors, especially those like Klipsch that often had higher sensitivity and would play louder at the same volume level when doing A/B testing. Years later, Bose would do nearfield 5.1 cube demos at department stores like Best Buy which gave the impression of big sound and dynamics by putting the listener in close proximity to all of the speakers.

If the dealer didn’t comply with Bose’s demand for a separate Bose-only section, Bose would pull the line away from that dealer. Some dealers went along with Bose, but others willingly gave up the line.

The Trade-in Program

Shortly after the AM-5 was introduced, Bose executed a brilliant marketing move in response to their dealers’ request for a way to discount the unilaterally-priced AM-5:

Bose introduced a national “speaker trade-in” program, where customers could take their old speakers—no matter how old and no matter their condition—to a Bose dealer and receive $100 off the price of a new set of AM-5’s. (Bose backed up this $100 discount with the dealer submitting proof-of-sale invoices, so the dealers weren’t taking the discount on the chin themselves.) This was an effective way for all Bose dealers to be able to offer a discount on the unilateral pricing of the AM-5 and it ensured a level playing field for all the dealers. Brilliant.

It was wildly successful. During these periods of the trade-in program (the late ‘80’s through early ‘90’s), the AM-5’s market share of the U.S. speaker market exceeded 30%! That’s not 30% for Bose. It’s 30% for just the AM-5! Explain again why this isn’t a huge win, by any standard?

Bose trade-in ad 1990

 AM-5 Trade-in Ad from 1990

Bose Becomes a Mainstream Company, Not Merely an Audio Company

In 1991, Bose introduced the Wave Radio. More than any other single Bose product, this was the item that made Bose a widespread household name, far more than just a speaker company.


The Bose Wave Radio

Amar Bose had always wanted to do a really nice-sounding table radio. With Bose’s newly-developed Acoustimass bandpass bass-loading technique, Bose felt that now they had the technological tools to make an impressive-sounding unit in a small form factor. Hence, the Wave Radio was born.

Bose waveguideIt was a clever design: The internal section of the unit was actually comprised by the labyrinthine paths and chambers of their Acoustimass system. The Radio employed two of the ubiquitous 2 ½-inch drivers. One was a more robust, longer-excursion full-range driver that played the summed bass from both stereo channels as well as the mids and highs for the left stereo channel. The other driver was very similar to the one used in the AM-5 cube and played just the mids and highs for the right channel. With EQ, full spectrum frequency contouring based on extensive listening tests and panel preferences and clipping detection and prevention, the Wave Radio had a subjectively full-range response, a very pleasing, rich and “lifelike” tonal balance and it couldn’t be driven into obvious clipping or objectionable audible distress.

And it was going to be a clock radio also. Here’s some amusing inside info—its actual clock radio functionality was based on evaluating the alarm functions of a $60 Panasonic clock radio. It was a funny sight—there was a group of the very highest-level Bose executives, plus their head of Engineering, their head of Marketing and me with my Panasonic RC-6360, sitting at a conference table, setting Alarm 1, then Alarm 2, then switching from Radio to Buzzer, then activating the Sleep timer and the Snooze timer. I thought to myself at the time, “This is quite a sight—if the industry could see us now!” I’ve waited 28 years to tell that story.

One other inside tidbit—I had told a good friend that we were working on this nice radio model that had an alarm function. He said to me, “If you have any say in it, can you make the alarm come on soft, and then ramp up to the volume setting over a span of, say, 4 or 5 seconds, rather than just blaring on at full volume the way a normal clock radio does? Those are so annoying.” We did that on the original Radio. If my friend hadn’t suggested it, I would never have thought of it.

But it was an expensive product to build. All companies have some internal formula for establishing a retail selling price based on the materials/manufacturing cost. The manufacturing/materials cost of the Wave Radio dictated a retail price of $350. That is one expensive-*ss clock radio. So expensive, in fact, that no conventional retailer wanted to carry it. However, Bose was unwilling to “de-content” the unit in order to bring the price down. If they’d done a conventional ported cabinet instead of their complex Acoustimass design, the enclosure tooling would have been far less costly. And if it had fewer clock features, the cost would have dropped further, etc. But would a $250 clock radio have sold any better than a $350 clock radio on the shelves of Boston-based Lechmere? It’s doubtful, and Bose felt that the performance was better with the Acoustimass system, plus they wanted the marketing leverage of using the same bass-loading as the wildly-successful recently-introduced AM-5.

Paul Harvey

Paul HarveySo they stuck with the $350 version, scrapped their original plans of selling it at retail and took a big gamble of approaching radio personality Paul Harvey with the idea of selling the Radio direct from Bose. One at a time. To 1000’s of individual customers, A separate sales entry order every time. A separate invoice every time. A separate UPS shipment for each one. A separate return for a defect or because the customer didn’t like the color. One at a time.

This is the huge fallacy, the misconception, that people have about how much money a manufacturer saves when they “cut out the middle man” and sell direct from the manufacturer. Hogwash. “Direct” selling incurs all kinds of new expenses that shipping 1000’s of products in one easy shipment to a dealer’s central warehouse doesn’t. It’s pretty much a wash.

