How I Got Into The Hi Fi Biz - The Guy Behind Bose Wave Radio Speaks
The industry of audio electronics and speakers is a great industry. I was fortunate enough to spend virtually my entire working career in consumer electronics, with companies like Panasonic, Bose, Boston Acoustics and Atlantic Technology. I got paid for doing things that people would consider a hobby: Voicing speakers before they went into production, deciding on this tweeter or that tweeter, watching blockbuster action movies to pick out the best “demo” scenes, making the call on whether we’d include a “sub out” jack on our tabletop CD/Radio or not, setting the retail list price ($299 to move fast or $329 to make our full profit?). Fun stuff. Having both a technical background and a marketing background, I was right in the thick of the action, so to speak, for over 40 years, from the earliest stages of product proposal, through the technical design and development stages, right through and including the marketing rollout, the PR blitz and the dealer trainings. I was a central figure in it all, for many of the industry’s most famous and biggest-selling models. (Humorous aside time: I worked for these companies; I didn’t own them. The really big bucks went to others, not to me. No complaints—I made a perfectly comfortable living—but to be clear, my biggest rewards were egotistical and emotional, not financial!)
At family gatherings or high school reunions, people would always ask me what new and exciting things were coming down the pike, could I get them a deal, which model was better, was Bose really just mostly fancy marketing, and so on. No one ever asked Mark the Accountant what was the newest thing in Balance Sheets, nor did anyone care about the legal Smith v Jackson precedent as it pertained to estate law. But advice on how to set up their surround speakers or where to put the subwoofer? Yeah, I got that all the time and it was big fun being the “expert.”
No one ever asked me about this…..
….but they asked me about this all the time!
It started when I was a teenager. Growing up, I picked up a deep love for music from my dad. I discovered I had the ear for it and music soon became an indispensable part of my life. Our house was filled with classical music and jazz, especially on Sundays. Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis and many others blared impressively from my Dad’s beloved “hi fi system.” Actually, I think Dad liked the dials, meters, woofers and watts of his “system” as much as he loved the music itself. Soon, I too loved the technical aspects of stereo electronics and speakers equally as much as the piano stylings of Brubeck’s solo on “Take Five.” Maybe more.
Early on, my dad had these big 15” triaxial speakers from an English company called Goodmans. A 15” woofer with a cloth accordion-pleat surround, a midrange whizzer cone with what they euphemistically called a “mechanical crossover” and a small horn tweeter above 7500 cps. (They called it cps—“cycles per second”—in those days, not Hz.) There was a national chain of stores called Lafayette Radio, a Radio Shack-like operation with a mixture of house brands, national brands and an extensive selection of parts and accessories. The Goodmans were just raw speakers, meant to be put into custom enclosures, or (as was often done in the late ‘50’s/early 60’s) cut into the wall or a closet door. Lafayette offered some nice 36” tall by about 18” wide and 15” deep floorstanding speaker enclosures for raw speakers like the Goodmans. My dad bought them and custom-finished them as part of his self-designed-and-built one-of-a-kind stereo/entertainment unit, complete with a Garrard RC-88 record changer and Allied Knight Kit pre-amp and power amp. It was a pretty hip system for 1963.
Garrard RC-88, Goodmans Triaxial speaker, Knight Kit electronics
My mom’s patience for that décor-ruining monstrosity lasted about six years. Pretty remarkable, actually. Finally she said, “Out! I want those big ugly speakers out of my house!”
Good timing, in the grand scheme of the stereo industry. In 1954, an enterprising young inventor named Edgar Villchur had an idea for getting solid, extended low-distortion bass from an enclosure barely ¼ the size of the best existing speakers. Villchur’s “acoustic suspension” design made it possible to get truly accurate, powerful bass into the low 30 Hz-range from a cabinet that was only about 1.5 cu ft in volume—only 25 x 14 x 11” deep. Truly a “bookshelf” speaker. Any normal-sized room could easily accommodate two of his AR-1 or AR-3 speakers, and their bass response was superior to those refrigerator-sized dinosaurs like my Dad’s Goodmans in those big Lafayette enclosures—tighter, cleaner, more extended.
