You've seen the ads. "The Bose Wave Radio is no ordinary radio." It's "a sonic marvel," a "genuine breakthrough." Such a little thing--barely the size of a shoe box--yet it puts out the "full, rich sound" of a "primary music system." It costs $349, startlingly high for a clock radio but not unreasonable if the claims are not overstated.
Are the claims overstated? Come on. How could they not be?
Not that the Bose is bad. In fact, it may be the second-best tabletop radio out there. But just this month, what may be the best tabletop radio hit the market. It's the Cambridge SoundWorks Model 88 and, at $199, it's very nearly everything the Bose Wave claims to be--at a little over half the price. The Cambridge delivers a smoother, more coherent, more rhythmic, more dynamic, more tonally true picture of the music.
For example, on a Vladimir Horowitz piano solo, the keys sounded clangy, a bit metallic, on the Bose; they were warmer, but no less hammered, on the Cambridge. When the quartet Anonymous 4 sang a medieval chant, I wasn't sure on the Bose if there were four singers (were there three? five?)--there was no doubt at all on the Cambridge. When the Heath Brothers played a hard-bop jazz tune, the hi-hat cymbal sounded smeared on the Bose. I couldn't hear the accent on the beat. On the Cambridge, I got the percussive thwack as well as the shimmering whoosh all around it. And though the Bose hit the low octaves of the acoustic bass, the Cambridge caught the finger-pluckings of the bass strings.
The differences weren't night and day. But they were of the sort that, over time, make you feel at ease or slightly tense--and which, in a moment of leisure, make you want to stop and really listen or move on to something else.
After a while, I hooked up each unit to a compact disc player. (Both radios sport input jacks in the back for plugging in a CD player, computer, tape deck, television, or VCR.) I used not some humdrum portable but the Discovery/Pentagon CD-70, a top-of-the-line machine that retails for $5,000. And I pulled out two of my most sonically demanding discs--Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony, by the London Symphony Orchestra, on Nonesuch; and Kendra Shank's Afterglow, a chanteuse-plus-jazz-trio session, on Mapleshade.
Those familiar with the Gorecki know that, on some full-size (if not very good) stereo systems, the first minute or so--bass violins growling quietly--comes off as a vague rumble, its melody barely audible. Both the Bose and the Cambridge navigate this passage clearly. However, the Cambridge gets more of the bowing on the basses, more of their rhythmic inflections. When a second, louder bass line starts in about a minute into the piece, the Bose cracks up for a second. The Cambridge doesn't exactly keep everything straight (teeny speakers and teenier amplifiers can do only so much), but it keeps going--it doesn't lose the thread.
On the Shank disc, when she modulates her voice, accenting a certain word or dipping another to a whisper, the Bose makes it sound as if the engineer is sharply turning up or down the volume. The Cambridge gets the subtleties right.
How do these radios eke such relatively big sounds out of such small boxes? The Bose isn't exactly a technical "breakthrough," but it is clever. In the back of the speakers is a 7 foot tube that has been folded into a thin, tight maze to fit inside the radio box. The frequency of a sound wave is defined by its length: The longer the wave, the deeper the bass. Such a long tube gives sound waves lots of room to enlarge. Each speaker is also powered by an amplifier equipped with circuits that boost the bass as you turn up the volume. However, once the speakers get to the middle and upper octaves, their limitations become more apparent; hence, the steely pianos, smeared cymbals, ungainly dynamics, and the rest.
The Cambridge SoundWorks 88, half an inch taller but otherwise the same size as the Bose, takes a different approach. Its bass comes from a 4 1/2 inch woofer cone, which takes up two-thirds of the radio's internal space and is powered by its own amplifier. The two smaller main speakers, each of which has its own amp, are freed up to focus their energies on the less burdensome middle and treble octaves. (The 88 also has a separate volume knob for the woofer, so you can adjust the bass level, which would otherwise depend greatly on room placement.)
The 88 is designed by Henry Kloss, a hi-fi legend who made his mark (with the KLH speakers of the 1950s and the Advents of the '60s) by figuring out how to manipulate electronics so that a speaker sounds smooth from octave to octave. He applied 47 years of experience with this art to the rather skimpy components of the Model 88, which explains how he gets such a smooth, coherent sound from not only a small box but also a cheap one.
Bose is the property of Amar Bose, a man long regarded as hi-fi's most brilliant marketer but whose products tend to be built around a technical fad. His Bose 901 loudspeakers, the company's premium line for 30 years, have nine speaker cones, positioned all over the cabinet, so that the sound bounces around your room "just like in a concert hall." One problem, among many, is that most people's living rooms aren't Carnegie Hall; as a result, the music just sounds muddy. His methods also encourage high prices: The 901s cost $1,400 a pair (some companies make $300 speakers that sound better) because nine cones cost more than two or three; the Wave radio costs $350 because that 7 foot tube was a bear to design. The Wave is one of Bose's better devices. But he stretched too far, in his price tag and his claims, and now Kloss' Cambridge has delivered his comeuppance.
(Both radios are sold through mail-order, the Bose from  681-BOSE, the Cambridge SoundWorks from  FOR-HIFI.)