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"You're not bringing that thing indoors, are you?" My wife's tone of voice made it clear that this wasn't really a question - her last two words were superfluous.
The "thing" in question was my old Sanyo hi-fi system, which had been languishing in the garage along with a vast quantity of the belongings we hadn't got round to unpacking when we moved house two and a half years ago. Now, with a "severe" winter forecast, we had decided that the car deserved tucking up warmly on these dark, cold nights, so the garage contents were being sorted into piles labelled "rubbish", "charity" and "still wanted". This last pile was a bone of contention and already only half the size of either of the others.
"Why do you still want it?" she persisted. "You haven't used it since we moved and it doesn't look very nice…"
There is a gulf between my aural aesthetics and my dear wife's visual aesthetics. Or, to put it more plainly, if it sounded good, it justified its place in the house as far as I was concerned, whereas in Mrs Floon's opinion it had to fit in with the décor - or at least not stick out of it.
"I tell you what," she said, knowing from my face that an explosion was imminent. "Why don't I buy you that hi-fi system you were talking about the other night, then you can give this old thing to charity."
Reluctantly, I placed the Sanyo on the "Charity" pile, went indoors and searched my bedside table for the leaflet that had fallen out of my Gramophone Magazine a week ago. Luckily it was still there…
"Bose?" asked my wife. "How good are they?"
"Well," I told her, "according to the Gramophone they're brilliant. They produce a huge, clear sound from a tiny unit. I heard one a few months back and was agreeably surprised."
"What does it look like?" Ah, the important question!
I showed her the illustration. The unit in the picture looked more like a bedside alarm or tiny portable CD player. If I hadn't heard one already I would have doubted its ability to produce more than a genteel squeak of sound. But the sound, of course, was not what my good lady was primarily seeking.
"Well, it certainly looks nice," she said. "I know exactly where it will fit…"
*** Ordering ***
I went onto the Bose website (www.bose.co.uk) to check prices and postage costs. For a while I got sidetracked there, drooling over the noise-cancelling headphones (only £275!), browsing the wide range of speaker systems ("can be conveniently hidden behind furniture or curtains" it said. Now THAT would please Mrs Floon) and marvelling at many of the innovative products Bose were advertising.
When I finally made my way to the page offering the Wave Radio/CD player, I was delighted to note that it will also play MP3 discs. I would be able to use Windows Media Player to "rip" (i.e. compress) my favourite CDs and burn them onto a few discs. All Beethoven's Symphonies, for instance, or the complete Beatles collection, can this way be fitted onto a single disc and unless you have hi-fi ears, which mine aren't, you wouldn't notice any loss of quality. I was not so delighted, however, to see that the
unit retails at a whopping £449. Would Mrs Floon still be so keen?
But I needn't have worried. She was sold on the idea, having seen the unit's tiny size. Added to which, until the end of 2005, the price would include delivery costs and if I were to send them any old radio, whether pocket sized or a massive old 1950s wooden-cased monstrosity, they would send us £50 cashback. All right, a bit of a gimmick, I agree, but that effectively brought the price down to £399.
I decided to order by phone, though it is quite possible to order online. I prefer to be able to discuss what I'm buying with a real person, to be able to ask questions and be sure my order has arrived and been understood. And joy of joys, Bose even provided an 0800, free call number, not one of those money-eating 0870 numbers.
The salesman was helpful, polite and informative. It could scarcely have been easier. Now all we had to do was wait.
*** Delivery, Unpacking and Setting Up ***
The package arrived within four working days, a lot faster than I expected. There wasn't much of it - an average plastic carrier bag could have contained it.
It took seconds to open the box and remove the Wave System. Its reassuring weight was in sharp contradiction to its miniscule dimensions. For those obsessed with size (It isn't everything, I tell you!) at its longest, the system measures about 35cm, the width is about 22cm and the height a mere 11cm. I have several portables that are bulkier. There was a wide display screen, a CD slot below it and a speaker grille on each side of the screen. And that was it. No controls of any sort. Nothing.
Also in the box were a tiny ("credit-card-sized") remote control, a comprehensive manual and a demonstration CD.
Setting up involved plugging the unit into the mains and… well, just that, really. No external speakers, not even an aerial. That was cunningly incorporated into the mains lead.
*** Testing, Testing…***
I inserted the supplied CR2032 battery into the remote control unit, removed the demo CD from its case and slid it into the slot at the front. A silent mechanism took it from my hand, the display lit up blue, the machine read the disc and started to play it.
The disc had been specially recorded to demonstrate the Wave System. Bose had employed a full orchestra, chorus and soloists as well as recording farmyard noises. Obviously the CD was designed to impress and it certainly did that. What came from the speakers was little short of incredible. The full spectrum of sound emerged crystal clear with bass sound completely free of the muddiness that often plagues even fairly costly systems and high frequencies sweet and comfortable on the ear.
The thoughtful people at Bose had heard me remark that I wanted the machine primarily for classical music and had pretuned it to Britain's two classical radio stations. I pressed the button marked "FM / AM". The sound that emerged was astonishing: rich, powerful and completely realistic, devoid of what hi-fi geeks call "colouration" - in other words, it all sounded totally natural. Tuning and storing other stations (up to six FM and six AM) was simple. Speech programmes (such as BBC Radio 4) sounded so good that for a while I sat and enjoyed, would you believe, Woman's Hour (not the content, you understand - just the sound quality)! The display, a comforting blue, told me exactly what station I was listening to.
