keywords: Bose speakers audio video A/V satellite subwoofer tweeter marketing audiophiles videophiles home theater
November 29, 2002 7:34 AM   Subscribe

Just say 'no' to Bose. Bose speakers may be the best known brand to many people, but ask an audiophile about them, and be prepared for flames. Is this just snobbery and elitism? This guy walks you through why Bose speakers are a very poor choice for the money, Bose's deceptive marketing practices, and even gives you a list of better alternatives. [more inside]
posted by Slithy_Tove (87 comments total)
I consider Bose to be an example of market failure. I am a free-market oriented kind of guy, but even I will admit that markets aren't the appropriate medium for every social interaction, and that even within their proper sphere, there are occasional market failures. Bose seems to be one. Normally, bad products fail: you may be impelled by good marketing to buy a bad cereal or a bad brand of shirt once, but if you don't like it, you never buy it again. The word gets around that it's a bad product, it doesn't sell, and eventually disappears from the market. The problem with speakers, I guess, is a) you don't buy them very often; b) they're expensive, and it may be difficult to back out of the purchase; c) individual preference is very subjective, so reviews by experts or recommendations of your friends are of limited value; d) it's very difficult to compare between two brands fairly, and almost impossible to do an A/B comparison. Bose seems to prey upon that last item specifically, and to unfairly rig its speaker demos in stores.

Older audiophiles will tell you that in the early 70's, Bose was a respectable company, and produced truly innovative speakers that compared well with other good brands of the time. However, sometime in the mid to late 70's, the company decided there was more money in marketing cheaply made speakers at high prices, than in selling good speakers for a fair price.

The fellow whose webpages these are seems to be much more of an audiophile than a videophile. I'm the opposite, and I got a giggle out of the picture of his home theater rig.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 7:36 AM on November 29, 2002

I'm a Meridian-fan myself. My bank account, however, is not.
posted by dagny at 7:38 AM on November 29, 2002

My hearing is damaged enough that I can't tell the difference between audiophile sound and computer speakers with a subwoofer. Guns and guitars are not ear-friendly. ;-P
posted by mischief at 7:44 AM on November 29, 2002

I am about to commit heresy here, but...I hope that I never get to the point in my life where I "need" a $1000+ sound system to make my music and movies sound "right."

Big TV? Okay, I can see that. Subwoofers and side speakers? Yeah, okay, I'm down with that. A really expensive sound system that has to be calibrated and you have to take into account carpeting and wall covering? No thank you.

Am I wrong? Tell me how I am wrong.
posted by ColdChef at 7:57 AM on November 29, 2002

ColdChef it's just a hobby. Relax.
posted by four panels at 8:00 AM on November 29, 2002

You know what? The best-sounding speakers I ever had were this pair of used Zenith's, made, by the looks of them, in about 1974. Everything that came out of them sounded warm and clear. They were great and, I suspect, cheap.
Then, one day, one of them died, and the other was never quite the same.

ColdChef: I cannot tell you how you are wrong. I think you are right. I always equated an audiophile-calibrated 120-speaker setup with a nostrum.
posted by Fabulon7 at 8:03 AM on November 29, 2002

Oh, and I forgot--Bose does suck.
posted by Fabulon7 at 8:03 AM on November 29, 2002

Sorry if I came off snarky. I really am curious. I'd like someone to explain to me (in non-audiofreek terms) why this is a wise investment.
posted by ColdChef at 8:04 AM on November 29, 2002

More evidence of audiophiles hating Bose is evident in It was a fun group to frequent while I was picking out hi-fi components.
posted by hyperizer at 8:06 AM on November 29, 2002

nos·trum ( P ) Pronunciation Key (nstrm)
n. 1. A medicine whose effectiveness is unproved and whose ingredients are usually secret; a quack remedy.
2. A favorite but untested remedy for problems or evils.

Thanks for sending me to the dictionary, Fabulon! New day, new word.
posted by ColdChef at 8:07 AM on November 29, 2002

word of the day toilet paper.
that's the way to go.
posted by tj at 8:15 AM on November 29, 2002

I put together my rig quite similarly to one of his alternative reccomendations: Three NHT SuperOnes with a pair of SuperZeros as surrounds -- maybe $700 worth of speaker. I highly reccomend them, but for the listener of gentle temperment they might be the wrong choice: NHTs sound best when driven hard, making them fairly good theater speakers and excellent for music so long as they're turned up enough.

Also, they're built like bricks -- I dropped one from over six feet and dented the hardwood floor. The speaker didn't even scratch. Somewhere around is an epinion I wrote up on these things.

Bose has rarely impressed me, and I don't know where all the hype about them comes from. They've put out some acceptable products in the past but aren't really exceptional in any way. Brand loyalty, perhaps? I know a guy with a pair from the late 70s that's pretty nice, but when he replaced them with a more recent Bose product it I wasn't very impressed at all.

In that vein, I'm now a lifelong Cerwin-Vega and NHT customer, based on my positive experiences with both in A/B tests as well as having owned them. Cerwin-Vega VS100s are my computer speakers, and they beat the crap out of almost every sat/sub rig I've heard (a good Yamaha setup is the next best thing I've come across).

All that said, I'm not the sort of person who would earn the title "audiophile": I go with what sounds good to me, and spend a bit of effort to set things up well so I can enjoy my sound.
posted by majick at 8:34 AM on November 29, 2002

So mare nostrum, that would be like bogus horse medicine, right?
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:37 AM on November 29, 2002

That would be his marriage, judging by the photographs.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:39 AM on November 29, 2002

If I had an obscene amount of money, I'd get some B&Ws. As for Bose, a friend's dad shelled out money to buy one of their low end home theatre sets, and while it did sound better than his previous set up, I felt as if he'd paid a lot more than he should have.