AR-3 bookshelf speaker of 1958 (Image courtesy of Tom Tyson)
AR quickly introduced smaller, less expensive versions of their first model and other companies followed suit, so good-sounding compact speakers that could be used in pairs in any room became available at the same time that stereo electronics began to really take off. If the high-performance bookshelf speaker as pioneered by Villchur’s AR-1 hadn’t been available right at the beginning of the stereo era (1958), the market would likely have developed quite differently.
With AR’s acoustic suspension design, the bookshelf-sized speaker as we still know it today became a reality, paving the way for the commercial success and runaway popularity of two-channel stereo in the early 1960’s. The basic AR theme of great bass in compact enclosures probably reached its zenith with the 1964 introduction of the small AR-4, an 8” version of the AR-1’s and AR-3’s twelve-inch system, but in an enclosure barely 1/3 the size of the AR-1 and AR-3. 1965 saw the debut of the famous AR-4x with its vastly improved new 2 ½-inch tweeter, resulting in a system that spanned from 55-15kHz at ± 3dB on axis—downright amazing for that time period! These smaller AR speakers brought true hi-fidelity sound to hundreds of thousands of people, yet they sounded very similar to their bigger brethren. Like the AR-3 at the high end of the scale, the budget-priced 4x had no real, true competition for years.
AR-4x of 1965
I remember so clearly when my dad brought home those diminutive AR-4x’s in 1969. (“Diminutive” by 1969 standards—19 x 10 x 9”. Not that small by today’s standards, but very small in 1969.) First, my mom was thrilled that these were going to replace those awful Goodmans. My parents really had actual bookshelves on the wall in their den and the 4’s fit on them as neatly and inconspicuously as could be. My dad still had the Goodmans; the person he was giving them to hadn’t picked them up yet. So we did an “A-B.” I was astonished. Astonished. The ARs stomped the Goodmans from top to bottom and every which way from Sunday. Deeper, more solid bass. Clearer, airier highs. A less colored overall midrange presentation. The speakers sounded like they were from two totally different time eras, which I guess they were. That A-B did it for me. At age 15, I was hooked on hi-fi. I was fascinated, totally taken in. I had fallen under the spell.
Even though Dad had AR’s smallest, least expensive speakers (they were all he could afford, but he wanted ARs, even if it was their entry model), they sounded great. All the hi-fi enthusiast magazines at that time said AR speakers were the best. A few years later as my friends and I entered our late teens during our senior year of high school, we all began to buy the first stereo systems of our own from the money we earned from our first jobs at the local supermarket or the corner ice cream shop.
On Saturdays, we’d go stereo shopping at the neighborhood electronics stores, places with names like Sound Ideas, Tunxis Stereo, The Stereo Shoppe and others. I’d been talking up my Dad’s AR speakers to my friends, because I thought they sounded so good and I considered myself the expert, because only my dad among my friends’ dads had a sophisticated stereo system made up of individually-selected components from cool companies like Dynaco, Miracord, Shure, and of course, AR. Everyone else’s dad had an all-in-one console stereo from a non-hi-fi company like Zenith or RCA. Those didn’t sound good. They were only for the undiscerning ear (I condescendingly thought), for people who regarded music as being strictly for the background.
Zenith Console Stereo
So my best friend and I went to Sound Ideas. In those days, a stereo store had what was known as the speaker wall. Here, the entire wall was filled with speakers from different manufacturers and the customer could ask the store salesman to switch between several different pairs of speakers while the music played, in order to select the pair they liked best.
Stereo Store Speaker Wall
I stood there smugly, confidently as the sales guy put on a record and played it through some random brand of speakers. “Now switch to the ARs,” I said with an all-knowing air, as my friend listened intently.
He made the switch. The ARs played….and they sounded terrible! Not at all like they sounded in our den. Instead, they were terrible: muffled, cloudy, distorted. Not clear and vibrant and lifelike, the way I was expecting. Then the salesman at the store said something that just stunned me: “AR speakers are awful. They’re the most over-rated speakers out there. No one in their right mind would ever buy them and anyone who has was obviously brainwashed by their fancy advertising.”
My friend turned to me and said,” I guess your dad made the wrong choice. And it’s obvious that you don’t know anywhere near as much as you think you do. I’ll never buy an AR speaker. Never.”
