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Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 90 listening impressions

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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Are lifestyle, and audiophile exclusive design terms from one another?

Is it a form vs. function debate?

I’ve been struggling a bit with the concept lately in the strictest sense of the words, and the BeoLab 90 I’m writing about here brought the question to the forefront for me again. The 90 is about as far as you can get from a conventional audiophile loudspeaker design, yet with it’s $90,000 USD ($118,000 CAN) price tag it is firmly planted in ultra high-end audio territory.

Could either muscle out the other when it comes to loudspeaker design (or any high-fidelity product for that matter)? I think yes, and it can certainly go either way.

We’ve all seen our share of audiophile-centric designed turntables, amps, and speakers that are so single-purposed in their aesthetic execution (function) that many wouldn’t want them gracing their living, or listening rooms.

At the other end of the spectrum, lifestyle-oriented hi-fi designers are meant to focus on the looks of a product (form), and integrating it into a home environment, with ultimate fidelity perhaps suffering in deference to that mandate.

So if we can consider lifestyle, and audiophile as extremes of the same spectrum, where’s the median? Who’s working to bring those two disparate goals into the middle?

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Scan-Speak drivers. Eighteen per enclosure.

Bang & Olufsen is an example of a company who’s focused on creating high-fidelity products that sound as good as they look. They’re all about integrating music into daily life, and they do it at a lot of price points, and for every type of room, apartment, or detached home. But could we consider them an audiophile company?

“Most audiophile loudspeakers are designed for a person – we often say –  with one chair, and no friends…” jokes B&O’s Geoff Martin in a promotional video for the 90.

The  BeoLab 90 is B&O’s rarely heard/seen flagship loudspeaker design, and it is firmly entrenched in the company’s lifestyle-design roots, with it’s integration into the rest of B&O’s multi-room control technology, but again,  it is most certainly marketed at audiophiles.

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With their grilles in place the BeoLab 90 are not as visually imposing as one would think.

 I wrote a few weeks back that I had stumbled across a pair of the über-rare, multi-driver, DSP-enabled, bespoke-amplified loudspeakers with active-room compensation at Commercial Electronics a few blocks from my home in Vancouver, British Columbia. But at the time they had not had their basic DSP options set up, so Chris Jones asked if I could come back for a listen when they had the 90s set up proper-like. Fast forward, and I was told they would be ready to listen to on Monday. I walked down around 11 a.m., and Commercial Electronics’ product specialist Mike Steiger joined Jones in helping to get me settled in with the 90s for a listening session.

 

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Chris Jones, and Mike Steiger are too serious.

But first a little background on the BeoLab 90 for those not familiar with Bang & Olufsen’s statement 8,200-watt, Dalek-inspired behemoths.

“BeoLab 90 has 18 state-of-the-art Scan-Speak loudspeaker drivers placed in carefully defined locations and directions to deliver maximum performance in frequency, time and space. The floor speaker packs a combination of 14 channels of the latest generation ICEpower amplifiers – a compact and highly efficient platform developed by Bang & Olufsen – and four additional class D amplifiers, all customized for the BeoLab 90. In total, the amplifiers can deliver up to 8,200 watts per loudspeaker.”

For those wondering just what’s in the box, a full list of specs is included at the end of this post. B&O describes these loudspeakers thus:

“It will not be for everybody, but it will be for the right somebody. Three years in the making, BeoLab 90 is the culmination of our wildest dreams. And with no less than 8,200 watts per loudspeaker, by far the most powerful sound experience we have ever built.

Creating perfect sound in a room meant for nothing but listening is one thing. It is a whole other ball game to create perfect sound in a room designed for living. BeoLab 90 is perhaps the world’s most advanced digital loudspeaker, providing unprecedented user control of its acoustic performance – adapting to your living space and preferred listening modes through intelligent design.”

As I said, B&O is big on lifestyle. Their products are designed with socialization, and enjoyment of life while listening to music as a paramount design principle. One could describe this as diametrically-opposed to current, conventional audiophile design précis where you have the aforementioned individual sequestered in a room with one chair. But which camp does the 90 truly fall in? At it’s price point, this isn’t the transducer for someone looking to kit out the family room with a nice set of speakers – the BeoLab 17s or 20s can easily fill that niche at a considerably lower price point – the 90s seem targeted at someone who takes high fidelity very seriously indeed.