ColdChef, the way I see it, if you try out some high end speakers, and the sound quality is truly amazing, it brings out new sounds and manages to refresh the recordings you know by heart, and then if you feel the price is worth it, you should get a set of good speakers. If after testing them out, you feel like the sound quality did improve but the price is not worth it, or you weren't impressed with the high end speakers, then stick to your current set up.
posted by riffola at 8:43 AM on November 29, 2002

I had to replace my 80's vintage Cerwin Vegas(otherwise known as the Indoor World Champion Led Zeppelin Speakers) due to the fact that the wife got tired of the huge ass cabinets taking up so much room. I picked up a set of the Klipsch Quintets that this guy has on his list of acceptable substitutes for Bose speakers. $600 for 4 satellite speakers, a decent center channel, and a 12 inch subwoofer. I think they sound great even when blasting the Clash, and work so well with movies that I went and got a bigger TV and haven't seen the inside of a theater in three years.

And while he may be right about Bose speakers, Lexus are overrated and overpriced, his car looks like a Chevy Lumina, his web design sucks, and that bikini page is so "copyright 1999, page served from my dorm room".
posted by dglynn at 8:45 AM on November 29, 2002

What I actually meant was "worth the investment" in terms of how much enjoyment will I get out of it, not in terms of resale value. This just seems to be something that is as hard to explain as it is for a non-audiophile to understand, so I'll stop asking.

On preview: Thanks, Riffola.
posted by ColdChef at 8:46 AM on November 29, 2002

Bear in mind that we're not even talking about audiophile speaker systems here, which can run past the US$100,000 price range. I'm not sure I could tell the difference between $50,000 speakers and $100,000 ones. Heck, I'm not even sure I could tell the difference between a $4,000 system (which is about what I've got) and a $20,000 one. But I'm positive I can tell the difference between a $300 and and a $1000 one, and ColdChef, so can you. And once you've heard them both, it may be very hard to go back to the $300 one.

Audiophile wisdom: don't ever listen to better speakers than you can afford.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 8:50 AM on November 29, 2002

Man, I've got no problem spending money on the things I enjoy.

I like my cup of coffee in the morning. A couple months ago I dropped $300+ on a pump-driven espresso machine. That's expensive coffee, but damn, I like it.

I liked Unreal Tournament. Only game I've ever bought, only game I've played for more than a day. Cost me an arm and a leg to upgrade my damn computer system, just to piss away my time on Capture the Flag!

I love riding my motorcycle. I'm paying insurance throughout the winter, just on the chance I might get a couple days riding in. I've spent a fair chunk of change on upgrades to it, too, to make my riding more enjoyable.

My stereo? If I ever get into a music groove, I'll be upgrading it in no time. It's not a bad system right now: standard CD player, NAD amp, Royd speakers. But the amp is getting flakey, the CD is antique technology, and the speakers aren't as good as today's cutting-edge designs. (On the other hand, I'd probably keep the speakers and put bucks toward kick ass headphones, new amp, new CD).

The things I like, I like to like a lot. The rest doesn't much count.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:53 AM on November 29, 2002

We had a similar discussion about expensive headphones recently.
posted by riffola at 9:03 AM on November 29, 2002

Coldchef: I'd like someone to explain to me (in non-audiofreek terms) why this is a wise investment

My amp tends to blow cheap speakers pretty quickly. (It's a club amp, solid state, it's loudest volume is 50, and I've never been able to go louder than about 30, and that's if I'm outside working on the yard... it's an amazing amp. I inherited it, and as much as I love that amp, I'd still rather have my friend back... but anyway.)

I'm an Infinity speaker person personally. In a good sized house, assuming you're wiring the house for sound, going over a $1,000 is a given, really. (When doing my house, I hired a sound guy to come do acoustic tests and design the wiring diagram... and had the wiring built in so that I get as much acoustic value out of the house as possible.

There are more expensive speakers than mine, and I can tell the difference, but the difference is such that I'm not willing to make the price jump to multiple numbers in front of the comma. :)
posted by dejah420 at 9:10 AM on November 29, 2002

I'm in the same boat as mischief. My high-frequency hearing is almost gone in my left ear (if I lie on my right side in the summer I can't hear crickets chirping outside) and it's not a whole lot better in my right ear, so my home audio setup isn't very sophisticated.

However, while at a local high-end stereo shop a while back, I heard some amazing speakers that also looked really cool. If I could afford them, I'd have a pair.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:17 AM on November 29, 2002

Well, here's another question: If you can get Bose speakers for cheap, are they worth it then? I bought Bose speakers because I could get a massive (~40%) discount on them, and they've served me pretty well, from dorm room to apartment. I can see the anger over Bose's marketing and so on, but I think it's important to keep in mind that they are overpriced low-end speakers.

