What Four Grand Won't Buy You
Jan 27, 2009 (Updated Feb 15, 2009)
Review by bilavideo
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:sounded pretty good in the demo room, which was total blue smoke and mirrors
Cons:$4,000???????????? Are these people high?
The Bottom Line: I can't recommend a system that is only miraculous in its ability to fool newbies into thinking they're getting more for their money.
I made a trip to a mall in Tampa, to get a replacement for an iPod whose home button had gone to the great Apple in the sky. While there, it occurred to me to walk into the Bose store and check out its "wave radio." The moment my son and I walked in, we were ushered into a listening room for a demonstration of the Lifestyle 48.
Recommend this product?
Talk about slick!
The room was set up like a theater, though the actual listening area was in front row. Looking back, I realize now that nobody sits in the back row, especially since the surrounds were positioned not far behind us. It was all part of the reality-distortion field of a good Bose presentation.
A likable-enough guy, in his early 20s, rattled off a Disney-like script, asking us if we liked to watch movies and listen to music? Who doesn't? Moments later, we were watching a big-screen demo featuring a live concert with plucky Spanish guitar and the crunch of flamenco dancers, followed by the roar of an action scene and the cool tranquility of an aerial flight. With high-definition footage, the whole experience was fun and pleasant. While there are t-shirts that say, "Bose Sucks" and suggested acronyms for Bose (like "Buy Other Stereo Equipment"), neither my son nor I found fault with what we saw and heard. The fault came with the price tag: $3,995.
I'm not an engineer or a full-blown audio nut, but - when it comes to sound quality - I'd take the Pepsi challenge with what I've got in my living room. Noticing the mark-up, especially on speakers, I converted my wife's entertainment center into a pair of towers and went to work buying cheap components, which I upgraded as my finances allowed. My off-the-shelf Yamaha receiver powers a pair of Morel MDT-33 tweeters ($300), a pair of Morel MDM-55 midrange domes ($200), a pair of Dayton Series II 15" woofers ($250), five Aurum Cantus G2si ribbon tweeters ($500), four Bohlender & Graebener Neo8-PDR planar tweeters ($250), four Dayton PT2C-8 planar tweeters ($160). For deep bass, I also have two 15" Dayton RSS390HF-4 high-fidelity subwoofers ($300) connected to a Dayton 500 Watt subwoofer amp ($325). I use a pair of 50-watt L-pads to strike the right balance between my mid/tweets and my woofers ($50). I also bought caps and coils online to tailor a specific crossover for each range of drivers ($100). Add in $100 spent at Home Depot (for 16-gauge wire and 3/4 " MDF plywood), along with $10 worth of batting from Walmart (to dampen each cabinet), and it adds up to a grand total of about $2,500. That's what it would have cost if I had bought everything at full price. In fact, because I had the luxury of buying most items on sale, I spent less than two grand for a system that will b-slap the Lifestyle 48 and laugh while it's doing it.
One of the great sleights of hand is fooling the ears by fooling the eyes. Set up one set of expectations, then bend the physics to announce a full-blown miracle. Bose does that by manipulating the perceptions of its demo audience. Pumping the "theater" - a small frame of drywall - with enough juice to feel "full," the Bose employee met his cue. At the appropriate moment, while theater lights guided the eye to the two towers and the massive center channel, the employee ripped off the facade to reveal various diminutive speakers.
Wow! If Bose could produce that much sound with tiny little speakers, what a spectacular system this must be!
Or not. Behind the invisible speaker revolution is a little bit of low-tech reality. Back in the day when bigger was obviously better, manufacturers bloated the size of their cabinets. This fed a consumer perception that great sound requires big speakers. In fact, woofers are the only drivers that really need big boxes to produce the full effect. Tweeters and midrange domes are self-contained. Like electro-magnetic hermet crabs, they carry their shell with them. And since more manufacturers have moved to two-way systems - cutting out the middies - tweeter satellites (or tweeter sats) have become increasingly commonplace. You can put a left over here, a right over there, and a couple of "surrounds" in the back. These satellites can be miniscule, and practically invisible with a little bit of ingenuity. For 5.1 surround, you just add a center channel (which helps enhance the illusion that the dialogue is coming directly from the screen rather than somewhere between the left and right wings of the room.
