How I Got Into The Hi Fi Biz – The Guy Behind Bose Wave Radio Speaks

The industry of audio electronics and speakers is a great industry. I was fortunate enough

The industry of audio electronics and speakers is a great industry. I
was fortunate enough to spend virtually my entire working career in consumer
electronics, with companies like Panasonic, Bose, Boston Acoustics and Atlantic
Technology. I got paid for doing things that people would consider a hobby:
Voicing speakers before they went into production, deciding on this tweeter or
that tweeter, watching blockbuster action movies to pick out the best “demo”
scenes, making the call on whether we’d include a “sub out” jack on our
tabletop CD/Radio or not, setting the retail list price ($299 to move fast or
$329 to make our full profit?). Fun stuff. Having both a technical background
and a marketing background, I was right in the thick of the action, so to
speak, for over 40 years, from the earliest stages of product proposal, through
the technical design and development stages, right through and including the
marketing rollout, the PR blitz and the dealer trainings. I was a central
figure in it all, for many of the industry’s most famous and biggest-selling
models. (Humorous aside time: I worked for these companies; I didn’t own
them. The really big bucks went to others, not to me. No complaints—I made a
perfectly comfortable living—but to be clear, my biggest rewards were
egotistical and emotional, not financial!)

At family gatherings or high school reunions, people would always ask
me what new and exciting things were coming down the pike, could I get them a
deal, which model was better, was Bose really just mostly fancy marketing, and
so on. No one ever asked Mark the Accountant what was the newest thing in
Balance Sheets, nor did anyone care about the legal Smith v Jackson precedent
as it pertained to estate law. But advice on how to set up their surround
speakers or where to put the subwoofer? Yeah, I got that all the time and it
was big fun being the “expert.”

 

No one ever asked me about
this…..

 
SVS SB-4000

….but they asked me about
this all the time!

It started when I was a teenager. Growing up, I picked up a deep love
for music from my dad. I discovered I had the ear for it and music soon became
an indispensable part of my life. Our house was filled with classical music and
jazz, especially on Sundays. Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis and
many others blared impressively from my Dad’s beloved “hi fi system.” Actually,
I think Dad liked the dials, meters, woofers and watts of his “system” as much
as he loved the music itself. Soon, I too loved the technical aspects of stereo
electronics and speakers equally as much as the piano stylings of Brubeck’s
solo on “Take Five.” Maybe more.

Early on, my dad had these big 15” triaxial speakers from an English
company called Goodmans. A 15” woofer with a cloth accordion-pleat surround, a
midrange whizzer cone with what they euphemistically called a “mechanical
crossover” and a small horn tweeter above 7500 cps. (They called it cps—“cycles
per second”—in those days, not Hz.) There was a national chain of stores called
Lafayette Radio, a Radio Shack-like operation with a mixture of house brands,
national brands and an extensive selection of parts and accessories. The
Goodmans were just raw speakers, meant to be put into custom enclosures, or (as
was often done in the late ‘50’s/early 60’s) cut into the wall or a closet
door. Lafayette offered some nice 36” tall by about 18” wide and 15” deep
floorstanding speaker enclosures for raw speakers like the Goodmans. My dad
bought them and custom-finished them as part of his self-designed-and-built one-of-a-kind
stereo/entertainment unit, complete with a Garrard RC-88 record changer and
Allied Knight Kit pre-amp and power amp. It was a pretty hip system for 1963.

Knight kit amp    Knight lit 60w amp

RC88    15 in Goodmans w horn

Garrard RC-88, Goodmans Triaxial
speaker, Knight Kit electronics

My mom’s patience for that décor-ruining monstrosity lasted about six
years. Pretty remarkable, actually. Finally she said, “Out! I want those big
ugly speakers out of my house!”

Good timing, in
the grand scheme of the stereo industry. In 1954, an
enterprising young inventor named Edgar Villchur had an idea for getting solid,
extended low-distortion bass from an enclosure barely ¼ the size of the best
existing speakers. Villchur’s “acoustic suspension” design made it possible to
get truly accurate, powerful bass into the low 30 Hz-range from a cabinet that
was only about 1.5 cu ft in volume—only 25 x 14 x 11” deep. Truly a “bookshelf”
speaker. Any normal-sized room could easily accommodate two of his AR-1 or AR-3
speakers, and their bass response was superior to those refrigerator-sized
dinosaurs like my Dad’s Goodmans in those big Lafayette enclosures—tighter,
cleaner, more extended.