That being said, however, as soon as they die I will be looking for something a little nicer...
posted by CommaTheWaterseller at 9:23 AM on November 29, 2002

This information comes at a timely moment since I was just getting ready to go out hoping to buy speakers for a Christmas gift. Now can you tell me what kind of turntable I should buy?
posted by oh posey at 9:35 AM on November 29, 2002

The best speakers I never bought were the ones these two guys were selling out of the back of a van. See, the warehouse screwed up and put an extra set in the truck and they wanted to go to a strip bar so they wanted to sell them cheap ...
posted by mss at 9:45 AM on November 29, 2002

What I'd like to see are suggestions for those of us who don't have the funds to buy the high end stuff. What can we buy for under say, $500 or so that sounds decent?
posted by damnitkage at 9:47 AM on November 29, 2002

Cold Chef, Here is the simple way to figure it out:

1) Take your favorite CD put it in it's case (assuming it is lying on the floor, much like most of mine)
2) Get the yellow pages, find a shop with the same sort of names included on the aforementioned page (you might also want to look for names like Linn or MartinLogan or Krell as well (amongst many others..) avoid the places that sell only JVC, Kenwood, Sony, etc.)
3) Call 'em up, ask their hours, ask for a listening demo (some shops like if you set one up before hand, others don't care.)
4) Drive out there, stick in your favorite CD, Listen.

You'll probably hear things in the recording that you have never heard before. Then you will know.
posted by kurtosis at 9:50 AM on November 29, 2002

I'll just add that you should take two CDs, one with acoustic songs that you know and love, and the other being your favourite non-acoustic CD.
posted by riffola at 9:54 AM on November 29, 2002

I'm a fan of Paradigms myself, they're a Canadian company, and I don't know how deep their US penetration is, but they're really great-sounding speakers in the $1000 range.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:54 AM on November 29, 2002

damnitkage - I have a pair of these that have served me quite well. The sound is very clean and loud. The MSRP is 400 dollars but I found them for 130 on ebay.
posted by atom128 at 9:56 AM on November 29, 2002

On the home theater sites I used for research, I remember the running joke that I haven't heard mentioned here, which was "Monster Cables are the Bose Speakers of wire, don't buy them!"

I've never been able to do side by side comparison tests of cables connected to identical systems, but I suspect Monster Cable doesn't make anything sound noticeably better (especially on systems costing less than $5k). After I heard the warnings, I looked around and was surprised by their prices. I think by sheer Bose-like marketing force, they got their cables into every retailer, positioned as the high end, and they even have 2-3 versions of every product, as if the best S-video cable they sell is really worth $120, when you can buy a $10 one with gold connectors from any other company.
posted by mathowie at 10:04 AM on November 29, 2002

What's a non-acoustic CD? Seventy-two minutes of silence?
posted by five fresh fish at 10:05 AM on November 29, 2002

woo, stereo thread!!! christmas has come early!! nerd up! bose is such a ridiculously poor product. everyone knows that. it's tin ear all the way.
oh posey, the absolute best speakers for your money has to be paradigm. you dont even need a subwoofer for an incredible warm sound. if you test them out on a heavily produced album you'll be amazed at how many instrument noises you'd never heard, especially at low-volume. the best turntable in the world (for both audio quality and durability) is the technics 1200, knock it up with a grado wooden reference cartridge and enjoy it with a denon amp. ...i know some ear folk will jump on me for the technics table, as it's mostly a dj table - but unless you want to spend ten thousand bucks, it's really the best out there. other drives are too delicate, especially the belt-driven ones. and with a direct-drive table there's no wear part.
posted by Peter H at 10:08 AM on November 29, 2002

darn, quick on the draw there space cowboy! ya got the paradigm plug in before me. yeah, in the US they're sort of a hidden gem. not many shops carry them. they are incredible sounding tho.
posted by Peter H at 10:11 AM on November 29, 2002

What's a non-acoustic CD? Seventy-two minutes of silence?
In rock, an acoustic CD would be a CD with acoustic performances, as in the Unplugged series. A non-acoustic one would be with electric performances.
posted by riffola at 10:16 AM on November 29, 2002

My parents have a Bose system and it does sound quite good, though probably not good enough to justify what they spent. The funny thing is most music sounds really good, but some music just sounds terrible on it.

The best speakers I've had are the ones I inherited from my parents. They got them sometime in the early 70s, and I grew up listening to music on them. I don't think they were very expensive, but I my brain is so atuned to the way they (and the amplifier that they were connected to) sound that I always enjoy music more with them than any other speakers, no matter what the price. Unfortunately the amplifier no longer works so it's not quite the same anymore.

These days I use a set of Klipsch computer speakers which I'm very happy with. Cheap and sounds good.
posted by Emanuel at 10:21 AM on November 29, 2002

By the way, I think a good PC sound card, a good amp with headphone output, and good open headphones can replace an audiophile setup 10 or more times its price for the same sound quality. The above items can cost you under $600 total if you use all new components at competitive prices, and under $300 if you buy used (like I did, although my amp is crap right now).

Obviously, headphones impair a certain degree of inflexibility, and there is no fancy surround sound for your dvds. Still, this setup is very, very far beyond any old-fashioned stereo setup of its price. Also, PC DVD and CD drives, as well as software for them, are much cheaper than their home theater counterparts (again, there are certain inflexibilities attached; on the other hand, you can now do anything a computer can do with your media).
posted by azazello at 10:21 AM on November 29, 2002

Vandersteen speakers are quite good values for the money. I've got a pair of 2CEs that I quite like. As kurtosis says, when I got them (after three days of listening at five different stores) I heard things in my music I'd never heard before. I spent the next few weeks going through all my CDs and hearing them again for the first time.

Unfortunately they're a little big for my current apartment and I'm considering letting them go and getting something smaller.
posted by kindall at 10:23 AM on November 29, 2002

This guy's credibility is questionable. Just check out the "pathetic" 27'' television. harumph.
posted by 2sheets at 10:24 AM on November 29, 2002

as far as demo CD go, I like to use Paul Simon's Rhythm of the Saints. There are so many instruments playing at once on that album that you can only really hear everything on a top notch system.
posted by boltman at 10:51 AM on November 29, 2002

So, where does a guy like me, who doesn't particularly care for music, fit into this debate?

