This Does Not Compute

Technology, gaming, music and things that just don't compute

Buy Other Sound Equipment

I wouldn’t consider myself an audiophile. I don’t buy into the arguments that you need $5k cables to make your speakers sound their best, or that CDs were the worst thing to happen to recorded music (yes, there are people who believe that vinyl has more resolution). However, music is a very big part of my life, and the pack-in iPod earbuds or $20 Logitech computer speakers just won’t cut it. I have a headphone collection, and at one point there were more subwoofers in my house than there were people.

Now, let me digress for a second. One of these days, the Google crawlers will hit this site and find this post. To make sure I end up being associated with the correct keywords, I’m going to put the post tags up front and center:

BOSE PRODUCTS SUCK.

I’ve had a big dilemma lately. I’m trying to organize my home office, and as part of that I’m trying to become more minimalistic in terms of the gear and gadgets I keep. Stuff I haven’t used in years is getting sold off or thrown out; things I do occasionally use are being better organized and stored, etc. One of the philosophies I’m trying to work towards is that unless I use it on a daily basis, it doesn’t belong on my desk.

I’m also trying to take another look at my habits; have I been trying to justify keeping something (or buying something new) by convincing myself that item is more important than it really is? This thought led me to reconsidering my Sony MD555 shelf stereo. The receiver unit sits on my desktop, and the speakers are on a shelf above the desk. Having the speakers on the shelf is fine with me, as they’re out of the way, but the space the receiver takes up is real estate I could use.

There are really only three places I listen to music any more:

  1. In the car to/from work
  2. At work
  3. At home, in the office, sitting in front of the computer

The only real time I play music from my iPhone is when I’m sick of listening to the radio in the car; I never listen to music while “on the go” any more. I have an iPod nano that I haven’t turned on in 9 months; my previous 5th gen iPod hasn’t been taken out of a drawer in about 2 years; and I’ve never even plugged in a pair of headphones to my iPad yet.

Listening to music in the car is, of course, always done through the car’s stereo (I kept the factory Mazda headunit, as it’s actually made by Clarion and is of good quality; the door speakers were replaced with Infinity Reference components and 2-way coaxials in the front and rear doors, respectively, and an Infinity BassLink rounds out the low end — it’s not a ridiculously expensive or fancy system, but it’s a tremendous value considering the resulting sound quality). At work, I listen to iTunes (streaming radio is frowned upon by HR) through a set of Logitech 2.1 something-or-others, with the volume kept quite low and the music selection kept SFW.

At home is where I can cut loose musically. I can’t pump up the jam as loud as I can in the car, as I try to be a good neighbor (I’m still not entirely sure just how soundproof the walls are), but that’s what headphones are for. My weapon of choice for the last couple years has been a pair of Shure SE210 in-ear monitors; before them, I used Shure E2’s. Both offer excellent, but different, sound quality, and they work for me better anatomically than around-the-ear headphones (the latter of which tend to press the temples of my glasses into my head, which becomes quite painful after an hour or so), especially after I got custom-molded sleeves for the 210’s made.

Sometimes, though, I want to listen through speakers. I’m usually not doing any critical listening and for a long time found that the aforementioned Sony shelf system had perfectly serviceable sound quality, made quite decent through tweaking of the many EQ options the receiver offers. The problems I’ve had with it lately — or at least, the problems I’ve convinced myself I’m having with it lately — is the desktop space issue, a lack of detail in the bookshelf speakers, and, most importantly, a rather noisy headphone output. When probably 80% of your listening at home is through the SE210’s, having audible hiss from your headphone amp becomes annoying.

Thus began the search to replace the Sony. I don’t need near as many features as it offers — in addition to a line input and AM/FM tuner, it has a 5-disc CD changer and — get this — a 5-disc MiniDisc changer/recorder. The only time I listen to the radio is in the car (I get 2 hours of the same Top 40 songs over and over daily during my commute, do I really need to listen to it at home too?), and any CDs I buy get played only once, when I stick them in my iMac and rip them in iTunes. I can’t remember the last time I played a MiniDisc.

So really, all I need out of a system is a line input, a decent, low-noise amp, and a clean headphone output. Then I got to thinking that even if I replace the Sony with a smaller bookshelf system, I’d still have desk space taken up by the receiver (hopefully just a bit less of it). I got to thinking more and realized that my wife already had a setup that met my needs: Small, line input, headphone out, etc. In 2008 she had been having problems with her Aiwa shelf system that she used on her desk at home, so I decided to replace it with something that met her even fewer needs than mine. She isn’t a stickler for sound quality, but just wanted speakers that sounded OK that also had a headphone jack that would disconnect the speakers when headphones were plugged in. Her desk is cramped too, so I ignored the advice that I had been giving others for years and bought a pair of Bose Companion 2 Series II speakers for her. I listened to them for a few minutes when I first set them up for her, noting that for a 2.0 system they weren’t horrible. I didn’t do any critical listening, though, and hadn’t listened to them since (as, it turns out, my wife actually does something like 99% of her music listening through headphones).

