Review: Bose 201 Series V
Bose is the heart of darkness for some audiophiles. Through pervasive marketing, they’ve successfully positioned their products as the finest in the industry, at least in the minds of average consumers. Because of that, any review of a Bose product, at least in an audiophile forum, must take into account the company itself and its highly successful marketing efforts.
So successful is Bose’s marketing that many music lovers (and a great deal more casual listeners) will never take the time to audition other brands – brands that may offer more accurate sound reproduction as well as higher-quality cabinetry, crossovers, drivers and design. They’ll simply buy Bose thinking they’re getting the Rolex of speakers, and also, let’s face it, because they want to impress their friends.
Conversely, there are certain “audiophiles” who dismiss Bose out of hand without ever auditioning their products. (You’ve read their illiterate, creepily misspelled postings on web forums: “Boes sucks ass!” “Don’t buy Boes!” “Bose has no base!” and so on.) I’ve actually owned Bose products in the past – a pair of 201 Series II bookshelf speakers and a set of 501 floorstanders – but only used them for background music. As such, I’ve never really been able to add anything of substance to the debate until now.
NOT FOR AUDIOPHILES?
As we sometimes forget, most “regular” people don’t want what we want. They simply want a nice-looking (or completely concealable) speaker or complete system that throws a wide soundstage and sounds decent. Bose products, while not for the audiophile per se, exceed their expectations by a good margin, providing fuss-free music reproduction that’s well above average.
Of course, there’s more. Bose is deservedly well regarded for their excellent customer service, pleasant retail stores, easy setup instructions and – lest we forget – remarkable resale value. In fact, Series I and Series II models in need of new foam surrounds routinely sell for upwards of $75 after giving decades of service. Today, you could pay $218 for a new pair of Bose 201 Series V bookshelf speakers, listen for a year, then turn them around on eBay for well over $150. Try that with another pair of $200-$250 bookshelf speakers.
BETTER SOUND THROUGH RESEARCH?
Looking at the 201s, you might rightly wonder where all your money went. Certainly it didn’t go into the materials, as the 201s don’t seem exceptionally solid or richly constructed. Definitely not into the drivers (cheesy paper cones with foam surrounds) or speaker connections (spring terminals that accept only bare wire or pins, though some bananas can be made to fit). I couldn’t see into the cabinet well enough to assess the crossover, but I wouldn’t expect it to be anything elaborate. On the other hand, simple is often better – the outstanding new $300 Epos ELS3, for example, has only three components in its bass driver crossover and four for the tweeter.
And as far as Bose’s patented “Stereo Everywhere” technology goes, well, it doesn’t seem to have come a long way since the 201 Series II. So what’s with all this research we keep hearing about? Well, the research seems to be mostly market research…very thorough market research, by the way. As a veteran of the advertising industry, I’m particularly impressed with the lengths Bose goes to in order to understand their customers.
Case in point: I recently registered for the “Bose Idea Exchange” on the company’s website. During that process, they go so far as to ask what year, make and model of car you drive. Should you think this is a forum for music lovers to freely exchange ideas, you’ll quickly find out it’s mostly about gathering data. Nothing wrong with that – consumers get to voice their opinions, Bose listens, and in the process, Bose learns how to sell more and better Wave radios. This is America, after all.
By reading between the lines of website’s content and PDF product guides, you get the impression that engineering doesn’t drive product at Bose, marketing does. Why that surprises audiophiles, I don’t know. Little companies that build esoteric SET amps and weirdo speaker designs go in and out of business all the time, mainly because they’re designing products from the heart and not for the purpose of meeting an identifiable consumer demand.
For those who believe Bose is evil, well, they are certainly litigious. As a recent post on AudioAsylum.com noted, “Having deeper pockets than everyone they sue, Bose creates a fearful environment and an unfair place in the market.” The post goes on to remind us that Bose has “sued everyone from Thiel to Consumer Reports.” Behavior like that isn’t exactly in the spirit of community. However, part of my job is protecting intellectual property so I can understand, if not completely agree, with Bose’s position.