I want the yuppy experience, I want to look cool but I don't actually want sound to come through my speakers. Dollar for dollar, what is the best looking speaker out there?

(Yes, I'm being facetious, ignoring my car, I don't even own a radio, let alone a stereo system.)
posted by obfusciatrist at 10:55 AM on November 29, 2002

I'm sticking with my RSL mini-monitors until they die. Or I die- whichever comes first.
posted by dogwelder at 10:56 AM on November 29, 2002

For me, it's Jellyfish's Spilt Milk.
posted by drinkcoffee at 11:03 AM on November 29, 2002

mathowie: Years ago I worked for the Sony Store, a Canadian Sony-owned retail operation, just when they started carrying the Monster line of cables. Their sales staff do an incredible song-and-dance on their cables, even to the point of asserting that the way the cables are wound (counter-clockwise as opposed to the traditional clockwise) allowed for greater sound delivery because that's the way the molecules spin (or something equally ridiculous along those lines). The cables are thicker in the middle, with thinner strands on the outside to carry the fine, high frequency wavelengths, and... well, you get the picture. It's an impressive pitch. Hey, the founder's a nuclear physicist or something, so it must be true. Seriously, it's almost a religion.

As for gold connectors... anyone seen an actual test that proves there's a measureable difference in signal quality? That always struck me as more marketing flash than audio dash.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 11:06 AM on November 29, 2002

The absolute best speakers I can recommend to someone on low budget are a pair of JBL S38s. They are compact and sound absolutely incredible. Should you ever decided to upgrade to 5.1 sound, you'll have the entire JBL S (studio) line to choose from. For $265/pair (from e-tronics), they are a steal. They are easily worth double that IMO. They are the true kings of low-end (pricewise) and a worthy contender in midde-end (quality-wise).

In a rare example of audio consensus, almost everyone on raves about these speakers.

Myself I have N38s, which are a part of JBL's Northridge line and are somewhat inferior to S38s. I got them because they have a vertical orientation, which suited my living room layout more. They still sound great. S38s are even better.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 11:12 AM on November 29, 2002

I like my AccuLab speakers and they weren't terribly expensive.
What do you audiophiles think of this brand?
posted by nofundy at 11:17 AM on November 29, 2002

Oh yeah and to join in on the shameless gloating, I got my EPI 120's at a pawn shop for $110. Whee!
posted by Hackworth at 11:21 AM on November 29, 2002

fabulon - bet I had the same set of Zenith's - they did sound suprisingly good.
posted by dabitch at 11:39 AM on November 29, 2002

"Monster Cables are the Bose Speakers of wire, don't buy them!"

I would have sworn that was true. Wire is wire right? But, I had an opportunity when setting up my home system to try it with and without expensive wires. I don't have golden ears or anything, but I could clearly hear a difference. I think for a couple extra bucks, given what you may be spending on an amp and speaker set up, may be worth considering.
posted by willnot at 11:40 AM on November 29, 2002

For those of you shopping around for speakers (or other audiophile gear), I'd recommend the Home Theater Forum. They field questions all the time of the "What should I buy for $###?" variety (and are surprisingly happy to anwer them).

The Soundstage Network of audio sites are also fabulous. Their pages are as good as any audiophile magazine except that they're free (somehow).
posted by abischof at 11:46 AM on November 29, 2002

Anything in the signal path makes a difference, be it a source (CD player), speaker, or a wire. Improved clarity in sound due to connectors is most noticable in the lows and the highs. The easiest way to hear the difference is using hq headphones (connected to a headphone amp with hq cable.) Take a pair of cheap rca connectors and a pair of moderatly priced connectors (straight wire, ~$100 for 3 meters) and A/B them. Like the CD test mentioned earlier, you will hear the difference by way of improved clarity in the high hats and the bass.

Another way of thinking of this is: the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. You could have the best pair of speakers, the nicest amps, pure gold connectors and it won't sound good if you hook it up to a $25 cd player from the local cheapie store.
posted by kurtosis at 11:59 AM on November 29, 2002

obfusciatrist, hilarious.
Presumably good test CD: Talking Head's "Remain in Light" the best produced album I have ever heard.
posted by 111 at 12:04 PM on November 29, 2002

Well, that guy sure knows more than I do about acoustics - and I even took acoustics in college! Anyway. I used to own a pair of Bose "bookshelf" speakers. They take up about a 1.5 cubic feet or so. Not big, not tiny. And those speakers: they actually sounded pretty good. Sure, they were made like crap, as I'm sure they were made just like the ones this guy is describing, but somehow, in these particular speakers, it all came together in a way that sounded pretty good.

But hey, what the hell do I know? I listen to mp3s on headphones all day.

Coldchef: I think I can help you understand. It's like the difference between buying a Chevy and a Mercedes. Or a ferarri.

The Chevy will get you where you want to go, and (if you get the right model) can probably do it with a modicum of comfort and style. But if you like to drive, I mean really like to drive, then a Chevy is just not going to cut it. It's not going to go 140mph, and it's not going to hug the ground while you go around corners the way a Ferrari will.