But tweeters by any other name are still just tweeters.
Treble without bass is a little like icing without cake. That's why no home theater is complete without woofers - and typically, the slick quick-fix is to go with a subwoofer. With the real thing - like my 15" behemoths - you're going to end up with a sizable gap (from, say, 200 hz to at least 500 hz, if not 1000 or 2000 hz). Ironically, the solution is to use cheap subwoofers - little playtoys with smaller drivers, in a smaller cabinet - along with tweeters or middies that cross low. You won't get great bass or great treble, but you will get enough upper bass to create the sensation that the bass and midrange are getting covered. Welcome to the world of psychoacoustics, where the issue is not whether you're delivering hi-fidelity so much as whether the audience is fooled into thinking as much.
Anybody can make this kind of setup now, and practically everybody now does. Take a trip to your local Walmart and you'll find the poor man's version of "receiver, sats and sub." For as low as $88, RCA has a 200-watt system with a receiver, 5 sats and a sub. It's not earth-shattering but it's a taste of where things have gone. And if that's the case at the bottom end, it gets better as you move up the food chain. For most people, a good home-theater system will cost between $200 and $1,000. You pay for the receiver/amp, the Blu-Ray player, wires, sats and a subwoofer.
The Bose Lifestyle 48 features a DVD receiver with the Umusic system, which stores up to 340 hours of digital music; a DVD/cd player with a VS-2 video enhancer that upscales to 1080p over HDMI; an AM/FM tuner, an ADAPTiQ calibration system designed to adjust sound output to different rooms; and five JewelCube direct/reflecting "arrays," along with an Acoustimass module, Bose's version of a subwoofer. I wasn't able to test the DVD receiver's ability to pretend it's an iPod, or its quality as an AM/FM tuner. I don't know if the VS-2 video enhancer is anything more than the upscaling found on many off-the-shelf systems - though I must confess that the video I saw was about as detailed as I'd ever want from an HD image.
Even in the bubble of the sales presentation, the ADAPTiQ callibration system looked like a gimmick. When the demonstration script included the admission that room acoustics matter, I thought it was a bit of prudence on the part of Bose, since the internet is full of complaints from disgruntled Bose buyers who say their system sounded anemic when they got it home. (Ironically, many audiophile magazines include a variety of products designed to dampen room acoustics to adjust for harsh reflections from high-wattage output. For such systems, the problem is not one of overly-dampened rooms but of underly-dampened ones.) Part of the demonstration, hawking the virtues of the ADAPTiQ callibration system, suggested that speakers inside boxes sound like boxes. To prove this point, my salesman placed a speaker box - which was open on the bottom and in front - over the speaker. Pushing the box forward until the speaker was inside, the speaker did, in fact, sound "boxy" until the ADAPTiQ system "compensated" (by cutting the volume to the center channel).
This is blue smoke and mirrors. First, speakers aren't mounted inside boxes. They're mounted on the outside. The purpose of the box - which is to create a baffle separating front waves from rear waves - would be defeated if the speaker were actually placed IN the box. Second, Bose's own speakers - including the one pushed into a box - are drivers mounted INSIDE their own tiny little boxes. To make matters worse, the critique of "speakers inside boxes" demonstrates the ill-effects of reflective waves. The listener wants to hear the original package of sound waves, picked up by the microphone, recorded onto some medium and then reproduced by the speaker. What listeners do not want to hear is a series of artifacts produced by the listening environment, degrading and coloring the resulting sound reproduction. But that's what Bose is selling!
