Speakers, Career Fortunes, and ‘What Ifs’

Let’s talk about speakers -- the speakers in a music system, those boxes that people used to put in their living room and connect to a receiver and a turntable and play records through. Speakers were a very important part of home entertainment, especially from the 1950s-1980s.

Home loudspeakers remained pretty much unchanged from the time stereo (2-channel) was invented in 1958 right through the mid-80s. You had a receiver or amplifier, a turntable (later, a CD player) and a pair of speakers. These speakers could be large floorstanding units or they could be smaller “bookshelf” speakers that would sit on a shelf or in a bookcase.

This was known as the “stereo industry.” The stereo industry flourished as the biggest demographic group in the country’s history -- the Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 -- came of age and went to college in the 1970’s.

Popular/leisure technology in the 1970s was not what it is today. There was no Internet, no laptop computers, no cell phones, no tablets, no personal video games, no portable music devices with headphones, no boomboxes.

What did young people do for fun? They listened to music -- lots of it. That was when manufacturers of “stereo equipment” enjoyed their greatest success. Names like Pioneer, Kenwood, Sansui, Dual, AR, Advent, EPI and JBL, among many others, were the “Apple” of their day.

Speakers, especially, defined the character and prestige of an individual’s music system. The well-known speaker companies had very definite corporate and product “personalities,” and the choice of one brand over another sent out a very definite message about one’s taste, sensibilities and personal style, much the way the selection of a specific brand of clothing or shoes does.

Later, the college student Baby Boomers of the 1970s became full-grown adults in the 1980s. They got married, bought homes and started families. Large Advents sitting on cinder-blocks wouldn’t suffice any longer. Now, all of a sudden, appearance mattered as much as great sound. The large, visually-obtrusive wooden box look of traditional speakers just wouldn’t do.

Enter clever marketing people and smart engineers. The company is Bose. The time is 1987. The clever marketing people at Bose understood that the way people wanted to own and use speakers has changed completely. The smart engineering people at Bose knew that the bass in music is “non-directional” and therefore doesn’t have to be produced by a box sitting in front of the listener.

Here’s what Bose did -- they reimagined the traditional “stereo speaker.” Instead of two ugly wooden boxes, Bose came up with a three-piece stereo speaker system called the AM-5. They combined the bass from both channels into an enclosure about the size of a small microwave and called it the “bass module,” or “subwoofer.” This box could hide behind a sofa or wing chair.

Midrange and treble -- the vocals, guitars and cymbals -- those are “directional” sounds. The speakers that produce those sounds do need to be right in front of you in order to sound good and deliver a “stereo effect.”

So.... Bose made the midrange-treble enclosure extremely small, a cube barely three inches around. They made it swoopy and stylish as well, with a mesh-metal grille, instead of a cloth grille. It looked nothing at all like an old-fashioned speaker. You could mount the cubes (which they called a “satellite”) on the wall or simply place them on your shelf or TV stand. The bass module hidden behind the sofa produced the bass, yet all the sound—including the bass -- seemed to come from those two hardly noticeable cubes. The days of the two big wooden boxes were over. The amazing marketing people at Bose even came up with a great name for their new speakers:

Virtually Invisible®

And so they were. AM-5 sales took off, and the old wooden coffin boxes of yesteryear were left in the dust. The age of dominance for the traditional wooden box speaker was over for good.

I used to work for a loudspeaker company called Boston Acoustics from 1992-2003. They were founded in 1979 and their founders had professional roots that went right back to the earliest days of the stereo speaker business, with such stalwart companies as AR, KLH, and Advent. Things went well for Boston Acoustics and their traditional wooden box speakers right through the early 1990s. But by then, Bose’s influence with their revolutionary AM-5 subwoofer-satellite system really began to have a huge impact on every other company in the speaker industry.

BA had nothing remotely competitive to Bose’s AM-5. Unless we could counter with a truly innovative, superior product, we would fall further behind and perhaps even be forced out of business. A “me too” product would not suffice.