I was hurt, embarrassed, humiliated, angry, confused, you name it. My dad—the greatest guy ever—was not someone who’d ever be “brainwashed.” He wouldn’t make a stupid choice. He was an engineer, so he was obviously a smart guy. He loved music and knew it inside out. And I was no dope either. I couldn’t be wrong. Not this wrong.
Ah, life’s teachable moments. At age 17, I was introduced to the concept of retailer profitability, the notion that a store would “push” one brand of product over another because they could make a better profit on it. I think up until then, as a kid, you walked into a store and didn’t give the different brands of products any particular attention. You simply picked the one that suited you the best and that was that. How the store that sold the goods felt about one brand vs. another never even occurred to you.
After a lot of investigation, reading, going around to all the stereo stores in the area and talking to the store managers, the big picture came into focus: Acoustic Research did indeed make very good speakers. The enthusiast magazines ran tests and comparisons between various speaker brands and AR always came out either at or near the top. They were hugely popular, sold by almost every stereo store in existence.
And that was the problem—AR was over-distributed. Everyone wanted them, but there was no way to distinguish a Sound Ideas AR from a Stereo Shoppe AR other than price. Each store would go lower and lower. AR speakers rapidly became a very unprofitable brand to sell because they were everywhere. Soon enough, the stores would find a brand of speakers they could call their own, that couldn’t be cross-shopped, a brand of speakers with which they could make real money. What the stores would do was to intentionally ‘sabotage’ the AR speaker so it didn’t sound good in comparison to that store’s preferred, more profitable brand. There were a lot of ways the store could do that to an AR speaker that the customer would never see (things like mis-setting level controls, reversing the phase, breaking the acoustic seal, etc.). That’s how they did it and it happened a lot.
Why would AR design and engineer such good speakers and then wreck everything by selling them to too many dealers so that the dealers ended up hating them?
That’s called marketing. It’s the combination of producing good products that satisfy the end customers’ needs (people who want good speakers in their homes) and then selling and supporting those products in such a way that you satisfy the needs of your business customers as well (making sure your business partners actually want to sell your products).
Marketing. I discovered I liked this stuff. So at 17, I decided that when I was in college, I’d major in business. In Marketing. And I’d work in the electronics/stereo industry. Maybe even for AR.
How do you get into the stereo industry in Marketing? In those days, companies’ marketing departments weren’t as large and sophisticated as they are today. In 1976 (the year I graduated college), most companies didn’t have layers and layers of marketing people, like they do today. They didn’t have product managers, project managers, program directors, channel distribution specialists, vendor relations people, advertising writers, web creation, social media coordinators, copywriters, graphic design managers, etc.
Not in 1976. Marketing departments were only a few people. In those days, the best way to get into Marketing was by being in Sales first. Ok. If that’s what it took, I’d go into Sales. But I’d go into Sales with an electronics company, a company that was in the consumer electronics goods field, so I’d be a seasoned and highly-desirable, experienced electronics industry candidate, ready to make the leap from Sales into Marketing. At a company like AR.
Enter Panasonic. That was a great electronics company, one of the largest in the world, even bigger than Sony. Everyone owned a Panasonic something, whether it was a clock radio, a boombox, a VCR, a TV, an answering machine, something. Yeah, I’d like to sell Panasonic. Plus, they had a real hi-fi division called Technics. That was a line of receivers, amplifiers, turntables, tape decks—the real deal, component stereo, like the stuff my dad had—and Technics products were carried by the best stereo stores around. Yup, if I could work for Panasonic in Sales, that would be the perfect stepping-stone to getting into the real hi-fi industry in Marketing.
My entry into the electronics industry
So I got wind that Panasonic was looking to hire a salesperson in my area of CT/Western MA. I was there in a flash. (At the time, I was working as a sales rep for some electronics companies. Not a bad gig, not unrelated to the field I wanted, but this was Panasonic. The majors. The big leagues. Bigger than Sony.)
The interview was at a downtown Hartford hotel, in a guestroom on the 12th or 14th floor. The Panasonic person conducting the interviews was a hard-core Italian guy named Pasquale (Pat) Albano [not his real name. I changed it ‘to protect the innocent,” as the old cliché goes]. Pat was kind of a local legend in Southern New England at that time. He “owned” the electronics biz in those parts.
