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Home Electronics: Step Up to the Mic

Ken Kessler

A speaker may come close to reproducing sound perfectly in a laboratory, but alas, no one lives in a lab. When the real world includes wood floors and upholstery-free furnishings, the formerly flawless speaker will echo and sound too focused on the upper frequencies. At the other extreme, soft furniture and heavy drapes will absorb the sound and act as dampers. Such are the challenges that all designers face as they set about creating speakers that will sound musical in myriad settings.

Bang & Olufsen, the Danish electronics company known for its unconventionally artistic designs, has engineered speakers that self-adjust depending on the peculiarities of a particular room. A sophisticated onboard digital processor surveys an environment and tailors each BeoLab 5 speaker ($16,000 per pair) to its space.

In a directive that is anathema to traditional loudspeaker placement, B&O suggests that homeowners position each BeoLab 5 wherever it looks best in the room. The speakers’ installation program uses a built-in microphone to measure how sound waves produced by a series of low-frequency tones react to the surroundings. Within two minutes, each speaker calibrates itself based on information that it collects about the room’s bass characteristics.

Because the setup time is so brief, you can run the installation program each time the dynamics of the room change. For instance, the addition or subtraction of furniture—or people—will alter the bass characteristics, but the speakers can quickly evaluate any new arrangement to ensure the best sound at all times. "Anyone who really loves music will appreciate the performance and the incredible flexibility of the BeoLab 5," says David Zapfel, Bang & Olufsen’s U.S. product manager.

The 3-foot-tall speakers each weigh about 135 pounds and contain four drivers. The shape of the speaker, which resembles a cone with the tip removed, is central to B&O’s concept of all-encompassing sound. Elliptical alumi-num discs, called acoustic lenses, bisect the cone and disperse the treble and mid-range frequencies in a 180-degree array, filling a room with sound in a manner that box-type, forward-firing speakers cannot replicate. A 15-inch downward-facing woofer produces notes that usu-ally require a separate subwoofer. Four amplifiers (one each for the treble, the mid-range, the upper-bass, and the lower-bass drivers) provide 2,500 watts per speaker—ample power.

B&O is known for producing stylish electronics, however, the exceptional sound quality of the BeoLab 5 may attract a more discriminating audio consumer, says Zapfel. "We know that the techno-logies built into BeoLab 5 will appeal to an audiophile customer, and in that respect, we are going after a segment of the market that we haven’t targeted in many years. BeoLab 5 tames the technologies so that everyone with a passion for music can benefit from them."

Audiophiles aside, B&O has eliminated the wasted time and frustration that homeowners experience when they try to fine-tune their speakers. The acoustic lenses evenly disperse the upper frequencies, and the adaptive bass control customizes the performance of the lower frequencies. Finally, the homeowner has been liberated from speakers that must be placed just so. Someone has been listening.

Bang & Olufsen, www.bang-olufsen.com

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Photo by Cordero Studios/ www.corderostudios.com
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