The Audio Interview: Direct Reflections from Amar Bose (July 1983)

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by DAVID LANDER

The driver's door of the 1983 Cadillac Seville swings open and Amar Bose steps out with all the swashbuckling assurance of a gunfighter dismounting on the main street of Dodge City, Kansas, a century ago. He is a lean six foot two, skin swarthy, hair wavy and graying handsomely. A few minutes late, he makes for the motel lobby where he is to meet visitors. Perhaps because of his build, perhaps because of his mind-set, the founder, chairman and technical director of Bose Corporation, probably the most successful U.S.-based audio company, tends to stride rather than simply walk.


But there is no swagger as he greets his dinner guests. Only warmth and an affable smile. By all means, a journalist should call him by his first name, pronounced Ah-Mahr, with more or less equal weight on each syllable.

Dinner, originally to have been in Boston, is now set for a spot in Framingham, the suburb that houses the corporation's headquarters. Already it is clear that its founder, who later admits to taking vacations only rarely, prefers to remain close to his work. At the restaurant, the M.I.T. graduate, now a full professor at the institution where he spent nine years as a student (though his teaching load is a light one), takes neither alcohol before or with his meal nor coffee or tea after ward. He is content with a steak and animated conversation, which pre pares his guests for a visit to the company's facilities the following morning and an afternoon interview.

In spite of his firm's dazzling track record, Dr. Bose seems an unlikely businessman. Aside from an expensive house which he helped design, he eschews emblems of luxury and perquisites most corporate chieftains relish. He normally drives a 10-year-old Buick (the Cadillac belongs to General Motors, which, along with its wholly owned supplier of radios, Delco, collaborated with Bose on the first mass produced auto sound systems acoustically designed for particular makes and models of cars; Dr. Bose did, how ever, confess he was taken with the Seville and might succumb). There are no executive parking spaces outside the hilltop plant, which was deliberately built with the cafeteria facing an Arcadian New England view and the chairman's windows overlooking a busy expressway. And when lunchtime arrives, it is to the company cafeteria that Dr. Bose escorts his guests. Their meal is charged, while Bose Corporation's major stockholder pulls out his wallet and pays for his own.

Amar Gopal Bose, now 53 years old, was born in Philadelphia to a father who fled his native India to avoid persecution at the hands of the English and an American mother, a school teacher. Even in America, his father continued to publicly decry the injustice inflicted on his nation by an occupying one and raised funds to support his people's cause. The elder Bose's spirit may have been inherited by his only child because, when Consumer Reports ran what he considered a damaging review of his Model 901 loudspeaker in 1970, Dr. Bose did more than merely bristle. He filed suit against Consumers Union, the magazine's publisher, and pursued his cause for 11 years before a Federal Court in Boston ruled in his favor, making his the first company to defeat the powerful group in a courtroom. Shortly after this interview took place, an appellate court overturned the decision and, at press time, Bose had heard that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear his appeal this fall. Because of this, and at the advice of Audio's attorneys as well as those of Bose Corporation, I have omitted those portions of the discussion bearing on the topic under litigation.

-D. L.

Editor's Note: A decision to hold back interesting materials or discussion is always a difficult one, but libel is a strong argument not to publish.

Whatever, when the case is decided, we intend to do a follow-up interview with Dr. Bose.

-E.P.


When did you first get interested in electronics?

Electronics, as such, at 13. I think it originally started with some friends I had who were in the Boy Scouts who wanted to make some sort of a communications system that would work with rods that you stick in the ground a couple of hundred feet apart. So from that I learned how to read a schematic, and then I got very, very interested. By age 14 I had opened a radio repair shop. Since my father's business was an import business at that time and there was no shipping available, this provided the major income for our home. There was a big need for it because the people who were old enough to service radios generally were in the armed forces during the war, so I had an incredible business going while I was in high school.

How much of your time did this take?

It was every evening, every weekend and, as I remember, every Friday, since I managed to play hooky from school on Fridays on a regular basis.

Still, you must have had good grades to get into M.I.T.

Yes, my father made it a condition that I couldn't take off Fridays to work in the radio shop unless I maintained a good grade average.

When did you first get involved in the work that Bose Corp. is based on?