The candidates were all lined up in the hallway like schoolkids waiting for recess. One person would go in, the line would inch a little closer, and then 10-15 minutes later that person would emerge from the room. We’d all move up one spot. I remember when the person in front of me came out of the room. He looked at all of us and said, “Next victim.”
I remember thinking to myself, “Not me. He must be weak. I’m going to nail this. This is mine. All these people should go home now.”
I walk in, I see Pat for the first time. He’s the Godfather personified. He’s sitting there in a blue sport jacket and open-collar shirt, open too far to be business-appropriate. Jet-black hair with a touch of gray at the temples, perfectly quaffed, straight back along the sides in classic Mafioso style. He’s smoking up a storm (in those days, you could smoke in a hotel), he doesn’t ask if I mind the smoke and he tells me to sit down. I offer him my résumé. He dismisses the offer, “I’ve already seen it, you mailed it in. Yeah, ok, you went to a fancy school, isn’t that nice. And you’re on the road now in sales. So what? What can you do for me? Why should I hire you?”
Pat, the “Godfather” of Panasonic
I’m 26. I have a really nice suit on—my special interview suit—and I look like a kid. I’m a small guy and I’ve always had that ‘young’ look. He’s menacing, threatening, no doubt intentionally for effect, but I gotta tell you, it’s working. He looks right at me.
I sit back and smile, with a cool confidence that surprises even me. Pat’s taken a bit aback, thrown a little off his stride. You have to meet strength with strength, confidence with confidence. “I like Panasonic, I always have,” I say. One of the lines I sell as a rep is Sanyo, a direct competitor to Panasonic at a lot of the stores I call on. “I respect Panasonic as a competitor, but I can sell around it, every day, no problem. And I do. But….I’m not going to tell you how I do it, because if I don’t get this job with you, I don’t want you using that information against me. But let me tell you, I could go into Al Franklin’s Musical World tomorrow [a dealer that carried both Panasonic and Sanyo] and sell them Panasonic. Sanyo would be out.”
Pat smiles. I’m speaking his language, the language of aggressive, results-oriented business. I didn’t realize it consciously at the time, but that was classic Marketing: Speak in the customer’s language and satisfy his/her need. His language was nervy, chance-taking aggression. His need was to find and hire a salesperson who could deliver immediate results. He turns to his associate and says, “I like this kid. Go out in the hall and tell them all to go home.”
Still one of my most satisfying interviews.
Thus began my 10-year stint with Panasonic.
I was on the road in New England (CT and MA) as a Panasonic salesperson from 1980-1987. In those days, there were a lot of independent one-store operations and the big chains like Caldor’s and Lechmere co-existed quite nicely with the smaller operations. Panasonic wasn’t a strict high-fidelity brand per se, but a lot of stereo stores carried Panasonic boomboxes and Walkmen-type units, so I got to visit a lot of nice stereo shops. (The Technics division of Panasonic was handled by a separate sales force, so I didn’t deal with that directly.)
I really enjoyed my 10 years with Panasonic (the last three as a Marketing Manager in their regional office, having been promoted from on-the-road sales). But I wanted out of the garden-variety electronics category and into “real” hi-fi. The stereo gear market was still thriving 30 years ago and I wanted in.
I heard of an opening in marketing at Bose in Framingham MA, not too far from the Panasonic NE regional office where I was working. They were impressed with my background at Panasonic and I got a job there in Product Management, charting out new products for the company and working alongside Engineering to bring them into existence. Yeah, yeah, yeah, as a hard-core stereo aficionado, Bose equipment wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but it was an “in.” I stayed there for a few years and I made good use of my time there, learning a lot about the ins-and-outs of the speaker business and making good contacts.
Oh, that little item of theirs called the Bose Wave Radio? That was mostly my baby. I remember when we were deciding on the feature set for the clock/alarm portion of that product, I said to the upper-ups, “if this thing is also supposed to be a clock radio, it better have clock/radio features at least equal to a $50 Panasonic or GE radio.” So the next day, I bring in my Panasonic RC-6360 clock/radio and I demo all the alarm, buzzer/radio features for the executive board (including You-Know-Who and Mr. Two and Three behind You-Know-Who.). They’re fascinated, and they were also totally unaware that clock radios did those kinds of things. Remember, back in the 70’s-80’s-90’s, clock radios were big selling items. There were no smartphones back then.
