Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 90 loudspeaker Page 2

I spent that first evening listening to the BeoLabs before any room equalization, but there's no reason to dwell on that. First, without EQ, the sound was more a product of my room than was intended. Second, there's no good reason to run a DSP-based system such as the BeoLab 90 without EQ. To do so would be equivalent to never using the top gears of a powerful car. EQ has been included in the speaker to provide the best quality of sound from it; you don't need to add an accessory—and you've paid for it!

Setup, Part 2
The next morning, having spent the previous evening listening to some lovely sounds from the BeoLab 90s, I was visited by B&O's Tonmeister, Geoff Martin, who confirmed that the setup was working properly. His task was then to calibrate the Active Room Compensation, or room EQ, using his PC connected to the Master BeoLab 90. You might think of it room EQ as mere icing on the cake, but sometimes it can make all the difference.

I was prepared for a long process involving multiple frequency sweeps picked up at as many as a dozen microphone positions. Instead, Martin made only three measurements: one at the main listening position, one to the right of that, higher, and a bit farther back; and one to the left, lower, and a bit more forward. Martin told me that, with the BeoLab's already controlled Narrow mode of Beam Width Control, there are fewer problematic room interactions that need to be corrected. As was confirmed in graphs he later sent me and by my own before-and-after measurements, the EQ filters applied little or no correction above 1kHz.

Control was via a beautiful B&O remote handset with buttons so tiny that, if I wasn't very careful, I often hit multiple buttons at once. The alternative, the BeoLab 90 iPad app, was easier to work, but with a latency between command and result; ultimately, I preferred the handset.

Because the BeoLab 90 is a complete audio system requiring only an audio signal from a source component, this review can be considered an almost pure assessment of the product under test—as opposed to an assessment of its interactions with various amplifiers and other supporting components.

I set up JRiver Media Center and HQPlayer to output 24/192 PCM via USB or S/PDIF, and paid some attention to the cables and connections. The operational differences among the three options were more significant than the sonic differences. The sounds of the Shunyata S/PDIF cable and the Corning-UpTone-Peachtree USB-S/PDIF linkup were equally satisfying in every way; neither sounded better than the other in terms of clarity or soundstage resolution. The Shunyata was a bit warmer, but I heard that difference only in direct A/B comparisons. Otherwise, my preference changed with my mood and/or the recording played. Both digital links were consistently more transparent in terms of detail and soundstage depth than was the analog input, burdened as the latter was by additional components and redundant conversions.

In Wide mode, the BeoLab 90s sounded like very good conventional loudspeakers, with a two-channel sound that was on a par with the best I've heard in this room: well balanced, with powerful, extended bass and wide, deep soundstages. However, when I switched to Narrow mode, it became apparent that the standard stereo presentation of Wide mode—and, indeed, of most other pairs of speakers I've used—was flawed. Narrow mode simply erased a hash of spurious ambience that flanked the central soundstage. That hash exaggerated the width, and contributed to the impression of "audiophile air." Also, in Narrow mode, the stereo image snapped into a new level of precise stability.

In Narrow mode, the BeoLabs delivered what I heard as increased resolution, detail, and tonal honesty, unsullied by the interference of short-latency reflections. Users of dipole speakers, in which the interference of the outputs of the front and rear drivers causes cancellation of lateral dispersion, will have experienced something similar—but not to this degree. From that point on, I used Wide mode mostly to demonstrate to myself and to others just how remarkable the BeoLab 90s could sound in Narrow mode, in which I did all of my critical listening. (For its part, Omni mode is, well, party mode. I'll say no more about that—but I will note that the BeoLab 90's amplifiers are claimed to output 8200W, and that I very quickly gave up trying to test the speakers' dynamic limits.)

