“A stun­ning mix of style, sound and en­gi­neer­ing”

FOR Im­pres­sive en­gi­neer­ing; com­po­sure at high vol­umes AGAINST Lack trans­parency, sub­tlety and rhyth­mic pre­ci­sion

What Hi-Fi (UK) - - Contents -

Purists may be tempted to dis­miss Bang & Olufsen’s Be­o­lab 50s as a style-over­sub­stance prod­uct. Look­ing at the B&OS, it’s easy enough to un­der­stand why. But be­hind all the glitz of ris­ing tweet­ers, fancy cab­i­net shap­ing and wood-lined grilles, you’ll find a depth of en­gi­neer­ing rarely seen, even at these prices.

Each speaker packs a dig­i­tal-toana­logue con­verter, an ana­logue-todig­i­tal con­verter, a pream­pli­fier and seven drive units. There’s a ded­i­cated 300W power am­pli­fier for ev­ery driver.

If that sounds some­what ex­ces­sive, we haven’t even men­tioned the mo­torised tweeter pod with its ad­justable acous­tic lens yet – or the built-in dig­i­tal sig­nal pro­cess­ing that al­lows the speak­ers to sound bal­anced from a va­ri­ety of lis­ten­ing po­si­tions.

B&O ap­pears to have thrown its full tech­no­log­i­cal might at this prod­uct, and has come up with some­thing rather spe­cial. Not flaw­less, but mas­sively tempt­ing none­the­less.

If you do buy a pair of Be­o­lab 50s, they should be de­liv­ered and in­stalled by the dealer. These are hefty beasts, weigh­ing 61kg each and stand­ing al­most 104cm tall. De­spite their size, the un­usual shape and cos­metic treat­ment means they don’t look im­pos­ing in our lis­ten­ing room.

Op­ti­mised lis­ten­ing

B&O has put a lot of ef­fort into mak­ing it easy to in­te­grate the 50s son­i­cally into a room. We’d sug­gest start­ing with a free space place­ment, away from a wall. From there they can be cal­i­brated to de­liver an even tonal bal­ance at the lis­ten­ing po­si­tion – prefer­ably by the dealer.

It’s pos­si­ble to op­ti­mise the sound for a num­ber of dif­fer­ent lis­ten­ing po­si­tions – if you move from the main lis­ten­ing chair to a sofa on the other side of the room, for ex­am­ple, the speak­ers’ sound can be switched ac­cord­ingly to op­ti­mise the pre­sen­ta­tion for that new lo­ca­tion.

While stereo imag­ing will suf­fer from such a move, the over­all bal­ance will stay broadly the same. It’s a handy fea­ture, and pos­si­ble only thanks to the Be­o­lab’s built-in dig­i­tal sig­nal pro­cess­ing and soft­ware. The speak­ers will not only even-out fre­quency peaks and troughs caused by room in­ter­ac­tions but also al­ter dis­per­sion char­ac­ter­is­tics by vary­ing the fo­cus of the tweeter’s acous­tics lens and chang­ing the bal­ance of the var­i­ous drive units.

The idea is to make the Be­o­labs as un­fussy about the room as pos­si­ble, and to make them sound good re­gard­less of where you sit. In this, B&O has been wholly suc­cess­ful – we can’t think of an al­ter­na­tive that is as ac­com­mo­dat­ing.

In your grille

Take off the three grilles and you’ll find the 50s pos­i­tively brim­ming with speaker tech­nol­ogy. Each has three 25cm bass driv­ers – one for each of the faces and each at a dif­fer­ent height from the floor to spread re­flec­tion ef­fects.

There is a trio of 10cm midrange units on the front panel, which, along with the bass driv­ers and 19mm tweeter, are each driven by a ded­i­cated 300W Ice­power Class D mod­ule. We cal­cu­late that’s 2100W per chan­nel, which should be enough power to get party lev­els in just about any size of room. In­deed, in our lis­ten­ing room, we’ve never had a speaker that goes so loud quite so eas­ily.

All the con­nec­tions are hid­den in a com­part­ment near the speaker’s base. They’re tucked away well enough for us to wish B&O had spec­i­fied an in­ter­nal light to make things eas­ier. The in­puts in­clude USB (24-bit/192khz), coax­ial (24-bit/192khz) and op­ti­cal (24-bit/96khz) through to stereo RCA line-ins. For ex­tra con­nec­tiv­ity, plus

”The Be­o­lab 50s are class-lead­ing in so many ways – they de­liver re­ally deep bass with such ease and agility. We can’t re­call a speaker sound­ing so ef­fort­less when pushed hard”

multi-room and stream­ing abil­ity, you’ll have to shell out ex­tra for B&O’S sys­tem hub, the Beosound Core (£595).