On a more positive note, be reminded that Bose is a private company. Unlike public companies, it’s free to reinvest profits in varied ways rather than making the payment of dividends its first priority. No shareholders means no one is screaming for blood if quarterly profits are down, and hopefully, that translates to a less brutal and more creative corporate culture. In fact, if the website is to believed, the company offers a great working environment for engineers along with all employees, going to far as to provide reimbursement for adoption costs and even health and insurance benefits for same-sex domestic partners.
With all that in mind, I figured it was high time I take one for the team and give Bose a second shot. Not in my main system, of course, but in my bedroom. At the very least, maybe my money will go toward some of those adoptions.
It’s easy to buy Bose, and the in-store experience ranges from poor (at Best Buy) to very pleasant (at Bose stores). While shopping for my 201s, I visited a range of stores, mainly because summer is a nice time to peel back the sunroof and go for a ride. (It would have been especially apropos had I a Bose system in my car, but it’s actually Monsoon.)
Best Buy’s Bose demo is hopeless. It’s a big open room with 50-foot high ceilings of corrugated metal, looking for all the world like some kind of futuristic feed store. It houses roughly 40 speakers playing at the same time. Good luck choosing between them. It’s a shame really, because they use decent demo equipment (Yamaha receivers and CD/DVD players) and most of the brands they sell (JBL, Klipsch, Celestion, Athena) would be at home in any mid-fi shop.
Circuit City fared much better, thanks to their enclosed listening room (with a door that shuts and a comfy leather bench). Still, the Bose speakers weren’t optimally positioned, the glass booth was awfully reflective, and the salesperson – who seemed knowledgeable enough – couldn’t figure out if the loudness control was on or off, or of the bass and treble were flat on the store’s Onkyo receivers. But overall, this is not the worst place in the world to audition speakers. The kid even suggested I come back with some CDs and take my time. Even more encouraging, he immediately pegged me as a music lover and pointed me toward the Polks and Infinitys. (I guess some good has come out of Circuit City’s decision to stop hiring commissioned salespeople; in the old days, Bose was practically forced down your throat.)
My last visit was to the local Bose store. It’s a reasonable facsimile of a high-end audio store, but more inviting. (The 901s were suspiciously absent.) The demos were decent enough and the program material carefully chosen: well-recorded music and movies that highlight the products’ strengths while downplaying their inherent weaknesses. I didn’t bring any CDs, so I don’t know if they’d let you try your own music, though I didn’t see any indications to the contrary. On the minus side, though they could field nearly any question about Bose models, the well-trained staff had never heard of any of the equipment I mentioned (they assumed I said “BMW” when I really said “B&W” and I think, judging by their dubious expressions, they assumed Rotel is some kind of bargain brand from Wal-Mart). In addition, they seemed to have limited knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, the hi-fi hobby in general. What did I expect? After all, customers who wander into a Bose store are unlikely to inquire about how to include a pair of 901s in their Meridian multichannel DVD-A systems.
Note that you won’t find any great factory-direct deals by going out of your way to visit a Bose store. Mine, which is located in a large factory outlet center about 40 miles from my home, does in fact offer “Factory Refreshed” products at reduced prices. The 201s, at $195 for refurbished models vs. $218 for factory-new, were selling like hotcakes despite the very slight price reduction. I passed on those and the matching stands that, at $89, seemed to be of better quality than the 201s merited. I bought my own instead for $30 including spikes, and it turns out they’re actually a decent match aesthetically. One could easily find a similar pair for about the same price at most mass market electronics stores.
SETUP & PLACEMENT
Upon opening the boxes, a smell hit me that was reminiscent of very cheap, some-assembly-required office furniture. Ever buy a $29.95 computer desk at Target, or a $39.95 bookshelf at K-Mart? That’s the smell. I don’t know if it’s the 201’s chemically treated wood, the vinyl veneer, glue, paint or what, but it’s a cheap and nasty aroma.
Removing the speakers from their plastic bags, I found the cabinet backs resemble those on speakers you get free with a low rent rack system: cruddy painted particle board, with rough and unfinished edges. For $218, it’s inexcusable. In fact, the speakers I got free with the Initial mini-system were finished to a higher standard, as are similarly priced JBL, Polk and Athena models, not to mention PSB or Paradigm. No wonder some people hate Bose.