I listened to familiar recordings: mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland singing Finzi's "Come Away, Death," accompanied by pianist Sergei Osadchuk (24/192 PCM download from SACD/CD, 2L 2L-064-SACD); mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing Handel arias, accompanied by Harry Bicket and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (SACD/CD, Avie AV0030); and Hans Theessink's Call Me (CD, Blue Groove BG-4020). In each case, the singer's voice had a disarming presence and intimacy that reminded me of the Grand Central Station Effect: A friend calls to me across that busy, resonant space, and continues to greet me as we approach each other. At first I can only just pick out his voice from the surrounding noise, but at some point we've drawn near enough to each other that his voice is now distinct from the ambience and is identified as its familiar self. The BeoLabs epitomized this by freeing the solo voices, as well as the supporting ensembles, from the ambience in which they are presented.

Symphonies by Mahler, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich did not faze the BeoLab 90. Right from the beginning of Prokofiev's Symphony 3—I listened to the recording by James Gaffigan and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (SACD/CD, Challenge Classics CC72584)—the composer throws at us massive, brass-led, bass-heavy blocks of sound. Even at staggeringly high SPLs, there was no smearing or loss of instrumental character. In the third movement, the shrieking, slithering strings never devolved into harshness, and the precision of image placement within the soundstage almost forced my eyes to track the invisible sounds as one instrument handed off to the next.

Dynamics seemed both subtle and unconstrained. B.B. King and Eric Clapton's Riding with the King (24/96 DVD-A, Duck/Reprise 47612-9) has real kick in the percussion, as well as from the stars. The BeoLabs seemed to unleash even more dynamic contrast and impact than I'd previously experienced with this disc, whether I played it at normal levels or let it rip. With "Ride Across the River," from Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms: 20th Anniversary Edition (SACD/CD, Vertigo 9 87149 8), there were clarity and delicacy in even the softest sounds.

At one point, John Atkinson brought over a pipe organ recording he'd made in 2014 in Portland, Oregon. The BeoLabs transmitted the physical energy of the biggest pipes via the building structure, despite the reinforced concrete construction. While we were being physically impacted by the bass, the midrange and treble remained unperturbed, and the spatial presentation was clear and stable.

Perhaps my favorite demonstration of all that the BeoLab 90s could do was with La Tarantella: Antidotum Tarantulae, with Christina Pluhar conducting the vocal and instrumental ensemble L'Arpeggiata (SACD/CD, Alpha SA503)—a collection of traditional Italian music intended to accompany the tarantella, the traditional antidote for the bite of a tarantula. The mood ranges from sadness to rage, and the dynamics range accordingly. The album begins gracefully but soon veers into dances of joyful hope and agonizing grief. The BeoLabs were up to it all, revealing the details of the instrumental sounds, the humanity of the voices, and the depths of the emotions.

I have a quibble. While it's impossible to discern at which frequencies the BeoLab 90's various drivers hand off to each other, and the speaker's harmonic integrity was continuous from lowest lows to highest highs, its sound was slightly warm, with rich but tight bass, a smooth midrange, and a mere suggestion of brightness in the very high treble. The BeoLab system is designed to permit the buyer or dealer to tune it to the buyer's room and taste, but at the time of this auditioning, the comprehensive control app was not yet available. As a result, that kind of tweaking was not possible. What I heard was the original factory tuning, and an undefined target curve for the EQ.

Bang & Olufsen's BeoLab 90 succeeds in its design premise, applying DSP and multiple drivers to create an idealized sound source with controlled and variable dispersion. Combining that with its integrated room equalization virtually frees the BeoLab's sound from room constraints. The BeoLab 90 is a tour de force of DSP and acoustical engineering, reaching goals that cannot be achieved by standard, passive designs.

B&O has also succeeded in using all that technology to serve the music: the BeoLab 90's sound quality equaled the general performance of any other speaker I've heard, and exceeded them in the resolution and stability of the soundstages the pair of them presented.

On top of that, the gracefulness of its design makes the BeoLab 90 domestically acceptable, despite its size. Its price of $84,990/pair, however, will not be widely acceptable, even though it includes multiple high-quality DACs, power amplifiers, and controls. I look forward to the eventual adaptation of the BeoLab 90's design principles to smaller, more affordable models. For now, I exhort every caring music listener to listen to the BeoLab 90 and hear what is now possible. It's that good.

