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.