To celebrate the company’s ninetieth birthday we present this insightful interview by Bang & Olufsen Australia, General manager Julian Kipping. In addition to the company’s birthday today - 17 November - Bang & Olufsen will be launching its latest loudspeaker, the BeoLab 90 – their most sophisticated loudspeaker to date.
Are you excited about Bang and Olufsen having turned 90?
You know what, isn’t it amazing that any European manufacturer is turning 90! Yeah, especially in the audio-visual world. I think I’m right in saying that we’re the world’s oldest and certainly the European’s oldest so it’s a real pleasure to be part of that as well.
Over 90 years has it been difficult for the company to stay in the forefront of sound engineering?
You know, we’re in sound, we’re in visual, we’re in technology and of course – in the last decade in particular – it has been incredibly difficult for the company to remain relevant in that space where lots of people are jumping in, pricing is going down, etc. We want to keep to our core beliefs of quality: quality of manufacturing; qualities of materials we use; design; craftsmanship; etc. You know, you’re always working against the grain in an environment that’s a very throwaway society, but I think that’s part of our strength. I think staying true to those cores is it and that are also what we do and have done throughout the years, said “okay, this is what we want the design to look like,” and then we go to the engineers and say “make it happen, but we’ve got to make it happen to this quality of sound level,” and that’s always been, of course, the challenge internally. The Danes come from that Scandinavian design orientated part of the world and that’s what we’ve built the reputation on.
Do you think one of the things that sets B&O apart is that equality of commitment to quality in both engineering and aesthetics?
Yeah, absolutely! It’s fair to say in the past that people – especially our competitors – would talk about us being just a pretty face, but I don’t believe you can be a pretty face and still be in business 90 years later. Personally, I think you’ve gotta have some substance behind you for that otherwise you get found out pretty quickly.
For your 90th anniversary the company has created the Love Affair Collection which references the 1920s when the company was first formed. What does the design of these pieces say about B&O?
I think it was an era that was rebellious, passionate, and so on. It was between the Wars and there was this new attraction, I think, to beauty and dance and music and freedom after the first World War of course. I think what we’ve tried to do here is be separate in it’s colour. The Love Affair Collection really revolves around the rose gold colouring because the products that are involved in that collection are a standard part of our range as well.
To make the collection so beautiful you have worked with the designer Stine Goya. How has her creativity influenced the direction of the design?
Stine is very much about colour. The part that she’s worked with us on is the fabrics. She develops the colours; the midnight green, the red… What she wanted to do was bring a bit more warmth into the product.
You have also announced the release of the BeoLab 90 loudspeaker. Which customer is this appealing too?
This is always the really interesting question when we bring something very different out. This takes us leaps and bounds above anything else we’ve done. If you know the range, the BeoLab5 was a very highest level of speaker and this just is a different stratosphere. It’s really, really up there. I think and audiophile audience is absolutely going to be our target. There are loudspeakers that cost a lot more than this one and do well, so there is going to be the person who has that ear and that is their life – their passion. It might actually be the main thing in their life. We can bring in those from the really, really high end who would never look at Bang and Olufsen. Then, to be really honest, there are those people who just can. They just want the best that’s out there on the market and they can do it.
Is the BeoLab 90 a standalone system or is it designed to integrate with other speakers to create a surround sound effect?
You absolutely can. It is designed as an audio pair of loudspeakers. They’re 137kg each. I think predominantly they will go to somebody who really sits and listens to audio and it will be their audio speaker. That said, they can actually plug into things like televisions and be part of a surround sound system as well. There’s no problem with that. Actually, in fact, they can be used as a wireless loudspeaker. At this level we would not recommend it, because to get the best out of it you want wired.
Is it a full range loudspeaker, and if so, how many drivers does each one contain? Also, does it contain other technologies to process the signal?
I’m not the biggest technical person in the world, but what I do know is that there are 18 different drivers in each unit. There’s 7 tweeters, there’s 7 mid-range, and there’s three subwoofers in the way that it’s mounted, and then there’s a front-facing subwoofer as well – a larger one. Because we’re an active loudspeaker each of those carries an amplifier. The power source is huge because each loudspeaker can output 8200 watts of power.
It has something called Active Room Compensation. How does that work?
Well, we set it up to compensate for the reflections. BeoLab 5 has automatic bass calibration which is a similar thing. What we’ve done with ARC is taken that technology a step further. Not only does it do it for the bass, but the mid-range as well. So the speakers come with a microphone and, of course, when we deliver we would set up and discuss with the customer how they listen, how they want it to be. We would calibrate it with them for their particular set up. Then, of course, if things change – their furniture, or where things are – then the customer will be able to recalibrate themselves quite simply.
So are there any other technologies imbedded in the BeoLab 90?
One of the options is beam width control. We say that there are three choices of beam width. We can have it so that it’s narrowed into a 45 degree angle. That’s for the person who has their absolute spot in the room that they sit in and they want it to be perfect. Or they can go to a wider beam which is 90 degrees. That’s where your love seat comes in, you know? Then there’s the 360 and that is where we start to look at putting it all the way around the room.
At that put does it integrate a phasing program to compensate for wave length interactions?
