BeoLab 5 - the flagship model of the range active speakers - was, at the time of its introduction, the most radical loudspeaker ever made. At a huge investment cost the speakers were brimmed to their very top with innovations and fabulous sound.
The conical shape owed something to the Dalek school of industrial design, yet form closely followed function, enabling an enormous 380mm bass driver to be mounted in the base, pointing downwards. All four internal drivers had their own built-in ICEpower amplifiers - 1000W each for the bass drivers, plus 250W each for mid and top; a total of 2500 W of digital amplification per speaker. The mid-range and treble drives are vertical and radiate at horizontal discs, using so-called “acoustic lens technology” (licensed from Sausalito Audio Works) to disperse the sound in a horizontal plane of 180 degrees.
Usually, one can rely on the sound from speakers being dramatically modified by the room in which they are used. What distinguished the BeoLab 5 from every other speaker on the planet, however, was that they were designed to give the same results wherever they are placed, in whatever room they were being used. BeoLab 5’s go-anywhere ability was down to two unique features:
In use, their impression was that of exceptionally precise and detailed stereo imaging, superbly even-handed overall neutrality and very low colouration throughout. The lens system was extremely effective and the speakers themselves seemed to lose themselves in the room, acoustically speaking.
The bass was about as good as it gets, imparting magnificent weight and power whenever required, while avoiding any unwanted thump, thickening or boxiness. A further bonus was that BeoLab 5 went very, very loud indeed, and did so without changing character or getting aggressive.
The BeoLab 5 was a remarkable and genuinely revolutionary loudspeaker and did a lot to enhance Bang & Olufsen’s hi-fidelity credibility. A pair would fill even the biggest room with seriously loud sound, and powerful, even bass. Very expensive but very good.
The speaker broke with Bang & Olufsen’s well-known design history in a key way, but was an outstanding example of how design could be subjugated to technology. BeoLab 5 was a revolution and an acoustic quantum leap. It buildt on a number of technologies where the Acoustic Lens Technology, a special way of creating an acoustic space between the two ‘plates’, had crucial importance. The designer David Lewis was tied down by the curved plate shape and so chose to play creatively on this theme. BeoLab 5 also contained a brilliant bass control which could program the acoustics of the room at the press of a button on the loudspeaker’s top. A small sensor read and adjusted the loudspeaker to the room and then reproduced absolutely pure sound.
Available in black/aluminium upon release, a white version was available from the end of 2008.
Bang & Olufsen Beolab 5: Real-world speakers, out-of-this world looks
Many hi-fi manufacturers manufacture ’statement’ products - machine designed to demonstrate technological and engineering acumen that will, hopefully, reflect some glory onto the rest of the company’s model range. At Bang & Olufsen, however, every product is a ’statement’ product. Never knowingly underdesigned, the company’s output has, for years, been pitched at the theoretical point where art and hi-fi get together.
From the very first, Peter Bang and Svend Olufsen’s company has married technology to elegant, idiosyncratic design: their 1927 ‘Five Lamper’ radio not only caused a sensation with its ability to run constantly from the mains supply but was also the first radio to be presented like an elegant piece of furniture, in a walnut and maple cabinet. Of course, new technological ground can be broken only rarely, but B&O have never strayed from their commitment to make dramatic and beautiful hi-fi, working in close conjunction with some of Denmark’s brightest architects and designers to that end. They have even rivalled Rolls Royce in the ’superiority’ stakes; for years, their advertising slogan read: ‘B&O - for those who discuss taste and quality before price’.
Whether or not the BeoLab 5 loudspeakers are tasteful is a matter of personal taste; what cannot be denied is that their appearance is dramatic. They squat broodingly, like post-modern sculpture or something Dan Dare would battle the Mekon for control of. The 19mm tweeter and 76mm midrange drivers are visible, firing upward at aluminium discs that serve as horizontal baffles, and sound is dispersed using Acoustic Lens Technology (theoretically giving uniform characteristics in front of the speaker). The 165mm upper bass driver is forward-firing, concealed behind the wraparound ’skirt’ of the main unit in a 5-litre chamber, while the lower bass driver is a mighty 381mm module which fires downwards from its 29-litre enclosure at the plinth on which the entire 61kg assembly stands. The plinth, though, does more than support the speaker, as I was soon to find out.
The connection points are concealed at the rear of the speaker. Each speaker contains 4 power amplifiers (one per drive unit), and has a ‘kettle lead’ mains connection. Each speaker also houses two power link connections, an RCA line-level input and RCA digital coaxial in- and outputs. The speakers can also be assigned right- or left-channel duties from the connection array. No power rating is claimed for the amplifiers on board, although as the maximum power output for each driver is quoted at 250W (tweeter and midrange) and 1000W (upper and lower bass), it seems safe to assume that amplification is adequate.
Positioning the speakers is easy, at least providing you’re able to lift them in the first place. Once they are pointing forward, touching the top of the speaker provokes a small microphone to appear at the plinth. The BeoLab 5’s inbuilt computer then begins the Adaptive Bass Control procedure, which seeks to determine the exact nature of your room’s acoustics. It generates a series of tones, starting with very low frequencies and moving up the range as the microphone extends further out of the plinth, as if the speaker is beginning its final checks before takeoff. Once the computer is satisfied, the mic retracts and the speaker falls silent. Follow the same process for the second speaker and you’re ready to go. Effectively, these loudspeakers can be placed anywhere in your listening room that takes your fancy.
From wherever you place them, the B&Os sound alive and involving. They’ll transmit the weight and scope of a full orchestra without breaking sweat, communicating Prokoflev’s Romeo and Juliet (Andrew Mogrelia and the Czecho-Slovak State P0 on Naxos) with effortless drive and attack. There’s tremendous realism to plucked violins and a fine complexity to the reproduction of the lower strings.
Integration and timing are first-rate, the tricky task of rendering the more sprightly sections of the ballet both jaunty and substantial pulled off with aplomb. In terms of sheer scale, the BeoLab 5s are nonchalant in their authority: dynamic shifts are communicated with thrilling speed and poise.
But they’re not all bombast. Small-ensemble recordings benefit from the same rapic, subtle characteristics that allow the tiniest detail to be retrieved and revealed even amid sonic mayhem. There’s a sense of unflappability and vigilance about the B&Os that makes each listen an event to be savoured. Of course, they’re not without a few sonic idiosyncracies to match their appearance - those who dislike a rapid and crisp top-end may find the BeoLab 5s a trifle fierce, and the midrange can ‘funnel’, giving a fleeting impression of cupped hands around a singer’s mouth, but these complaints are nit-picking in the extreme. The B&Os are speakers that will please for a lifetime - you needn’t know art to know what you like.