I somehow came to the decision that, with the relatively low percentage of speaker-listening I do at home, that the Companions would meet my needs too. Yes, they’d need to sit on the desktop, but they were unobtrusive and still took up less desk space than the Sony receiver. A member on one of the Mazda forums I frequent was selling his pair; I talked him down to $50 shipped for them, and they showed up just a couple days ago.

So that’s twice I’ve ignored my own advice now.

I just spent the last few hours listening to the Companions — proper critical listening, not just humming along while folding my laundry or something — and found that they were actually an awful candidate to replace what I already had. Here are a few of the many reasons I’m glad I at least didn’t pay full price for them:

  • Each speaker only has one full-range 2″ or so driver; this means a very small driver is responsible for handling the whole frequency spectrum. This tends to make the Companions sound “bogged down” when playing bass-heavy music, and there’s a definitive lack of deep bass.
  • Bose does a crapload of active EQ with these speakers. They epitomize Bose sound, the whole “if it’s all highs and lows, it’s Bose” cliche. There’s really not much of a midrange to them; they’re mostly boomy, muddy bass and clear but undetailed highs.
  • You can’t turn them off. The volume control goes down to where no sound will come out of the speakers, but they’re always drawing power.
  • They have a very wide dispersion pattern (you don’t hear much of a change in the sound even moving from in front of the speakers to completely off to the side of them), but the soundstage is actually exceptionally narrow. There is a very small stereo sweet spot in the middle of them, move even just a little bit, and suddenly the lead vocals seem to be coming exclusively from the speaker you’re closest to.
  • There’s really no depth, no spark to the sound. Speakers are, unlike music itself, one of those things that I can tell right away whether I’ll like or not. Give me at most one minute, and I can tell you whether the speakers are ones that I’ll love (and love even more with just minor EQing), or ones that I’ll loathe forever. I knew immediately the Companions were the latter. No amount of EQing can bring them back, and even with my eyes closed their sound just screams “computer speakers,” not “small desktop replacement for bookshelf speakers” like I had been hoping.
  • The final nail in their coffin: The infamous Bose EQ isn’t applied to just the drivers, it’s applied to the headphone output as well. Yuck.

Over the years, dealing with both Bose consumer and pro audio gear, I’ve pretty much figured out how their engineering is done. Bose takes crappy, undersized drivers (paper cones, foam surrounds), puts them in weird arrays (in multiple-driver speakers), plays them full-range (in most cases) and then just EQs the hell out of them. They’ll use active EQ if they can (such as in self-powered systems or the “system controller” for pro speakers), but they’ll resort to carefully designed crossover networks if they have to (for the few passive speakers they still sell). Bose really treats speakers as building blocks; the same 4″ driver is used in the 402, 802, Panaray and FreeSpace series, so Bose only really had to design the EQ once, then tweak it for each speaker model just to compensate for the enclosure. Bust just like my Companion 2’s, a 4″ woofer will bog down when trying to play the whole spectrum (especially at high SPL as pro gear often needs to do). Try to find a regular dome tweeter or a woofer larger than 6″ in any of Bose’s lineup. They’re few.

Bose is as popular as it is, and gets the reviews it gets, because it caters to ordinary listeners. Such listeners likely wouldn’t describe themselves as music lovers, they’re just people who want to put music on as background noise. Humans, or at least those in our culture, living in our time period, tend to gravitate towards sound that accentuates highs and lows — it sounds more “rich” or “full”, regardless of whether there’s any actual detail there or not. Bose knows this, and that’s why their products sound the way they do. They don’t need detail, or midrange, because ordinary people don’t know what those are anyway. The Bose speakers always sound “so much nicer” than the just as expensive, but more neutral (yet more accurate) audiophile speakers to such people.

So since the Companions are out of the running, what’s next? My next idea is a set of passive monitors (something like the KRK R6’s) with a small integrated amp/headphone amp like the Nu-Force Icon. Problem is, that setup costs $500, and the Icon doesn’t even put out enough juice to make the KRKs sound their best. I’ve also been thinking about a pair of JBL Control 5’s, which are speakers I’ve wanted ever since I was a kid, but the same amplification problem arises. Denon makes a nice micro-system — the receiver would still take up desk space, but likely a good bit less than the Sony does — yet the hang-up there is that it still costs $400. That’s $400 I can put towards a couch for the office, or a new stove, or just keep in savings.

Chances are, if you ask me 6 months from now, I’m probably still going to be using the Sony.

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