Selling direct through Paul Harvey wasn’t the original plan. It wasn’t some stroke of pre-planned genius. It was Plan B, after Bose’s regular dealers said, “Uh, no thanks” to a $350 clock radio.

The selection of Paul Harvey was genius, however. Harvey appeared mid-day on AM talk and news stations all around the country, usually in the lunchtime hour. A huge chunk of Bose’s target demographic could hear Harvey, often several times a week. He had great reach. Because his show was national, coast to coast, one marketing campaign would do the trick, as opposed to numerous, disjointed regional or local campaigns. He had great credibility and believability with his audience.

It worked. The Radio was a huge sales success, especially among the middle-aged and older middle-to-upper-class demographic. It was easy to use. It sounded incomparably better than a $50 GE clock radio or kitchen radio. There was nothing confusing or intimidating about it. It had real heft and substance—it “felt” like $350. It was in people’s homes who would never otherwise buy a component stereo system, but they bought the Wave Radio.

And now they knew Bose.

Bose targeted the casual audio consumer....they simply didn’t care about the audiophile.

By now, it was the mid- to late-1990’s and Bose was well-established as a household name. Bose had branched off from just speakers and the clock radio and had come out with very successful, high-performance, noise-canceling headphones and complete music/surround sound home theater systems and commercial audio products, all backed by Bose’s very distinct and highly-effective advertising.

Everyone knew Bose. Bose targeted the casual audio consumer, the average person who just wanted good sound without a lot of complication and fuss. They simply didn’t care about the audiophile.

This was a brilliant marketing strategy, of course, since the audiophile enthusiast slice of the audio pie is probably about 10% of the total audio market, while the casual audio user is probably around 90% of the total market. The fact that the small 10% audiophile segment of the market didn’t care for Bose ended up not mattering at all. Bose has become a giant in the consumer electronics market because they’ve concentrated on the 90% segment, not the 10% segment.

There’s a well-known saying among audiophiles that goes, “People who don’t know audio, know Bose.” There’s another one that goes, “No highs, no lows, must be Bose.” There was a write-up in the Boston Audio Society (B.A.S.) Speaker several years ago of a new Bose product and the reviewer quipped, “Another tweeterless Bose product.” Bose has never used dome/ribbon/AMT tweeters in any of their component stand-alone home speakers. Nor, for that matter, have they used really beefy 10- or 12-inch woofers in any of their home speakers or music systems. Most of their drivers for domestic music or TV sound tend to be small woofers (less than 6-inch) and small wide-range cone drivers that cover the mid and highs, up to around 13kHz or so.

None of their products exhibits truly deep, powerful, extended bass nor shimmering airy/silky highs in the manner audiophiles have come to expect.

Nevertheless, Bose hits their target market squarely—the general audio customer—and Bose owners love their equipment. Bose is not aiming at the audiophile, so “missing” the audiophile market is irrelevant to them.

Bose Retail

Bose Retail Store - usually integrated into an upscale shopping mall

Consistent with their decision to eschew the conventional audio hobbyist/enthusiast customer, they established company-run Bose retail stores that only displayed, demonstrated and sold Bose products. Now instead of fighting with dealers so they could get one display wall of their store and trying to make sure the store’s salespeople knew enough about Bose to sell it effectively (in addition to the 20 or 30 other major brands that the store’s salesperson had to know about), Bose now had their own expert, dedicated sales force selling only Bose products in a Bose store.

Another thing Bose did was to establish a very strong, high-profile online sales presence. Almost all Bose products are available online directly from Bose, as well as through Bose stores.

Bose products continue to be available through select 3rd-party online and brick-and-mortar retailers, but those retailers have agreed to Bose’s very strict pricing and display requirements. Bose controls the puppet strings. It’s Bose’s game.

When you think of it, the way Bose markets and sells is not unlike the way Apple does—though their own company stores with their own salespeople, through select retail partners—both physical and online—and directly from the company through their own e-commerce sites.

Both Bose and Apple are able to do this and be highly successful because both companies created a very strong demand for their products, through legitimately innovative, high-performance products (“high-performance” as perceived by their target customer, not the audio enthusiast snob), effective national advertising/marketing campaigns that raised the company’s visibility, and establishing a solid reputation for customer service and support.

As an aside, they are a great customer service company. I was there when they put a shipping hold on a brand-new product (their very first Lifestyle Music System) right at the height of the Christmas season because there was a very small percentage of units that had a possible QC issue. Very small. But Bose wouldn’t let any of them ship until 100% of the units in inventory had been checked and were ok’d. It was an impressive—and undeniable—example of the company’s commitment to quality and customer satisfaction.

Similarly, when customers of the original Bose 901 Series I and II speakers could no longer get factory service on their 20- and 30-year-old EQ units or when identical replacement drivers for those original 4 ½-inch drivers were no longer available, Bose offered those Series I and II owners an amazing trade-in/upgrade deal on a brand-new 901 Series V or VI. Bose didn’t have to. Those original Series I’s and II’s were way past any time limit where Bose would be responsible for servicing them. This was simply a class move on Bose’s part, one that generated well-deserved good will from the customer towards Bose because of their excellent customer service policies. The cynical among you might say, “Yeah, Bose just did this to get on the good side of those customers so they’d buy and recommend Bose in the future.” Of course they did. It’s called good business practice and everyone wins. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, of course.

