The Myth of Bose

Bose home theater speakers are widely known as the best you can buy. This is a true statement. Bose home theater speakers are overpriced ripoffs. I also believe this to be a true statement. Sadly, the first statement is true because of Bose’s amazing advertising and not because of any truth in the actual belief. It seems to me that almost everyone who doesn’t know much about audio, but buys their home theater stuff based on what they’ve heard, thinks that Bose systems are absolutely the best, even if they have done zero comparison with better systems. I used to think this way too, a long time ago. In recent years they’ve had a bit of a lashback as the geek crowd who are a bit more “in the know” gained voice along with the rise of the Internet, but the misconception (in my opinion) still remains quite prevalent. Hopefully if you’re interested in Bose, by reading this post you’ll at least gain a healthy dose of skepticism enough to go and do your own listening (which is always good to do when buying speakers anyway) before taking the plunge.

Bose Acoustimass 10 System

I actually went into a Bose store once in some outlet in Oregon (Tanglewood I think?), and sat through one of their product demos in their auditioning room that was completely custom built (I think they must do this in many Bose stores). It was terrible. Several things to keep in mind: I am biased against Bose. I think they’re overpriced ripoff speakers. However, this was an auditioning room tuned for their speakers, with music that I’m sure was carefully selected for both the room and speakers. I went in there not expecting to be wow’ed, but I did expect that they’d sound ok all things considering. Again, I was shocked with how bad they sounded. Not to say they were the worst speakers I’ve ever heard–they certainly weren’t–but some of the highs were so unpleasantly strident that I was quite annoyed. Now if these were $200 speakers, I wouldn’t bat an eye. I probably still wouldn’t have bought them, but I wouldn’t say they were terrible I guess. However, this was a $2500 system… That’s absolutely ridiculous. If you can’t get a $2500 system in an absolutely controlled environment with your own selection of source material to sound good, then there’s something terribly wrong.

Bose TriPort HeadphonesLet me reiterate, you should definitely keep in mind that I’m biased against Bose. Still, I don’t hate everything that they make. Interestingly enough, I also tested out their headphones there. There was a listening station with the TriPorts setup. I’d listened to them briefly at an Apple store before on an iPod, but didn’t listen seriously that previous time for some reason. Other than that the other experience I’d had with Bose headphones was that I’d actually already heard a pair of the even more expensive Quiet Comfort 3’s that one of my co-workers had bought. I was curious as to how they sounded, so I did an A/B comparison with my Shure E4’s. I found the Quiet Comforts to be muddled, completely lacking clarity.

Anyhow, back to my Bose store story. I listened to them at the store and was actually pleasantly surprised. There was only a single sample to listen to, but the bass was quite punchy. Now the sample didn’t have much going on, it was only maybe 3 parts going or so in rather separated frequency ranges, but it definitely sounded good. Upon further inspection however, I found that the pillar of the listening station was vibrating along with the bass… That’s just wrong. Gives people a false impression. Even if it sounded great the unethical station vibration just makes me angry. Plus, strangely enough, I think I found the TriPorts sounded better than the roughly $100 more expensive QC3’s. Active noise cancellation is bound to incur some cost I’m sure, but even if you say that it’d cost an extra $100 to add that technology in, the QC3’s should still sound at least as good as the TriPorts… They don’t.

Another practice which I find repulsive is that when sold in retail stores such as Best Buy or the like, Bose tries its hardest to “convince” the store to place their speakers far away from the rest. This prevents easy direct comparison, allowing its marketing to take full effect where auditory comparison is not available. This alone should set off warning lights and sirens in your head.

To be fair, it used to be that in order to get a speaker that didn’t sound like utter crap and wasn’t a gigantic box, you’d have to buy Bose. Although I don’t like many of their products now, I have to admit that they do some interesting research once in a while. Bose speakers are small, stealthy, and pleasing to the eye (when you even notice them). They’re also relatively easy to setup and hey, even if it is that easy, Bose will still send someone out to install them in your house for you if you don’t want to do it yourself.

Nowadays though, there are way more home theater speaker manufacturers that target the stylish/slim/sexy speakers crowd, and in recent years Bose has done nothing significant in speaker R&D. An excellent alternative if you want a small speaker system is the Energy Take 5 series. It’s been through a few iterations, and I believe the latest is aptly named Energy Take 5.2. These are a much better set of speakers than any of the Bose speakers, they can be found for a much lower price. In fact, nowadays the upper echelon of computer speakers are roughly the size of Bose speakers and sound better. If you look at the upper end lines of any of the top computer speaker manufacturers like Cambridge Soundworks, Klipsch, or Logitech, you’ll find speakers that sound better than Bose.

