Replacing a conventional PA with the Bose L1

(The original version of this article was first published on the Mp3 Backing Trax website circa 2006 – 2012)

Can a Bose L1 Classic replace a conventional PA?

Well, like most things, the answer is it depends.

The Bose L1 Classic radiator system was introduced to the UK around 2004 and when Bose launched it, it took the PA industry by storm. Since then, it has completely revolutionised the way we think about conventional PA systems and rightly so.

The original L1 Classic speaker system consists of 24 tiny little high quality speakers mounted on two “poles” which snap together and sit on a “power stand” which keeps the speaker “poles” stable and provides their amplification. To the side, you have the option to plug in up to 2 small bass sub speakers but more about them later.

All in all, the Bose L1 Classic System is a small, portable PA system that can fit in the boot of a small family car and the sound that it produces is nothing short of breath-taking.

Who should use it?
Bose have primarily designed this system with solo musicians/singers in mind who will be using it in small/medium sized venues. So, if you regularly play large venues – and when I say large I mean 200+ seat venues – there’s probably no point in reading much further.

However, the Bose L1 Classic system is perfect if you play in small/medium venues and is especially ideal for singers who sing with backing tracks or guitar vocalists etc. Being able to turn up to a gig 5 minutes before you’re due to start, with your PA in hand, your iPod backing tracks in one pocket, and a microphone in the other, is like a dream come true for most singers…and the Bose system makes that dream a reality. Plus you’ll get a particular “sound” which will delight your audience.

Using It Live
I’ve used my Bose L1 Classic system for two years now and have tested it in hundreds of different rooms and environments. I can state here and now that I would never go back to using a conventional PA system for the type of small/medium sized gigs I do.

Before I bought the Bose L1 Classic system, I had a really hefty PA system which needed a Ford Transit van to move it around. Now I get all the musical equipment I need for a gig in to a little Citroen Berlingo van with lots of room to spare. The sound I now have with the Bose L1 Classic system is like no other PA system I have ever used before. I’ve been using the Bose L1 Classic system mostly to provide the PA for a duo consisting of myself on keyboards/vocals, and a singer/compere on vocals.

The instruments that have been going through my system at a gig have been electronic keyboard + iPod backing tracks + 2 microphones. I’ve been using a separate mixing desk because I need more inputs than the Bose L1 Classic systems power stand has, but if you’re a solo singer who only needs inputs for say a microphone and your backing track player, you’ll be able to plug straight in to the Bose without the need for a separate mixing desk.

I actually use TWO of these Bose L1 Classic systems, with 2 bass subs attached to each. Why do I use TWO of the Bose L1 Classic systems I hear you ask? Well that’s the number of Bose systems I personally need to get the equivalent volume that I used to get from my old PA system.

It’s very important if you’re thinking of replacing your old conventional PA with a new Bose system that you make sure you have the same amount of volume coming out of your new Bose system as you are used to hearing from your old PA system or you won’t be happy.

My old PA system used a 2000w amplifier to power my conventional speakers but a single Bose L1 Classic system only has an output of 750w RMS to power its speakers. Right away, it was obvious to me and should be obvious to you that you’re NEVER going to be able to replace a 2000w PA system with a 750w PA system and get the same volume that the audiences (and you) are used to hearing. By the way, that figure of 750w for the Bose system isn’t a definite figure because Bose tend to be very shy about divulging power ratings, instead they prefer that you listen to “how loud” their system is – a bit of a nonsense if you ask me!

So, the most important lesson you can learn from this article is that if you think for one minute you’ll get the same volume out of one 750w Bose L1 Classic as you got from your old 2000w or 3000w PA system, you’re living in cloud cuckoo land. Sadly, there are many music shop assistants and salesmen who inhabit cloud cuckoo land, and unlike us, don’t actually go out there in the evenings and perform live gigs every night, so don’t listen to them if they try to tell you that one Bose “pole” and a bass sub is enough to take the place of your old 2k rig!

However, it’s not just quite as clear cut as that. Just to throw a bit of a spanner in the works, the Bose L1 Classic system DOES actually sound louder than the 750w it’s supposedly putting out, so Bose – and the music shop assistants who sell L1’s – are not totally wrong, they just don’t explain it properly. Without a doubt, 750w of Bose power definitely sounds louder to the ears than 750w of any other PA system. And the reason the Bose sounds louder than a normal 750w PA system is because of the way it disperses the sound.

All the little speakers in the Bose “pole” radiate the sound to every nook and cranny of the room. And while a conventional PA system pushes the sound out of the front of its speakers and its loudness drops quite dramatically when you stand more than 10 feet away, the Bose system “magically” gives you almost the same loudness from 20 feet away as it does from 40 feet away. Incredible as this may sound, I can assure you it works.

Needless to say Bose are understandably staying tight-lipped about how they achieve this. I suppose all you need to know is that it DOES work and this system allows you to play at lower volume levels than normal, yet still put out enough sound to fill the whole venue. If you have a conventional PA system you’ll be familiar with the age-old problem of it being too loud for the people sitting near the front of the stage, while the people sitting at the back of the room can hardly hear it. Well, the Bose L1 Classic system spreads and balances your sound out around the room much better, so although it’ll still be quieter at the back of the room than the front – that’s the law of physics and even Bose can’t change that – there won’t be as big a difference in volume as there would be if you had a conventional PA system servicing the same room.

