Writer: Ishaq Al Arabi
Our visit to B&O’s stylishly contemporary headquarters in rural Jutland proves to be both an audiophile’s dream and a design junkie’s paradise. Ninety-seven years on and still going strong, Denmark’s global purveyor of sound and vision has still got more than a few tricks up its sleeve.
I will never forget the first time I realised that not all speakers were made the same. It was 1985 and I was sitting in a friend’s apartment listening to ‘Tusk’, Fleetwood Mac’s multi-million selling 1979 concept album. A grizzled Hippy, my friend had spent most of the previous 20 years in various chemically-altered states in spite, or perhaps because of which, he had the most demanding ear when it came to sound.
Over the years, he’d cobbled together his own system, ancient valve-based amplifiers and used equipment that he’d upgrade and tweak to perfection. I’d been invited over to celebrate the unveiling of a pair of second-hand Bose speakers he’d found at a garage sale. They didn’t resemble any speakers I’d ever seen before. Trapezoidal in shape, their backs bristled with an array of mysterious black cones.
As the title track began to play, I began to hear sounds I had never heard before; whispers, notes and effects that no speakers I’d ever encountered had been capable of reproducing. It was as though a trapdoor had opened into a parallel but previously hidden universe of exquisite sound. As I dropped though, it was all I could do not to cry out in wonder.
Twenty-seven years later, that trapdoor opened for a second time as I sat in the BeoLiving room at The Farm, Bang & Olufsen’s architecturally impressive headquarters in Struer, a small town in rural western Denmark.
Beige colour scheme aside, BeoLiving was the perfect bachelor’s pad, kitted out with capacious Scandimodern sofa, cubic coffee table and, of course, a cornucopia of B&O goodies, including a massive wall-mounted BeoVision 12 LCD screen TV, six giant BeoLab 5 speakers and a curiously handycam-like Beo6 remote control - marketed in Tolkienesque style as ‘one remote for it all’ - which cleverly controlled the entire room, not just the Beodevices.
With a flick or two of her finger, our demonstrator deftly dimmed the lights, closed the door and the curtains, changed the temperature and lowered a gigantic cinema screen out of the ceiling, in front of the TV. The film – it was something science fictiony – that had been playing on the TV, immediately began playing on the screen instead and as lasers erupted and fighter planes were shot down over alien landscapes, the sound was so very surround that at times, it seemed to be happening inside my head.
Ten dizzying minutes later, we pour out of the BeoLiving room and into a range of top class cars, each tricked out with B&O sound systems (“so now the B&O experience doesn’t have to stop when you leave home”) before being whisked off to Factory 5, where we are treated to the no less science fictiony spectacle of robots and real people grinding, colouring and polishing aluminium components. This proves impressive on two levels. Not only is the attention to detail so exacting that pieces with flaws invisible to the naked eye are scrapped but also because in this age of outsourcing, B&O still makes most of their components in the town where it was born, back in 1925.
But then science fiction, or as every B&O spokesperson we meet over the course of the next 3 days calls it, ‘magic’, is an essential component of the brand’s cachet. Sometimes, this magic is stylistic, sometimes it’s mechanical – like the glass doors of the BeoCentre 2300, which slide open at the wave of a hand – and sometimes, it’s functional.
“The way a product works, how it sounds, how it looks, how it feels, there should always be an element of surprise somewhere,” is the way improbably youthful president and CEO Tue Mantoni explains his company’s essence one morning in the Farm’s auditorium. Though I can’t see them from where we are, I’m sure the sheep we saw grazing the impeccable lawns outside count as one such surprise.
Long before Apple made computers aesthetic, Bang & Olufsen were busy turning utilitarian audio equipment into totemic objects that were as much sculpture as sound system or speaker. Consequently, B&O came to occupy a niche that was somewhere between commercial venture and cult. But - and this was always every bit as important as the aesthetic - the devices didn’t just look good, they had to sound good too.
“We start where our competitors finish,” Geoff Martin, B&O Tonmeister explains as we sit listening to music in The Cube, a 12 x 12 x 13 metre soundproofed box, where the company tests all its products, hanging speakers from cranes so they can be heard from all angles. He’s only half joking.
As Martin takes us through a brief demonstration of what he does, it swiftly becomes obvious this is mostly about coming up with the kind of algorithm that will not only compensate for auditory flaws introduced into speakers by the product’s design but which will also perform properly, regardless of where they are to be used.
“Only one per cent of what we hear comes from the speaker,” he explains, hopping back to his computer to switch tracks, filling the room with chamber music. “The other 99 per cent comes from reverberation created by the environment. We have to account for that.”
In part, B&O does this by offering a bespoke set-up service, where sound engineers help to install your system, whether in one room or throughout the house, ensuring that the sound quality remains as even as possible.
Obviously, such service does not come cheap but then neither does B&O. In recent years, the company has found itself facing something of a dilemma. Not sufficiently expensive to appeal to the truly high-end purchasers, who think nothing of dropping upwards of 200,000 USD just on speakers but still beyond the budget of many middle-end audiophiles, it occupies relatively narrow ground.
Of late, that ground has shrunk. The rise of the MP3 initially hit the company very hard. Its audio systems had been exclusively geared towards physical, rather than digital forms of music. Had it not adapted, the future would have been grim.
Realising the best defence is offence, the company gradually phased out its unadaptable designs – the unmistakable 6-disc BeoSound 9000 was discontinued last year – introduced the Playmaker, a small white box that allows you to stream your music wirelessly to your existing sound system and, to gain ground amongst younger buyers, invested in a new series called B&O Play.
A collection of supercharged docking devices (though the Beolit and one iteration of the Beoplay A8 are wireless) for your iPod, iPad or iPhone, the Play range also includes the very versatile Beoplay V1, a sliver of a TV that can be hung from the ceiling.
Essentially, Play is a taste of the best of B&O, at a more affordable price. You still get a device that looks as beautiful as it sounds, you just get it for several thousand dollars less. Think of it as when audio file met audiophile. The expectation is that Play will become a gateway device, so when users decide to invest in something more substantial, they will be tempted to remain in the family.
Admittedly, at around 1,000 USD, the A8 is an expensive dock but it turns your humble iPod/Phone/Pad into a symphony hall experience. Not only does it banish forever tinny base or squeaky lyrics but as the series also comes with the clever MOTS system B&O uses in its high-end models. Play devices actually ‘listen’ to the music, so that when they are in shuffle mode, the transition between tracks is logical; you don’t go from 80bpm to 160 and you’ll never get another jarring jump from Bach to Black Sabbath ever again.