The mysterious, elusive, and admittedly obsessive Dr. Amar Bose, founder and namesake of the Bose Corporation, made a rare appearance Tuesday to a select group of journalists. The occasion was the launch of their new Bose Computer MusicMonitor speakers, but the real treat was hearing the good doctor dish out secrets about the history of Bose, why they almost went bankrupt, and why they never, ever publish specifications for any of their products. As he put it, he spoke to us about “things never discussed outside the company, things that only people involved in the beginning know.”
Some of the words may be paraphrased a bit (I wrote this quickly as he spoke), and I cut out some of the fat, but for the most part, the following is straight from the mouth of Dr. Bose.
THE ORIGIN STORY: AN OBSESSION IS BORN
“I was doing my doctorate at M.I.T. I was a disciplined student. I only allowed myself to listen to classical music. Then I started writing pieces and I didn’t need as much concentration, so I thought I could go out and buy a HiFi sound system.
I went and checked the specifications. Like all engineers, I thought specifications meant everything. I believed that thoroughly. I had been brainwashed for years…
His story continues after the jump…
I went to Radioshack. There were only two of them around at the time. I wasn’t interested in listening. I thought specifications were dominant, so I bought the system with the best specifications. I brought the system home to my room. I brought records home and I never was able to play more than three or four minutes of a record to the people there. I looked at the faces around at me as I played it, especially those who studied opera, and they had their own reactions. Oh my god it was embarassing! Something had gone wrong!
I went back to Radioshack and returned the system. I could hardly finish writing my doctorate thesis on mathematician Norbert Weiner.
Skipping ahead a little bit. I decided I woud like to test loudspeakers in our chamber. At that time, I had no interest in acoustics. My field was a different field at the time. But this became a problem that began to obsess me: How could something measure so well and not sound good?
I made a relationship with the Vice President of Radioshack. I said: “Look. At M.I.T. We would like to test different speakers. Could I make an arrangement with you where I borrow different speakers and test them and you can have the results?”
Anyway, much to my shock, none of the loudspeakers had close to what was published. College kids today think that industry is big and bad and money is the only thing that counts. I’m afraid that may be true. I thought it was just industry that was causing all these problems. So I began to contact people in the industry, and asked why the measurements weren’t the same as what was published. I got back a statement saying the measuring was wrong….
So then the question was: What to do? I realized specifications A) weren’t correct as printed, and B) if you met them, the sound wasn’t improved.
I brought students and asked them which speakers they thought were best. Then I brought in the same students six months later, and found the results were totally random, and not the same. So I figured we needed to bring in musicians. So we brought in musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. We found the same thing: The results were random.
That really threw us back. We just about bailed on research. If you can’t have musicians know which sound was better than another sound, how can you design a system? If a person can’t tell, what can you do? So we launched an enormous program at M.I.T., and slowly learned more about it.
A COMPANY IS BORN
The company was formed in 1964. There were problems dealing with different spaces and different rooms. In the first Bose product, for the first time there was active equalization. Back then, the speaker was a sacred thing: You didn’t mess with the sound before it entered the loudspeaker.
When we came out with our first speaker, the 901, we lost the first president of the company, a longtime friend of mine. He said: You ‘re going to introduce this thing, I don’t care if it’s better than anything on the the market. Nobody is going to buy this. It’s got no woofer, no tweeters. Just full range loudspekaers. He said he would leave if we released it, and he did.
When we launched that one it caused quite a stir in the industry because it had no woofers and no tweeters and worse yet, eight of the those full-range drivers were facing back agains the wall, with one facing forward. Imagine this in a community of people who still believe in measurements. They didn’t know how to measure it. They measured it in a chamber with a microphone in front, so 80 percent of the sound went away from the microphone!
It had some really interesting reviews. One magazine in the United States, a really credible magazine, had one reviewer named Norman Eisenburg who really knew his music. In those days I used to take the loudspeaker to the reviewer. I packed my son and loudspeaker in the car and went off. I put this little thing on top of the big speakers he had, turned it on, and within five minutes he said: “I don’t care if this is made of green cheese, it’s the best sound, most accurate sound, I’ve ever heard.”
He came out with a review titled “Surround and Conquer.” He was not known to do things like that. Everybody in the press knew he knew music, and it resulted in rave reviews one after another, and we were able to survive.
Then came one devastating review from a leading magazine. [WRITERS NOTE: He is likely referring to Consumer REports]. I’m talking 1960s, 1970s. It claimed that the Bose loudspekaer, the 901, caused violins to wander about the living room, and said a few other devastating things… They said it was outperformed by a $27.50 Japanese speaker sold at Radioshack. They said if you must buy this Bose speaker, buy the little Japanese speaker and use it as a tweeter.
So that bankrupted us. [Writer’s note: I just got a note from Bose PR informing me that they never, in fact, went bankrupt. Either Dr. Bose misspoke or I misheard him.]
We had 37 people at the time. I gathered them in one room and said: “If we don’t do anything, it will probably kill us. But if we do something, we have no credibility since we’re just a small company and we can’t do anything against this.” I said I think we oughtta do something. I wanted a vote. It was unanimous in favor of taking action. Little did we know it would take 14 years to go through the legal process. The first federal court we won. The appelate level we lost. The Supreme Court level vote was 5-4 against us, but said in there that everything stated in the magazine about the product was false. However, freedom of speech protects that.
However, in that process of 14 years, as troublesome and many headaches as it generated, we made it known to the public that this thing was going on. That they should come hear the product and see the sound ‘wander’ through the room. A judge asked “Where did the violins wander to?” Said: “Right over the wall and over the ceilling?” The judge was an Italian judge and he really knew music. That might have contributed to winning the first level of the case.
We went through all that and finally put the speaker, the 901, on the market. Then bumped into another problem. If I hadn’t been so naïve about what goes on in business, I would have expected this. There were five companies that were major in the speaker business at the time. They had a meeting to figure out: What can we do to stop Bose? We know this because later on we hired a person who was very bright person who was hired by the companies and sent to this meeting.
As a result of the meeting, they come out with a white paper on the Bose 901 and what was wrong with it. Out of the five companies, in the first year we got four of the papers. The fifth one was so liable that the rep held onto the paper while reading it to dealers. We never got it, but got the content from dealers.
These are all things that, for an academic person, were shocking. I thought: “I brought top notch engineers into the company and I brought them into a sewer.”
WHY THEY NEVER PUBLISH SPECS
I decided on a philosophy at the time. We would cut out specifications because of two reasons. We decided to make each product that came out superior to what was out at the time. If it was superior, the public would appreciate it. That’s why we don’t give any measurements on any product today.
There are two reasons we cut out the specifications:
1) We don’t know of any measurements that actually determine anything about a product, and 2) Measurements are phony, in general, as they are printed.