Also, the chevy will not get you chicks. Well, a corvette might...but not the way a Testarosa will. Understand?
posted by jaded at 12:11 PM on November 29, 2002

jaded, we may have gone for the Testarossa in the 80's, but today, it's all about the 360 ;-)
posted by dagny at 12:25 PM on November 29, 2002

To wrench this on to my own particular area of expertise, does anyone have any opinions about them in cars? Bose factory fitted stereos have been, in my opinion, some of the best hi-fi I've ever heard *in a car*.

Interestingly, they won't even sell them direct to the public, they have to come factory-fitted so that their engineers "can tune each set up to the individual car, long before it is finished" and this can't be done after-sale.

Also, what do people think of their waveSomething™ radio? My dad bought one, and *swears* by it.
posted by bonaldi at 1:35 PM on November 29, 2002

I've never been able to do side by side comparison tests of cables connected to identical systems, but I suspect Monster Cable doesn't make anything sound noticeably better (especially on systems costing less than $5k).

Until I moved from my little Park Slope Apartment, my system was a deent Sony CD player fed into a Bose Wave radio. (By the way, the Wave Radio is a fantastic device; definitely worth $3??.). I upgraded the connector cables to Monster cables. A MAJOR difference, sonically.

More recently, I married a woman with a Creek amp. We have small infinity monitor speakers. About two months ago, I bought 16ft. of speaker wire for $120. Again, a MAJOR difference in sound detail.

posted by ParisParamus at 1:52 PM on November 29, 2002

Yes, I'm being facetious, ignoring my car, I don't even own a radio, let alone a stereo system.

A very subtle, but effective, troll.
posted by buz46 at 2:00 PM on November 29, 2002

Yes mss is correct. The Speakers of the White Van can knock your socks off!
posted by roboto at 2:17 PM on November 29, 2002

Heh. I have a pair of those speakers. I didn't buy them. A friend of mine did. But he realized that he didn't have anywhere to put them (they're huge), so he gave them to me.

They sound OK. At low to moderate volume, they actually sound just fine. It's when you turn them up that you start to realize that they kind of suck. My BOSE bookshelf speakers, for example, sounded MUCH better at higher volumes.
posted by jaded at 2:27 PM on November 29, 2002

I've never understood why people get so animated about Bose speakers. No, they are not the best thing since sliced bread. But, if they were utter crap, then no one would buy them. Overpriced? Sure. But, so are a lot of things. If you don't like them don't buy them. Why all the fuss? (Don't tell me that these folks are really that concerned with saving other people money.)
posted by epimorph at 3:13 PM on November 29, 2002

OK. Ignore this post. I'm not an audiophile. I'm a musician. And I'm not rich, so I can't afford most of the stuff I see suggested here. But I like Bose.

My wife bought a car with Bose; it sounds good.

I went to a store (Soundtrack) that sells TV's and stereo systems and stuff and listened to a lot of them. That basic Bose system with a bass box and two tiny twin speakers sounded, far and away, clearer and truer and distincter (I know that's not a word) than all the others in that price range.

I bought it and I'm happy with it. So sue me.
posted by kozad at 4:31 PM on November 29, 2002

I'm probably the most fanatical music fan in this here bloggermunity thang, and I'm with the ColdChef. Dave Marsh is referring to one particular song(Gary 'US' Bonds' "Quarter to Three") here but I think it tells you something about the best music in general too:

"Quarter To Three" 's sound has the most peculiar unity. I've played it on streo systems ranging in price from $49.95 to $10,000, and the equipment makes no difference. In other words, here's an exquisite example of cultural democracy in action, operating on the sacred principle: One band, one noise.

So alla youse audiophile types, go listen to freakin' Montovani and smoke yer pipes. As for the rest of us:

Don't you know that I danced, I danced till a Quarter to Three....
posted by jonmc at 5:18 PM on November 29, 2002

My BOSE bookshelf speakers, for example, sounded MUCH better at higher volumes.

jaded, as someone who's only really a snot about records and stereos, gotta tell you, adding volume to a system to measure it's quality is like adding sugar to shitty coffee.

the better systems sound the best at low volume and give awesome party to the room when loud. you increase the volume on crappy sterebose often to uncover what you're not hearing. the ear is a strange influence over the brain in that way. bose is a ripoff all around.
posted by Peter H at 5:35 PM on November 29, 2002

bonaldi, in terms of car audio, most car audiophiles will probably say this: Bose systems are decent for stock car speakers. This means nothing though, as the gap between stock and aftermarket sound in car audio is massive. Both of my parents' cars have Bose systems in them, and to be honest I think they sound like shit - especially compared to my friends' aftermarket systems that cost well into the thousands.

Since I live in a college dorm, I use a pair of Klipsch ProMedia computer speakers to listen to my disturbingly large mp3 collection... They're too loud for the people downstairs and the quality is good enough, considering they're computer speakers after all.
posted by swank6 at 5:47 PM on November 29, 2002

if they were utter crap, then no one would buy them.