I was Senior Product Manager for Home Audio, and my responsibilities were:

  • Continually analyze the market
  • Note changes and trends
  • Perform quantifiable market research
  • Propose new products with very detailed, fleshed-out specifications, performance and pricing

If upper management accepted my product proposals, it then became my responsibility to:

  • Work hand-in-hand with Engineering, Purchasing and Manufacturing to develop and produce the new item, on time, on spec and on budget.
  • Write the owner’s manual, magazine ads and training guides
  • Contact the press and arrange for product reviews and publicity announcements
  • Visit our retailers and perform all the in-field sales training

The position of Product Manager is great, really great. You get blamed for anything – anything -- that goes wrong. Behind schedule? Over budget? Performance not up to par vs. the competition? Quality problems? The wrong look/style? It’s the Product Manager’s fault. That old cliché, “Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan” was invented with the Product Manager in mind.

But, hey, no pressure.

I studied the AM-5 closely, cataloging its technical performance, strengths, and weaknesses.

BA had superb in-house engineering capability and I was confident that we could best the AM-5’s acoustic performance. But the AM-5’s appeal was based as much on the aesthetics -- the small size and shape -- of their “cube” speakers as anything else. It was the look -- “They sound pretty good and they’re so small and cute!” -- that got peoples’ attention.

We weren’t going to “out small” Bose. They had already established that territory. That was their “thing.”

But… I saw that there was a huge market opportunity for a three-piece sub-sat system that sounded truly great (the Bose did not), and just exuded quality and an expensive aura. A luxury, high-end appeal, beautiful-looking, made from high-quality materials (the Bose was thin, cheap plastic), and able to be sold at a competitive price. That would be something truly different and viable.

I went to Engineering and Purchasing and reviewed my plan, confirming that we could make such a product (high performance and quality materials) in a relevant timeframe.

My plan was to do the small (about 6 inches tall) left-right satellite speakers in beautifully-styled housings made of cast aluminum, combined with a compact subwoofer with bass performance superior to Bose. This actually proved to be quite an internal hurdle to overcome. Our president was hesitant to embrace such a daring, unconventional design like the one I had proposed. He wanted to do a much “safer” satellite speaker, made from wood veneer that looked like a scaled-down version of a conventional bookshelf speaker -- the kind people were used to seeing for the last 30 years.

“Cast aluminum? Why do you want to make it out of cast aluminum? That’ll cost a king’s ransom. It’ll be heavy as a stone and cost a fortune to ship. And this design looks so extreme.”

We went back and forth for weeks. I continually presented my case, with industry sales stats showing the declining trend of the traditional wooden speaker pair and Bose’s many positive reviews and great publicity. A “safe” effort wasn’t going to do it for us. We needed a bold stroke, something to leapfrog over Bose, something that hadn’t been done before, that was legitimately better.

Finally, he relented. “Okay, we’ll do it your way, but you better be right!”

But, hey, no pressure.

The stereo industry was a hobbyist/enthusiast-driven industry. A huge part of the audio business was the enthusiast magazines, with names like Stereo Review, High Fidelity, and Audio. The audiophile hobbyist would read every monthly edition from cover to cover and stay up on all the latest trends. The heart of the magazines was their equipment reviews. A manufacturer’s latest product would be put through its paces, undergoing a rigorous battery of instrumented measurements and in-use listening tests. To the rabid audiophile, the reviewers themselves took on the notoriety and personae of famous ballplayers or television stars.

The biggest ‘star’ reviewer was undoubtedly a man named Julian Hirsch of Stereo Review magazine. Working out of his basement labs in his house in New Rochelle NY, he was the dean of reviewers from the mid-1950’s until his retirement in the late-90’s. A gracious, gentle, and self-effacing man, what Julian reported in his reviews was unarguable gospel among the audio cognoscenti.

Through my work at Boston Acoustics, I got to know Julian quite well over the years. When I arranged for Stereo Review to review one of our products, I’d travel to New Rochelle to give Julian some added insight as to the whys and wherefores of our products and shoot the breeze with him about audio matters. It was one of the most satisfying “fringe benefits” of my career in audio: Becoming good friends with a man I’d idolized in my younger years.

Stereo Review reviewed the Micro90 system in their February 1997 edition. It was one of the biggest ‘rave’ reviews in the magazine’s -- indeed the industry’s -- history. They wrote, “By a wide and clearly audible margin, the Boston Acoustics Micro90 system is the best three-piece sub-sat system I have ever heard.”

By a wide and clearly audible margin. That became our mantra. It was complete and total confirmation of everything I’d wanted to accomplish when I conceived this system in the first place. The Micro90’s incredible sales success and remarkable longevity can be attributed in large part to the smash review it got from Stereo Review barely a month after its introduction. It couldn’t possibly have had a better launch.

The overwhelming success of the original Micro90 spawned several successful follow-up products. When I left Boston Acoustics six years later, the Micro90 was still a strong-selling product, in an industry where complete new model introductions every two or three years is the norm. Without the Micro90, it’s fair to say that Boston Acoustics would have ceased to be a major player in the U.S. home loudspeaker market.

On my last visit to Julian’s in 1998 (when it was apparent that he was retiring and this was going to be my last visit), he said to me, "I'm going to take you upstairs and show you something but you've got to promise not to say anything."

So we went upstairs from his basement labs to his living room. He never took anyone into his private residence. There, in his living room, he showed me his "personal" stereo system. For years, there was rampant speculation as to “what Julian used for himself.” No one ever knew. Now, I would find out. I’d be the one who saw behind the curtain. Just me.

At one time, he explained, he had a set of large speakers from a well-known manufacturer that were custom-modified just for him, but he'd stopped using them a while back. They were ugly and anachronistic. Even Julian wasn’t immune to the desire for a better looking, less visually-offensive speaker system, that still had first-rate sound. "No Bose AM-5's," he told me. “They were good, but not that good. Not true audiophile quality.”

His choice? The Boston Acoustics Micro90 system. "I knew when I reviewed the Micro90's that these were the ones."

I never said anything to anyone about it. Until now. (Julian passed away in 2003, so I figure I’ve kept my end of the deal.)

I was very proud he chose our Micro90's. That was really the best subwoofer-satellite system ever done, by anyone. I sweated the development of that system for over a year. The president of the company was dead-set against everything I wanted to do. His words still ring in my mind’s ear: "You better be right." Again, no pressure, right?

The Micro90 became the best-selling Boston Acoustics product ever. It made the company a bloody fortune. I got my regular small percentage cost-of-living rise raise that year. Nothing more. No individual recognition, no bonus, no promotion, no plaque, not even a lousy American Express giftcard for dinner. Let me add at this point, however -- lest there be any misinterpretation -- that I thoroughly enjoyed my time at BA. My co-workers were great, I was treated well by upper management (their president, especially, was particularly engaging and interesting, and I carry several business truisms that I learned from him with me to this day). I look back on my decade+ there as time very well spent.

But in spite of the lack of financial gain, I do have the pride of accomplishment for the Micro90, knowing that the concept for the product was all mine, the voicing (how it actually sounded) was all mine, the features and user interface were all mine, winning the internal battle with the “Powers That Be” was all mine, the marketing and national advertising was all mine, the training materials were all mine, the owner’s manual was all mine. I owned that product, even if I didn't get the financial benefit from its success.

Julian picking it for himself was my vindication. In this country, a person has the opportunity to start their own business and strike potentially unlimited financial success. Conversely, many opt for the relative “safety” of working for others, knowing that their personal advancements will only be incremental but being satisfied letting others take the ultimate risk. BA didn’t “owe” me. I made the gutsy, unconventional recommendations, but in the end, it was BA -- not me -- who put their money on the line for the expensive tooling, the exhaustive engineering expenses, and the year-long PR outreach. Yes, the Micro90 came from my mind and BA made a ton of money from it, but they took all the financial risks. I just would have enjoyed a little bipper being tossed my way in recognition and appreciation.

Money comes and money goes, and in the end, money just buys stuff. Know what? I already have plenty of stuff. But the selection of the Micro90 by Julian was really special. I’m way more than satisfied.

Let’s talk about speakers -- the speakers in a music system, those boxes that people used to put in their living room and connect to a receiver and a turntable and play records through. Speakers were a very important part of home entertainment, especially from the 1950s-1980s.

Home loudspeakers remained pretty much unchanged from the time stereo (2-channel) was invented in 1958 right through the mid-80s. You had a receiver or amplifier, a turntable (later, a CD player) and a pair of speakers. These speakers could be large floorstanding units or they could be smaller “bookshelf” speakers that would sit on a shelf or in a bookcase.

This was known as the “stereo industry.” The stereo industry flourished as the biggest demographic group in the country’s history -- the Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 -- came of age and went to college in the 1970’s.

Popular/leisure technology in the 1970s was not what it is today. There was no Internet, no laptop computers, no cell phones, no tablets, no personal video games, no portable music devices with headphones, no boomboxes.

What did young people do for fun? They listened to music -- lots of it. That was when manufacturers of “stereo equipment” enjoyed their greatest success. Names like Pioneer, Kenwood, Sansui, Dual, AR, Advent, EPI and JBL, among many others, were the “Apple” of their day.

Speakers, especially, defined the character and prestige of an individual’s music system. The well-known speaker companies had very definite corporate and product “personalities,” and the choice of one brand over another sent out a very definite message about one’s taste, sensibilities and personal style, much the way the selection of a specific brand of clothing or shoes does.

Later, the college student Baby Boomers of the 1970s became full-grown adults in the 1980s. They got married, bought homes and started families. Large Advents sitting on cinder-blocks wouldn’t suffice any longer. Now, all of a sudden, appearance mattered as much as great sound. The large, visually-obtrusive wooden box look of traditional speakers just wouldn’t do.

Enter clever marketing people and smart engineers. The company is Bose. The time is 1987. The clever marketing people at Bose understood that the way people wanted to own and use speakers has changed completely. The smart engineering people at Bose knew that the bass in music is “non-directional” and therefore doesn’t have to be produced by a box sitting in front of the listener.

Here’s what Bose did -- they reimagined the traditional “stereo speaker.” Instead of two ugly wooden boxes, Bose came up with a three-piece stereo speaker system called the AM-5. They combined the bass from both channels into an enclosure about the size of a small microwave and called it the “bass module,” or “subwoofer.” This box could hide behind a sofa or wing chair.

Midrange and treble -- the vocals, guitars and cymbals -- those are “directional” sounds. The speakers that produce those sounds do need to be right in front of you in order to sound good and deliver a “stereo effect.”

So.... Bose made the midrange-treble enclosure extremely small, a cube barely three inches around. They made it swoopy and stylish as well, with a mesh-metal grille, instead of a cloth grille. It looked nothing at all like an old-fashioned speaker. You could mount the cubes (which they called a “satellite”) on the wall or simply place them on your shelf or TV stand. The bass module hidden behind the sofa produced the bass, yet all the sound—including the bass -- seemed to come from those two hardly noticeable cubes. The days of the two big wooden boxes were over. The amazing marketing people at Bose even came up with a great name for their new speakers:

Virtually Invisible®

And so they were. AM-5 sales took off, and the old wooden coffin boxes of yesteryear were left in the dust. The age of dominance for the traditional wooden box speaker was over for good.

I used to work for a loudspeaker company called Boston Acoustics from 1992-2003. They were founded in 1979 and their founders had professional roots that went right back to the earliest days of the stereo speaker business, with such stalwart companies as AR, KLH, and Advent. Things went well for Boston Acoustics and their traditional wooden box speakers right through the early 1990s. But by then, Bose’s influence with their revolutionary AM-5 subwoofer-satellite system really began to have a huge impact on every other company in the speaker industry.

BA had nothing remotely competitive to Bose’s AM-5. Unless we could counter with a truly innovative, superior product, we would fall further behind and perhaps even be forced out of business. A “me too” product would not suffice.

I was Senior Product Manager for Home Audio, and my responsibilities were:

  • Continually analyze the market
  • Note changes and trends
  • Perform quantifiable market research
  • Propose new products with very detailed, fleshed-out specifications, performance and pricing

If upper management accepted my product proposals, it then became my responsibility to:

  • Work hand-in-hand with Engineering, Purchasing and Manufacturing to develop and produce the new item, on time, on spec and on budget.
  • Write the owner’s manual, magazine ads and training guides
  • Contact the press and arrange for product reviews and publicity announcements
  • Visit our retailers and perform all the in-field sales training

The position of Product Manager is great, really great. You get blamed for anything – anything -- that goes wrong. Behind schedule? Over budget? Performance not up to par vs. the competition? Quality problems? The wrong look/style? It’s the Product Manager’s fault. That old cliché, “Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan” was invented with the Product Manager in mind.

But, hey, no pressure.

I studied the AM-5 closely, cataloging its technical performance, strengths, and weaknesses.

BA had superb in-house engineering capability and I was confident that we could best the AM-5’s acoustic performance. But the AM-5’s appeal was based as much on the aesthetics -- the small size and shape -- of their “cube” speakers as anything else. It was the look -- “They sound pretty good and they’re so small and cute!” -- that got peoples’ attention.

We weren’t going to “out small” Bose. They had already established that territory. That was their “thing.”

But… I saw that there was a huge market opportunity for a three-piece sub-sat system that sounded truly great (the Bose did not), and just exuded quality and an expensive aura. A luxury, high-end appeal, beautiful-looking, made from high-quality materials (the Bose was thin, cheap plastic), and able to be sold at a competitive price. That would be something truly different and viable.

I went to Engineering and Purchasing and reviewed my plan, confirming that we could make such a product (high performance and quality materials) in a relevant timeframe.

My plan was to do the small (about 6 inches tall) left-right satellite speakers in beautifully-styled housings made of cast aluminum, combined with a compact subwoofer with bass performance superior to Bose. This actually proved to be quite an internal hurdle to overcome. Our president was hesitant to embrace such a daring, unconventional design like the one I had proposed. He wanted to do a much “safer” satellite speaker, made from wood veneer that looked like a scaled-down version of a conventional bookshelf speaker -- the kind people were used to seeing for the last 30 years.

“Cast aluminum? Why do you want to make it out of cast aluminum? That’ll cost a king’s ransom. It’ll be heavy as a stone and cost a fortune to ship. And this design looks so extreme.”

We went back and forth for weeks. I continually presented my case, with industry sales stats showing the declining trend of the traditional wooden speaker pair and Bose’s many positive reviews and great publicity. A “safe” effort wasn’t going to do it for us. We needed a bold stroke, something to leapfrog over Bose, something that hadn’t been done before, that was legitimately better.

Finally, he relented. “Okay, we’ll do it your way, but you better be right!”

But, hey, no pressure.

The stereo industry was a hobbyist/enthusiast-driven industry. A huge part of the audio business was the enthusiast magazines, with names like Stereo Review, High Fidelity, and Audio. The audiophile hobbyist would read every monthly edition from cover to cover and stay up on all the latest trends. The heart of the magazines was their equipment reviews. A manufacturer’s latest product would be put through its paces, undergoing a rigorous battery of instrumented measurements and in-use listening tests. To the rabid audiophile, the reviewers themselves took on the notoriety and personae of famous ballplayers or television stars.

The biggest ‘star’ reviewer was undoubtedly a man named Julian Hirsch of Stereo Review magazine. Working out of his basement labs in his house in New Rochelle NY, he was the dean of reviewers from the mid-1950’s until his retirement in the late-90’s. A gracious, gentle, and self-effacing man, what Julian reported in his reviews was unarguable gospel among the audio cognoscenti.

Through my work at Boston Acoustics, I got to know Julian quite well over the years. When I arranged for Stereo Review to review one of our products, I’d travel to New Rochelle to give Julian some added insight as to the whys and wherefores of our products and shoot the breeze with him about audio matters. It was one of the most satisfying “fringe benefits” of my career in audio: Becoming good friends with a man I’d idolized in my younger years.

Stereo Review reviewed the Micro90 system in their February 1997 edition. It was one of the biggest ‘rave’ reviews in the magazine’s -- indeed the industry’s -- history. They wrote, “By a wide and clearly audible margin, the Boston Acoustics Micro90 system is the best three-piece sub-sat system I have ever heard.”

By a wide and clearly audible margin. That became our mantra. It was complete and total confirmation of everything I’d wanted to accomplish when I conceived this system in the first place. The Micro90’s incredible sales success and remarkable longevity can be attributed in large part to the smash review it got from Stereo Review barely a month after its introduction. It couldn’t possibly have had a better launch.

The overwhelming success of the original Micro90 spawned several successful follow-up products. When I left Boston Acoustics six years later, the Micro90 was still a strong-selling product, in an industry where complete new model introductions every two or three years is the norm. Without the Micro90, it’s fair to say that Boston Acoustics would have ceased to be a major player in the U.S. home loudspeaker market.

On my last visit to Julian’s in 1998 (when it was apparent that he was retiring and this was going to be my last visit), he said to me, "I'm going to take you upstairs and show you something but you've got to promise not to say anything."

So we went upstairs from his basement labs to his living room. He never took anyone into his private residence. There, in his living room, he showed me his "personal" stereo system. For years, there was rampant speculation as to “what Julian used for himself.” No one ever knew. Now, I would find out. I’d be the one who saw behind the curtain. Just me.

At one time, he explained, he had a set of large speakers from a well-known manufacturer that were custom-modified just for him, but he'd stopped using them a while back. They were ugly and anachronistic. Even Julian wasn’t immune to the desire for a better looking, less visually-offensive speaker system, that still had first-rate sound. "No Bose AM-5's," he told me. “They were good, but not that good. Not true audiophile quality.”

His choice? The Boston Acoustics Micro90 system. "I knew when I reviewed the Micro90's that these were the ones."

I never said anything to anyone about it. Until now. (Julian passed away in 2003, so I figure I’ve kept my end of the deal.)

I was very proud he chose our Micro90's. That was really the best subwoofer-satellite system ever done, by anyone. I sweated the development of that system for over a year. The president of the company was dead-set against everything I wanted to do. His words still ring in my mind’s ear: "You better be right." Again, no pressure, right?

The Micro90 became the best-selling Boston Acoustics product ever. It made the company a bloody fortune. I got my regular small percentage cost-of-living rise raise that year. Nothing more. No individual recognition, no bonus, no promotion, no plaque, not even a lousy American Express giftcard for dinner. Let me add at this point, however -- lest there be any misinterpretation -- that I thoroughly enjoyed my time at BA. My co-workers were great, I was treated well by upper management (their president, especially, was particularly engaging and interesting, and I carry several business truisms that I learned from him with me to this day). I look back on my decade+ there as time very well spent.

But in spite of the lack of financial gain, I do have the pride of accomplishment for the Micro90, knowing that the concept for the product was all mine, the voicing (how it actually sounded) was all mine, the features and user interface were all mine, winning the internal battle with the “Powers That Be” was all mine, the marketing and national advertising was all mine, the training materials were all mine, the owner’s manual was all mine. I owned that product, even if I didn't get the financial benefit from its success.

Julian picking it for himself was my vindication. In this country, a person has the opportunity to start their own business and strike potentially unlimited financial success. Conversely, many opt for the relative “safety” of working for others, knowing that their personal advancements will only be incremental but being satisfied letting others take the ultimate risk. BA didn’t “owe” me. I made the gutsy, unconventional recommendations, but in the end, it was BA -- not me -- who put their money on the line for the expensive tooling, the exhaustive engineering expenses, and the year-long PR outreach. Yes, the Micro90 came from my mind and BA made a ton of money from it, but they took all the financial risks. I just would have enjoyed a little bipper being tossed my way in recognition and appreciation.

Money comes and money goes, and in the end, money just buys stuff. Know what? I already have plenty of stuff. But the selection of the Micro90 by Julian was really special. I’m way more than satisfied.