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Scan-Speak Revelator 10.2-inch bass driver.

This was what I had on my mind while I sat down to listen,.

Since I wanted to see what the B&O statement loudspeakers were capable of from an audiophile’s standpoint, Jones, and Steiger let me play very loudly indeed. I appreciated the ability to push the SPLs into the 100dB+ territory, but in the back of my mind I kept wondering how’d they be at a much more social volume in a living room full of friends playing party games.

The Commercial Electronics space is a large one, with soaring 20-foot ceilings in a large, carpeted, concrete, loft-like space. The 90s were approximately 10 feet apart, and I was about 12 feet back from the driver plane. I downloaded the BeoLab 90 app for my iPhone which let me choose three DSP listening modes: Wide, Narrow, and Omni. I did all my listening in either Wide or Narrow Modes. Wide is for a more standard stereo presentation, Narrow is what I would describe as the sweet-spot mode, and Omni is for a non-directional, or social-listening experience; think party.

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18 drivers, and 8,200 watts of power on tap.

I brought a USB stick along with a number of high-resolution files for listening, and started off in Narrow Mode, and the first album up was Beck, Morning Phase in 24/192. The soundscape was absolutely enormous, with imaging well behind the speaker plane despite the sub-optimal placement of the 90s (distance from the front wall was about 15 inches), so in my mind B&O’s DSP/Active Room Compensation was doing it’s job well enough to create the aural illusion that the speakers were about eight feet out. The only catch was the sonic dispersion seemed a touch beamy if you will. A little compressed laterally for my liking. Switching to Wide Mode halfway through Morning (just a touch on the phone app) instantly opened everything up even wider/deeper especially in the vertical plane from a spatial standpoint. The difference was not subtle. Beck’s guitar strumming took on a hyper-real quality to the fret, and string work, and the decay on his voice was spilling over behind my listening position. Quite a trick indeed. Narrow Mode seems to concentrate imaging in a cluster of about a 10-foot horizontal oval about eight-feet in front of the listener, but there is a slight edge, or crispness to upper registers at high volume that was lacking in Wide Mode to my ears.

Kruder Dorfmeister, The K&D Sessions (24/48) is an album I play often, it’s a fantastic downtempo electronic mash with huge, roiling bass lines, and sound effects galore, but through the big 90s it exhibited more bass definition, control, and transient speed to notes from every instrument on this particular track (Roni Size, Heroes) than any other loudspeaker I’ve heard it on. I just want to emphasize that I had the volume level loud. Really loud. Live venue loud. Loud enough that customers in other parts of the store seemed to be leaving, but Jones, and Steiger never once asked me to turn it down. Few loudspeakers I’ve heard have been able to portray as convincing a human-sized spatial presentation as the BeoLab 90s did. There was never a sense of compression, or that sense that that’s enough volume, back it off laddy, that just about every other system I’ve heard at high SPLs has exhibited. I’ve used the terms effortless, and sense of unlimited headroom before, but in this instance the 90s went an order of magnitude beyond either.

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Fit, and finish of the units, and their multi-array drivers was impeccable.

Fink, Sort of Revolution (24/44.1) has an almost laid-back insistence to it’s percussion, and guitar work whenever I’ve listened to it previously, but there has always been a cohesive gel – if you will – keeping the frontman firmly glued to the rest of the band. Not so here. Here the vocals, and guitar were portrayed in a startlingly forward manner, as if Fin Greenall was sitting well in front of the rest of the band on the sound stage. Switching to Narrow Mode did little to dispel the illusion, but it did reign-in the size of the performance somewhat. Engegard Quartet’s String Quartet (24/192) sounded exceedingly lifelike in their room presence, with huge amounts of spatial decay off their strings which created a palpable sense of live, wood-bodied instruments being played in very close proximity. Switching to Wide Mode allowed the quartet to regroup itself within the sphere of sonics created around my listening position by the BeoLab 90s, and have a bit more space between the individual performers. Tone, and timbre were just slightly thinner than my personal preference, but the realism, and reproduction of resined bows on individual strings, and fingerboards being pressured during play almost gave the feeling of zooming-in on a photo with a smartphone. The closer you got to the origin of the sound, the more clarity, and contrast of the performance was revealed.