This misleading charade actually reveals the Achilles Heel of the Bose house sound. "Normal" speakers are designed to provide the listener "on-axis" sound, which is the sound of the driver, rather than the resonance created by bad cabinets or bad room acoustics. Top-quality speakers start with quality drivers, using non-resonant baffles and housed in non-resonant cabinets that are dampened, and with top-quality crossovers (to keep the driver limited to its most effective range of frequencies). By contrast, Bose's big gimmick is to place its satellites along room corners where the bulk of the sound will be reflected off ceilings and walls. Each Jewel Cube satellite is a direct/reflecting cube speaker array. It's an "array" because, instead of employing a single speaker, it employs two. It's "direct/reflecting" in the sense that one speaker is aimed directly at listeners while the other is designed to produce sound "reflecting" off the room's ceiling and walls.
Given its own demonstration of the ill effects of placing a speaker in a box, you'd wonder why Bose has designed its whole system to place the listener in a box, with most of the sound reflecting off the surfaces of that box. Isn't that curiously similar to the demonstration itself? Isn't this a case of turning the room into a speaker box and putting the listener INTO that box? There are two answers to this question, one a little more on-script than the other. According to the official story, Dr. Amar Bose (a sound engineer in the 60s) discovered that live concerts don't sound like studio recordings. With all those hard surfaces, concertgoers hear more than just the clean sound coming directly from the musicians and their equipment. They also hear the echoings and vibrations produced by surrounding surfaces. Just as stereo vision tries to reconcile similar, yet distinct, images (creating a holographic sense of space), stereo hearing tries to reconcile conflicting versions of the sound source - creating a similar spatial effect.
Sure. But while we're appreciating all that reflected sound, let's not forget another - more basic - effect: volume. Reflected sound may not be as clear and detailed (with more of an audio smear), it's certainly louder. Where audiophile systems try to dampen room reflection, room reflection is Bose's bread and butter. Like a room-sized horn, reflective waves use every hard surface to bombard the listener with sound - even if doing so has an effect on clarity.
But I want to be fair here. The "wave" effect is Bose's house sound, so even if it makes it possible to get by with less power (assuming the intended room has lots of hard surfaces) and cheaper speakers, Bose is selling a "surround" effect similar to a comb filter, which is used to remaster monaural recordings and give them a perceived stereo effect. Whatever else may be said of Bose, the company is in the business of selling psychoacoustics. It's not what you hear that counts; it's what you think you hear. Many people quite like this effect and Bose is entitled to get paid for making such people happy. The problem is that Bose wants to get paid a LOT for this effect, which is fairly easy to reproduce. In fact, the whole idea of "surround sound" is based on similar dynamics. In the purest-purist sense, "surround sound" is a misnomer. Except in true quadrophonic recordings, most recorded music is designed for stereo playback. When left and right channels are given a front and rear component, imaging is lost. The sense of "being there" that comes from being able to close your eyes and pick out where each instrument is coming from is lost or distorted. But, if the "surrounds" are scaled back, so that they are turned up just high enough to be detected sporadically - such as where there is a spike in dynamics - the effect is to imitate the echo of sound bouncing off the back wall. Like "reflective" sound, this fools the brain, but with less distortion and a greater retention of clarity and detail.
Let me quietly reiterate that last point: You don't need to bounce sound off the walls to create the illusion of concert acoustics. Positioned right - and carefully balanced - so-called "satellites" or "surrounds" can give the brain the illusion of greater space - but with less distortion than bouncing sound off the ceilings and walls. If clarity of sound is important to you, and sound degradation is to be avoided, you can achieve better results through direct, rather than reflected, sound. And since Bose is asking for top dollar, you can do it for a lot less.
