Bang & Olufsen's 18-driver Beolab 90

Bang & Olufsen celebrated its 90 years of existence by releasing a $75,000/pair loudspeaker that had been 12 years in design. Geoff Martin, Bang and Olufsen's Tonmeister and Technology Specialist in Sound Design, played an instrumental role in bringing the Beolab 90 from its origin as a blue-sky project at the Danish University.

Initially, the speaker was configured as a large barrel, 2 meters high, that used 24 drivers, 24 channels of amplifier power, and 24 channels of digital signal processing (DSP). As the project progressed, it was moved to Bang and Olufsen's development facility in Struer, Denmark.

In contrast to most of Bang and Olufsen's products, which begin with a visual design, this loudspeaker began as an acoustic design. After many iterations, the current design emerged as an 18-driver structure that houses the drivers, 18 amplifiers and 18 channels of DSP. The final complement of closely-spaced drivers includes 4 woofers, 7 midranges, and 7 tweeters. The speaker's body is made of cast aluminum, and weighs 129 kg. Each Beolab 90 has RCA, XLR, USB2 audio, Toslink, S/PDIF, and wireless (WISA standard) input. It can accept a PCM digital stream, but cannot decode DSD at this time.

Fellow Stereophile writer Kal Rubinson made a trip to Struer last year and received a thorough education from Geoff on how the speaker operates. (See Stereophile, October 2015, p.16.) Geoff explained that the Beolab can be conceived of as a three-way speaker that uses 18 drivers to be able to direct the sound and make corrections so the reflected sound from the walls does not interfere with the direct sound.

After the explanation, Goeff played me several tracks I knew, including the opening to the Eagle's live performance on Hell Freezes Over of "Hotel California," and the "Pie Jesu" selection from Rutter's Requiem. Needless to say, the bass notes had good pitch definition, but also showed differences in timbre and quality I had not noticed before. The speakers created an extremely wide soundstage, recalling the Mark Levinson HQD systems; a bass line that was much easier to follow than I recall; and emphasized a struck wood block percussion note in "Hotel California" more than I've heard it before. The sound was incredibly dynamic but relaxed. This was the best bass I heard at the show, and the most startlingly different soundstaging and midrange I experienced during CES 2016.

Robert Deutsch comments: The question I’ve been asked at every CES more often than any other is “Which sound system impressed you the most?” It’s a question that’s often difficult to answer. Typically, I’ve been impressed by several systems, often for different reasons, and it’s hard to say which was “the best.” That is, except at CES 2016. This time, I had no trouble answering this question: the BeoLab 90. The sound was utterly natural, effortless, with outstanding soundstage and imaging. I also couldn’t help but be impressed by the technology represented by this speaker system: 18 drivers of the highest quality, 18 amplifiers, full DSP control, cast aluminum enclosure. Given the components and the extensive research that went into the design of the speaker, $75,000 for the pair does not seem excessive. The photo shows speaker with the the fabric grille.

TigerSoul's picture

The Beolab 90 was "12 years in design"? The last time I checked, "design" should also consider aesthetics. This contraption looks like a mash-up of three disparate loudspeakers, then deconstructed and glued back together again, in an attempt to recall Frank Gehry, Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp all in one breath. Expected a lot more from B&O, even given that it "... started out as an acoustic design."

Venere 2's picture

I agree that the Beolab 90 is awful looking. It is grotesque! What a joke!

jorgen's picture

this new speaker look better than anything seen from B&O since the Beolab 5000 system and far better than all the crap they have produced the last many years.........BRAVO !!!

jmsent's picture

is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. I worked for B & O when they introduced the Pentalab speaker. That was elegant, unique, and practical. It also sold like hotcakes at $3500 a pair, which was huge money for a speaker in the mid 80's. This thing goes totally against the entire B & O concept of the form coming first and the technology filling in the space. To my eyes it is totally hideous. Jens Bang, Jacob Jensen, and David Lewis would all be turning in their graves.

DanGB's picture

It took them over a decade to develop an effective Ugly Stick? Or did they stumble upon it quite quickly and spend the intervening years beating this speaker with it?

I'm sure it sounds fabulous, but I do have eyes.

corrective_unconscious's picture

The one that worked so hard to be truly omni. I guess that theory reflected out the window, as it were.

This one reminds me a little of those McIntosh monstrosities with a gazillion drive units. Funny how when Shahinian does something like it I don't feel like running away to the nearest science fiction convention.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I'm trying to put myself in the mindset of the people currently working at B&O. I can imagine them thinking something like this: First we put out these fabulous looking products, and people criticize us for issuing products that look better than they sound, and now we put out this fabulous sounding speaker, and people criticize us for putting out something that sounds better than it looks."

Personally, I'm eager to hear the thing before I drive it to the edge of the cliff and give it the heave. I wonder if, from a certain angle, it looks less like a lopsided alien than an adorable cousin of R2-D2.

corrective_unconscious's picture

Why would style and function be posed as binary opposites to begin with? The criticisms of their lifestyle-ish products and this uniquely ugly product might just be valid on the respective merits. (The old B&O linear tracking turntable was well regarded on both counts, imo. It had to compete with the Linn, but it was never considered merely stylish rubbish.)

And this speaker appears to completely contradict their Jetson's "maid" speaker in theoretical terms. I can understand progress, but when it becomes an apparent about face I begin to wonder.

Of course it's always fair to mention that this one could sound magnificent; I have not heard it. I can't imagine buying it under any circumstances no matter how good it sounds - there's lots of great sounding speakers - but it might well sound wonderful.

hossam kamal's picture

Adorable looking i m sure that sound quality will be the killing point

Stinger9's picture

What planet must I be from? All my life I'm used to seeing advanced equipment looking radically different and sharp by most accounts. I think the B&0 90's fit this bill, but everyone here seems prone to gang raping the look of these speakers. Whatsamatter, can't you accept something you've never seen before? Do you need a rectangular box in order to make your world right again?
If these things sound magnificent, I'll cherish the look. Ever heard of form follows function?