Tyson AR-3

AR-3 bookshelf speaker of 1958 (Image courtesy of Tom Tyson)

AR quickly introduced smaller, less expensive versions of their first model and
other companies followed suit, so good-sounding compact speakers that could be
used in pairs in any room became available at the same time that stereo
electronics began to really take off. If the high-performance bookshelf speaker
as pioneered by Villchur’s AR-1 hadn’t been available right at the beginning of
the stereo era (1958), the market would likely have developed quite
differently.

With AR’s acoustic suspension design, the bookshelf-sized speaker as we still
know it today became a reality, paving the way for the commercial success and runaway
popularity of two-channel stereo in the early 1960’s. The basic AR theme of
great bass in compact enclosures probably reached its zenith with the 1964
introduction of the small AR-4, an 8” version of the AR-1’s and AR-3’s
twelve-inch system, but in an enclosure barely 1/3 the size of the AR-1 and
AR-3. 1965 saw the debut of the famous AR-4x with its vastly improved new 2
½-inch tweeter, resulting in a system that spanned from 55-15kHz at ± 3dB on
axis—downright amazing for that time period! These smaller AR speakers brought
true hi-fidelity sound to hundreds of thousands of people, yet they sounded
very similar to their bigger brethren. Like the AR-3 at the high end of the
scale, the budget-priced 4x had no real, true competition for years.

 AR-4x pair no grille

AR-4x of 1965

I remember so clearly when my dad brought home those
diminutive AR-4x’s in 1969. (“Diminutive” by 1969 standards—19 x 10 x 9”. Not
that small by today’s standards, but very
small in 1969.) First, my mom was thrilled that these were going to replace
those awful Goodmans. My parents really had actual bookshelves on the wall in
their den and the 4’s fit on them as neatly and inconspicuously as could be. My
dad still had the Goodmans; the person he was giving them to hadn’t picked them
up yet. So we did an “A-B.” I was astonished. Astonished. The ARs stomped the Goodmans from top to bottom and
every which way from Sunday. Deeper, more solid bass. Clearer, airier highs. A
less colored overall midrange presentation. The speakers sounded like they were
from two totally different time eras, which I guess they were. That A-B did it
for me. At age 15, I was hooked on hi-fi. I was fascinated, totally taken in. I
had fallen under the spell.

Even though Dad had AR’s smallest, least expensive speakers (they were
all he could afford, but he wanted ARs, even if it was their entry model), they
sounded great. All the hi-fi enthusiast magazines at that time said AR speakers
were the best. A few years later as my friends and I entered our late teens
during our senior year of high school, we all began to buy the first stereo
systems of our own from the money we earned from our first jobs at the local
supermarket or the corner ice cream shop.

On Saturdays, we’d go stereo shopping at the neighborhood electronics
stores, places with names like Sound Ideas, Tunxis Stereo, The Stereo Shoppe
and others. I’d been talking up my Dad’s AR speakers to my friends, because I
thought they sounded so good and I considered myself the expert, because only
my dad among my friends’ dads had a sophisticated stereo system made up of
individually-selected components from cool companies like Dynaco, Miracord,
Shure, and of course, AR. Everyone else’s dad had an all-in-one console stereo
from a non-hi-fi company like Zenith or RCA. Those didn’t sound good. They were
only for the undiscerning ear (I condescendingly thought), for people who
regarded music as being strictly for the background.

 Zenith stereo console

Zenith Console Stereo

So my best friend and I went to Sound Ideas. In those days, a stereo
store had what was known as the speaker wall. Here, the entire wall was filled
with speakers from different manufacturers and the customer could ask the store
salesman to switch between several different pairs of speakers while the music
played, in order to select the pair they liked best.

Speaker wall

Stereo Store Speaker Wall

I stood there smugly, confidently as the sales guy put on a record and
played it through some random brand of speakers. “Now switch to the ARs,” I
said with an all-knowing air, as my friend listened intently.

