Amar G. Bose is a man with a mission: to replicate, as clearly as possible, the sound of live music through technology.
Playing the violin as a child tuned his ear to live music. Dismayed at the poor quality of the average audio speaker during the "hi-fi" era of the 1950s and 1960s, Bose dove into the study of psychoacoustics, or how humans perceive sound. Then, armed with a doctorate in electrical engineering from MIT and a passion for classical music, he formed the Bose Corporation in 1964.
Bose's first speaker, the 901 Direct/Reflecting system, hit the market in 1968. His patented technologies are now found in high-end speakers, headphones, automotive sound systems, large and small home systems and, most recently, computer speakers such as the Bose Computer MusicMonitor. Today, Bose is a privately held company with annual sales of $2 billion.
Etched in a wall outside Bose's large but not ostentatious office in Framingham, Massachusetts, is an engraved quote from Maurice Maeterlinck, who won the 1911 Nobel Prize in Literature: "At every crossroad on the road that leads to the future, each progressive spirit is opposed by a thousand men appointed to guard the past."
Wired News recently sat down with Bose to discuss hi-fi, MP3s and the Boston Symphony.
Wired News: You are passionate about music or you would not have devoted your career to it. Your parents made you study the violin, initially against your wishes, correct?
Amar Bose: (laughs) Yes, if it hadn't been for the violin, I would not be involved in this today. All the way through MIT I never took a course in acoustics. I later taught it many times because I got involved in this research.
WN: Buying your first audio speaker from RadioShack in the 1950s set you on your present course?
AB: Yes. I bought a violin record to play on it and said, "Oh my gosh, that is nothing like the way real music sounds."
WN: Your quest has been to recreate, as closely as possible, live music. Are you there yet?
AB: Oh no. It's a journey to which I am not sure there is an end. We are nearer than when we started, but there is a lot of work to be done.
WN: There was a time when all music was live, while today so much is removed from the in-person experience and repackaged. Will we always have live music and an appreciation of the classics?
AB: I sure hope so. Sometimes I get depressed about the fact that all of the big record stores have removed classical music because all they are looking at is the sales per square foot of display on the floor, and classical is at the bottom. It's hard to get (classical music) anywhere but the internet. It's so beautiful that I can't think we will be without it and live performances.
WN: Bose Corporation formed in 1964. What has surprised you most about technology in these past 40-plus years?
AB: The rapid rise of digital technology, which enables so many more things to be done. You can compress bandwidth in a way that we had no concept of in 1964. My first excitement about the digital age was that we could apply algorithms, which are mathematical formulas, in the digital domain that we could never dream about in the analog days.
WN: What are some of the minuses of the digital age?
AB: When any industry gets started, everybody jumps in and most people don't even have any technology background. The computer industry is in that phase today.
WN: Explain a bit more, please.
AB: Sadly, there's a heck of a lot of emphasis on people developing gadgets to get to market quickly, which have incredible troubles interconnecting to other gadgets. You are in the stage that hi-fi audio was in the 1950s, with so many systems that the consumer is confounded by the complexity and doesn't care to know. They care to use the thing, not to know how in the heck to connect it to this and that. However, I do believe that will pass, as it did with hi-fi.
WN: You talked about compression and today people are downloading their music. Do you find it disturbing that MP3 is not a high-quality audio format?
AB: No. It will evolve. MP3 has already evolved. That will be the way.
WN: What about the battle for control of the home entertainment systems? Do you think it will be the PC or TV?
AB: If I were to guess, and I'm not sure my guess is any better then anyone else's, the TV will be in control of most of what we are looking at. I don't see the computer controlling it.
WN: Does classical music remain your favorite type of music?
AB: I have a bias for music composed before 1900. I've enjoyed popular music but the real pleasure is in classical. I have not developed what it takes to become attached to modern classical, which sounds like discord to me. I used to go regularly to the Boston Symphony until they got onto modern classical.
WN: Your favorite composers?
AB: The moving music of Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert. I love it.
WN: What's ahead in technology?
AB: (long, reflective pause) I don't think I am able to answer that.