Avi Greengart is an expert on the convergence of technology and entertainment. Avi understands TV, video, audio, computing, and wireless, how all these are coming together, and which technologies are likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life. In his weekly column, Avi answers your questions, does your product research, and provides free advice.
The Dark Side of Successful Product Marketing: Bose
Question: I'm considering a Bose speaker system, and ran the idea by a friend of mine who's really into audio. The reaction I got was completely unexpected - he told me I was an idiot, that Bose sucks, that their slogan should be "Better Sound Through Marketing," and, well, you get the picture. I always thought Bose products were really good. What's going on?
AskAvi responds: (September, 2001)
Bose has an almost fanatical opposition in the audio community. Bose products are everywhere, they're popular, and dollar-for-dollar they often don't sound as good as lesser known alternatives. That’s not to say a Bose system isn’t a good value – if your needs match Bose’s design goals.
You're paying for three things when you buy a Bose sat/sub system:
1) The Bose name - We pay extra for brand names all the time. For the life of me, I don't understand why someone would pay $500 for a handbag, but women do it all the time if the bag is a Gucci. You might say, come on, it’s a bag. But even I always buy name brand sneakers (Nike), paper towels (Bounty), and computer processors (Intel). And even in identical products, brands matter. The Toyota Camry XLE V6 and the Lexus ES300 are fundamentally the same car – but a Camry in your driveway won’t make the neighbor jealous, and the Lexus dealer treats you better.
Sometimes a brand represents luxury. Sometimes it represents quality. And sometimes it's just a known quantity. Getting back to speakers, you're really asking a leap of faith for someone to walk into a retailer and pay money for speakers from nOrh. Or PSB. Or Energy. Who are these people? Is their stuff good? To find out for yourself, you need to really invest time and effort in auditioning systems - and overcoming some awfully pretentious salesmen in specialty audio stores, or simply awful salespeople at most electronics superstores. But if you go with Bose, you might assume that all your friends will be impressed. Which is why Bose buyers are always shocked at the negative reaction they get from the audio/home theater community.
2) Superb unobtrusive design - The mass market LOVES Bose design. Market research has proven that large boxy speakers do not appeal to women, and women make or veto most home purchases. Yes, today there are alternatives to Bose such as Gallo speakers that look like grapefruits, and maybe they sound better than Bose. But, maybe they don’t. (And Gallo who? Where do you buy them?) In any case, Bose started the trend, and continues to offer teeny tiny speakers with "big" sound. And Bose offers them in optional white enclosures that don’t call attention to themselves. It's also worth noting that complete Bose systems are a lot simpler to buy, set up, and operate than systems based on a receiver from a Japanese company (with a manual written in subtitles), speakers from a Canadian company, and a subwoofer from Washington (state, but assembled in China).
You pay extra for this, but Bose pays, too - they pay a lot more attention to ergonomics than many other manufacturers (particularly in their Lifestyle systems). However, there can be a downside here as well – the Bose integrated systems are designed to be easy to use, not for flexibility. It is often impossible to upgrade any single part of the system.
3) "Good enough" sound - OK, let's get to the sound. Bose sub/sat systems (for example, their “Acoustimass” speakers) sound pretty good for what they are - it's always a surprise that something that small makes any sound at all. And the bandpass sub design can play a lot louder than you'd expect. Plus, I strongly suspect that the Bose R&D folks have tweaked the sound to appeal to the widest range of people - it's very bright, and "live." Even people over 50 who have lost a bit of their high frequency hearing can hear the music "pop" from a Bose system.
Is this sound accurate? Is it as good as comparably priced systems with larger enclosures? No, not always - there’s no way to get tight, deep low bass out of the bandpass sub, the cubes tend to be bright instead of accurate, and there can be a hole in the midrange where the sub leaves off and the cubes pick up (this – big – problem is not unique to Bose, but occurs in many systems using tiny satellites). But does sound quality really matter? Not to most folks, because they can't tell the difference. In my experience, most people simply don’t know what good sound sounds like. Most people are happy with "good enough" instead of "educate me first, and then give me great." That’s OK, and isn't unique to audio - wine aficionados get upset when someone chooses a brand name wine from California over an obscure, nuanced wine from the upper region of the lower plains of the Chardonnay region of France. Then they go absolutely nuts when the California winery adds raspberry flavor to the wine - how dare they ruin a chardonnay?! On the other hand, if you want a sweet wine from someone you've heard of, why is that a bad thing?
I should note that I typically don’t recommend Bose speaker systems. I find that most people can be shown the difference between “really good sound” vs. “good enough sound” in a matter of minutes - a worthwhile investment. I personally prioritize sound quality above looks, system flexibility over ease of purchase, and audio value over audio brand. So for my needs, most Bose systems are overpriced, inaccurate, and inflexible. Of course, I have a Philips Pronto remote to handle the ease of use issues, my system is in a dedicated home theater room, and my wife doesn't care what goes down there. If your priority is not the best sound for the money, but rather the best sound you can get given an overriding priority for unobtrusive looks and ease of use, definitely consider Bose. However, in that case you should also consider in-wall speakers, Gallo speakers, and complete systems from Polk, Boston Acoustics, and Onkyo.
Column 5 Update (9/27/02)
At the end of Column 5 (9/24/01): The Dark Side of Successful Product Marketing: Bose, I suggested that if your space and/or aesthetics dictate the need for itty bitty speakers, you should consider Gallo Acoustics' line of shiny metal grapefruit-looking speakers. I have since had a chance to audition them at a retailer, and while the fault may lie with the setup or the relatively large room they were in, I was not impressed. The round footstool-like bass module put out nice tight bass, but was not integrated well with the satellites, nor did the satellites convey details I knew to be in the music. The treble on a similarly priced Bose Lifestyle system in the same room sounded much better to my ears, though the bass from the Bose bandpass subwoofer was not as taut.
I have also had a chance to listen to Bose's simplified 3-2-1 speaker system at a different retailer. This system is supposed to provide simple setup and realistic surround sound from just a pair of speakers (one on your TV, the other behind you). I can't vouch for the setup, because it was already assembled. But the surround sound part simply didn't work.
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