To my ears and with my experience of using this system at hundreds of gigs, I would say that the volume of a single 750w Bose Classic system is the equivalent to the volume you’d get from a 1000w conventional PA system.

So, first if you’re thinking of replacing your conventional PA with a Bose L1 Classic system, look at the power rating in watts RMS of your current amplifier and calculate 75% of that figure – that’s how many “Bose watts” you’ll need to get the equivalent volume.

Then, secondly, bearing in mind that each Bose system is 750w, divide your “Bose watts” figure by 750 and that’s how many Bose systems you should buy if you want to replace your conventional PA system and get the same volume/loudness.

There is one other very important thing you should also take in to account before deciding how many Bose systems you’ll need and that’s bass response. Different types of acts need different types of bass response from their speakers. If you compare a solo singer to a 4 piece band, the 4 piece band will need more bass speakers attached to their Bose system than the solo singer because their system will need to handle the drummers’ kick-drum and the bass players’ bass guitar.

Yes, I am aware that even a backing track contains bass guitar and kick-drum but this is not really comparable. Backing tracks are studio recorded using a multitude of compression-type effects which result in them producing a much more disciplined and predictable sound as opposed to the undisciplined and unpredictable sound of a real live bass player or drummer, especially when he’s in the middle of an energy-charged gig, playing to screaming fans, flashing lights in a smoke filled stage etc…you get the picture!

Fortunately, I’ve devised an easy way for you to to calculate just how many Bose bass subs you’ll need to attach to your Bose L1 Classic system.

First look at your old conventional PA speakers… For every one 18” speaker you have in your old PA system, you’ll need two Bose subs, for every one 15” speaker you’ll need one Bose sub, and for every one 12” speaker you’ll need half a sub (if that makes sense)! Here are some examples:

Example 1
Old PA = 1000w PA amp with 2 x 12”/horns speakers
Bose equivalent = 1 Bose L1 Classic system with 1 sub

Example 2
Old PA = 2000w PA amp with 4 x 15”/horns speakers
Bose equivalent = 2 Bose L1 Classic systems with 4 subs

Example 3
Old PA = 3000w PA amp with 2 x 12”/horns, 2 x 15”, 2 x 18” speakers
Bose equivalent = 3 Bose L1 Classic systems with 7 subs

In example 3 you’ll notice that to get an equivalent bass response as your old PA system, you should really use 7 subs spread between 3 Bose L1 Classic systems. But unfortunately each L1 can only power a maximum of 2 subs. Bose realise that in some situations some users will need more bass subs, so they sell a separate power amp which will allow you to add up to 2 more subs on to any one system.

In a nutshell, the Bose L1 Classic system is either going to suit you right down to the ground or it’s just not going to be your cup of tea at all. Love it or hate it – there’s usually no in-between!

The artists who will HATE this system are probably the singers/musicians/DJ’s who like their music loud and blaring out. Rock bands, musicians who play at rowdy student-type gigs, or DJ’s who play at mad, crazy rave parties probably won’t like this system. In fact anyone who likes to play at excessive volume levels with thumping bass “hitting” the audience in the chest should forget about this system – it’s just not your style at all.

Also, singers/musicians who intend playing larger venues of 200 seats or more probably won’t find this system suitable – yes, arguably you could buy a dozen of these Bose systems and situate them all over a large stage but that’s hardly practical. In cases like this, you would probably benefit more from a conventional PA system.

The singers/musicians who WILL benefit most from this system are those who would like to have a sound on stage equal to the hi-fi type of sound that you would normally get from a home theatre system, but at volume levels that are loud enough to fill a live music venue. I suppose it’s no surprise that Bose have spent most of their business life cutting their teeth producing home theatre systems, so their area of expertise has always been getting good, clean, intelligible sound from very small speakers – they’ve just taken it one step further now and are giving that same sound on a much bigger scale.

Despite what I’ve said above, don’t think for one minute the Bose system isn’t loud – it is VERY loud. If you buy one of these systems and you’re anything like me, the first time you use it at a gig your audience will be asking you to turn the volume down! This is because up until now, we musicians and singers have been accustomed to having to play at relatively high volume levels. We’re especially used to having to have the volume of our PA system up quite loud so that the sound will reach the people at the back of the room.

That’s why I personally found it very strange for the first few gigs to be playing through a PA system that didn’t sound – to my ears – any louder than the on stage monitors I used to use. Yet this level of sound was filling the whole room. It was quite strange and took a bit of getting used to.

For me, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I have a better sound for my audiences now than I’ve ever had in my life and the audiences just love it – they can talk to each other while I’m singing without screaming over the tables to each other. Even the people at the back of the room can hear it almost as loud as people at the front of the stage.

If the Bose L1 Classic system suits your type of act and the types of venue you play in, go buy it now!

UPDATE – Bose L1 volume problem identified?