On the Bose website, you can use their “Sound Advisor” feature to design a room as though you were creating an architectural plan. Pre-drawn icons of items like couches, tables and even turntables can be selected with a click of your mouse and situated anywhere on the “blueprint.” The idea is to anticipate and correct for sound-absorbing items or potential reflectivity (other than that which is intentional). It’s a neat feature. Plus, when you’re done, you can e-mail your room layout to a Bose customer service associate for advice. I did, mostly for shits and giggles. The e-mailed response read in part, “We have reviewed the room layout and information that you have provided. Your room design looks great and should provide you with excellent sound.” Flattering, but I imagine they say that to everyone because my room is less than ideal. However, the scripted guidelines that followed, while obvious to audiophiles, would probably be very helpful to the uninitiated. (“Place the speakers 4 - 12 feet apart with the back of speakers no more than 18 inches from the rear wall. Choose a stable and level surface for each speaker, and attach the rubber feet. Leave at least 12 inches of space from the end of a speaker to the side wall. Keep the back of the speakers within 18 inches of the wall behind them.”)
I chose 22” stands – much shorter than I use in my living room, but perfect for my listening position while relaxing in bed. I also chose my favorite cheap speaker cable, Radio Shack MegaCable. For the time being, I went without terminations simply because Bose, in the commendably well-written instruction manual for the 201s, says to strip the wires, twist the ends, and insert the bare wires directly into the terminals. (Hey, it was good enough for our dads’ Klipschorns.)
I got the best imaging with the 201s placed roughly 13” from the back wall. They were spaced about six feet apart. I would’ve liked to space them eight feet apart, but was limited by a lack of space. While Bose recommends leaving at least 24” between the speakers and any video monitor, I think that has more to do with their lack of shielding than sound quality. I was worried at first because I don’t have 24 inches to spare, but found I could place the speakers (tweeter end facing inward) almost right next to my bargain Apex TV without interference. I tried the same test with the Sharp 27” flat screen in my living room, and it was more sensitive than the Apex – six inches was a safe distance, but I would’ve gone eight if it were a permanent installation.
The Series V is handsome and modern looking, without appearing silly or sci-fi. I’m not sure it has “classic” looks like the older 201 and 301 models did, so I question whether the new models will be as desirable on the used market as the Series I through IV. But for now, they’re quirkily handsome, attractive even, though I’d opt for the black cabinets over the light cherry finish. The wood looks a little on the artificial side, unlike that of my departed Series II units.
POWERING THE 201s
Bose claims their 201 speakers can be effectively driven by any 8-ohm amp pushing 10-120 watts. I took them at their word and hooked the 201s up to my Initial DMA-710 DVD mini-system. It’s rated at 15wpc, which is probably somewhere between optimistic and highly creative. But again, Bose products are marketed to people who wouldn’t necessarily know that. If the engineers did their jobs, a little less power shouldn’t be a problem. Because I listen at moderate volumes during the late hours I’m in my bedroom, I figured 15 watts should be fine most of the time.
About the only problem I worried about was clipping, but Bose says there’s built-in protection (of some kind; typical of Bose, details are sketchy). If the Initial couldn’t cut the mustard, I was prepared to uncrate an old receiver. I’m sure I only have two or three lying around in the attic, along with some pre- and power amps and maybe an integrated or two.
Incidentally, cabinet dimensions and power handling are about the only specs Bose publishes. Suspicious? You bet, though the carmakers Rolls Royce and Bentley took a similar approach until the late 1980s by describing the horsepower ratings on their automobiles simply as “adequate” in a typically understated British way. (Later, when the 300+ horsepower turbocharged “R” models were introduced, that description was amended to “more than adequate.”) In a way, you have to respect this type of approach. It allows people to focus on what they experience, without being unfairly biased by specs that can be manipulative or misleading. As we all know, especially those of us with tube gear, numbers only tell half the story. On the other hand, judging by independently obtained measurements of some other Bose products, it may simply be a clever way of covering up.
BREAK-IN? WHAT BREAK-IN?
Nowhere in the instruction manual does it say the 201s must be broken in, and most people who buy them likely wouldn’t think to do so anyway. So I started listening and making mental notes right away.