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24/192 DSP, with Active Room Compensation available.

The BeoLab 90 sound to my ears is one of transparency, and speed, but the bottom end, despite being incredibly taught, was really fleshed out: a truly noteworthy feat. It had the feeling of being fat, without any flab, of real driver excursion without any sacrifice of definition at the lowest octaves. It’s difficult to have a true preference between the two modes I experimented with because both sounded amazing, albeit different, and depending on the cut/mastering the Wide/Narrow beam presentation radically changed the sonic landscape.

Finishing up my time with the 90s brought me back to my original vexation: Is it a lifestyle or audiophile product? I think it is such a unique design, and concept, especially with it’s ability to instantly adjust its sonic presentation on-the-fly (down to focus-tailoring the sound based on one’s sitting position in a room when fully digitally-optimized through beam width/direction control), that it is a wholly new type of high-fidelity product in my eyes. It is both lifestyle, and audiophile. With the 90s only dependence on what source you feed them, this new type of high-fidelity breed is something we are sure to see more of in the future (there are already a number of powered monitors on the market with many digital/analogue inputs, DSP, and active-room compensation, but not at this level of sophistication. Thirty-eight drivers per pair is an incredible technical accomplishment, and sets the BeoLab 90 apart in my estimation). My hope is that as time passes, the technology that B&O has invested into the 90 will trickle down, and we’ll see more of it in their entry-level products. Until then – if you are lucky enough to have a B&O dealer in your vicinity – these are worthy of tracking down, and scheduling a listening session to experience firsthand.

–Rafe Arnott

BeoLab 90 specifications:

Weight: 137 kg, Wireless Input (Master and Slave speaker): Wireless Power Link (24 bit / 48 kHz), WiSA (24 bit / 96 kHz).

Analogue Input (Master speaker): Power Link RCA, XLR (fully balanced).

Digital Input (Master speaker): USB Audio (24 bit / 192 kHz) S/P-DIF (24 bit / 192 kHz) Toslink (24 bit / 96 kHz). Digital Input (Master and Slave speaker): Digital Power Link (24 bit / 192 kHz).

Amplifiers: For tweeters: 7 x Bang & Olufsen ICEpower AM300-X. For midranges: 7 x Bang & Olufsen ICEpower AM300-X. For woofers: 3 x Heliox AM1000-1. For front woofer: 1 x Heliox AM1000-1.

Drivers: Tweeter: 7 x Scan-Speak Illuminator 30 mm. Midrange: 7 x Scan-Speak Illuminator 86 mm. Woofer: 3 x Scan-Speak Discovery 212 mm. Front Woofer: 1 x Scan-Speak Revelator 260 mm.

DSP: DSP type 2 x Analogue Devices ADSP-21489 – 450 MHz. Sampling rate: 192 kHz fixed.

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About Rafe Arnott (306 Articles)
Editor and Creative Director for Part-Time Audiophile & The Occasional Magazine.

1 Comment on Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 90 listening impressions

  1. Hmmm, that’s not what I heard and the setup was almost identical to yours ( I thought from the photo that it was at Abt ) at Abt in Glenview Illinois. You didn’t mention the Omni setting which was horrible. It sounded like it was out of phase. The sound of this speaker system kind of reminded me of the first time hearing Bose 901’s in the seventies. It just never sound right. After listening to the Beo system go through it’s digital gymnastics, it felt like I was listening to something artificial and never getting comfortable with the sound (edgy? ).
    I had just heard the CSO, Muti and Yefim Bronfman performing Beethoven’ fourth piano concerto a few days ago, the Beo system five days before that and real sounding it is not. And as far as sound coming from behind you, listen to Steve Hoffman’s DCC compact disc “relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet” CZS1052. Rudy Van Gelder and Miles are chatting at the beginning and Rudy is talking from behind the seating area ! I’ve had this recording for years and it still startles me. And this from a monophonic recording through two channels! Or the recently released Kenny Dorham, “Quiet Kenny” on Analogue Productions APRJ 8225. Listening to Kenny the other evening, a friend calling thought I was in a club. Give me $90000 and I will buy you a killer system with money left over to purchase a nice automobile . I guess that I went on too long so I’ll shut up now.

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