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Bose wave radio

March 27, 2001

A public radio commentary

My wife recently bought a Bose Wave radio. For such a tiny device - its only the size of a clock radio - it makes a huge sound. Unlike most brand names there truly is a person behind this one; in fact Amar Bose still heads the Bose Corporation.

The wave radio began in the 1960s when Bose went shopping for speakers. Being very attuned to sound, he'd studied the violin for years, the systems of the time didn't live up to his expectations. His frustration in finding speakers propelled him into a career in psychoacoustics: That is, correlating how sound is produced electronically with the way people perceive it.

Having just finished his doctorate in electrical engineering, he was sure he could build better speakers. So he started the Corporation, based on a motto of "better sound through research." The first speakers he developed were technically excellent, but they failed: They were too large and complex for most people. Bose said this failure told him "people want something that gives you the full benefit of a hi-fi but [is] as simple as a refrigerator."

Meeting this goal took him and his co-workers fifteen years and fourteen million dollars. They wanted to make a compact stereo system that produced all frequencies of sound. Normal speakers can produce only a narrow swatch of sound in the middle of the range where the human voice falls. Usually voices sound nasal, or tinny, because the bass frequencies are missing. Bose wanted all of these frequencies - high and low - in his tiny speakers so he could create a full, rich sound. He knew that a pipe organ make incredibly rich sounds - and that's essentially what he put into his Wave Radios.

How, though, 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 - although the device is not much bigger than a clock radio. If you peer inside it looks a bit like an inner ear. This isn't as simple as it sounds - they 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." And this tube must be perfectly sealed and its dimensions must be extremely accurate.

Amar Bose attributes his success to owning his own company: He controls two-thirds, the rest held by private investors. It isn't public, you couldn't buy a share if you wanted 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." He might well know what he's talking about: the name Bose is now the world's largest audio brand.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises