Amar Bose, the Man Behind the Headphones
His name became legendary in the world of consumer audio, but Bose—professor, researcher, engineer, inventor—was much more than a business-savvy audiophile.
The life of Amar Bose provides a pleasant counterpoint to the drama and controversy that often permeates the upper echelons of the tech industry. He was a highly educated professor, scholar, and businessman who applied his ingenuity and dedication to the ongoing quest for the optimal electronic audio experience.
Amar Bose served on the MIT faculty for 45 years. Image used courtesy of Bose and MIT
From Model Trains to MIT
Amar Bose did not begin life as a member of the privileged class. His mother was a teacher, and his father was an independence activist who arrived in the United States with almost nothing after fleeing the British authorities in India.
Bose began tinkering with electrical devices at a young age. He managed to earn some money repairing toy trains and radios, and he opened a radio repair shop that did quite well; this was during World War II when repair technicians were in short supply. Bose’s youthful foray into business probably laid some groundwork for the entrepreneurial success that he gradually achieved after earning bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
For Bose's dissertation, he investigated shot noise as a stimulus for characterizing nonlinear systems, comparable to using an impulse signal for characterizing linear systems.
The cover page of Bose’s doctoral dissertation. Image used courtesy of MIT
Amar Bose is not well known for his work in academia, but it turns out that numerous electrical engineers (including the author of this article) have an indirect connection with Professor Bose through his illustrious doctoral student Alan Oppenheim. If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you osmotically internalized it after many hours of carrying, opening, reading—and hopefully not deploring—one of his widely used textbooks.
Countless EEs have learned signal processing with help from Alan Oppenheim, whose doctoral advisor at MIT was Amar Bose. Image used courtesy of Pearson
Human-centric Audio Systems: Psychology vs. Metrology
Bose’s career as an innovator began as many other such careers have begun: with dissatisfaction. He purchased a high-end speaker system and found the sound quality decidedly underwhelming. The product’s impressive technical specifications did nothing to allay his disappointment; the touchstone of audio quality is the sensory experience of a live musical performance, and this “high-fidelity” sound system was, in Bose’s estimation, not at all faithful to the real thing.
It appears that this experience was the catalyst for a lifetime of research and development in pursuit of sonic excellence. But despite Bose’s advanced scientific scholarship and engineering expertise, this was not the excellence of a merely technical or theoretical nature. Violin lessons had attuned his ear to fine audio, and when he listened to that supposed hi-fi stereo system, Bose readily detected deficiencies that others might have overlooked. “The presentation of the product said it was good,” he would later explain, “and my ears said it was bad.”
This story indicates that Bose was a pioneer in the field of human-centric engineering, meaning that he favored the human psyche when confronted with the tension between psychology and metrology. Metrology is defined as the science of measurement. Bose insisted that perception and subjective experience should precede measured specifications such as frequency response or distortion. He studied psychoacoustics and designed speaker systems around the perception of sound rather than the production of sound.
His company’s first offering, called the Bose 2201, was a curious product described in the owner’s manual as a “practical realization of the theoretical ‘Ideal Pulsating Sphere.’” It was intended to eliminate the “tonal unbalance” of conventional speakers and allow for “full stereo performance enjoyment from a wide range of positions.” The unit consisted of twenty-two separate speakers mounted on a spherical surface. This design created randomly distributed resonances and produced a more “omnidirectional” listening experience.
A drawing of the Bose 2201 speaker system from the owner’s manual. Image used courtesy of Bose
The 2201 speaker system, released in 1966, was not commercially successful and was discontinued the same year. However, it was significant as a predecessor to the Bose 901, which was introduced in 1968 and sold extremely well. Production of the 901 Series VI continued until 2016. Like the 2201 system, the 901 also incorporated multiple speakers oriented to provide a more “immersive” listening experience through a combination of direct and reflected perception.
Mounting instructions for the Bose 901 speaker system from the owner’s manual. Image used courtesy of Bose
Dr. Bose once said in an interview, “We don’t know of any measurements that actually determine anything about a product.” He was determined to enhance the experience of the listener, and for that, he looked first to psychoacoustics. A quote from one of his lectures mentioned on the Bose website aptly summarizes his audio-engineering philosophy: “You can put engineers in a room and give them the task of lowering distortion, and they will do this merrily for years. But there’s a basic question: does this mean anything with respect to perception?”
Bose's Educational Legacy
The company that Amar Bose founded brought him wealth and worldwide recognition, but he continued lecturing at MIT until 2001. Two years before his death in 2013, he donated the majority of Bose Corporation’s stock to his alma mater and longtime employer, hoping that the dividends on those shares would support MIT’s research and its mission of educating the scientists and innovators of tomorrow.