W A R N I N G !

W A R N I N G !

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Thursday, May 2, 2013

[Beyond the hype] Bose Companion 2 Series II - Part 1

So somehow I became the owner of a pair of Bose Companion 2 Series II.

No self-declared audiophile would buy a Bose product. So I didn't. Not in the normal sense of "walk into an Apple store and hand over the money". I did get it legitimately and did pay a smaller amount of money for the deal. So if the product is good, I win, and if the product is bad, I will sell it at standard market price for a profit and still win. So win-win for me either way.

A Bose product is perfect for a [Beyond the hype] review, because... do I have to explain it? Well, because the world is divided into two distinct groups - people who think Bose is the ultimate in audio reproduction, and people who think Bose is something you find in the sewers of New York (and is not a ninja turtle). Personally I find that the Bose haters are making themselves heard way more than the Bose supporters, so this [Beyond the hype] might be interesting, or should I call it Beyond the un-hype.

Before we start... some words regarding the Bose Companion 2 Series II and the sound source
Initially I listened to the Companion 2 plugged to my laptop's Realtek onboard sound and iPhone 3G. It was more bassy, but most importantly the treble was harsh and distorted, to the point it literally (or physiologically? or psychologically?) hurt my not-so-young ears.

The higher amount of bass can be considered a normal occurrence with Realtek onboard, I'm not sure about iPhone 3G. (I'm not gonna do a frequency response test though.) Bad sound quality in general... well, it's onboard sound and iPhone 3G. (iPhone 4 and newer have good sound) But the intolerable amount of harshness is what I did not expect even with onboard/phone as the source. And, important to note, when I switched to the LJM DAC, the treble harshness is gone, along with the extra bass.

Interesting finding. I did not expect the Companion 2 to be so dependent on source quality. Plus, most of the time when we find a Companion 2 in shops, it is definitely not connected to a decent source. So our impressions of it might be worse than it should be.

Needless to say, the comparisons against other speakers I own will have both speakers using the same DAC/sound card/whatever.

Setup 1a

The Companion 2 speakers finding themselves on top of my Wharfedale Diamond 8.2s. Figured this is the most fair way to compare the two.

BTW if you're asking why is the "right side" speaker on the left side, because the power adapter is too short to reach all the way to the right without untying the cable spaghetti. Doesn't matter, since "right" and "left" is arbitrary, and it's not hard to swap with RCA connection.

The result is quite interesting. The Companion 2 produces more bass than the physically-way-bigger Diamond 8.2. The Companion 2 also produces more treble too. I know the Diamond 8.2 has less-than-average treble volume and bass extension, but still...

If I listen to the Diamond 8.2 immediately after the Bose, some parts of the Diamond 8.2's sound feel cheap in comparison. Mainly due to the lower treble/bass volume of the Diamond 8.2.

So the Companion 2 is better? Nope.

Because when I listen to the Companion 2 immediately after Diamond 8.2, there are much more areas of the Companion 2 that feel cheap in comparison.

The bass - hits low, hits hard, and is abundant (compared to the Diamond 8.2, which is still a feat considering the size of the Companion 2). However it is very selective, in the sense that some bass sounds are more audible than others. And this is not simply frequency-based (which would be the case for typical cheap tiny speakers) - for Companion 2, whether the bass sound gets amplified seems to depend on the music - if I play the song normally I get one type of sound, but if I pause the music for a while and then resume playing, or if I skip from one part of the song to another part, I get another type of sound. So some bass notes are louder in some songs, yet softer in others.

Another thing is that the amount of bass seems to depend on the amount of treble too (more treble = less bass). This would suggest some kind of dynamic range compression, and if this is indeed the case then the people at Bose are very clever, because a lot of the distortion of cheap speakers come from the drivers being driven harder than they can handle, and that is what software compression can avoid. (Hardware compression (e.g. drivers hitting their limits) produces lots of distortion.)

(Note - BIG NOTE - subjective observations have not been reliably tested, and some effects may be due to the music material instead of the speakers)

On the treble side of things, while the Companion 2 has quite a good amount of it, it is harsh and messy, and doesn't extend as far upwards as the Diamond 8.2. Typical problems faced by full-range drivers that try to reproduce a large amount of treble. (This would also give you a rough idea of how the treble sounds.)

The mids is (is? or are?) where the Companion 2 gets owned by the Diamond 8.2. It sounds cheap. Thin, tinny, coarse, flat or whatever because English words are never good for describing sound. Anyway, when swapping from the Diamond 8.2 to the Companion 2, the "cheapness" of the mids is very obvious, in spite of the greater amounts of bass and treble.

It isn't as bad as cheaper speaker systems. But is it bad for something that costs SGD$199? This I'm not sure.

