In December 2005, we had done an interview-based story with Amar Bose, the sound system legend who passed away in the USA in July. We chose to re-run that story once more

My wife recently bought a Bose Wave radio. Ever since we’ve had guests peering under tables, into corners, behind doors, at the ceiling, looking for the speakers. There’s a reason why these normally composed Bostonians are pushing their bodies through such contortions. You see, though the radio produces great quality sound that’s loud enough to gratify a teen on his/her hormonal high, it’s a tiny device really—the size of a small alarm clock. Our guests’ search has proved futile every single time for the simple reason that the radio has no external speakers.

There’s a philosophy behind every product that rolls out of Bose Corp. Says chairman Amar Bose: “People want something that gives you the full benefit of a hi-fi but is as simple as a refrigerator.”
It’s products like the Wave radio that enabled the 74-year-old Bose beat aggressive Japanese players like Sony, Nakamichi and Sanyo and pitchforked Bose Corp as the number one audio company in the world. Bose products can be found in the living rooms of music aficionados, Olympic stadiums, the Sistine Chapel and the Space Shuttle, where his noise cancellation system protects astronauts from permanent hearing damage.

Bose has got there by doing the unconventional, which his speakers are anyway. In a country where corporate grit is established on a quarter by quarter basis, Bose has looked at the long term. Often the very long term.

“In the 901 some speakers were aimed at the listener, and some at the walls. This design gave home audio the realism of a live ­performance”

It’s an approach that has worked harmoniously. Forbes ranks him 278 in its list of America’s 400 richest people. The only other Indians on the list are Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla and i2’s Sanjiv Sidhu. With a $750 million admission price, it’s not an easy-to-get-into list; nine-digit fortunes are an endangered species here. Forbes estimates Bose’s net worth to be around $1 billion. Bose has also been featured by Fortune magazine in its annual round-up of five visionaries.

Though the company does not release figures, the NPD Group, a market information firm in New York, says Bose is No. 1 in home speakers, with a 12.6 per cent market share. The company has 7,500 employees and $1.6 billion in annual revenue.

Credited with the first factory-fitted car stereo system in 1982, Bose Corp today is one of the world’s finest and most premium manufacturers of home hi-fi speakers.

It’s the passion behind the music that’s made Brand Bose solid as oak. The Wave radio, for instance, took 14 years to perfect before it was released in the US market. Says Bose, “If you don’t actually feel that the symphony on a Bose sound system sounds much better than any other product, then don’t buy Bose—you are simply wasting your money.” The Wave radio began in the 1960s when Bose went shopping for speakers. But the system didn’t live up to his expectations. His frustration led him into a career in psycho-acoustics: correlating how sound is produced electronically with the way people perceive it.

When you hear live music, the sound reaches your ear after reflecting off the walls and ceiling, giving that unique symphony hall experience. Very little of it comes to you directly. But nearly all music systems blast the music straight at your ears. Bose knew that a pipe organ made incredibly rich sounds, and that’s essentially what he put into his Wave radios. But how to fit an organ pipe into a tiny box? Bose solved this problem by designing a complex, twisting sound tube that winds around for 34 inches back and forth in the body of the radio. This isn’t as simple as it sounds —the key is how to fold the tube to let it make all sorts of sound. According to Bose, “The math alone could fill a wall.”

His speaker system was one of the first to make use of sound reflecting off walls and the ceiling. In 1964 he founded Bose Corp, which has developed car stereo systems, the Wave radio, as well as noise cancelling headsets used by pilots and astronauts. In addition to running his company, Bose teaches electrical engineering and computer science at MIT.

Bose attributes his success to owning his own company: He controls two-thirds, the rest held by private investors. It isn’t public, you can’t buy a share if you want to. “Public companies,” he says, “are by nature short-term oriented. They have to make their financial statements look good every 90 days.” And that, he adds, is “a formula for eventual loss.” The first product off Bose Corp’s assembly line—if you could call it that—was a speaker in the shape of an eighth of a sphere, which fit in a corner and reflected sound all around the room instead of in a direct beam as with conventional speakers. The year was 1964.

That sphere-shaped speaker evolved into the 901 system. The 901 had no woofers and no tweeters, which every speaker was supposed to have. It was very small compared with the trunk-sized music systems that were on the market those days. This revolutionary design aimed some speakers at the listener, and some speakers at the walls. The Direct/Reflecting speaker concept was born. This design gave home audio the realism of a live performance. As an added bonus, the system effectively removed the “sweet spot”. You no longer have to position yourself directly between each speaker to experience optimum sound quality. Since sound is bouncing all around the room, you can get up and walk around, and still hear great sound.

Bose was born and raised in Philadelphia, the son of a political dissident who moved from Kolkata. As a teenager, he earned money by repairing model trains and then transistors, practical experience which helped when he went on to MIT to study.

Bose has been phenomenally successful but two new products will test the company’s ability to enter new markets. One, the uMusic intelligent playback system, and the second, the Bose suspension system, which spent 24 years on the test track before its release in August. Music is essentially a giant hard drive that can store the contents of up to 350 CDs. It links each track with information about its genre, tone, and musicians and demonstrates the classic Bose knack for elegant design and intuitive operation. But uMusic isn’t available as a stand-alone product; you can buy it only as part of a high-end $3,000 system. Bose’s strategy often seems to favor sound quality and ease of use over interoperability. Which means you can’t buy music from an online Bose store, or download your customised playlists onto your iPod. Bose doesn’t make a portable music player of its own either. In an era when Apple’s iPod and offerings from Microsoft and Sony are transforming the way we buy, store, swap and listen to music, this is something unfathomable from Bose.

In the new suspension system, an electromagnetic motor is installed at each wheel. The motor responds to conditions in the road quickly enough to counter the effects of bumps and potholes, maintaining a comfortable ride. Those who’ve taken a ride in vehicles fitted with the system say it is like sitting in a hovercraft—gliding across potholes at 60 kph. But to have a real impact on the auto industry, Bose will have to make the system affordable. One cost estimate puts it at $20,000, which is more than the price of a fully equipped Toyota Corolla.

But Bose is unfazed. “We really have no idea about the size of the market,” he says matter-of-factly. “We just know that we have a technology that’s so different and so much better that many people will want it.”

With three billion cars on the road worldwide, that’ll be music to the ears of the bean counters at Bose Corp.


July 2013

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