Nonsense. People buy them because of their misleading and carpet-bombing advertising. "The fuss" is because many people (not just audiophiles) who appreciate good sound equipment genuinely like to share their knowledge, and you can get way better-sounding speakers for way less money. It's sad to see people being misled and wasting their money, especially since it's relatively easy to show someone how to compare speakers intelligently, and since so many people are shocked to find they can actually notice a difference when they hear decent speakers.
posted by biscotti at 6:03 PM on November 29, 2002

ParisParamus drank the Kool-Aid.
posted by NortonDC at 7:09 PM on November 29, 2002

I dunno. I bought a pair of month old Bose 501s from a buddy of mine years ago for $250.00 and they sound pretty good to me, and they're built like freakin' tanks. I'll probably hang on to them forever, hell I wouldn't know what to fill the empty spaces in my living room with if I got rid of them.
posted by MikeMc at 8:06 PM on November 29, 2002

I would have sworn that was true. Wire is wire right?
Actually, in setting up my stereo a few many times in moving, I've found that wire makes a big difference. Wire is wire in that you can use pretty much any kind of wire (hell, I've used lamp wire for speaker wire before) to create sound. The key is that with the crapier/lower guage wirer, the sound quality is different....Of course, the guage makes a HUGE difference w/ sound at higher volumes.
To wrench this on to my own particular area of expertise, does anyone have any opinions about them in cars?
I've found that in the <$100 segment range for car speakers, different brands have VASTLY different sounds. Not necessarly better, but a lot different in terms of lows/mids/highs. Best bet is go to Best Buy and test em out there to get your sound. As long as you stay with a plastic cone though, I just go w/ the <$50 speakers (my hearing sucks) and get the 3 yr. warranty yo get em replaced as much as needed when I blow them.
posted by jmd82 at 9:35 PM on November 29, 2002

A lot depends on your ears. My wife is a fashion designer and can identify 200 individual shades of navy blue, but she can't tell when the loudness button is engaged on the car stereo. I'm red/green colorblind, but I can tell when the second oboe drops a note in the San Francisco orchestra. So she gets to pick all the paint and upholstery, and I get to make all the stereo decisions around our house (and cars).

Before you shell out serious cash for audio components, listen to them. Some posts above mention some excellent components, but I would never recommend that anybody buy one without listening to it. Rather than depend on somebody else's recommendation for audition material, bring a few CDs that you know very, very well. Acoustic and vocals are better than electronic sound for discerning the differences in the way speakers render the music, but bring stuff you like to listen to as well. Be very careful doing A/B comparisons; minute differences in volumes (due to differing speaker sensitivity) make a large difference in perceived sound quality. The best speakers for listening to string quartet are probably not the best speakers for listening to speed metal.

If you need a good starting place, I'd suggest taking a look at Stereophile's Recommended Components List, or the one of Editor's Choice or Recommended Lists from The Absolute Sound. (Stereophile now charges $9.95 for the guide online, but here's the 1999 list. The Absolute Sound parses out their recommendations by type of component, and charges $5.00 for each one. They aren't definitive, but they make a great place to start, and both offer recommendations in different price categories so you can fit your budget.

On Bose: Bose makes OK car stereo systems, although the individual components don't stack up well against other competitive components. They sound OK primarily for two reasons: (1) they typically install 8-16 speakers in a system, which diffuses the distortion and makes it less noticable (Bose systems I have had in my cars typically run 10-20% distortion levels at high volume (90dB), and (2) they are typically mated with relatively high-powered decks capable of putting out 15-25 watts per channel, which will improve the sound of any speaker relative to the 8-10 watt amps that usually come stock. On the component level, whether you're talking about car or home audio, Bose equipment doesn't stand up well to the competition.

If you want kick-ass car stereo, find an audio technician who will install transmission line bass speakers (overcoming road noise is the number one hurdle in car audio), and try out some of the newer ribbon speakers that will render the human voice so realistically your jaw will drop.

And good wires can make a noticable difference, although you can get a high degree of purity in a decent gauge for a lot less money than Monster wants to charge, and to my ears once you get fat, high-quality wire in place, the additional tweaks are not audible.
posted by JParker at 9:49 PM on November 29, 2002

I bought one of those Bose Acoustic Wave music systems a year ago, on Bose's buy-over-time program. It fits neatly on my bookshelf. It looks nice. I always thought it sounded great, at low and high volumes. They give you a little demo CD when you get it, to show you how good it sounds. I heard things in Brahms' Second Piano Concerto I hadn't heard before. I was sort of proud of it.

Silly me.

Now I want to go throw the thing out in the street.
posted by judlew at 10:08 PM on November 29, 2002

but she can't tell when the loudness button is engaged on the car stereo.

This is a bit off-topic, but I've always wondered exactly what that button does. My car has one, and it does make the radio sound noticably different (seems to have more punch, at least to my ears), but I've never known exactly what it meant.
posted by kickingtheground at 10:16 PM on November 29, 2002

Anyone have recommendations on wire, then? Heavy-duty zipcord? What kind of plugs -- or should it be solder & crush? How long, is teflon important, isn't all wire gonna be oxygen-free just by virtue of manufacture?

kicking: IIRC, it boosts bass & high, 'case those are frequencies the ear is less sensitive to, which means at low volumes, they start to be poorly heard.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:34 PM on November 29, 2002

A sound guru once told me bass response depends on the amount of air being pushed through an enclosure. Whether it is bass-reflex, folded-horn, passive-radiator, etc the larger the air-space in a speaker cabinet, the better chance an enclosure has at reproducing the original sound. I love all types of music and play electric bass, so I go with very large speaker enclosures. Sure they take up a lotta room but I ain't complaining. I think the new systems (it doesn't matter what the make or model is) are trying very hard to compensate for the lack of air space that older speaker cabs had. We, as consumers, take the bait and listen to anyone who has the biggest advert or "best" sounding system and while everything sounds great when your living room is vibrating to the point where paint is chipping off the walls and neighbor's babies are crying, you always get what you pay for....
personally, i wouldn't spend more than $500 for a full home stereo + speaker system. The electronic market is based on the latest and the greatest. Check out what was "hot" 6-12 months and get that a reduced priced.
word out.
posted by lsd4all at 11:03 PM on November 29, 2002

Gauge is important, but also the number of strands. "Zip" cord (plastic coated, two conductors side by side, used in cheap non-grounded extention cords and for puwer cords on on lamps and stereo components) usually has lots of strands and will lay flat and tuck away nice for a neat installation. For a typical stereo (100 watts/channel or less) 16 ga. for 10 feet or less, 14 ga. for up to 20 feet, 12 ga. (or double 14 ga., doubling wire drops the gauge by 3, so you actually get 11 ga.) for up to 40 feet.