To my ears, the real trick is not "better sound through research." It's "amazingly passable sound through junk." Keep in mind that we're talking about a $4,000 system. To the person impressed by the "wave" sound of Bose's direct/reflecting speakers, maybe that's money well spent. But to anyone who looks at what you can get for $4,000 - the Lifestyle 48 Theater System is truly one of the world's greatest ripoffs. For four grand, you'd think these satellites were encased in some kind of non-resonant cabinet. Bose went with plastic. You'd think each satellite would utilize a crossover employing Danish copper inductor coils and the finest polypropylene capacitors. I could be totally wrong, but it's my understanding that not one of the satellites has any crossover at all. For that kind of money, Bose could have employed silk-dome tweeters with neodymium magnets, or planar ribbons, or even real ribbon tweeters for crystal clarity. Bose, instead, went with cheap paper cones, replaceable for $50/pair.
Do the math. Nobody ever went broke building audio components out of plastic. Five satellites use roughly $250 worth of paper cone tweeters. Where does the rest of the money go? Are the receiver and subwoofer really worth the rest of the four grand?
Scrolling through the Lifestyle 48's brick-like remote, I couldn't help but think of all those DVD players priced around $100, or the cost of a credit-card-sized iPod, capable of holding thousands of titles. Even with a $50 dock, the iPod seems like a no-brainer compared to this deal. But even if you have the time, or inclination, to transfer 340 hours of CDs to the Lifestyle 48, the Acoustimass module is the mother of all ripoffs. Bose doesn't call it a subwoofer, though that's obviously the type of device which it most closely resembles. Maybe one reason Bose doesn't even attempt to grab that moniker lies in what this floor box doesn't have: a decent subwoofer.
Subwoofers are specialized speakers that are designed to add an ultra-low-bass effect when needed, without otherwise muddying up dialogue and other sounds. Everybody likes their share of boom-boom, but not at the cost of making movie dialogue sound like it's coming from Darth Vader's helmet. By using high-order crossovers (which clip unwanted frequencies like a pair of scissors), a good subwoofer amp - combined with a decent subwoofer - will produce solid bass at or below 100 Hz, well below the range of most dialogue. It's nice when you don't have to crank up the volume to hear decent car wrecks and explosions, as well as that ominous bass presence from a live band.
But subwoofers can only do so much when you make too many compromises. Better rumble requires stiffer components, which is why so many subwoofer amps look like they're sporting a frisbee for a speaker cone. You shouldn't be able to hear dialogue coming through them. Subwoofers are ideally living in an aural basement, below woofers, which should remain below mid-bass and/or midrange domes, which fall below tweeters and their super-tweeter cousins, like sassy true-ribbon tweeters. The problem for Bose is that its Acoustimass module has to fill in a midrange hole left by its tweeter mids (or twidders). A true subwoofer would only make that hole bigger - or torture the driver by making it pull double duty.
The Acoustimass is non-powered, which means that it only puts out what the receiver can afford to give it. You'd think that, for this kind of money, you'd get a powered subwoofer. Bose chose to buy three 5 1/2 inch drivers, instead. I didn't have a problem with it, other than the fact that its bass isn't all that rich. For my money, there's a difference between loud bass and deep bass. This one errs more on the side of mid-bass. On the footage from Evan Almighty, it supplemented the satellites, helping to fill the room with a sense of bass, even if that bass didn't shake the room.
My system, which cost less than two grand, doesn't just add a little subwoofer ump. It sounds like the finger of God. It rumbles the ceiling, windows, walls and the clothing of anyone sitting in the living room. It's so monstruous that I have to run it at 1/3 power because I'm afraid my neighbors will call the cops. It isn't the suggestion of bass. It's the End of Time.
For four grand, Bose needs to do better. Simplicity and convenience are worth something but four grand is pretty steep. While watching the presentation, I didn't dislike what I heard. I just can't believe anybody would shell out that kind of dough for a system that delivers less for more. Who should be impressed by this system? Not the audience but the shareholders at Bose. They've found a way to turn a suitcase full of junk into four grand worth of merchandise. It's showmanship - with incredible margins.
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