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Positive Feedback ISSUE
as reviewed by Ed Kobesky
I've always thought of Bose 301s as everyman's speakers—uninspiring perhaps, but a good, safe choice. The latest iteration of this classic design, the Series V, follows in its elder's ho-hum footsteps, but that doesn't mean you can't have fun with it. You just have to get creative.
It's best to think of the 301s as bookshelf speakers. If you actually need speakers that sound good and fit comfortably on a bookshelf, here they are. Given that most bookshelf speakers are designed for stand mounting and sound pretty lousy otherwise, the 301s are strong contenders for those with limited space, or for nostalgia buffs. Why nostalgia buffs? Well, the 301s sound vintage. They remind me of the Alfa Romeo Spider. Alfa continued manufacturing the original design, with minor updates like fuel injection, from the 1960s to the early 90s. I always thought it would be fun to drive a newly-minted vintage automobile, zooming around like a latter-day Dustin Hoffman but free from vintage car headaches like valve adjustments, but alas, my post-graduate days passed before I got the chance. By the time I had money to burn, even newer Spiders had become oil-burning rust buckets.
The 301s remind me of those old black-and-white, Playboy magazine lifestyle articles—you know, the ones accompanied by photos of a swingin' bachelor, pipe in hand, entertaining a bevy of young ladies, a pair of Advents on the bookshelf behind him sandwiched between leather-bound volumes of Henry Miller. You can almost hear the mellow jazz, and that's where the 301s excel. They have a prominent, artificially sweetened midrange that is undeniably appealing on vocals, jazz, and acoustic strings. The problem lies in how Bose achieved those characteristics—they rolled off the highs, goosed the upper midbass, and engineered the high-frequency driver enclosures for wide dispersion rather than phase coherence and imaging. The result is a sound that harkens back to the days when solid state meant bright sound and speaker engineers designed accordingly.
If you're going to cram your speakers onto a bookshelf, you'll need wide dispersion. Bose's famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Direct/Reflecting® design philosophy makes some sense in this regard. With front- and rear-firing high-frequency drivers set into "spatial dispersion lenses," the 301s simulate a colossal soundstage that, while far from accurate, is more concert-like than some audiophile speakers. Be careful not to block them with your humidor or drink tray, because they actually work.
The 301s can deliver decent mid-fi performance. They're at their best when powered by a low-priced integrated amp like Rotel's RA-02, but what fun is that? We're talking about jamming these babies onto the bookshelf in your den, wiring them up to a scratchy old receiver with lamp cord, and spinning some Charlie Parker on your Dual 1229. "Would you like a Shure M95ED to go with your aperitif, sir?"
Unfortunately, I recently sold off my 1970s-vintage Marantz and Yamaha receivers, and my Dual went to the scrap heap years ago, so I dusted off a current-model Denon DRA-395, perched it precariously between the beams of my 60s-style Scandinavian bookshelf, and let the music fly. I had a great time. I found the mix of direct and reflected sound surprisingly appealing. Orchestral recordings like the Los Angeles Philharmonic's performance of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet on the direct-to-disc Sheffield Labs LP sounded pretty good. There's an old joke that goes, "No highs, no lows… it must be Bose." In truth, the lowest lows and highest highs weren't so much missing as they were softly focused, quite possibly as a deliberate function of the crossover. The bass was mostly full and satisfying.
I could analyze the 301s' sonic characteristics, but again, what fun would that be? I suppose I could tell you that reflected sound on recordings that already have plenty of reflected sound isn't the best recipe for accuracy. I could also tell you that the 301s are far better than the Japanese speakers they usually sit next to at your local stereo warehouse, and that people who buy 301s as their first foray into hi-fi could do a lot worse. I'd rather light an imaginary pipe full of Dunhill Royal Yacht mixture and groove to Miles on Birth of the Cool.
In the interests of science, I figured I should compare the 301s to some audiophile speakers. Though the high-end pair was far superior, and far more expensive, they sounded plain weird when laid on end because, like most "bookshelf" speakers, they were never intended for that purpose. Score one for the 301s. Unfortunately, you'll pay dearly for your trip down memory lane. At $328, the Bose 301 Series Vs are pricey, and their build quality is lacking. Uneven panels, the odd splinter, and exposed bolts spoil an otherwise excellent example of modern industrial design. On the other hand, your other options for vintage sound, like the Advents, look pretty ugly by now. Believe me, you don't want to see the look on your significant other's face when you come home from a swap meet with a pair of those rotted-out bastards in tow.
If this reads like a string of backhanded compliments, it's only because audiophiles prefer music played back according to a specific set of rules. We don't merely listen, we analyze. We sometimes take our hobby so seriously that we forget to have fun. The Bose 301s are fun speakers. They look good, and sound decent in their own oddball way. They may even free you from focusing on musical minutiae for a moment. I though they'd be perfect for my girlfriend, who loves music but could care less about hi-fi. She recently returned from a business trip to find me A-B'ing the 301s against a pair of audiophile monitors. "Have a seat and tell me which you like better," I said, cueing up the new Modest Mouse CD. I thought for sure she'd pick the 301s. "Which ones would you rather listen to?" I asked. "Those," she said, pointing to the British pair. "Why?" I asked. "Because they sound much more like live music." Oh well, back to 2005. Ed Kobesky