"The sound has no soul"
These are literally the words in my mind when I listened to the Companion 2. Sure it has more bass (and can be argued to have more treble), but songs that are nice on other speakers just don't feel as nice on the Companion 2 despite the apparently better frequency response. The sound is congested and many of the background instruments missing. Usually this helps in producing more bass and a better frequency response and more "clean" sound in general, but when the serious part of the music comes on, it doesn't give the dynamics that results when all the instruments in the music start blasting simultaneously.

Setup 1b

I also decided to test the Companion 2 in this position, which is a more typical placement for it.

The closer proximity to the listener and a less open position results in more bass as per expectations, along with a more congested sound. The cheapness of the sound is also amplified in this position.

Amount of treble is... well... I can't conclude. Because the reproduction of high frequencies of speakers is highly directional (Domes and horns have better dispersion, but not the standard cone that Companion 2 is using for the full-range driver), and the effect is more obvious at small distances, I can decide how much treble I get by turning the speakers towards or away from me. This way you can reduce the treble if it's too harsh, or increase the treble if it's not enough, but the quality of the treble is still nothing to write home about.

Conclusion 1
The main thing that Companion 2 can be proud of is the frequency response. Bose obviously aimed to imitate the sound of bigger speakers, even with only 2.5-inch drivers and no subwoofer. This however was done at the cost of pretty much everything else.

Whether that design decision is right, truth be told, I'm torn. On one hand I would be almost willing to sacrifice everything just for a decent frequency response. But on the other hand, I have owned cheaper speakers before, and while they don't have a frequency response anywhere near decent without a subwoofer, the treble is clean and natural and makes me satisfied and not feel like cheap speakers.

If I'm forced to go without subwoofer, then the answer is clear. Bose Companion 2 Series II will kick ass. Bet you didn't expect that.

With a subwoofer, then the odds are highly against the Companion 2. The old MX5021 from memory will put up a good fight against the Bose - cleaner bass, and from previously using the satellites with a Sony subwoofer, cleaner trebles too. Aego M, if you can get it at the SGD$200+ price point, will land a few punches on the Companion 2 while having satellites that are even tinier. Promedia... haven't heard that in my room.

And then there's the option of going passive bookshelves + amplifier if you have the space. Occasionally shops will clear their stocks at a greatly discounted price, if you can get the speakers for ~SGD$150 and an amp for ~SGD$50 from eBay, you will have a 2.0 setup that will kick the Companion 2 so hard it flies to the Moon, bounces, and falls back onto Earth.

However, note that both the 2.1 and the passive bookshelves routes are always more value for money than 2.0. Especially the passive bookshelves. So if we call Bose overpriced due to the passive bookshelves, we should call almost everything else overpriced too.

Now, against other 2.0 systems, this guy recorded the sound of Companion 2 vs Creative Gigaworks T20 Series II.

Now, the problem with recordings such as this is that while we can definitely hear the differences in the sound, we are not sure which is the better-sounding one. The Companion 2 may be sounding better in this video but that can be due to the microphone, and in real life the T20 might be the better sounding one.

Well, from owning the Companion 2 and from my memory of those Creative speakers, I can tell you that the Companion 2 is more "correct-sounding", while the T20 suffers from too little bass and too much midrange, like what you're hearing in the video.

You might think it is unfair since T20 (Series II) is priced at SGD$129 now and below $100 during IT shows, but in the past (2008) it used to sell at a friggin' $159, while Companion 2 was $199 back in 2007 and still $199 now. And T40 was $249 while not being much better than T20. So which is (was) overpriced now?

In short, the Bose Companion 2 is definitely not overpriced for what it is. Except for one issue...

Why the price discrepancy between Singapore and USA?
Currently Companion 2 sells for USD$99 in the... erm... USA, and I found reviews dated 2007 with the speakers being bought for USD$99. At this price, it would be awesome. But in Singapore it's not, and at $199 I would have to think for a bit.

But then at the same time, people in the USA are blessed with a much bigger choice of speakers and the prices are generally lower, so even at USD$99 the Companion 2 might face stiff competition. But then again, are you comparing apples, or comparing the Companion 2 against bigger bookshelves?

In any case, To sum up
Bose Companion 2 Series II stood the test of time. It was SGD$199/USD$99 in the past, it is SGD$199/USD$99 now, and it is still as competitive. There is more un-hype then I think it deserves, and if you can look beyond the Buy-Other-Sound-Equipment label, you are looking at an impressive product.

But Bose is still overpriced!
I guess I have to touch on this a bit. I still do think that Bose is overpriced, not because the Companion 2 or any other of their product sucks, but because of the lack of options. I mentioned earlier that bookshelves or 2.1 systems are more value for money, and for SGD$200 there are many to choose from, many with the potential to match or beat Companion 2. However, with $200 the only Bose speaker you can buy is Companion 2. So if you have $200 to spend, I will still recommend anything else but Bose.

However if you need a small 2.0 system, then that's another matter.

And no I would never recommend spending 4-digits on tiny cubes to be placed in a big room.

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