He made the switch. The ARs played….and they sounded terrible! Not at all like they sounded
in our den. Instead, they were terrible: muffled, cloudy, distorted.
Not clear and vibrant and lifelike, the way I was expecting. Then the salesman
at the store said something that just stunned me: “AR speakers are awful. They’re
the most over-rated speakers out there. No one in their right mind would ever
buy them and anyone who has was obviously brainwashed by their fancy
advertising.”

My friend turned to me and said,” I guess your dad made the wrong
choice. And it’s obvious that you don’t know anywhere near as much as you think
you do. I’ll never buy an AR speaker. Never.”

I was hurt, embarrassed, humiliated, angry, confused, you name it. My
dad—the greatest guy ever—was not someone who’d ever be “brainwashed.” He
wouldn’t make a stupid choice. He was an engineer, so he was obviously a smart
guy. He loved music and knew it inside out. 
And I was no dope either. I couldn’t be wrong. Not this wrong.

Ah, life’s teachable moments. At age 17, I was introduced to the
concept of retailer profitability, the notion that a store would “push” one
brand of product over another because they could make a better profit on it. I
think up until then, as a kid, you walked into a store and didn’t give the
different brands of products any particular attention. You simply picked the
one that suited you the best and that was that. How the store that sold the
goods felt about one brand vs. another never even occurred to you.

After a lot of investigation, reading, going around to all the stereo
stores in the area and talking to the store managers, the big picture came into
focus: Acoustic Research did indeed make very good speakers. The enthusiast
magazines ran tests and comparisons between various speaker brands and AR
always came out either at or near the top. They were hugely popular, sold by
almost every stereo store in existence.

And that was the problem—AR was over-distributed. Everyone wanted them,
but there was no way to distinguish a Sound Ideas AR from a Stereo Shoppe AR
other than price. Each store would go lower and lower. AR speakers rapidly
became a very unprofitable brand to sell because they were everywhere. Soon
enough, the stores would find a brand of speakers they could call their own,
that couldn’t be cross-shopped, a brand of speakers with which they could make
real money. What the stores would do was to intentionally ‘sabotage’ the AR
speaker so it didn’t sound good in comparison to that store’s preferred, more
profitable brand. There were a lot of ways the store could do that to an AR
speaker that the customer would never see (things like mis-setting level
controls, reversing the phase, breaking the acoustic seal, etc.). That’s how
they did it and it happened a lot.

Why would AR design and engineer such good speakers and then wreck
everything by selling them to too many dealers so that the dealers ended up
hating them?

That’s called marketing. It’s
the combination of producing good products that satisfy the end customers’
needs (people who want good speakers in their homes) and then selling and
supporting those products in such a way that you satisfy the needs of your business customers as well (making sure
your business partners actually want
to sell your products).

Marketing. I discovered I liked this stuff. So at 17, I decided that
when I was in college, I’d major in business. In Marketing. And I’d work in the electronics/stereo industry. Maybe
even for AR.

How do you get into the stereo industry in Marketing? In those days,
companies’ marketing departments weren’t as large and sophisticated as they are
today. In 1976 (the year I graduated college), most companies didn’t have
layers and layers of marketing people, like they do today. They didn’t have product
managers, project managers, program directors, channel distribution
specialists, vendor relations people, advertising writers, web creation, social
media coordinators, copywriters, graphic design managers, etc.

Not in 1976. Marketing departments were only a few people. In those
days, the best way to get into Marketing was by being in Sales first. Ok. If
that’s what it took, I’d go into Sales. But I’d go into Sales with an
electronics company, a company that was in the consumer electronics goods field,
so I’d be a seasoned and highly-desirable, experienced electronics industry
candidate, ready to make the leap from Sales into Marketing. At a company like
AR.

Enter Panasonic. That was a great electronics company, one of the largest
in the world, even bigger than Sony. Everyone owned a Panasonic something, whether it was a clock radio,
a boombox, a VCR, a TV, an answering machine, something. Yeah, I’d like to sell
Panasonic. Plus, they had a real hi-fi division called Technics. That was a
line of receivers, amplifiers, turntables, tape decks—the real deal, component
stereo, like the stuff my dad had—and Technics products were carried by the
best stereo stores around. Yup, if I could work for Panasonic in Sales, that
would be the perfect stepping-stone to getting into the real hi-fi industry in
Marketing.

