Bang and Olufsen Beolab 90 Demo at CES 2016

I spent a good part of my time at CES at The Venetian hotel, where a lot of the audio-related demos took place. One of the most impressive auditions I heard at that location belonged to Bang and Olufsen, and came courtesy of its recently released Beolab 90 speakers.

These statement speakers, which commemorate the company’s 90th anniversary in the audio business, are unlike any other loudspeakers I have ever heard. Each Beolab 90 costs $40,000 and contains 18 drivers, each with its own DSP and amplifier. Collectively, the amps provide 8200 watts of power—this is an extremely serious speaker by any measure.

What makes these 300-pound tick is cutting-edge DSP technology that allows the speakers to use the side-facing drivers to fix dispersion anomalies at various frequencies. The main trick the Beolab 90s perform is to analyze the room and adapt to its acoustics. The speakers allow the listener to adjust the “beam width” and “beam direction.” A listener can optimize the Beolab 90s with a narrow beam width for critical listening—and you can even change the location of the “sweet spot” to the seat of your choice. Alternatively, you can widen the beam to cover a wide listening area, or switch to a “party mode” that provides 360-degree dispersion.

bang and olufsen beolab 90
The mighty, imposing, 8200-watt Beolab 90.

The 18 (total) drivers used by each speaker to perform the Beolab 90’s active correction magic consist of seven Scan-Speak Illuminator 30 mm tweeters, seven 3.5″ Scan-Speak Illuminator midrange drivers, three 8″ Scan-Speak Discovery woofers, and one Scan-Speak Revelator 10″ woofer.

The speakers are WiSA compatible and also feature a variety of wired analog plus digital inputs. These include RCA and XLR analog inputs, plus USB Audio (24-bit / 192 kHz), S/P-DIF (24-bit / 192 kHz), and Toslink (24-bit / 96 kHz). These inputs are available on the master speaker, which then communicates with its mate—either wirelessly or with a corded connection.

At CES, I was able to demo the Beolab 90s operating in its “narrow beam” mode, which focuses all that power and processing on one listener. Fortunately, I had guessed ahead of time which seat represented the true sweet spot and hit the jackpot—the speakers were tuned for the third row, center seat.

What I heard come out of those two speakers ranks in the top three audio experiences I had at the show. The power and precision of the sound they produced was profound. The program material included “No Sanctuary Here” by Chris Jones, “Sing Sang Sung” by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. I could have spent the whole day there were I allowed to, but the reality was that the demo included a forced rotation every few minutes, to allow more listeners to enjoy that sweet spot experience.

I know AVS Forum members like to see charts that illustrate the veracity of performance claims. Bang and Olufsen had Tonmeister Geoff Martin on hand to answer questions. When I asked him about how the speakers managed to offer smooth, even dispersion throughout the frequency range that they reproduce, he explained that some of the drivers are used to cancel out peaks, and others are used to fill in valleys in the response of the speakers. Tonmeister Geoff had a graphs on hand that clearly illustrated the effect of the Beolab 90’s narrow and wide bean modes.

In the first chart, we see the on and off axis frequency response of the speaker with only the front drivers active. You can see the bass coalesce at the Schroeder frequency of the room, and you can see that there are anomalies at the two crossover points from the bass drivers of the midrange, and then again from the midrange to the tweeter.

Bang and Olufsen Beolab 90 1This is how the Beloab 90 would perform if it behaved like a regular 3-way speaker.

 

With narrow mode active, there is a dramatic change in the measured response of the speaker. Even the bass is better controlled, and frequency response remains smooth throughout the entire reproduced audio spectrum. The big bumps at the crossover points are virtually gone, and if you sit in the true sweet spot, the experience is sublime. The only problem is, it’s a one-person trip—that’s how precise the focus is. Fortunately, you can set up more than one sweet spot because the speakers can use DSP to steer the beams.

Bang and Olufsen Beolab 90 narrow modeNarrow beam mode fixes dispersion anomalies with DSP processing that uses noise cancellation plus augmentation.

 

The wide beam mode also offers significant benefits vs. only using the front-facing drivers. Overall, the measured dispersion is very linear throughout the entire frequency spectrum shown on the graph, from low bass all the way to the high treble region.

Bang and Olufsen Beolab 90 wide modeWide beam mode offers very even dispersion over a broad area, sacrificing some imaging specificity for a larger sweet spot.

 

The last chart shows what happens when you simply pump music out of all the drivers at once. You get 360 degree coverage, but you also get all kinds of anomalies caused by lobeing—it’s a mess, but at least it’s a hot mess.

Bang and Olufsen Beolab 90 omni modeParty time!

 

I also like to note that it’s difficult to truly grasp what Beolab 90s look like in person through a photo. They are large, and they are radical. These speakers have real guts, and yet possess more finesse than passive speakers I’ve heard that cost even more. In the rarefied price point that they occupy, Bang and Olufsen’s flagship speakers actually strike me as a bargain, as outrageous as that may sound when discussing $80,000 speakers. But, that’s exactly how good they are. Respect.

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