I think so. I haven’t gone through this one in detail, but I think what will happen is when we set up we’ll probably set up the relevant calculations, or settings, for each of those three different ones. When they switch from one to the other it will automatically go to what they wanted in that particular instance. Then, of course, there’s the beam direction control. You can have 5 different settings. You can have the beam width control set for 5 different areas in your room. It comes with its own app which is specific for BeoLab90 so you can just touch on the app to say this is what I want now and it just resets itself. I was told there was also a device which looks at the resonances. At this level of speaker if you get any resonances in a cabinet or anything, the speaker will recognise that there’s a resonance that’s not part of your music and it will compensate for that as well. It also comes with thermal protection so if you really are driving them hard, you’ll get to a point where they’ll say “mmm, a bit too hot now, need to cool down,” and it will just protect itself before you damage the speaker.
You also have BeoLab 18 loudspeakers. Are they designed as a surround sound adjunct for your other technologies?
Well, it’s actually the televisions that have the surround sound units built into them. We can use any of the loudspeakers to provide that surround sound. The BeoLab 18 works like any of our loudspeakers. They can be used as a purely audio speaker, or part of a surround sound, or just a front for the television. They can be anything that you want. The BeoLab A9 is really designed as a stand alone speaker. That is a single point speaker which can, with our new multi-room feature, join into the party if you like. You can have it join in with another room or have it as an individual speaker.
The BeoPlay A9 has been designed almost as a piece of art and can free stand on the floor, or be hung on the wall with all your other art. Does it need special rigging to hang?
Yeah, we’ve got a wall bracket that we produce.
Bang & Olufsen have been producing headphones since 1978. What has the company learnt about the experience of using them over those years?
I think the Form2’s are still the only audio product that are part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. 30 years after the product was launched we still sell it in decent numbers which is beautiful. I think we’ve learnt to get quicker in our uptake of it because the headphone market exploded and we were a little bit behind on it. I think now we’ve really caught up and we’ve caught up with a vengeance. The portfolio, at the moment, includes active noise cancelling versions and what we could call ‘normal’ versions – in ear, over ear, wrap around ear… What we’ve certainly learnt in the recent years where it is a fashion item as well as an accessory for travel, is that you need to change it, keep making it different, have very different design, and making sure (at our end of the market) that the sound isn’t compromised by the design. The reason we were a bit late into the noise cancelling arena is because to get the sound quality the way we wanted it took some development. It is now a really big part of our play range now, I have to say.
What is this sound experience that Bang & Olufsen are so careful about achieving?
Bang & Olufsen want to do it as naturally as possible. Really, when our guys are developing something they want to provide the most natural picture, for instance, and the most natural sound. The H6 headphone was very natural but people’s tastes have changed and the music is very different. Some people said to us “I need more depth, I need more bass.” We then went out and designed some headphones to cater for that market as well. I think what we’ve learned is that there are different tastes and sometimes it’s not just about the actual sound. You’ve gotta go for fashion. You’ve gotta go for different types of music and different tastes.
Your television range, and the BeoVision Avant, all have light sensing technology. Is that purely automatic or does that require specialist installation as well?
That is purely done by itself because it’s an ever changing thing. What happens in those televisions is that it looks at the ambient light in the room – and these days with the models we’ve got it looks at 360 degrees – and then it will make picture adjustments to adjust to the light level in the room or the direction of the light. If it’s a very, very bright day you have to pull the curtains to try and get a good picture because it washes it out. What will happen with the light sensing is it will actually brighten the picture to compensate for that light. If you have the television against a window, the light coming through the window really affects our perception of colour, so it will sense that and automatically adjust the colour balance to compensate for that. At night what happens with TVs is that you have one brightness setting so you get that same amount of light coming out all the time. That’s why you get tired eyes at night. What happens with Bang & Olufsen is the TV sensed that it’s darker and knows it’s time to tone down the brightness and it just makes it a more comfortable viewing experience. We also put anti-reflective coatings on the front and rear of the glass which cuts the reflection down by about 90%.
Given what Bang & Olufsen have achieved over the last 90 years, can you give us a hint of what we can expect from the company as it reaches its centenary?
Do you know what? I’ve worked for Bang & Olufsen for 18 years. I have it running through my veins. They never tell you what’s coming. Sometimes I get a 6 month insight into it at the pain of death for telling anybody. I genuinely think that technology is changing so fast, so rapidly they have got things in planning. I think those advances in technology are helping us to move in terms of responding as well. I can’t be specific because I genuinely don’t know. You can always say with B&O that whatever they come up with, it is always going to be a discussion point, it’s gonna be controversial one way or the other, and long lasting.
I believe you have some special anniversary celebrations in November. What can we look forward to?
We’ve been celebrating through the year with the Love Affair Collection. For November, all of our stores will be holding events. Our actual birthday is 17 November. Through that week all of our stores will be holding a party. In Melbourne and Sydney we have a group of stores holding external events and we’re going to do the launch of BeoLab 90 as well. We’ll be in the country for that. In Sydney we’ll be launching and having that party at the Opera House – where else would you have it? It has a very Danish influence and, in fact, we’re going to be holding that in the Utzon room. In Melbourne we are doing the celebration in Denmark House. We just can’t get enough BeoLab 90s in the stores, so the stores in the other states won’t get them quite yet. In the new year we’ll do a road show and take those products around the country.