That started in the spring of 1956 when I finished the doctorate research and was in the process of writing. That tends to be not as exciting as the re search, so I decided I would buy a music system for some background music. And I bought it as engineers tend to buy things, on specification sheets. I really believed these numbers could tell me what was good and what wasn't, and I didn't even audition the equipment before purchasing it. I brought it home, set it up and bought some violin records because I had played violin. I turned it on and literally believed the unit was defective be cause the violins sounded anything but real. So I began finding that more and more of my time was being spent trying to resolve this apparent puzzle, that something that measured well sounded poor. And that's where the whole thing began.

But exactly how did you begin? Specifically, what were the first steps?

The first major effort took place in the summer of '56. I had been granted a position on the faculty when I graduated, but with a year's leave of absence to go on a Fulbright scholarship over seas. I asked M.I.T. if I could stay that summer without salary to use their facilities because I was interested in acoustics, whereas my formal field of research was more in the electronics side and communications theory. They agreed, and so I made an arrangement with the person who was then president of Radio Shack to borrow all these different brand-name speakers--brand-new ones--make measurements on them in an anechoic chamber at M.I.T., and then return them in good condition and give him the data if it was useful.

You've mentioned that this was a part time preoccupation for the first few years. How long did it take before your research into acoustics took center stage?

In 1959 a very fortunate circumstance occurred. Namely, at that time Dr. Jerome Wiesner, who later became president of M.I.T. but at that time was director of the research laboratory of electronics there, which was the lab oratory I did my research in, encountered me in the hallway. He commented that he had seen in my office this very strange octant of a sphere with 22 little loudspeakers on it, and he wondered what that had to do with statistical theory of communication [Dr. Bose's formal field of research at the time]. And so I said it didn't have much to do with it, and in the process we wandered back into my office and talked for 10 or 20 minutes. It turned out that prior to coming to M.I.T. he was involved with the Library of Congress studying the processes of re cording and reproduction of sound, so he was quite interested. And by 1959 I was able to show that what is in the textbooks as to how you should design loudspeakers is absolutely incorrect, and I could show why. But I couldn't replace it with anything. I could show the errors, but not give a solution.

What kind of errors?

There are many dimensions in which errors take place, but one very glaring one, that's easy to see, is that the text books tell you to take a loudspeaker in an anechoic chamber and put a micro phone six feet on axis and design the speaker so that it has a flat frequency response measured by that micro phone. Well, it turns out that the balance of tones that a loudspeaker radiates, the balance of energies at the different frequencies, is completely de pendent on the surroundings of the loudspeaker because the impedance that it sees, looking out from the cone of the loudspeaker, is a function of its surroundings. That was just one problem. There are many, many others.

Let's go back to Jerome Wiesner and the "fortunate circumstance" you began telling us about.

We couldn't offer a solution at the time, but then Dr. Wiesner said our object at M.I.T. was not to produce products but to produce knowledge, and especially if that knowledge corrected incorrect notions of the past. So he said, I think we ought to make this an official project. His judgment on that had an enormous impact on the whole program. I don't think we would be where we are today without his decision, which opened the doors to having students and other faculty and facilities. Basically, as I see it, all those years of research couldn't have been done by any individual or even a company. There were no companies that would have put that kind of R & D money in, because a great deal of the research was not spent in any relation to a product but to try to understand the relationship be tween the things that are measured and perception, throwing out those things which don't have relationship, creating new measurements that did have. Also, I might say it was very lucky that conversation with Dr. Wiesner happened at that time, because the following year, 1960, saw the election of John Kennedy, and Kennedy promptly took Dr. Wiesner to Washington as his science advisor so he was gone for a couple of years. And had this conversation not happened, I think the project might never have gotten off the ground.

How long did the project take?

It was from 1956 until the first Model 901, which really embodied everything that we knew at the time--1956 to '68, 12 years.

Yet you formed your company in 1964.

The company was formed in '64, but at the time we formed it, we had patents in electronics and in acoustics, and the company really did all its early work with the government agencies in the electronics field--high-efficiency power amplification, audio amplification, power conversion. The original prospectus of the company stated that it would go into two areas. One was the electronics and the other was the acoustics. What we had from M.I.T. was a good knowledge of physics and a good knowledge of acoustics, but that's a long way from making a product that embodies those, and it took us four years, working nights, primarily, at the company to take that knowledge and put it into a practical embodiment that was the 901.