Bang & Olufsen A/S
US distributor: Bang & Olufsen America, Inc.
1751 Lake Cook Road, Suite 620
Deerfield, IL 60015

Anton's picture

I love the REI sourced shroud.

What a day...I wanna hear these and the new giant Wilson.

That would be a cool shoot out.

cgh's picture

Funny, my first thought was North Face tents caught in the wind.

Anton's picture

I was debating saying North Face or REI!

Cheers to you!

dalethorn's picture

This was new to me. From the descriptions in this article, all previous designs to control phase/response/timing etc. are woefully primitive by comparison. Given this technology and the inclusion of the amplification, the price seems reasonable. Some people worry that they would spend a lot of money on a product that drops drastically in price soon afterward, when they can't get a refund or adjustment credit. On that note, if this design were to catch on and "go viral" so to speak, there would have to be a few unhappy folks who bought the "other brand" for even more money than the 90.

DH's picture

Conceptually sounds similar to the Kii Three, which is smaller and much cheaper(about $15k all in).

Would be interesting to compare the two, or to the larger floor standers coming from Kii.

jmsent's picture

The main emphasis with the Kii is the use of DSP to create a cardioid bass pattern so you get less room interaction in the bass. Other than that, it's a fairly standard design that uses a dsp crossover.
The B & O is far more advanced in that it provides directivity control over the entire operating frequency range and allows a tremendous amount of versatility. It also has insane amounts of power behind it and large amounts of radiating area. Dynamics are incredible.And while the Kii sounds "ok" the B & O simply blows your socks off. It's easily in the top 5 of the best speakers I've ever heard, and blows away any passive system I know of. B & O may have had a reputation for just being a "pretty face", but the Beolab 90 is something altogether different and IMO really points the way to how loudspeakers truly advance. It's about time. The loudspeaker industry has been basically "churning" for many years now with very little advancement.

DH's picture

Wasn't trying to say the Kii is the equal. Was saying it is a similar concept for about 1/6 of the price. It might be a better solution in a small room.

Calling it a "fairly standard" design is incredibly dismissive: how many standmount speakers do you know of that are full frequency range, contain 6 drivers, amps, and DACs, all controlled by DSP to enable time domain accuracy and limited interaction with side and front walls?

Start naming your list of all those "standard" speakers....I'm waiting.

Your dismissive comment about the Kii as being only "okay" is also sort of amusing, as so far both personal and professional reviewers have called it one of the best (note, not "the best") systems they've heard, equal to many at several times it's price. The apparent fact that it isn't as good as an $84000 system doesn't take away from it's accomplishments or the fact that it is revolutionary in its on right. And based on size and price, will probably end up in many more homes that the B&O 90. Nothing against the B&O, that's just reality.

John Le G's picture

I've heard the Kii Threes, and they are absolutely astounding. All the things said in this review about presentation of recorded space etc. are true of them, more so than any other loudspeaker I've heard, and in a ridiculously small and efficient package (no peripheral DACs, amps, and the rest of the much-loved audiophile paraphernalia). I am going to arrange a demo of the BL90s shortly, if only to attempt to justify the Kii price ticket vs. the BL90s!

tonykaz's picture

I imagine every "true" audiophile will "automatically" remove those Geodesic Dome Grill cloths.

The reviewer says they're "Handsome", I wonder if he's just being polite. B&O say's the 90s are beautiful in appearance.

In context, is this the most POWERFUL speaker system anyone has ever heard of? ( I once saw a speaker system with 3 sets of 200w Mono Amps and 1,000 Watts of Subwoofer = 2,200 Watts, I thought it was thunderous ( Krell Amps ), enough for a 7,200 cu.ft. listening room. These B&Os have four times the power ( each or the pair? )

The people that buy these will probably have 5.1, can these be configured for the Video Theater Room?

It's a nice Plus that they sound pretty darn good and saved their owner the extra $600,000 in cost of getting those new Wilsons ( not to mention all the additional electronics needed -- probably another 3 or 4 hundred thousand American ).

Looks like the Ultra-wealthy have as many difficult choices as we the unwashed masses.