While the DVD player that’s built into the Initial DMA-710 is acceptable, the unit’s CD performance is a bit harsh, so I used a separate RCA DVD player from 1998 for CD playback, reverting to the Initial’s player only when the RCA couldn’t read the CD layer of my dual-layer SACDs. The RCA is hardly a mid-fi unit, let alone hi-fi, but it’s more than adequate in this setup. I reached into my ‘Big Bag O’ Interconnects’ and fished out a MonsterCable Interlink 300MkII for the job, which was probably overkill but the heck.
I set the Initial’s bass/treble and pre-programmed equalization curves to ‘flat’ to gauge what adjustments might need to be made. I then went easy on the Bose 201s for starters, playing mostly sparsely arranged music from Mark Knopfler, Randy Newman, Dar Williams and also some solo string and piano recordings by Michael Hedges and Bill Evans. You know, great music to fall asleep to. Except I didn’t, because the 201 makes a credible and surprisingly detailed presentation. But I did get really relaxed thanks to the 201’s sublime midrange. Vocals, particularly female vocals, were balm-like and soothing. And strings? Wow! Nickel Creek’s debut, along with their follow up, “This Side,” were both fantastic, with Chris Thile’s mandolin sounding nearly as good as I’d ever heard it.
These aren’t lively speakers. On the contrary, they’re way laid back. Bose, it seems, are speakers for people who hate speakers and everything about them: their size, the complication of placing them properly and the effort that comes with auditioning them before purchase. But some good things come out of the company’s McDonald’s-like approach to speaker design. You do end up with a design that nearly everyone likes (or at least tolerates). Just like McNuggets. Bose seems to have gone out of their way to design a speaker that’s involving when you want to get involved, but never in your face. As a result, I can’t imagine any non-audiophile being dissatisfied with them.
People often complain that Bose speakers have no highs and no lows. The highs on the 201 model are rolled off, no question about it. What can you expect from a tweeter that’s nearly the size of a midrange driver? But considering the quality of the equipment it will likely be used with, that seems like a smart decision on the designers’ parts. As for the bass, well, below about 80Hz, maybe higher, it’s just not there. Truly usable bass (bass you can feel) is long gone by about 90Hz, at least by the guesstimates of this liberal arts grad with no engineering background whatsoever. Still, the Bose 201’s have a fullness that makes the lack of low frequencies less bothersome.
The lack of bass meant that rock and electronic music lacked weight. Various CDs by The Clash, Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones were a bit thin and sharp. On the other hand, pop music – particularly Peter Gabriel’s “Up,” had a surprising amount of thump, as did James Taylor’s “October Road.” The 201s can move a commendable amount of air.
After awhile, I found that I got the best balance by goosing the mini-system’s bass and treble very slightly. I also set the Initial’s equalization curve to the “Jazz” setting for low-volume listening, which is similar to hitting the ‘loudness’ button on my Denon receiver. Aside from those minor adjustments to compensate for the Initial’s weak-willed amplification, no other tweaking was necessary.
Even at their best, the 201s made me aware of their cabinets. There was a slight sense of ‘hollowness’ that, whether from cabinet resonance or due to the big plastic port, was always apparent. However, I’ve heard a similar effect in other entry-level models. It’s just slightly more pronounced with the Bose speakers.
Classical music was a pleasant surprise. While the mid-fi components I’ve typically owned (Acurus, Antique Sound Labs, Aragon, Rotel, Denon, NAD, Sony ES, Pioneer Elite, etc.) often struggled while sorting out certain pieces, and became slightly grating as a result, the Initial/Bose combo didn’t. Not that it unraveled the music perfectly. Far from it. It’s hard to describe, but the Bose speakers seemed to ‘smooth over’ the Initial’s feeble attempts at playing back complex passages, so much so that I didn’t even miss the forcefulness and impact of certain loud passages that the system was unable to convey. Yes, some information was omitted, lots actually, but it was information that would be difficult to enjoy anyway. Plus, the “stereo everywhere” effect was particularly enjoyable with classical CDs.