Phase is important!!! The most common problem I see is one speaker wired the reverse of the other, which means that one speaker is pulling when the other is pushing (so to speak), thereby cancelling out much of the bass.

I have participated in a couple of double-blind listening tests, using everything from 14 ga. solid electrical wire to monster cable so expensive that I wished we had armed guards around, and the only consistent conclusion was the heavier the gauge and more strands the better, and of course the shortest runs possible.

Neat, tight connections are important, if your fave spealers have crappy connectors consider having them replaced with better connectors. If your amp has crappy connectors, time for a better amp.

Teflon shmeflon.

Line level connections are important, buy good quality RCA cords, but stay with molded plastic ones, those thick ones with the metal ends can actually damage the connectors on some components by the weight of the cable pulling down on the female plug on the component. Again, shorter is better. and a shelf on wheels with an open back lets you connect and re-connect your components easily and safely.

Fave cheap speakers: Tannoy Proto-J (available at music stores that sell recording stuff), about $100 ea. USD. The higher-end Tannoy stuff is nice too. Never cared for Polk. Bose is too much money for what you get , but if you are happy with them, what the hell. Never listen to Genelec studio monitors (they have their own amps built right inside the speakers, with seperate amps for the lows, mids, and highs all controlled by an electronic crossover custom tailored to the speaker components) unless you can afford to buy them, you will hate whatever speakers you own for weeks after.
posted by BGM at 11:24 PM on November 29, 2002

OK, let's go over this engineering-wise.

Wire? Large gauge wire is better than small gauge wire, unless it's too big because you don't have a $2000 amp. So buy a spool of decent gauge wire(as thick as Monster cables, just in bulk and cheap).

Speakers? Check the specs of the range, and listen to them with music you know. But don't blow $1300 on a set of speakers that are made of $30 of parts in each speaker.

Sound quality being important? Well, if you are going to spend $200 putting a pair of speakers in your pickup, do a little research, and you might be pleasantly surprised at what you end up with.

Factory car audio setups are a ripoff, you can set up a nice enough 5.1 surround system in your home for less than $1000, and if you want to prowl around at the pawn shop you can probably find some nice Cerwin Vegas with 12 inch woofers in a heavy cabinet cheap that will annoy the crap out of your neighbors. And even if the actual speakers aren't in great shape, you can replace all the sound producing components cheap.

It's not specific to one brand. Just don't be a chump and buy a $30 set of air vibrating pieces of cardboard in a case at $250 a piece for a set of five. Why not buy a $60 set of polymer air movers in a much nicer case at $120 a piece for a set of five? Half the price, twice the visits from the cops for too much ultra-V.

Then we'll talk amplifiers. BTW, you can really clean up at the pawn shop if you know your amps(year old $1200 amps for $275). A good amp is like a warm hearth for your stereo. It will just exude basic goodness throughout the whole system. Make your OK speakers sound happy that they have a helping friend. I'd say you could make a killer system for under a grand, but amps haven't gotten that cheap yet.

Just look around for info before you buy. You don't have to buy a $40K stereo to take advantage of the understanding of the basics of the engineering of audio equipment. Browse, learn, don't get screwed. Hey, all the kids are doing it. ;)

On preview; I agree lsd4all, that there are things that can't replace cabinet and speaker size("there is no substitute for cubic inches"). But a lot of "little" sytems can whip a room at home pretty well for pretty cheaply, just by off loading the heavy lifting to one big chunky subwoofer. I was a skeptic, and I prefer the distinct bass seperation of large speakers with woofers, but the little systems can still do pretty well.

And now I'm on Poindexter's list because I agreed with a guy named lsd4all. Thanks, buddy. ;)
posted by dglynn at 12:01 AM on November 30, 2002

A sound guru once told me bass response depends on the amount of air being pushed through an enclosure.

Sort of. The cabinet or enclosure for bass speakers is important because of an effect called phase cancellation. The sound wave coming from the back of the speaker is identical to the one coming from the front of the cone, but 180 degrees out of phase. They cancel each other out. A proper enclosure prevents this from occurring or modifies the interaction so that the backwave reinforces the front wave. Tweeters and midranges, being more directional, are not nearly so affected. So... it isn't really the size of the enclosure that matters.

And while loud bass requires that a lot of air be moved, there are two different approaches to this. One way, the way you've mentioned, is to use a large diameter woofer cone. This is a good approach for efficiency. For a given amount of power at a given frequency, you get louder bass. You can also go the other way, however, and compensate for woofer size with power. Smaller cone, pushing harder. This has advantages in the quality of the sound, as the smaller the cone, the less likely it is to deform while under a load, meaning less distortion.