If you are willing to broaden your horizons beyond diminuitive speakers though, you’ll quickly find that larger speakers just sound better, and there are plenty of them out there. If you’re on a budget, Athena and Mission have some great value speakers, or if you’re willing to spend a bit more (which I’m sure you are if you considered Bose) Energy again makes some great speakers. I’ve heard some good things about Paradigm too, though I have no first hand experience with those speakers. There are plenty of other good manufacturers, but really it’s too much to list them all.

Anyway, it’s really a limitation of physics, you can’t recreate the lower frequencies as well with such small speakers (at least with the regular cone technology which Bose along with 99% of the rest of the market uses). I can hear the protests already… “but Bose has their Acoustimass bass module!” Yes, they do. Sadly this means that audio in the lower-mid range is relegated to the bass module–what the rest of the world calls a subwoofer (not that I think Bose can validly call the bass module a subwoofer, but that’s the role it was designed to fit into). The problem with this is two-fold. Just as small drivers don’t reproduce low frequencies all that well, large drivers don’t reproduce high frequencies too well. What Bose does is to put a smaller driver into the Acoustimass module to be able to handle the mid-range. This unfortunately has the effect of not reproducing truly low frequencies as well. The correct solution that virtually all quality speaker manufacturers use is to provider a driver (or more) for each frequency range. Commonly, this means a 1″ tweeter for the highs, and 4 or 5″ driver for the mids (although this may span a larger range, perhaps 3″ though that’s on the low side and up to 7″) and a larger driver dedicated to low frequencies. This larger driver is usually in a separate speaker which we all know as the subwoofer, but is occasionally builtin to floor-standing tower speakers. For good systems, this driver is usually 8″ or larger, 12″ being the largest that is commonly used in home theater systems though if you look, you can certainly find larger. 15″ isn’t hard to find. Compare this to Bose’s drivers. The satellites use 2.5″ drivers, too large to be great tweeters, but too small for good midrange drivers. The Acoustimass module uses 5.5″ drivers. The lower end ones use two of these, and the higher end ones just add another driver for more output–volume over quality.

Sorry, I got a bit excited there. As I was saying, the problem is two-fold. The other half the problem is that since much of the mids are now coming from the bass module and not the satellites, you lose a lot of directionality. Normally people don’t hear direction with bass frequencies very well, so a single subwoofer as opposed to the 5 satellites that you have is usually plenty. The problem is that the bass module now handles more than just hte low frequencies–it’s supposed to deal with the mids too. So now your mids all emanate from one place!

There are plenty of other issues I have with Bose including poor build quality, but I’ll leave that to you to read up on it elsewhere. I’m sure you’re tired of me ranting. There are plenty of other places which have great information about the Bose Myth. I really hope if you’ve considered Bose, that you’ll at least consider your options and not just follow what their marketing has ingrained in you so well.

~ by audioreviewer on November 28, 2006.

18 Responses to “The Myth of Bose”

  1. One of the reasons people buy Bose or even consider Bose is because they don’t know about anything better. It’s like we say about jpeg vs raw in photography – If you have to ask, shoot jpeg. And those who buy Bose, won’t know the difference anyway. Heck, there are people who are perfectly ok with 128 kbps MP3s.

  2. I agree Manish, that’s why I had my whole spiel on Bose marketing. I think it’s a bit different from JPEG vs. raw though. Assuming it’s going to end up on the web, you probably can’t tell the difference between the two once you tweak, resize, and compress to JPEG anyway! As for 128kbps MP3s, there are definitely people who are ok with that… and I think many of those people are the ones who would buy Bose. Coincidence? You tell me. 🙂

    Anyway, at least with anyone who listens to music any decent amount, I’ve found that sitting them down with a good set of speakers makes a big difference with their tastes for higher MP3 bitrates. For both of these (the Bose thing, and the MP3 bitrate thing) it’s just a matter of user education, which is a little of what this article is aimed to do.

  3. Even more sad is the fact that music nowadays has become a background activity. Something going on the stereo/headphones while you do your work. No one has the patience or the desire to really listen to music the way it is supposed to be. People just want a sound emitting rig, quality be damned.
    And from what I have seen, a high percentage of users will NEVER know the difference between $20 cheapo computer speakers and $50,000 setup. Give them a thumping bass and they’d be ok. People who listen to classical music are a different matter though.