 Panasonic logo

 

My entry into the
electronics industry

So I got wind that Panasonic was looking to hire a salesperson in my
area of CT/Western MA. I was there in a flash. (At the time, I was working as a
sales rep for some electronics companies. Not a bad gig, not unrelated to the
field I wanted, but this was Panasonic.
The majors. The big leagues. Bigger than Sony.)

The interview was at a downtown Hartford hotel, in a guestroom on the
12th or 14th floor. The Panasonic person conducting the
interviews was a hard-core Italian guy named Pasquale (Pat) Albano [not his
real name. I changed it ‘to protect the innocent,” as the old cliché goes]. Pat
was kind of a local legend in Southern New England at that time. He “owned” the
electronics biz in those parts.

The candidates were all lined up in the hallway like schoolkids waiting
for recess. One person would go in, the line would inch a little closer, and then
10-15 minutes later that person would emerge from the room. We’d all move up
one spot. I remember when the person in front of me came out of the room. He
looked at all of us and said, “Next victim.”

I remember thinking to myself, “Not me. He must be weak. I’m going to
nail this. This is mine. All these people should go home now.”

I walk in, I see Pat for the first time. He’s the Godfather
personified. He’s sitting there in a blue sport jacket and open-collar shirt,
open too far to be business-appropriate. Jet-black hair with a touch of gray at
the temples, perfectly quaffed, straight back along the sides in classic
Mafioso style. He’s smoking up a storm (in those days, you could smoke in a
hotel), he doesn’t ask if I mind the smoke and he tells me to sit down. I offer
him my résumé. He dismisses the offer, “I’ve already seen it, you mailed it in.
Yeah, ok, you went to a fancy school, isn’t that nice. And you’re on the road
now in sales. So what? What can you do for me? Why should I hire you?”

 Pat portrait

Pat, the “Godfather” of
Panasonic

I’m 26. I have a really nice suit on—my special interview suit—and I
look like a kid. I’m a small guy and I’ve always had that ‘young’ look. He’s
menacing, threatening, no doubt intentionally for effect, but I gotta tell you,
it’s working. He looks right at me.

I sit back and smile, with a cool confidence that surprises even me.
Pat’s taken a bit aback, thrown a little off his stride. You have to meet
strength with strength, confidence with confidence. “I like Panasonic, I always
have,” I say. One of the lines I sell as a rep is Sanyo, a direct competitor to
Panasonic at a lot of the stores I call on. “I respect Panasonic as a
competitor, but I can sell around it, every day, no problem. And I do. But….I’m
not going to tell you how I do it, because if I don’t get this job with you, I
don’t want you using that information against me. But let me tell you, I could
go into Al Franklin’s Musical World tomorrow [a dealer that carried both
Panasonic and Sanyo] and sell them Panasonic. Sanyo would be out.”

Pat smiles. I’m speaking his language, the language of aggressive,
results-oriented business. I didn’t realize it consciously at the time, but
that was classic Marketing: Speak in the customer’s language and satisfy
his/her need. His language was nervy, chance-taking aggression. His need was to
find and hire a salesperson who could deliver immediate results. He turns to
his associate and says, “I like this kid. Go out in the hall and tell them all
to go home.”

Boom.

Still one of my most satisfying interviews.

Thus began my 10-year stint with Panasonic.

I was on the road in New England (CT and MA) as a Panasonic salesperson
from 1980-1987. In those days, there were a lot of independent one-store
operations and the big chains like Caldor’s and Lechmere co-existed quite
nicely with the smaller operations. Panasonic wasn’t a strict high-fidelity
brand per se, but a lot of stereo
stores carried Panasonic boomboxes and Walkmen-type units, so I got to visit a
lot of nice stereo shops. (The Technics division of Panasonic was handled by a
separate sales force, so I didn’t deal with that directly.)

I really enjoyed my 10 years with Panasonic (the last three as a
Marketing Manager in their regional office, having been promoted from
on-the-road sales). But I wanted out of the garden-variety electronics category
and into “real” hi-fi. The stereo gear market was still thriving 30 years ago
and I wanted in.