Less of a surprise was how well the 201s handled movie soundtracks. Because of the wide soundstage, they blanketed most of the room in notably rich sound when I screened DVDs of “Mystic River,” “25th Hour” and “Ocean’s Eleven.” They did particularly well in conveying space and depth, especially during the eerier moments in “Mystic River.” Plus, they played plenty loud – probably enough to make the neighbors complain – though after awhile, the Initial heated up like a waffle iron. About the only complaint I have is that, with my DVD player’s normally effective simulated surround effect switched on, the sound was intolerable – hollow and strange, probably because the Direct/Reflecting driver layout in itself creates sort of a simulated surround effect. In the end, I didn’t need it anyway.
Strangely, when I switched to higher quality amplification and sources, everything changed. Playing the same material back through the 201s in my living room with a Denon DRA-395 receiver and Pioneer DV-563A SACD player, voices sounded sandy, highs grainy and lows ‘thuddy.’ My living room is larger and the layout different than my bedroom, but not significantly. To make sure it wasn’t the Denon’s doing, I tried the same thing with a Rotel RC980 preamp/RA-960 amp and got basically the same result.
As a test, I swapped speakers again, moving my reference ProAc Tablette 2000 monitors into the bedroom and hooking them up to the Initial mini-system. Ridiculous? You bet. The Initial had a hard time driving the ProAcs, and the result was pretty lifeless (though the sound was much fuller, and closer to full range, than with the 201s).
Finally, I played back some CDs on the 201s while wandering around from room to room. With a really good pair of speakers, I believe you can trick yourself into thinking there are real live musicians in the next room. No such luck with the Bose 201s – from a distance, they sounded too ‘small’ to get it done. My ProAcs, on the other hand, have passed this test time and again with everything from small classical ensemble pieces to arena rock.
Can Bose 201s really provide a lifelike stereo image throughout the listening area? Well, sort of. With the Bose 201s, there IS music everywhere, diffuse and unnatural though it may be. It’s not exactly stereo, but it does in fact allow you to switch listening positions and still hear basically the same spacious sonic characteristics, even at the extreme left or right corners. Forget about enjoying a realistic soundstage though, and also about pinpoint imaging.
Rather, listening to the little Bose speakers was like listening to my ProAcs after a few too many sips of South African Riesling…the experience was lush, warm, woozy, and comfy. It kind of sounded like my favorite CDs were being re-broadcast in FM stereo on an old Marantz receiver. I found myself concentrating less on detail and more on the music itself and its artistic merit. That alone made the Bose 201s worth the price of admission, but it’s also not a trait that’s exclusive to them.
As an avowed headphone lover, I’ve learned that soundstaging isn’t everything. I have to admit, it is very nice to be able to change seats without being out of the sweet spot. That particular Bose trade-off wouldn’t suit my mood all the time, just as headphones don’t, but in the bedroom it did the trick nicely.
I wish I still had my Polk RT25i or Infinity RS2 speakers, because at about $250 per pair, they’d make a great direct comparison. As it happens, I only have my ProAc Tablette 2000 speakers on hand. They’re similar in size, with a similar size bass driver. At $1100 versus the Bose’s $218 price tag, it’s not exactly a fair shoot-out. I switched between the living room system and the bedroom system anyway, playing the same tracks on both for comparison. As you’d expect, the ProAcs embarrassed the Bose 201s in every conceivable way. I won’t even waste your time going into detail. I did find that the ProAc’s ‘sweet spot’ is bigger than I thought, and even when I wasn’t in it, the sound was still pleasingly full-bodied. I’m pretty sure, going by memory, the same would have been true of my Polks or B&Ws, though it may have been a closer race between the little Infinitys and the 201s.
WHAT ARE THE 201s GOOD FOR?
It’s no secret I like the cute little Initial DMA-710 DVD mini-system. And by extrapolation, I’d imagine mini-systems from Denon, Yamaha and others would probably trounce its pleasing but modest performance by a fair margin. It stands to reason that one could put together a Bose 201/Japanese mini-system combo for well under $400. For most people, this would be the best-sounding music they’d ever heard. (Though it’d be even better if they went for a pair of, say, B&W DM303s some stands…)
Thanks to Bose’s imperfect but useful Direct/Reflecting technology, the 201s are a bookshelf speaker that can actually be placed on a bookshelf and sound decent no matter where you’re sitting. Since “unobtrusive” is the key word for Joe Consumer, and the Bose 201s can indeed be unobtrusively placed, I’d recommend them to anyone who loves music but won’t have anything to do with speakers, even little ones, that might interfere with their décor or – heaven forbid – require stands. (Somehow though, those same people have no problem buying stands for all their houseplants. Go figure.)
