When it debuted in 1968, there was nothing quite like the Bose 901 loudspeaker. The speaker system was engineered to mimic what you'd experience in a concert hall: lush, booming and all-encompassing sound. That ambition meant the 901's silhouette was odd–a flat-faced cabinet with a protruding pentagonal back that held most of the drivers. The design was meant to reflect sound; it needed to be placed against a back wall to bounce and create an audio pattern bigger than the room itself.
At the time, the 901 speaker system was aimed at men-about-town. It was flashy and design-forward—a statement not unlike zipping around in a Porsche. (The Bose 901 system, consisting of two speaker units and the equalizer, was priced at $476, equating to $3,801 today.) Audiophiles loved to debate its sonic and technical merit, but Bose had bigger plans than the niche market of ultra-high-end audio. In an early print advertisement, the speaker set is shown next to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich's Barcelona chair, symbolizing highbrow and cutting-edge decor taste. It was often photographed on a stem-like pedestal stand, a shape echoing Finnish-American designer Eero Saarinen's furniture for Knoll.
A landmark review of the product, written by famously monotone electrical engineer and audio critic Julian Hirsch for HiFi Stereo Review, dives into the technical details. Hirsch’s review includes no shortage of audiophile jargon: "low-frequency harmonic-distortion measurements" and "acoustic-suspension systems." The performance of the 901 system depends on its placement. It requires a 12-inch gap between the apex of the speaker and the wall, which puts the front of the speaker nearly three-feet from the wall. Hirsch concludes, "It may be difficult to install the 901 in the correct location without disturbing room decor."
Many attribute the 901's success to a clever and effective marketing department that flooded men's magazines like Playboy and Esquire with glossy advertisements. The model remained in production until 2016, which is a pretty impressive run for a speaker model. Today, though, the consensus amongst audio diehards is that they wouldn't be caught dead with a Bose system.
Steve Guttenberg, an ex-movie theater projectionist and longtime reviewer of high-end audio, ponders on his YouTube channel, "Isn't it interesting that the 901 system lasted from 1968 to 2016? Someone had to be buying them. They weren't just making them for fun." Comments on Guttenberg's videos reveal a warm nostalgia for the speakers' heyday and soft compliments for how groundbreaking it was at the time. Still, ultimately the 901 is deemed too flawed and low-quality a system for a true audiophile to own. So, if audio fanatics weren't buying them, then who was?
The #bose901 hashtag on Instagram offers some answers. Here, the speaker set makes regular appearances next to covetable mid-century designs and shows up for sale from vintage resellers who deal more in furniture and decor than audio gear. “The speaker had always been on my bucket list after seeing it pop up in different vintage-modern spaces," says Hannah Headrick, a hairstylist and decor enthusiast. "I actually have two different sets that we use on a daily basis." Her home is chock-full of work from mid-century icons: Lafer, Eames, Nelson, Saarinen, and more. Elsewhere, you can see the 901 next to Kay LeRoy Ruggles chairs or the iconic Eames Lounge Chair.
Here lies the answer the audiophiles have been looking for: the Bose 901 was as much for design enthusiasts as for audio ones. That was true in 1968, and it’s true today as contemporary aesthetes embrace the system. The homey wood shell and tulip base will always have a place in the mid-century vernacular. And even in 2022, Headrick notes, "They sound great, too."