Premier Guitar

Bose L1 Compact Acoustic PA Review

June 17, 2009
The first time I heard the Bose L1, back when they first came out, was when I went to a coffeehouse to hear the first guy I knew who had one—the curiosity was killing me. My immediate impression was one of great distaste; the guitar sounded awful and the vocal sounded worse. Then I got a good look at what he was using: a $300 acoustic with a bad stock pickup and a $50 mic. Fact: the Bose L1 reproduces with alarming accuracy whatever you plug into it.

Since then, I’ve had a lot of experience working with and playing through the L1. I was a “house” performer at a restaurant where the L1 was the house system, and after about six months of weekly performances I thought I sounded funny through most anything else. The Bose is the single most transparent PA system I know of, which can be good or bad, depending on the rest of the signal chain.

Let’s Get Small
When I heard that Bose had released a smaller version of the L1, I was excited and immediately contacted them to get one to review. Small, light, compact, and easy to transport are all very good and attractive things in a PA system. It arrived in two deliciously light boxes, and we set it up in under a minute. We plugged it in. We looked at it with some puzzlement.

There are two channels, one with an XLR in for a vocal mic, and the other a 1/4" in for acoustic guitar pickups, keyboards, basses and other instruments, a 1/8" in for an mp3 player or a portable audio device, and an RCA stereo in for CD or DVD player, video game console, DJ mixer or keyboard. The vocal channel has Hi and Low EQ and Volume. The guitar channel has a single knob: Volume. That’s all. Period. Well, I thought to myself, that’s idiot proof. Each channel has a clip indicator: green when signal is present, red when it’s clipping.

There’s also a switch called ToneMatch that you engage when plugging in an acoustic guitar. Engaging the ToneMatch, according to Bose, “instantly optimizes the sound of your acoustic guitar to the L1 Compact.” This input also allows the L1 Compact to interface with the outboard Bose T1 ToneMatch audio engine (retail $499), though in order to use the T1 you have to turn off the ToneMatch setting on the console. There is no digital interface on the L1 Compact for the T1. The T1 has guitar and pickup presets that you can use to optimize your guitar, and it has additional tone-shaping tools, as well as more inputs so you can use it like a little mixer. If you have a small combo, or want to take multiple guitars with you, purchasing the T1 will allow you to use the L1 Compact in that way. The ToneMatch T1 will require its own power outlet.

The rear panel has two outputs: a 1/4” which accepts TRS balanced or unbalanced, or TS, but the manual states that there is a 6 dB drop when using a TS cable. The other out is RCA, a mono line-level out for connecting to audio devices such as CD recorders. I plugged in a Takamine Glenn Frey model, and sure enough, it sounded terrific. I didn’t have a vocal mic around to try, but figured it’d pretty much sound like a Bose (which indeed it does). Here ended the initial phase of testing, as there really wasn’t a whole lot else we could do with it. I decided to take it home and see what could be discovered.



Hooray! Field Trip!
I tried it at band rehearsal in my living room. I live in one of those big old houses with wooden floors, plaster walls and ridiculously high ceilings. In the room was me with an acoustic, the bass player playing through a practice amp with a 10" speaker and the drummer with full kit, playing with brushes. The Bose sounded great with a Gallagher A-70 (in DADGAD), if just a little bassy. Unfortunately, the lack of an EQ section meant I had to live with it—not good in an ensemble situation (too much bass in the acoustic plus an actual bass player made it muddy). After a few songs, I switched to a Voyage-air VAOM-1C (in Standard tuning), which sounded great in a completely different way, but lacked a little warmth in the low mids.

The lack of control over the guitar EQ was a new challenge for me, and since Bose didn’t send me a T1 ToneMatch audio engine along for this review, I ended up assembling a pedalboard with two Baggs ParAcoustic DIs and an Aphex Acoustic Xiter through a Road Rage Pro Gear TBEL, so I could dial in the tone I wanted for each guitar andmake them sound more consistent when played one after another. This eliminated the tonal discomfort I was experiencing, but added more components to pack, transport, load in, set up, and plug in—and as the L1 Compact does not have phantom power, it meant I needed another power outlet.

It was time for a field test in a medium-sized open room with auditorium-style seating and a high but uneven ceiling—fairly lively acoustics. Load-in and setup went quickly; soundcheck was another story. Once I got the guitars dialed in for the room and the vocal mic balanced against the guitar, it was time to add my bandmates to the mix. Dan had his own bass amp, and Eric was just playing acoustically in the room. Here’s where the lack of a Master Volume became critical. We quickly determined that this was not the gig for the L1 Compact, and I ended up using a different amp.

A few days later, I tried the L1 Compact at a coffeehouse-style bakery. It was a solo gig, so I had only myself to contend with. I took one guitar, the Gallagher A-70, and went direct, as Bose intended. I’m told that the Bose sounded great in the L-shaped room, and that the sound carried perfectly and beautifully through the entire place. However, from where I sat, every time I played an F# or G chord I felt like I was being pummeled in the side of the head by the bass frequency—which is interesting because that guitar usually only acts up on A if it’s going to at all, and A was perfectly smooth in the mix. My son was next to me for a while, and heard exactly what I was hearing. The single-eyebrow-raised look of vexation he learned from me passed between us.

I’ve grown used to responding to what I hear in the monitor and trusting that what the audience is getting is good. The L1 Compact is supposed to serve as both monitor and main, so this fierce bass frequency distracted me and made me change the way I was playing to compensate. However, I learned that at about 10–15 feet away the frequency was smoothed into the rest of the sound. As the crowed ebbed and flowed, controlling the sound without a Master Volume was an additional challenge.

The Final Mojo
The Bose L1 Compact is a Bose, so it will reproduce with alarming accuracy anything you plug into it. It doesn’t do much else and that seems to be by design. In the right room, a player with minimal needs will appreciate the amp’s simplicity. Its size, weight and ease of transport are beyond my wildest dreams. This is not the amp for you if you play larger rooms or rely on features like a Master Volume, EQ for the guitar channel, phantom power, an effects send/return or a built-in reverb.
Buy if...
you love light, compact, easy, fast, stylish and simple, and you can completely control the environment at every gig you get.
Skip if...
you need a truly viable and versatile piece of gear that is gig-friendly.
Rating...
3.0 

MSRP $999 - Bose - bose.com