Tony in Michigan

ps. do they offer an optional Cat protector?

raferx's picture

Great write-up, and long overdue for a proper review of the Beolab 90. I'm looking forward to a full production unit being tested with all bells, and whistles up, and running.

John Atkinson's picture
raferx wrote:
I'm looking forward to a full production unit being tested with all bells, and whistles up, and running.

Our review was of a full production sample of the Beolab 90. Its control firmware was an early version.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Kal Rubinson's picture

Yes. This unit was identical to what was being sold/installed to consumers at the time of the review and which we determined had all the features necessary to evaluate performance.

davidrmoran's picture

While broad downward tilt 200-20k is a euphonious idea with almost any speaker, it is also highly dependent not just on room size and furnishings but also on horizontal radiation pattern. An extremely upper-mid- and treble-dispersive design like this one wants considerably less of it than other designs. Every Allison owner knows this (also perhaps Ohm, Shahinian, DA, BL5, and other owners), and this fact was pointed out by Julian Hirsch in the many reviews he wrote of dbx Soundfield designs, an earlier beamforming phased array (e.g. see

Second, it is completely fascinating that the BL90 SP programs may not be perfected yet for lower-midrange balances and 'unrippling', i.e. the crucial half-octave above and the octave-plus below middle C. That is where boundary augmentation effects begin being *fractional* but are not yet summing coherently, of course. It is a problematic, dynamic area for most designs, work-aroundable only with some serious savvy. It will be interesting to see if BL90 future rev is able to improve supple handling of the two 90-360Hz octaves. Unless it was anomalistic in the setting.

Nagrapex's picture

This is one of the best comments I have ever seen in a hi-fi mag. May I offer what I think should be a minor correction? "...upper-mid- and treble-dispersive..." I think should have read something like, '...upper-mid- and treble-dispersion-limited (or directivity-controlled, if you prefer pro audio parlance).'

The only approach I have ever found that resolves the low mid problem that you so correctly describe with old-school technology is a large midbass horn - hardly practical for the average audiophile, unfortunately. The DSpeaker Anti-mode 2.0 does an admirable job, and I see no reason why the B&O engineers could not address the problem in a similar fashion. It would indeed be interesting to see if a later firmware load adds this capability.

davidrmoran's picture

That is a very kind thing to say, but your first para indicates you did not understand what I wrote. Highly dispersive designs are exactly the opposite of directivity-controlled. It is with the former (and sometimes w/ planars) that a serious downward tilt is most euphonious on much program, to reduce the relative level of treble, though not its distribution in the reverberant field. Beamy speakers, even in the new style of constant beaminess or at least uniformity (no stitches audible), if you tilt down their output, typically do not benefit at all; listeners say there are not enough highs.

There are ways to overcome the Allison effect, as it is a near-corner-positional problem, a function of the distances, similar or hopefully dissimilar, meaning staggered, from the woofer to the three near boundaries. It does not require a horn or even a separate lower-mid driver. You can locate the woofer right near a boundary (or two, or three) but have it cover well up above middle C, like to 300-400Hz. Or you can suggest / enforce that its distances from floor, front wall, and sidewall are staggered 2/3/4 or 2/3/5'. Or, finally, since it is to first order independent of listener position (it is NOT related to room resonances), you can EQ it out with a canny bump to compensate for the inevitable lower-mid dip.

Fwiw, JAtkinson is one of the very few reviewers to understand this problem well, and show it frankly in his room measurements.

Pekka's picture

If you are willing to come out of retirement to afford a pair of these, give the Spatial Audio X1s ( a review for comparison. A hunch - and a more elegant design philosophy and benign price tag - tells me the X1s could surprise you for a 7 times smaller investment, and keep you at home enjoying your well earned retirement.

I'd personally hook them up to a pair of Benchmark AHB2s and a DEQX HDP5, but that's just me; I'm sure Vinnie Rossi's LIOs can do the trick for you, if you want have to go all in with the lifestyle kitsch of esoteric boutique components.

I would very much like to see the Spatial Audio X1s reviewed and measured up against the megabuck flagships and emblems of the box-speaker paradigm.