In our area a good aerial is essential to pull in a decent, hiss-free stereo signal and certain parts of our bungalow are "cold" spots, which make reception difficult. I tried the Bose out in several locations and found outstanding reception everywhere. And just to be sure, Bose provide a socket for an external aerial.
*** Serious Listening ***
I pulled out several CDs to test my new acquisition to its limits. The first was a disc of dance (i.e. disco) tracks that my son and his friend had performed and recorded and which were "beat heavy". I'm not a natural fan of this type of music but I wanted to hear how the heavy bass sounds were reproduced. They were very impressive, tight and clean, no fuzz or boom and with a remarkable sense of "presence".
My second disc would surely tax even this system. It was the third track of Bernstein's recording of Berlioz's enormous Requiem - enormous in scale, the size of its forces and above all its tremendous power. This particular track featured what must be the most terrifying drum rolls on record - an earth-shaking, awesome depiction of the Last Judgement in which the huge orchestra and choir, accompanied by fanfares of trumpets, battle to be heard against the background of this almighty noise. I had never found a music system that could reproduce this music without distortion and the Bose almost succeeded. In the end, this overwhelming sound was still not able to make its point adequately, though the recording, very reverberant, may be in part to blame. If I ever get the opportunity to hear this work in a cathedral, I may get the full impact. Until then, I'll make do with Bernstein and Bose.
Piano music was particularly successful via Bose, rich, natural and with a warmth that was quite captivating. The same could be said of my recordings of the spoken word - Monty Python's dead parrot almost lying at my feet, pushing up the daisies.
I have a large number of discs in MP3 format and these played every bit as well as conventional CDs, giving information about each track on the display panel.
The only problem I had in the first few days was that I kept sampling recorded highlights rather than sitting down to enjoy a CD right through. Still, eventually the Bose became less of a Big Boy's Toy and more of a music system and I began to notice other refinements such as the fact that inner parts of the music (that is, the sounds between the "top line" and the bass line) emerged with greater clarity than I had previously heard.
The ultimate accolade was the endorsement our sons gave the Bose when they heard it: words like "cool", "Wicked" and even "awesome" were bestowed on it - and you can't say better than that, can you? What they (and everyone else who has heard it) wanted to know was, "How do you get such an amazing sound out of such a tiny unit?" How indeed? Apparently the secret is in the 26 inches of cunningly curved tunnel behind each speaker, which supplies the bass from the rear of the unit. That's a simple explanation of how it works, though the Bose website is a bit more technically detailed if you want a better explanation - but it's only when you hear the sound that you can recognise the miracle of the design.
*** Extra Features ***
It's no use asking what the rated output (i.e Watts per channel) is: Bose don't work along those lines. When I asked the salesman over the phone he said as much, adding that it would be plenty loud enough to upset the neighbours if I wanted to be served with an ASBO (for our non-British Ciao members, that's an Anti-Social Behaviour Order or, if you like, a smack on the hand from the Law). And loud the Bose certainly can be. But equally, it performs beautifully at low levels too.
If you love playing about with graphic equalizers, bass and treble controls and special effects, don't bother with Bose. There are simply no knobs to twiddle, no flashing LEDs, no gimmicks at all. There are sockets to plug the unit into Bose's optional-extra surround sound system (which would certainly increase the stereo separation if you feel the need) and an auxiliary input for, say, a turntable to play your old vinyls. There's also the obligatory headphone socket. Bose even make gadgetry that will transmit your music right round your house, though like all their products, it's not cheap.
But for the moment I don't need any of the peripheral devices. One of the outstanding features for me is that if Mrs Floon wants to watch TV and I want my music, I can simply unplug the unit, move it to another room, plug it in and away we go on wings of… of… well, feathers - and song, of course.
And I mustn't forget to mention another useful feature of this wonderful gadget: you can set it to switch itself off so it's great for getting insomniacs to sleep - and it will wake you in the morning (or any other time you choose, come to that!) with music or a radio programme, or indeed a musical radio programme. So its resemblance to a bedside alarm clock isn't so wide of the mark after all.
*** And Finally… ***
I took my time writing this (about a month), partly because I wanted to make sure I included all I wanted to say, partly to continue to test my Bose unit to the utmost and mainly because life nowadays seems to allow me only short stretches at a time on my computer. One advantage has been that now the excitement has worn off I can be a little more objective about the machine's capabilities. And I'm happy to say that my opinion has not changed - if anything, my respect for this miniaturised technical miracle has increased. Apart from the one CD already mentioned I haven't played anything that's disappointed me. A visit to the Bose website tells me that their £50 off deal has been continued into January - maybe it will carry on indefinitely?
It's worth noting here that Bose recognise that their products don't come cheap and offer you the option of paying in four equal instalments, interest-free, payable either monthly or quarterly.
The only problem I've encountered has been my tendency to leave the tiny remote control in odd corners of the house, lose it down the sides of armchairs and even slip it into my pocket absentmindedly. And with no controls on the main unit, without the remote control you're… er, up the creek without a paddle, so to speak. However, should the worst come to the very worst, Bose will replace it for a reasonable £15.
At the start, I was prepared to compromise with Mrs Floon for the sake of… well, harmony. But buying the Bose was no compromise at all. We both won.