Bose is the Massachusetts success story everyone knows about but doesn' t know a lot about. That's no accident. In this age when most businesses aspire to go public, Framingham-based Bose remains privately held. Amar Bose, the former MIT professor who founded it, is still chairman and CEO, and the company is not obliged to report its finances to Wall Street or anyone else.
One of the things that means is that you do not read regular reports in the business pages on its stock performance or deals. Another is that company managers are free to pursue the product strategies of their choosing.
As a company spokeswoman put it, because "Bose Corporation is privately held, we are able to reinvest 100 percent of our profits back into the company. This funds our research and allows us to spend the time necessary to develop new technologies and products." She added, "Bose has an exceptionally strong commitment to research. Given this, we're continuously monitoring the consumer electronics landscape (and many others) to learn about new trends and develop new products/technologies."
What consumers see from this is that Bose often creates not just new products, but invents new product niches. For example, I have recently been testing Bose's QuietComfort 3 headphones, its companion kit to allow it to be used with iPhones, BlackBerries, and other cellphones with music player capabilities, and the Companion 5 computer speaker system.
The "QC3" brings Bose's active sound cancellation technology to a smaller headphone that sits on the user's ear rather than fitting over it like an earmuff they way the QuietComfort 2 does. The adapter kit swaps out the headphones' cable with one that includes a microphone for cell calls, plus a bundle of plugs that fit a wide range of phones.
The QC3 is in some ways an exception to Bose's market-creator role. The QC2 created the market for high-end noise reduction headphones and such audiophile headphone makers as Sennheiser and AKG responded with on-ear models, so QC3 is somewhat of a catch-up product although it does strive to be a bit more upscale in design than the competitors. The capability to work with multiple smartphones, though, is a place where Bose completely leads the pack. While everyone else rushed to support the iPhone, Bose realized that there are a lot of BlackBerries out there.
The Companion 5 attracted my attention for two reasons. First, it works via a USB connection to your computer, bypassing the onboard audio circuitry and employing its own. That cuts out system noise and interference. It means generally cleaner sound. If you want to know what I mean, plug a good pair of headphones into your computer's audio output jack and listen to the static and pop.
Second, the 5, which has the standard two speakers and a subwoofer configuration, simulates surround sound that typically requires five speakers. It is not perfect — I wasn't fooled into believing that I had a hidden set of speakers behind me — but it definitely enhances the soundtrack of DVDs played on your computer. Plus it is self-evidently easier to do speaker placement and wiring with fewer speakers.
Both the QuietComfort 3 and the Companion 5 attest to Bose's strongest audio suit. Nobody gets more sound out of a smaller package than Bose. And nobody does a better job of finding way to work around less-than-optimum acoustic conditions. Let's face it. The cabin of an airplane or your office desk are unlikely to offer concert hall ambiance.
On the other hand, they also demonstrate the downside of Bose. Bose tends to put acoustic magic ahead of musical accuracy. With all that surround emulation going on with the Companion 5, there is not as much clarity and frequency response as I would like. The QC3s are even more problematic; to compensate for the lack of passive sound reduction that earmuff phones provide, Bose increased its reliance on noise reduction circuitry. Initially I was impressed by the silence they produce, but after extending listening I grew tired of the obvious distortion to the music.
In addition, they are expensive: $350 for the QuietComfort 3, plus another $40 for cellphone kit; $400 for the Companion 5. There are less costly alternatives, even from Bose. QuietComfort 2s, in my opinion, have a much better balanced sound than the 3s and cost $50 less, and also have a cellphone kit available. The Companion 3 at $250 foregoes the surround effect, but is definitely a speaker system to consider if you are short on space at your desk.
Already competing products are starting to appear to counter Bose in these markets. But I doubt that they are worrying much at The Mountain (corporate HQ). They probably are already well along in pioneering another consumer electronics niche we'll see in the future.
Al Gordon is a Massachusetts-based writer who specializes in technology and consumer electronics. You can read more of his articles at www.algordon.com/techblog.html and e-mail him at email@example.com.