Guitar Aficionado

Audiophilia: Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 5 Active Loudspeaker

A perfect example of Bang & Olufsen’s commitment to daring A/V design is its BeoLab 5 active loudspeaker.

By Jeff Kitts

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Note: This review appears in the March/April issue of Guitar Aficionado with an incorrect price listing of $16,000 per pair. The price listed below is the correct price.

A quick trip through the speaker section of any home theater outlet, with its rows of front-facing black and brown boxes, should serve to demonstrate that, aesthetically at least, most loudspeaker companies have difficulty stepping out of their comfort zone. For Bang & Olufsen, the Danish company that’s been producing high-end, architecturally innovative audio/video products for more than 85 years, there is no comfort zone.

A perfect example of B&O’s commitment to daring A/V design is its BeoLab 5 active loudspeaker, which, even after a few years on the market, continues to rank among the world’s most advanced home speakers. A recent re-examination of these artfully engineered speakers down at our local Bang & Olufsen New York City showroom gave GA’s staff a newfound appreciation for B&O’s top-of-the-line speaker system.

No review of the BeoLab 5 could begin without acknowledging the speaker’s unique design. The BL5 boasts a cone-shaped base with three top-mounted “acoustic lens” discs. The discs are made of brushed aluminum, while the cabinet containing the two bass drivers (one 15-inch and one 6.5-inch) is constructed of composite material and covered in black or white cloth. Each of the four interior speaker units (bass and upper bass in the cone; midrange and tweeter in the elliptical discs) has its own internal ICEpower amplifier nestled inside the base, totaling 2,500 watts of output per speaker (and eliminating the need for a separate power amplifier). Each speaker weighs 135 pounds and offers connectivity via two Power Link inputs, one phono input, two digital SPDIF inputs, and one RS-232 port for servicing and firmware updates. Volume is controlled via the included remote.

So just what are those discs above the base? They are the key to what makes the BeoLab 5 special. Most loudspeakers fire sound from the front, requiring the listener to stand within a designated sweet spot for optimum effect. The BL5, instead, directs its treble and midrange upward and into a reflector, so that it is dispersed at a 180-degree angle in the horizontal plane (something called Acoustic Lens Technology that B&O licenses from Sausalito Audio Works). This means you can sit just about anywhere in the room and still be in the right place for listening.

Another feature that puts the BL5 in the upper echelon of speaker systems is the Adaptive Bass Control, which analyzes the configuration of the room and adjusts the bass output accordingly. Simply press a small button on the top of the unit and a small, moveable microphone near the bottom of the base extends outward to begin the two-minute acoustic test. Anytime the listener changes the materials inside the room, the furniture or the placement of the speakers, Adaptive Bass Control can be engaged to recalibrate the bass output.

It’s obvious the BeoLab 5 is a marvel of technology and design innovation, but it wouldn’t amount to much if the speakers didn’t impress us in a real-world test. At the B&O showroom a block from the Guitar Aficionado offices, the staff gathered ’round for a sonic sampling. Armed with an assortment of CDs and iPods with both MP3 and Apple Lossless files, we threw everything we could at the BL5—from AC/DC’s Back in Black (for crunch) to Steely Dan’s Aja (for instrumental separation) to some Ottmar Liebert (for delicate acoustic fingerpicking). As we moved around the room, the experience was, in a word, soul-stirring.

Bang & Olufsen’s BeoLab 5 speakers may not be the newest kid on the block, but what does it matter when performance and price come together in such spectacular fashion?

LIST PRICE: $23,000 per pair
Bang & Olufsen,