The transmission line bass system for the car I mentioned above is an example. It uses a very small subwoofer in a long pipe, like an organ pipe. The cone is "loaded" by all the air in the pipe, and it moves a lot of air very, very quickly for very tight, accurate, deep base. This is car show audio. Six 5" bass speakers in transmission line configuration can produce 115dB of sound pressure at 25Hz. And, unlike its 12-inch long-throw brethren, it will fit in the trunk.
posted by JParker at 12:53 AM on November 30, 2002

Peter H: perhaps I was unclear. The bose sound fine quiet and loud, whereas the other speaker sounded fine quiet, but like complete ass when you turn them up.
posted by jaded at 1:18 AM on November 30, 2002

It's a club amp, solid state, it's loudest volume is 50, and I've never been able to go louder than about 30

But ours goes to 11...
posted by pmurray63 at 1:45 AM on November 30, 2002

For all of the speaker-wire-voodoo BS out there, getting cables with gold contact-points ensures better sound quality because it doesn't oxidize. Tin, which is what most low-end cables use, oxidizes and hurts the between the components, damaging the signal. However, that's about the only thing worth worrying about when it comes to speaker wire or component cables.
posted by deanc at 6:50 AM on November 30, 2002

My favorite speaker cable is 12 ga Romex. Kind of stiff, but better than most "audiophile" stuff.
posted by pekar wood at 4:13 PM on November 30, 2002

i was a non believer.
over the years i have upgraded my interconnects, and recently replaced my speaker wire with 2.5mm electricity mains cable. the difference in sound pressure and fidelity is astonishing.
i have had the same set-up for 15 years, or so, during which time i have severely damaged my hearing to the extent that i have the hearing of someone twice my age. and tinitus. funnily enough, i was avoiding loud clubs and music when i was almost deafened by an exuberant well wisher shouting in my ear, one new years eve.
still, i can tell that my stereo is now the best sounding it has ever been.
i refrained from upgrading my 50W Kenwood (pretty far from the best) amp, despite the fact the power transformers have popped twice. this is due to the fact that new kit is so densely integrated that component replacement is impossible, thus you would be lucky to get anything new fixed if it failed over 3 years after purchase.
my 25 year old warfedale S70s have a SPL of 95dB at 1 metre. the frequency range is 50Hz to 18KHz +/- 3dB. they sound sweet. if i put a larger amp on them (say 300W), i could attain an SPL of 123dB at 1 metre, which is well above the threshold of pain. not neccessary. they don't make 'em like they used to.
i have not heard a noticably better system for anything less than 10x the £300 my amp/speaker combo has cost me over the years.
oh, and if you want to get stupid - how about internal and external speakers in each cabinet. the internal one sucks and blows, so that the external one has minimum resistance. i was talking to the guy who invented this device for cleaning the electric supply around your stereo the other day, who told me all about how directional wire works. claim to fame - he fixed my amplifier! ; )
posted by asok at 4:52 PM on November 30, 2002

ok 123dB is not above the pain threshold, but it is stupidly loud.
posted by asok at 4:54 PM on November 30, 2002

My speakers (which I couldn't live without): Vandersteen 2ce signatures. I agree with the other person who mentioned that you'll hear stuff you never did before on CDs with these speakers. I never knew good speakers would make such a difference.

My wires (you might be surprised): Home Depot 12ga wire, 0.47c per foot
posted by milnak at 10:15 PM on November 30, 2002

This is what I have as computer speakers: Hollywood and they do a pretty good job. :)
posted by spidre at 8:33 AM on December 1, 2002

Late to the party but piping in anyway:

I am a junior-league audiophile--good sound on a budget. My speakers, which have great high-end clarity and low-end resonance, are a dbx bookshelf system that I bought for all of $249 from the late, lamented DAK catalog. I have nice fat cables connecting them to my receiver.

I also own a Bose Wave Radio for my bedroom with an auxiliary CD player. As stereos go, Bose excels in clarity, imho, and the separation of tones is what lures buyers. I put on jazz CDs on the Wave radio and they sound as good as they do on my component system. I turn the volume way way down at night and I can still hear gentle hi-hats while I fall asleep. This is why they work well in cars, as discussed above--normally, at 70 mph, one doesn't hear all three singers in the chorus, but one does on a nice Bose system.

Would I use Bose speakers for my full stereo system? No. But for a compact system, Bose is a good product, and not one to be ashamed of owning or enjoying.
posted by werty at 7:42 AM on December 2, 2002

Okay, what a big thread.

Any EE with tell you that the best wire is silver, because it's most conductive. Period. Every bone in an EEs and Physicits body says this is an immutable fact. But since normal people don't have infinite bank accounts, a step lower AWG copper wire will be just as good. Using too high a guage will simply lower bass response, since too much power will be lost to heat. Nothing more. There is utterly negligible capacitance and absolutely zero skin-effect in the audio frequencies through some 16-gauge SPT-2 zip-cord (but audiophiles will say otherwise).

Two, BUILD YOUR OWN SPEAKERS. Sorry to say, but honestly, it doesn't take all that much time, it isn't all that hard, and you can make some amazing speakers for under $200 each. Everyone who's seen mine are impressed, and they cost me a whopping $150 each (I did have to hand-wind the inductors, however -- it's hard to find a good source of high-power inductors).

Last, but certainly not least, make sure you have decent components. RCA or Sony, for example, are totally out of the question. Dennon and Yamaha are what you need to look for. Don't spend more than $1k on an amp unless you need to blow some eardrums, and don't spend more than $300 on a CD player.

Electrically, there are no differences at this point. The only differences between "OFC" cable and zip-cord, for example, exist only in the mind of the purchaser, planted there by a shrewd salesman.

Oh, and to let you all know... I wired my speakers internally with 18 gauge wire. I don't tell the people who think they're nice that though, since it would ruin their future Best Buy experiences. :-)
posted by shepd at 1:12 PM on December 2, 2002

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