Bose Wave Radio
My friends knew I was working at Bose. A good friend of mine said to me, “If you have any say in how this radio thing is supposed to work, here’s a feature I’d like to see: It’s always bugged me that with a clock radio, the FM alarm just blares ‘on’ at whatever volume level you happen to have it set at. Is there a way that you guys can have the turn-on volume ramp up from silent to normal volume over a span of about 10 seconds or so, so you’re not jolted up at full blast first thing in the morning?”
Yup, we could do that, and we did. So the original Wave Radio had a ‘ramp up’ alarm volume-on feature, thanks to my friend’s suggestion. Thanks, Mark.
I had a lot to do with some other notable Bose models as well, like their RoomMate series of self-powered speakers and the AM-5 Series II, the follow-up to the original industry re-defining AM-5 sub-sat system. It was a great company. They knew their market and their customer. They weren’t trying to be an audiophile company, so those criticisms of them are irrelevant. Bose’s commitment to QC and customer service (at least when I was there in the early 90’s) was fanatical: I saw them put the shipment of an important new product on hold during the Christmas selling season while they painstakingly inspected every single last one of them for a possible manufacturing flaw. Every single unit in the warehouse of a model that their dealers were chomping at the bit to get. Bose does what they do intentionally and they do it well. Again, trying to land on the 10 Best list of some snobby magazine is not their goal, so you can’t judge them by that. I learned a ton working there, about best business practices, business discipline, sharp, tight product definitions, adhering to a developmental schedule, avoiding “feature creep,” and perfecting the gentle art of “persuading” those in higher positions to see the error of their assumptions. Working at Bose was college and grad school, all at once. It could not have been more valuable to me.
Bose proved to be a perfect springboard into roles with other speaker companies (Boston Acoustics and Atlantic Technology) in executive-level Marketing and Product Development, where I was doing all the things I’d dreamt about doing when I was 17—planning all the new products, deciding on their actual configurations and performance targets, working closely with Engineering and Manufacturing to ensure the products came out right, doing the listening evaluations and making the final calls, writing the brochures, press releases, magazine ads, working with Sales to make sure they were well-received by our dealers, meeting with the reviewers and press to explain our newest stuff and give them the lowdown on why they were so good, etc. At both Boston Acoustics and Atlantic Technology, we introduced dozens and dozens of products that were a direct result of my take on how to do them—the look, the sound, the feature set, the areas we spent extra money on, the areas where we economized, the way the packaging was done, the brochures, the magazine ads, the owner’s manuals—everything. I think that BA and AT did some great stuff in the 1992-2014 time frame and I had an absolute blast being involved with every last capacitor, terminal cup, cone material and press release.
AT IWTS-30 ad
It’s important to remember that the AT-1 with its innovative H-PAS bass system was listed on the Stereophile “Recommended Components list, Loudspeakers—Class B” for three straight years (I think it was 2011-12-13.). Class B loudspeakers included products with list pricing up to $20,000/pair. Twenty Grand. 20 big ones. That’s Class B. The AT-1 had a list price of $2500/pair. We were kinda proud of that.
I have to cite the lead project engineer for the AT-1, Jason Marcure. From voicing to the innovative internal cabinet bracing configuration to the implementation of the tweeter—everything, really—Jason showed once again why he was such an outstanding talent. Along with Paul Ceurvels (who you’ll read about shortly), he was half of a one-two engineering team that punched so far “above their weight” it wasn’t even funny. Bose and Boston Acoustics had dozens and dozens of top-flight engineers and their expertise showed in the excellence of their products. But for no-excuses acoustic performance and intelligent design that made the best use of limited financial resources, the Paul-Jason team at AT was unsurpassed. They unfailingly made me look good.