The reference to the Kii Threes in the comments certainly belongs in a more elaborate discussion surrounding the Beolabs and the design concept - and assumptions - behind them. But so do the Grimm Audio LS1bes and a bunch of other speaker whose design have drawn and capitalized on the trajectory and explorations of Herr Linkwitz.

It would be great to see more in-depth tech talk such as your succint introduction to the assumptions behind the Beolabs design, and how B&O and other manufacturers similarly frame the problems to be tackled by engineering solutions in speaker design... and less hype buzzing around mega expensive luxury objects.

I totally agree with your reference to L'Arpeggiata & Christina Pluhar's recording with the fabulous alpha label, their amazing musicianship - and the recording quality - have provided a truckload of musical pleasure for years.

Happy New Year!

Kal Rubinson's picture

Hah! It wasn't until I reached the antepenultimate paragraph that I was certain you were addressing me.

The Spatial Audio X1s look interesting. I hope I can get an ear on them soon.

JBLMVBC's picture

I could not find anywhere the speaker's sensitivity 1w/1m?
Same remark regarding not lifting the covers... especially when in the end $80,000 + buys you about $3,000 of Scan-Speak hardware per speaker... and that those are rated 89dB/w/m at best

John Le G's picture

I think you're rather missing the point here - these are ACTIVE, DSP-controlled speakers with digital signal inputs i.e. contain many 1000s of watts of amplification and signal processing. Sensitivity is only relevant when considering passive speakers that take amplifier signals and convert those directly to sound waves, and it represents the efficiency of that transducing function.

In respect of value for money, it's worth reading the series of blog entries on their creation - You might see that they are lot more than $3,000 worth of randomly clustered ScanSpeak drivers!

blackwash's picture

Interesting. Controlled directivity has been an obsession of a certain section of the DIY community for a while now. As mentioned in some of the comments, Siegfried Linkwitz and his Orions and the the LX521 have aimed at providing this from bottom up through the use of dipole radiation.

I had Orions for many years. They were wonderful.

I also used DSP for crossovers and EQ. The sophisticated (at the time) possibilities helped, but you were still at the mercy of the room.

It's why headphones sound so much better in most ways than speakers.

The other issue with passive controlled directivity is that you are locked into a fairly narrow sweetspot.

As a couch flopper, this became annoying. I somewhat solved it by using coax drivers so I get the same sound almost everywhere, but the room is still the biggest influence.

Given the Beolab targets certain frequencies to cancel, I assume those frequencies are quite position-dependent. Certainly small movements of a mic can have major FR and phase differences. Was there a small sweetspot.

I'd also be very curious what B&O can do with a simpler system.

To a degree they are using acoustic cancellation (directed by DSP), but theoretically it is possible to manipulate phase and frequency entirely digitally. This is kind of what DEQX and Dirac promise, but don't quite deliver.

Finally, I have to tip my hat to B&O. They ar isgnore by most audiophiles, but crate some extremely clever products.

I bought my partner on of their tiny BeoPlay A1 speakers for Xmas and the sound quality is amazing for the size.

schlager's picture

I heard this speaker in Copenhagen at the B&O shop and it was truely a big experience. They are the best box speaker I have ever heard, that was not a horn speaker.

Although they have some of the same qualities, as for example narrow dispertion, due to the DSP multi driver funktion. They also have great dynamics and are very transparent and accurate.

My guess is, that the big so called high end brands are sleeping restless, thinking of the monster, B&O has brought to the battlefield.

lga's picture

Some days ago I had such a fantastic experience at one of my friends home. His system was quite simple: Pink Faun 2.16X Server and a pair of Beolab90 speakers. Cable used by him at that time was relativelly unexpensive (in the meantime he upgraded power cables).

Over more than 25 years that I have been exposed to Hi-Fi and Hi-End systems I never heard such a magnificent system playing. I was not prepared for such a great experience... every new track from classic to rock played in an outstanding way. Believe me, I was jaw dropped at every new music.
In one word: SENSATIONAL !

Well done B&O engineers!