Bose Lawsuit Aims to Take a Bite Out of Apple’s Beats
For years, Bose was the first name people thought of when it came to noise cancellation headphones. The late Dr. Amar Bose came up with the concept back in 1978 when he was on a flight from Zurich to Boston and was given a pair of headphones to use. Between the noise in the cabin, and the distortion from cranking up the headphones to overcome that noise, he was disappointed with the entire experience. According to the lawsuit, “on that flight, Dr. Bose formulated the basic concept and technology for a headphone that would not only reproduce speech and music with high fidelity, but also simultaneously act to significantly reduce unwanted cabin noise.” Bose created Active Noise Reduction (ANR) which uses a microphone to detect ambient noise and then uses phase cancellation and other (patented) technologies to create a quieter listening experience. The resulting QuietComfort line of headphones is still going strong today, and is almost synonymous with noise cancellation.
Beats calls its system Adaptive Noise Cancellation, and uses it in the Studio headphone line. At first, the company seemed more interested in how cool their headphones looked than how good they sounded. But their latest products have shown a more mature side—with products that are starting to sound pretty nice. They were the first to take noise-cancelling headphones out of the first-class cabin of the airplane and onto the everyday-commuter’s subway.
Bose alleges the Beats products infringe on the following five technologies: “Dynamically Configurable ANR Filter Block Topology," “Dynamically Configurable ANR Signal Processing Topology,” "Method and Apparatus for Minimizing Latency in Digital Signal Processing Systems,” “Digital High Frequency Phase Compensation,” and “High frequency compensating." The entire claim can be found here. “We are committed to protecting our investment, protecting our customers, and defending the patents we own,” a Bose spokeswoman said in a statement.
I’ve done some side-by-side comparisons of both companies’ noise-cancelling headphones, along with two other manufacturers’ products. The headphones were evaluated with a variety of noise sources: white and pink noise, low-frequency rumble from a 12-inch subwoofer, general outdoor ambience, and high-wind outdoor ambience. In all but one evaluation, the Bose headphones were clearly better than the Beats at reducing the noise—the Beats only outperformed the Bose in the outdoor wind evaluation. If Beats has truly infringed on the patents held by Bose, one would have hoped they would have done a better job of copying their technology.
If you’re going to pick sides, here’s an interesting tidbit: in 2011, Dr. Bose donated the majority of his company through non-voting shares of the privately-held Bose, Inc. to MIT, his alma-mater, to “sustain and advance MIT’s education and research mission.” That’s quite commendable.
It’s fascinating that Bose has waited until after Beats was acquired by Apple to confront their competition. While Apple has a virtually unlimited ability to pay any damages determined by the court or a settlement, Bose also must realize that Apple can afford a few fancy lawyers to defend their newest property. It will be interesting to hear how it plays out. One thing is for sure: this lawsuit is one noise that Apple wishes it could cancel.