Dr Bose’s legacy: the real sound of music

 

It was a disappointing stereo that started off Amar Bose. When he bought it in the 1950s, Dr Bose – at the time a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), near Boston – was frustrated to find the sound quality was a pale comparison to listening to live music.

That purchase sparked a lifetime of research into audio technology for Dr Bose – who died last Friday, aged 83 – and resulted in the eponymous company known for its high-quality, and high-cost, speakers.

He was the son of a Bengali freedom fighter who escaped from India to the US, after being imprisoned for opposing British rule, where he  married an American schoolteacher.

Having received a Bachelors degree, a Masters and a doctorate at MIT, Dr Bose was a professor of electrical engineering by the time Bose itself was founded in 1964. There were early contracts with Nasa, but the breakthrough came with the release of the 901 system in 1968, with its radical approach to speakers creating audio that sounded much closer to live performances.

It was by no means the only breakthrough that Bose would make. In the 1980s it found a way to produce quality sound from small speakers – technology which was put to use in its Wave radios. Bose’s noise-cancelling headphones were another hit, and not only among consumers: they are also used by pilots for both military and commercial airlines. Its sound systems are found in venues including the Sistine chapel and it has also made innovations away from audio, including a car suspension system.

Despite the company’s success, Dr Bose stayed as a member of the MIT faculty for 45 years, having originally only planned to teach for two. In 2011 he gave the university most of his Bose stock, with the dividends to be used to fund research and education.

“Amar Bose was an exceptional human being and an extraordinarily gifted leader,” said MIT’s president, L Rafael Reif. “He made quality mentoring and a joyful pursuit of excellence, ideas and possibilities the hallmark of his career in teaching, research and business.”

Bose’s president, Bob Maresca, vowed it will continue as a privately held company and “stay true to Dr Bose’s ideals”. As chairman of Bose, Dr Bose had insisted on it remaining private, saying its long-term research would not have been possible with a public company.

“I would have been fired a hundred times at a company run by MBAs,” he said. “But I never went into business to make money. I went into business to do interesting things that hadn’t been done before.”

Amar Bose: Audio pioneer

While trying to work out how to make speakers sound better Dr Bose, left, and his team discovered that when listening to live music most of the sound was actually rebounding off the walls and ceilings of a venue before reaching the eardrums. Speakers, however, directed the sound straight to the listener, with very little reflecting.

As a result, Bose’s breakthrough 901 speaker system contained eight “drivers” at the back of the speaker and only one at the front, which resulted in 89 per cent of the sound being reflected off the walls, creating the spacious quality of live music.

Bose’s acoustic waveguide tech- nology, meanwhile, challenged the idea that the larger the speaker, the better the sound.

It discovered that a loudspeaker mounted in a tube – even when folded into intricate patterns – resulted in a powerful sound being produced from a small speaker.

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