BA VR-M50 lit
BA Sub lit
The entire experience was incredibly gratifying. It felt like being a kid and growing up to be the star hitter on the Red Sox. I’d say, “We’re going with the 2-inch voice coil on that woofer, not the 1.5-inch,” I’d write the newest brochure or I’d meet with the industry press as we unveiled our latest model and I’d think to myself, “I can’t believe I’m actually doing this!” The list of Product of the Year, Best in Class, 5-Star, Editor’s Choice, Top-Ranked, Best Buy and Highly Recommended awards that “my” products have garnered over the years is “longer than my arm,” as the old saying goes, at company after company. I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to do this and to have worked with so many amazingly talented people.
There is one more person I just have to single out—and I won’t change his name. That’s Paul Ceurvels of Atlantic Technology. Paul was the Head Engineer at Atlantic Technology when I was there. (He has since retired.) Paul was technically an electrical engineer, who did most of the design of in-house units and the modifications of vendor-supplied units. When a given manufacturer does, say, a powered subwoofer, that manufacturer generally doesn’t design the amp themselves. They buy it from an overseas vendor. They say to the vendor, “Hey, we need a 400-watt plate amp with these features for $xx dollars. Watcha got?”
The vendor will say, “We have X and Y and a brand-new technology we call Z. We’ll send samples.”
So they send them. They’re noisy and shoddy and they hum and buzz and have awful turn-on/turn-off thump and no distortion limiting. Every fix is an upcharge. If you have a really, really talented, clever U.S. engineer in-house, he can re-work that piece of crappola into a polished gem for peanuts. Peanuts. That was Paul: The ultimate crappola-to-gem polisher.
But Paul was so much more than just a great electrical engineer. He was an acoustics wizard. He could design transducers—especially subwoofers—like nobody’s business. He knew everything there was to know about fasteners and adhesives. And he was a mechanical designer/packaging designer of the highest order. I’ve never encountered a single individual with such a broad range of engineering expertise. That amazing perspective gave Paul the ability to design and evaluate products and see how everything interacted and fit together better than anyone else I’ve ever worked with in my many decades in the business.
And as you might suspect from seeing his picture, he was quite the character—funny, irreverent and one-of-a-kind. Small companies like Atlantic Technology don’t have the financial resources for huge staffs of engineers. Paul was a staff all by himself.
Team Pic of AT, circa 2007. Paul Ceurvels, back row, 2nd
from left, Jason Marcure, far left in red.
(The author is in the middle of the back row, in the red shirt. Before everything turned gray.)
Working on the “inside” is not the way that “outsiders” envision it is, that’s for sure. For an absolutely accurate, hilarious, event-by-event account of what it’s really like, check out this two-part article of mine, The Insider’s View of Product Development, and Part 2. That’s the real story and it’s big fun—as long as you have a thick skin, you have realistic, flexible expectations and you enjoy dealing with unpredictable circumstances and wildly inconsistent personalities. The entire scenario of high-fidelity product development and marketing is about the farthest thing from being a straight line from beginning to end that there is. If you can roll with the punches—and some real haymakers come your way, that’s for sure!!—it’s about as much fun as you can possibly have and still be legally paid.
But if you’re the kind of person who lives in a 2 + 2 = 4 world, this is probably not the life for you. Trust me.
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Recent Forum Posts:
Jerkface, post: 1489695, member: 95722Hey, my mother has a Bose Wave Radio!
All that other cool stuff is almost enough to forgive him for the Bose Wave Radio.
KIDDING, KIDDING! Great article, fascinating read.
All kidding aside, the idea of putting a wave guide inside a radio to improve bass was genius. When they were released there was nothing else out there that could match the sound in that form factor. There were even people that used the auxiliary input and ran them as TV speakers. Great product.
KIDDING, KIDDING! Great article, fascinating read.
gene, post: 1489414, member: 4348Thanks for a great article Steve, I actually own one and it is a great alarm clock and a decent small patio sound system. Nice to meet the guy behind the product.
The industry of audio electronics and speakers is a great industry. I was fortunate enough to spend virtually my entire working career in consumer electronics but how did I get here and what did I learn along the way? In this article Steve Feinstein talks about his experiences, including developing some of the most notable audio products (ie. Bose Wave Radio) over the years. Read on to find out.
Read : The Guy Behind the Bose Wave Radio