Some­thing this packed with tech needs a ded­i­cated app. Thank­fully it’s nicely ar­ranged and fairly log­i­cal. It deals with the set-up of the speak­ers and al­lows the user to make tweaks when re­quired. It also con­trols the vol­ume level, which, if you’re us­ing the same tablet to con­trol the source com­po­nent can in­volve a bit of jug­gling to ac­count for dif­fer­ent record­ing lev­els. There are many times we wish for an old fash­ioned hand­set to make ba­sic changes as we tog­gle be­tween our Naim NDS/555PS mu­sic streamer and the Be­o­lab 50s.

Rare com­po­sure

Once prop­erly op­ti­mised, these are im­pres­sive speak­ers. We start with Bizet’s Car­men Suite and are stunned by the ef­fort­less way they de­liver large-scale dy­namic shifts. All that built-in power does won­ders when it comes to ren­der­ing hard-hit­ting crescen­dos, but also gives these B&OS an in­cred­i­bly rare sense of com­po­sure. There’s no short­age of con­trol and it’s cou­pled with an abil­ity to track a mul­ti­tude of in­stru­men­tal strands with­out get­ting con­fused.

Stereo imag­ing is good, and the Be­o­lab 50s lock in­stru­ments in po­si­tion in a rel­a­tively ex­pan­sive and spa­cious sound stage. Its sta­bil­ity grabs our at­ten­tion though, as ev­ery­thing sounds solidly planted even when the mu­sic be­comes de­mand­ing or vol­ume lev­els rise.

Given the amount of pro­cess­ing, it’s no sur­prise to find that the B&OS sound ton­ally even. That’s not the same as neu­tral, though, with the speak­ers re­tain­ing the com­pany’s trade­mark smooth­ness at higher fre­quen­cies and a hint of full­ness in the bass. None of it is taken too far, and on the whole it just makes the speak­ers rel­a­tively for­giv­ing of poor record­ings. There are no ob­vi­ous fre­quency peaks or troughs, de­spite bass be­ing de­liv­ered with im­mense power all the way down to a claimed 15Hz.

We take ad­van­tage of that by blast­ing out the likes of Mas­sive At­tack’s An­gel and Hans Zim­mer’s In­ter­stel­lar OST at high vol­umes. The Be­o­labs are class-lead­ing in so many ways with this kind of mu­sic. They de­liver re­ally deep bass with such ease and agility. They never sound stressed, keep­ing their com­po­sure at high vol­ume lev­els; we can’t re­call a speaker sound­ing so ef­fort­less when pushed hard.

They’re not per­fect though. De­spite good de­tail lev­els, these speak­ers never sound wholly trans­par­ent. The dif­fer­ence in record­ings isn’t as clear as it should be, so when we shift from some­thing in­ti­mate like Martha from Tom Waits to Arvo Pärt’s Tab­ula Rasa, the changes of record­ing acous­tic and pro­duc­tion sim­ply aren’t as ob­vi­ous as they ought to be.

We slowly be­come aware that these speak­ers aren’t blessed with great rhyth­mic pre­ci­sion ei­ther, so the mu­si­cal mo­men­tum of An­gel and the grow­ing ten­sion in Tab­ula Rasa are both some­what muted.

While we’re stunned at the Be­o­lab’s abil­ity to de­liver large-scale dy­namic shifts they’re less suc­cess­ful at con­vey­ing the sub­tleties. The nu­ances in Waits’ voice – the ones that make Martha so heart-wrench­ing – are smoothed over, re­duc­ing the song’s mu­si­cal im­pact.

No piece of hi-fi is per­fect, and the Be­o­lab 50s are no dif­fer­ent. If you want a stylish set-up with min­i­mum boxes that is lit­tle short of awe­some when it comes to vol­ume lev­els, large-scale dy­nam­ics and out­right com­po­sure, we haven’t come across bet­ter. Par­tic­u­larly when you con­sider the B&O’S abil­ity to sound and look good in most rooms.

For some, just the look on their friends’ faces when those tweeter pods rise or the acous­tic lens moves will be enough to sign off on the deal. None of the more purist (and let’s not for­get, more in­sight­ful) high-end al­ter­na­tives come close to of­fer­ing glam­our like that.

The Be­o­lab 50s of­fer a sense of style and glam­our

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