I heard of an
opening in marketing at Bose in Framingham MA, not too far from the Panasonic
NE regional office where I was working. They were impressed with my background
at Panasonic and I got a job there in Product Management, charting out new
products for the company and working alongside Engineering to bring them into
existence. Yeah, yeah, yeah, as a hard-core stereo aficionado, Bose equipment wasn’t
exactly my cup of tea, but it was an “in.” I stayed there for a few years and I
made good use of my time there, learning a lot about the ins-and-outs of the
speaker business and making good contacts.

Oh, that little
item of theirs called the Bose Wave Radio? That was mostly my baby. I remember
when we were deciding on the feature set for the clock/alarm portion of that
product, I said to the upper-ups, “if this thing is also supposed to be a clock
radio, it better have clock/radio features at least equal to a $50 Panasonic or
GE radio.” So the next day, I bring in my Panasonic RC-6360 clock/radio and I
demo all the alarm, buzzer/radio features for the executive board (including
You-Know-Who and Mr. Two and Three behind You-Know-Who.). They’re fascinated,
and they were also totally unaware that clock radios did those kinds of things.
Remember, back in the 70’s-80’s-90’s, clock radios were big selling items.
There were no smartphones back then.

Bose Wave Radio 

Bose Wave Radio

My friends knew
I was working at Bose. A good friend of mine said to me, “If you have any say
in how this radio thing is supposed to work, here’s a feature I’d like to see:
It’s always bugged me that with a clock radio, the FM alarm just blares ‘on’ at
whatever volume level you happen to have it set at. Is there a way that you
guys can have the turn-on volume ramp up from silent to normal volume over a
span of about 10 seconds or so, so you’re not jolted up at full blast first
thing in the morning?”

Yup, we could
do that, and we did. So the original Wave Radio had a ‘ramp up’ alarm volume-on
feature, thanks to my friend’s suggestion. Thanks, Mark.

I had a lot to
do with some other notable Bose models as well, like their RoomMate series of
self-powered speakers and the AM-5 Series II, the follow-up to the original
industry re-defining AM-5 sub-sat system. It was a great company. They knew
their market and their customer. They weren’t trying to be an audiophile
company, so those criticisms of them are irrelevant. Bose’s commitment to QC
and customer service (at least when I was there in the early 90’s) was
fanatical: I saw them put the shipment of an important new product on hold during the Christmas selling season
while they painstakingly inspected every single last one of them for a possible
manufacturing flaw. Every single unit in the warehouse of a model that their
dealers were chomping at the bit to get. Bose does what they do intentionally
and they do it well.  Again, trying to
land on the 10 Best list of some snobby magazine is not their goal, so you
can’t judge them by that. I learned a ton working there, about best business
practices, business discipline, sharp, tight product definitions, adhering to a
developmental schedule, avoiding “feature creep,” and perfecting the gentle art
of “persuading” those in higher positions to see the error of their
assumptions. Working at Bose was college and grad school, all at once. It could
not have been more valuable to me.

 Bose RoomMate

Bose RoomMate

Bose proved to
be a perfect springboard into roles with other speaker companies (Boston
Acoustics and Atlantic Technology) in executive-level Marketing and Product
Development, where I was doing all the things I’d dreamt about doing when I was
17—planning all the new products, deciding on their actual configurations and
performance targets, working closely with Engineering and Manufacturing to
ensure the products came out right, doing the listening evaluations and making
the final calls, writing the brochures, press releases, magazine ads, working
with Sales to make sure they were well-received by our dealers, meeting with
the reviewers and press to explain our newest stuff and give them the lowdown
on why they were so good, etc.  At both
Boston Acoustics and Atlantic Technology, we introduced dozens and dozens of
products that were a direct result of my take on how to do them—the look, the
sound, the feature set, the areas we spent extra money on, the areas where we
economized, the way the packaging was done, the brochures, the magazine ads,
the owner’s manuals—everything. I think that BA and AT did some great stuff in
the 1992-2014 time frame and I had an absolute blast being involved with every
last capacitor, terminal cup, cone material and press release.

 IWTS-30

AT IWTS-30 ad

 AT-1 PIS 11-10-page-001

AT-1 lit

It’s important
to remember that the AT-1 with its innovative H-PAS bass system was listed on
the Stereophile “Recommended
Components list, Loudspeakers—Class B” for three straight years (I think it was
2011-12-13.). Class B loudspeakers included products with list pricing up to
$20,000/pair. Twenty Grand. 20 big ones. That’s Class B. The AT-1 had a list
price of $2500/pair. We were kinda proud of that.