As for the speakers themselves, I’m sure that better drivers and stiffer cabinetry would slightly enhance the listening experience, to say nothing of their effect on pride of ownership and durability. Unfortunately, the 201s would probably cost at least $100 more with those improvements, pricing them well out of Joe Average’s comfort zone and making them an untenable proposition for slumming audiophiles. I’m equally sure that Bose has considered all that and decided, based on their market research, that costly improvements would yield little in the way of noticeable improvement for the vast majority of customers.
In fairness, some of my favorite speakers of all time used paper cones and modest connection terminals. Still, I remain gravely concerned about the durability of the 201’s paper cones and surrounds over the long haul.
Bose haters complain that the company dishonestly bills its speakers as the finest available. Well, what company doesn’t claim their products are the best? In a competitive marketplace, it would be stupid not to. In the case of the 201s, Bose doesn’t promise a life-changing listening experience. All they claim is that they are a good choice for the bedroom, dorm room, garage or vacation home. They are.
Are the 201s overpriced? Depends on how you look at it. For example, the Volkswagen GTI VR6 and Ford Crown Victoria cost about the same. One is fast, precise and high-tech; the other, big, comfy and technologically challenged. If you think all $27,000 cars should perform like the GTI, then you’ll hate the Crown Vic. Same with speakers. If you think every $200 speaker should sound like PSB Alpha Minis, then you’re sure to dislike Bose 201s. As for me, I drive a VW everyday, but I sure wouldn’t mind having a laid-back Crown Vic in the garage for road trips. Maybe that’s why I find a lot to like about both my ProAcs and Bose 201s. Plus, don’t forget…most of us have interconnects that cost more than a pair of 201s.
It’s true that you can buy speakers similar in quality to the 201s (superficially, at least) for half the price. Over the years, I’ve owned some of them myself – they were fine for the garage, spare room or shore house. But nothing I owned from KLH, Radio Shack (excepting the Linaeum-built models), Technics or Pioneer quite measures up to the 201s, which suggests there must be SOMETHING to Bose’s engineering and quality claims.
So…could I live with the Bose 201 as my only speakers? If I had to, sure. They can, under the aforementioned circumstances, sound quite wonderful and warm. Not hi-fi, to be sure, but musical and enveloping in a not quite accurate, not quite fully resolved but still enjoyable way. As a bonus, just about anything can drive them, from a mini-system to a cheap receiver and hell, maybe even a transistor radio.
For the kids’ rooms, basement, den or shore house, these are worth a listen. And, for the VERY cash-strapped audio enthusiast, a Bose 201- or 301-based system will allow you to focus on your music, not the glaring little shortcomings that more revealing monitors would surely uncover in cheap components. Just be sure you have bass and treble controls, and maybe even an equalizer…the minimalist approach won’t work with the 201s.
Bottom line? Like ‘em or hate ‘em, Bose sure sells a lot of 201s. In a world where low-quality MP3 files and satellite radio boom boxes are quickly overtaking FM stereo, LPs and CDs, Bose remains firmly committed to superior sound reproduction for the masses. And through their wide-reaching marketing efforts and commendable music education programs, they help keep people interested in, and enthusiastic about, two-channel audio. There’s something to be said for that, and also for the 201 Series V.
Initial DMA-710 DVD/CD Stereo Mini-System
RCA DVD Player
Apex Digital 27” TV
Monster Interlink 300MkII Interconnects
Radio Shack MegaCable 16-gauge speaker wire
Generic 22” wood speaker stands w/carpet spikes
MonsterPower power strip
Polk RT25i, B&W 601S2, B&W 301, Infinity RS2, Boston Acoustics CR7, ProAc Tablette 2000, Paradigm Reference Studio/20 plus various cheapies from KLH, RCA, Radio Shack, Pioneer and Technics.