  4. thanx a lot, i was amongst the ignorant ones!

  5. Basically, my opinion on Bose is that they are decent to a degree. But, for the price, you can do a lot better than Bose. Considering the prices their products run for, Bose is simply not worth the money. In my opinion, their average performance is simply not commensurate with the prices they demand. It seems more as if they are pushing style over substance for a premium.

    You can purchase superior equipment from manufacturers, such as B&W and Denon or Polk and Sony ES, and can get superior results for a fraction of the price. You can save money and get better value with alternatives to Bose products (what baffles me are people who are so blinded by Bose marketing that they refuse to consider this simple point and generally respond with hostility, even if their experience with serious hi-fi is limited to Bose).

    With that said, and despite better thinking, let those who don’t know any better buy what they want. It is their money. All we can do is give good advice that they can either take or leave. And, if they are satisfied with their purchase(s), then more power to them. I’m perfectly fine with their choice so long as they don’t try to convince me or others that Bose is best in an annoyingly forceful manner.

    As mentioned before, there is the unfortunate fact that there are many people who may not be able to notice quality differences. Heck, as another poster has said, there are those truly satisfied with highly compressed MP3s.

    As for me, I can just tolerate MP3s but notice their audible warts that can be annoying, particularly at low bitrates. In the subject of satellite radio, (another thing that a lot of people tend to get confused about) I shun them because it seems they have compressed the audio data too much and possibly employed downconversion of the sampling, which gives it both a signature watery/wavey quality to highs and vocals as well as a signature metallic harshness in the highs, all to preserve bandwidth of the signal which ends up making them sound worse than most MP3s. The only advantage is content, otherwise you’re merely exchanging multiplexing noise and narrower frequency response from FM Stereo broadcasts with compression/sample aliasing noise.

    Perhaps the fact that I prefer CDs and LPs are a factor….

  6. Thanks for contributing your thoughts, Reinhart. I actually used to think much the same in terms of Bose not being bad, just overpriced. However, that experience at their listening room really left a bad taste. To me, it’s not just a matter of people being satisfied with their purchases, it’s not wanting to support a company that has such shady marketing practices, and also to let people know what they’re missing out on (especially if they’re wasting lots of money in the process…). I agree though, all we can do is offer our advice, in the end the people who are making the purchase must make their own decision.

  7. what a load of B+++! Bose is not the best at all… Clearly non of you have done your homework in the research proces.
    Bose is nothing but a lifestyle hifi contestant, and it has absoulutely nothing to do with good sound. Try other brands on the marked. Even my Sony DAV-S888 sounds better than anything Bose has ever created.
    For true Audiophiles this Brand is nothing but bollocks.
    But besides the fancy look and small compact speakers Bose has nothing to offer. I will admit though, that hooking up with Audi might seem to be a good idea for Bose. I hope i will highten the standart and while they are in the proces of making these Bose/Audi systems, they will discover what good sound is

  8. This is interesting to me because just a few days ago I was looking for a set of speakers.

    I actually got to compare 5.1 Bose with these cool Logitech speakers that send the sound in all directions (and may simulate surround). The Bose was… sub-par. And overpriced too! I payed 1/4th the price for these great looking speakers that sound as good as they look.

    A little bit of skepticism is always an important thing to have. At first I was going to buy the Bose just because they were Bose. Thank goodness I compared them before I bought them. I would’ve been severely disappointed…

  9. Bang & olufsen is the best!!

  10. Bang & olufsen is the best, and will beat bose anyday!!

  11. I have to agree with you that Bose superiority is all about thier marketing efforts. You just don’t see the other speaker manufactorers on t.v. every day. I know someone who uses a bose system and my system sounds so much better. I have a two tower speakers with a tweeter, mid and 12″ subs with two smaller surround speakers and have a much better sound quality than the bose system.

  12. I like how bose is marketed, i like there products too. it’s true bose is not great or better (this is the same as comparing a european car to japanese built car) emotion is what drive people to but them not technical specs or features. the marketing plan is really very good. to actually tap emotion to sell the product. (this is like telling a smoker to stop smoking and telling him why but he still smokes.).

  13. As a former employee of Best Buy I knew Bose was garbage but they had their damn displays everywhere! People would come in thinking Bose was the best and when I mentioned “Klipsch” I got a “who?” And a funny look lol. I absolutely deplore their tactics and I refused to sell them on ethical grounds (though some people didnt care and want to impress their equally vapid friends with a name…)

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