Bose Doesn’t Play the Audiophile Game

You can’t criticize Bose for not winning a game they choose not to play. There is an easy analogy to make here:

In politics, it’s common for pundits to point out that this or that candidate won the popular vote even though the other candidate won the Electoral College vote. (This is not a political article so let’s not get off track into that quagmire. In the interest of balance, let’s point out that in 2016 Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by three million votes but lost the Electoral vote, and in 2004, had John Kerry squeezed out the win in Ohio—he lost by that state by the razor-thinnest of margins—he’d have won the national Electoral vote and been president despite losing the popular vote by four million votes. It happens on both sides. This is not a political discussion, so let’s stay on the Bose vs. audiophile subject. The Electoral vs. popular vote is just an illustration. A very good one.)

It’s a matter of what game you’re playing and what you’re attempting to accomplish, whether you’re a political candidate or the marketing head of a consumer audio company. If winning the national popular vote was the goal, then political candidates would run completely different campaigns, with completely different strategies and advertising. Republican candidates would try to maximize their turnout in California, even though they’d likely lose the state anyway. But if they could turn out an additional few million votes, it would make a huge difference in the national vote totals. Same thing goes in Texas. The Democrat candidate would run a completely different kind of campaign to bring out as many Democratic voters as they could in Texas.

But that’s not the way the current game is played, so the national popular vote total doesn’t matter. Republican and Democrat candidates hardly even try in states they know they’re going to lose anyway. “Winning” or “losing” the national popular vote is not the goal in our current-day Presidential elections. For Bose, neither is “winning” the hearts and minds—and critical acclaim from hard-core reviewers—of the audiophile or Audioholics no less.

Bose products

Audiophiles say, “Bose is not good equipment, not anywhere near as good as my revered XYZ Company.” That may very well be true, from the standpoint of extended linear frequency response, inner detail, undistorted peak SPL, imaging or any other pet audiophile benchmark. Even for value, performance-for-the-dollar.

But those aren’t Bose’s benchmarks. While most audiophiles take sheer, utter delight and satisfaction in the supposed knowledge that their chosen assemblage of audio components from their favorite boutique manufacturers far outperforms any Bose speaker or complete system, Bose shrugs.

Bose cannot be criticized for not winning a game they choose not to play. They win the game they’re in.

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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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Recent Forum Posts:

Pogre posts on July 18, 2020 16:58
tbgillespie, post: 1404973, member: 92314
I can't believe how many people have a negative opinion of Bose 901 speakers when they have never owned and correctly set up a pair in their own home.
Inversely, how many high quality accurate speakers with great imaging and good dispersion characteristics, with a good subwoofer blended in, have you owned and set up correctly in your home?
William Lemmerhirt posts on July 18, 2020 16:53
tbgillespie, post: 1404969, member: 92314
They don't sound good at all because they were designed to use the Bose equalizer.

No. They don’t sound good at all, because they don’t sound good at all…

I’ve heard enough of them(not speaking to setup parameters) to say they’re just not that good. For ME.
Glad you seem to like them, but they’re are multitudes of better speakers out there. Ones with accuracy, power, clarity, great imaging, and room FILLING sound. Sorry, I poor Bose kool-aid down the sink whenever I can.
Pogre posts on July 18, 2020 16:46
tbgillespie, post: 1404973, member: 92314
I can't believe how many people have a negative opinion of Bose 901 speakers when they have never owned and correctly set up a pair in their own home. Audiophiles are into specifications on paper. The 901's are all about the experience of enjoying being immersed in sound and not just from two points in front of you.
Most of us here prefer accurate speakers. The 901s don't even try to be accurate. I have a pair of speakers that fill the room very nicely and have a huge soundstage. They have excellent dispersion characteristics and most importantly, they're accurate and clean sounding speakers. Honestly I wouldn't even want the 901s in my garage.
tbgillespie posts on July 18, 2020 16:25
Sleqzypig, post: 1381467, member: 89927
Honestly Bose bookshelf speakers are not about audio quality at all. This is why audiophiles dislike them so much. The primary thing Bose goes for in their bookshelves is to fill a room with background sound so you can listened to spotify while vacuuming the rugs or folding clothes. For that they do their job well as these things are bouncing sound off the walls. But for those of us that give a dam about audio quality the trade off of less direct sound isn't worth it.
I can't believe how many people have a negative opinion of Bose 901 speakers when they have never owned and correctly set up a pair in their own home. Audiophiles are into specifications on paper. The 901's are all about the experience of enjoying being immersed in sound and not just from two points in front of you.
tbgillespie posts on July 18, 2020 16:05
beginjapan!, post: 1290727, member: 87087
And a simple check on the web confirms you are correct. Still, i think the eq is a sign of an inherent deficiency in the design.
The Bose 901 EQ is not a design deficiency. It is part of the design that makes the speakers sound so very much better than they would without it.
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