You had another speaker before the 901. The 2201, wasn't it? How many did you sell?

About 50 or 60 pairs. That was based on a research tool that we had been working with all these years at M.I.T., the octant of a sphere that I spoke of.

Isn't that what's been called the bee hive speaker?

I wasn't aware of that, but it certainly is an appropriate term for it.

Why did you sell so few?

Well, what happened was that the re search into the spatial aspects of sound was going on very heavily be tween '65 and '68. By 1967 we realized that we could produce, at least at a research level, a 901 which outperformed this 2201 at a fraction of its cost.

What, specifically, was the 2201 like?

The 2201 was an octant of a sphere, 22 inches in radius, that sat in a corner, and it had 22 small drivers on it that were equalized with a power amplifier inside the loudspeaker. We were able to show through some very interesting computer studies-the report on that exists in M.I.T.'s Technology Review if you ever want to see it--that that octant of a sphere with all those little , loudspeakers on it would, in fact, sound identical to a perfect pulsating sphere, meaning a sphere whose radius just changes, with no resonances like cones have, no disturbances to the signal in any way. In a room, that perfect sphere and this partial one with all these little drivers would, in fact, sound identical. And that was the subject of a four-year experiment done at M.I.T. with the aid of the Lincoln Laboratory computer. With that very advanced computer we were able to prove it.

And that is what led us to designs in which our most expensive products are always full range with a multiplicity of drivers, never woofers, midrange and tweeter. In fact, all our designs would be that way except for cost.

Regarding measurements, you've said in the past that loudspeaker manufacturers generally look at things that they know how to measure and are merely convenient from an engineering stand point but aren't relevant to perception.

You have distinct ideas about what should be measured. Do you want to talk about this a bit?

Not really. And the reason for that is, as you know, our company has reinvested 100% of its earnings, and a lot of it's gone into the R & D of determining exactly the kinds of things that one should measure. And we try to advance that every year. But that really is the stock in trade that we have. Namely, we have computer facilities now that I think are the best that exist--and I don't mean just hardware, but software--to make measurements which encompass those elements that we know about and can handle concerning how a human processes sound to make his final judgment on it. And that's highly proprietary. I mean that's really our stock in trade, and it's what enables us to go into an environment and hopefully be able to outperform the competition.

You use the word folklore, I gather in opposition to science, when discussing some of the common beliefs in high fidelity. How much folklore persists in hi-fi? Is it mostly in the realm of speakers, which many people claim defy measurement, or does it exist elsewhere?

Oh, you find it everywhere. I think you were speaking to me about bricks on amplifiers allegedly making the sound better. I think a few good psychoacoustic tests will show, as Hans Christian Andersen's story of the emperor's new clothes showed, that the king is "nekkid."

To what phenomenon do you attribute this kind of thinking?

It exists primarily because of the way the industry grew up. It grew up with the hobbyists and people without formal training in either mathematics, physics or acoustics or psychoacoustics. They hypothesize all these interesting things and, I think, live in the world of imagination and really have not been sufficiently trained to know what it means to conduct a proper psychoacoustic experiment, which can prove or disprove many of these beliefs almost immediately.

How do these beliefs affect the products themselves? Do they, in fact?

Oh yes. You must remember, now, that the people who read hi-fi magazines comprise less than 0.5% of the nation, and then a lot of people who read those magazines don't read them for the technical aspects. Many of them are reading them for the information they have on music. So when you narrow it down to what percentage of the people are audiophiles, it becomes a very, very small percentage of the people. On the other hand, that area of the industry is responsible for producing better sound than the people who produced radio-phonograph combinations. And it's known for that, and it influences both the manufacturers and the retailer. And if the manufacturer feels that his product will be better received by the audio press and by the dealer-salesman if he makes a system with 0.01% distortion, and if people will pay more money for that, that's the trend. Also, the manufacturer's hunting for ways to make his product-"better than the competition," and so "better" often takes the meaning of the specification sheet rather than the ultimate benefit to the consumer, which is simply performance.

(Source: Audio magazine, Jul. 1983)

Also see: Bose Model 301 (April 1975)

SIE Publishing "Critical Listening: An Audio Training Course" (July 1983)

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