If stepping off the plane into the Copenhagen airport is a little like stepping into the world's biggest IKEA store, then stepping out of the tiny airport in Karup, Denmark is a little like transporting to the farmlands of Nebraska. But my mission to the far west end of the Jutland peninsula, together with a number of other European and North American journalists, was not sightseeing, but information. Information about what Struer, Denmark manufacturer B&O is currently about, and how the activities in its several facilities are leading to interesting new products, and how those products are influenced by the thinking and research behind them.
B&O is not a brand often discussed when audiophiles or videophiles get together. There are a number of reasons for this, including the perception of the brand as a manufacturer of "lifestyle" products, the pricey niche that it occupies, and its many dedicated single-brand stores (and its relative absence in more traditional hi-fi shops).
There is no question that the company's products are expensive, and that it features its own stores as retail outlets. A total of just under 1400 stores worldwide sell B&O, and of those, 725 are solely B&O—or as the company puts it, "concept stores."
The lifestyle aspect is hard to shake, and there is an element of truth to it. But it's largely derived from the design sense—sometimes subtle—sometimes radical—that is a hallmark of B&O's products. There's no better example of the radical than the BeoLab 5 loudspeaker. The first thing that comes to mind when you first see it is that the aliens have landed. The second is that if B&O were looking to appeal just to the style conscious, this is hardly the shape they would have chosen. In other words, form definitely follows function here.
We heard the BeoLab 5 several times during the visit, in different configurations and rooms. A largely two-channel demo compromised the promise of the speaker, for me, by a too-reverberant room and too-wide (left to right) speaker placement. Two surround sound demos were far more impressive (though also conducted in less than optimal rooms).
There's no question that some serious engineering went into the design of the BeoLab 5. Like all current B&O speakers, it is self-powered, with multiple on-board amps driving a 15" woofer, 6.5" lower midrange, dome midrange, and dome tweeter. The woofer and bass-midrange drivers are powered by two 100W ICEpower digital amplifiers. (ICEpower amps are proprietary to B&O, but the technology has been licensed to several other companies.) The triple saucer rings that grace the top of the speaker, and give it that otherworldly appearance, are part of B&O's Acoustic Lens technology. The Acoustic Lens was first conceived in the U.S. by Sausalito Audio Works and further refined by B&O. It is said to provide a uniform 180-degree midrange and treble dispersion in the horizontal plane. There are separate lenses in the BeoLab 5 for both the midrange and tweeter domes.
And we haven't even begun to discuss the BeoLab 5's Adaptive Bass Control System, which compensates for the speaker's location in the room (but not as yet for the listener's position relative to the speaker and the room walls). The BeoLab 5s will set you back about $20,000/pair, but that does include all the amplification you'll need to drive them. Just add a source, a front end, and stir.
There are now two other, less expensive B&O home speakers that use Acoustic Lens Technology, with a single lens on the tweeter. The BeoLab 7-4 is designed for use as a center channel, and the BeoLab 3 is a multifunction unit that is compatible with front or rear channel duties. Other models are under development, at least one of them scheduled for release early in 2007.
There's also a B&O car stereo system available for the Audi A8, S8, and soon the new R8. We had the opportunity to experience it, and the sight of the menu screen opening at the push of the On button, along with two tiny acoustic lenses rising out of opposite ends of the dashboard, are almost worth the price of admission by themselves. This option, with its 14 speakers and 1000 watts (total) of ICEpower, is an option that will add about $6300 to the price of the car.
We didn't just see products, though you'll find several more in the photomontage in the blog entries that follow. We also toured the factory and the R&D facilities.
Unlike many manufacturers, B&O hasn't moved its production overseas to take advantage of the cheaper labor in the Far East countries like China (one reason their products remain expensive). But they are opening a factory in the Czech Republic to produce, initially, the upscale audio modules used in their televisions.
The Denmark factories currently produce about 100,000 televisions, 210,000 loudspeakers, and over 500,000 other assorted B&O products per year. These include as many as 22 BeoLab5 speakers per day during the busiest periods. Their QC procedures are extensive. The BeoLab 5, for example, must match the design reference standard prototype (the "golden" reference) by plus or minus 0.5dB. The final tweaking is done via an on-board DSP system. A full record is also kept on all the installed drivers to facilitate any future servicing that may be needed. The company also conducts extensive research into how the audible attributes of a speaker—or other products under design—relate to its measurements. B&O Tonmeister Geoff Martin (who previously worked on the audio system for the Audi) gave us a rundown of this process. In the case of audio equipment this involves careful selection of listening panels from among volunteer B&O employees, computerized tests, and data analysis. One important goal of this research is to obtain objective data from listening tests. These are then used in conjunction with measurements to determine, for example, what makes the current product line sound as it does. The combined listening and measurement results give the design engineers a road map to enable them to maintain a consistent sound from one B&O model to the next.
I haven't listed prices for all of the products described in the blog entries that follow, but when I have, they are approximate due to international currency conversions.