I have to cite
the lead project engineer for the AT-1, Jason Marcure. From voicing to the
innovative internal cabinet bracing configuration to the implementation of the
tweeter—everything, really—Jason showed once again why he was such an outstanding
talent. Along with Paul Ceurvels (who you’ll read about shortly), he was half
of a one-two engineering team that punched so far “above their weight” it
wasn’t even funny. Bose and Boston Acoustics had dozens and dozens of
top-flight engineers and their expertise showed in the excellence of their
products. But for no-excuses acoustic performance and intelligent design that
made the best use of limited financial resources, the Paul-Jason team at AT was
unsurpassed. They unfailingly made me look good.

 Boston VRM50

BA VR-M50 lit

 BA subs

BA Sub lit

The entire
experience was incredibly gratifying. It felt like being a kid and growing up
to be the star hitter on the Red Sox. I’d say, “We’re going with the 2-inch
voice coil on that woofer, not the 1.5-inch,” I’d write the newest brochure or I’d
meet with the industry press as we unveiled our latest model and I’d think to
myself, “I can’t believe I’m actually doing this!” The list of Product of the
Year, Best in Class, 5-Star, Editor’s Choice, Top-Ranked, Best Buy and Highly
Recommended awards that “my” products have garnered over the years is “longer
than my arm,” as the old saying goes, at company after company. I feel so
fortunate to have had the opportunity to do this and to have worked with so
many amazingly talented people.

There is one more
person I just have to single out—and I won’t change his name. That’s Paul Ceurvels
of Atlantic Technology. Paul was the Head Engineer at Atlantic Technology when
I was there. (He has since retired.) Paul was technically an electrical
engineer, who did most of the design of in-house units and the modifications of
vendor-supplied units. When a given manufacturer does, say, a powered
subwoofer, that manufacturer generally doesn’t design the amp themselves. They
buy it from an overseas vendor. They say to the vendor, “Hey, we need a 400-watt
plate amp with these features for $xx dollars. Watcha got?”

The vendor will
say, “We have X and Y and a brand-new technology we call Z. We’ll send
samples.”

So they send
them. They’re noisy and shoddy and they hum and buzz and have awful turn-on/turn-off
thump and no distortion limiting. Every fix is an upcharge. If you have a
really, really talented, clever U.S. engineer in-house, he can re-work that
piece of crappola into a polished gem for peanuts. Peanuts. That was Paul: The ultimate crappola-to-gem polisher.

But Paul was so
much more than just a great electrical engineer. He was an acoustics wizard. He
could design transducers—especially subwoofers—like nobody’s business. He knew
everything there was to know about fasteners and adhesives. And he was a
mechanical designer/packaging designer of the highest order. I’ve never
encountered a single individual with such a broad range of engineering
expertise. That amazing perspective gave Paul the ability to design and
evaluate products and see how everything interacted and fit together better
than anyone else I’ve ever worked with in my many decades in the business.

And as you
might suspect from seeing his picture, he was quite the character—funny,
irreverent and one-of-a-kind. Small companies like Atlantic Technology don’t
have the financial resources for huge staffs of engineers. Paul was a staff all
by himself.

 AT 2006.jpg

Team Pic of AT, circa 2007. Paul Ceurvels, back row, 2nd
from left, Jason Marcure, far left in red.
(The author is in the middle of the back row, in the red shirt.
Before everything turned gray.)

Working on the
“inside” is not the way that “outsiders” envision it is, that’s for sure. For
an absolutely accurate, hilarious, event-by-event account of what it’s really
like, check out this two-part article of mine, The Insider’s View of Product
Development, Part 1
and Part 2.
That’s the real story and it’s big fun—as long as you have a thick skin, you
have realistic, flexible expectations and you enjoy dealing with unpredictable
circumstances and wildly inconsistent personalities. The entire scenario of
high-fidelity product development and marketing is about the farthest thing
from being a straight line from beginning to end that there is. If you can roll
with the punches—and some real haymakers come your way, that’s for sure!!—it’s
about as much fun as you can possibly have and still be legally paid.

But if you’re
the kind of person who lives in a 2 + 2 = 4 world, this is probably not the
life for you. Trust me.