Robb Review: Bang & Olufsen’s Wireless Beolab 28 Loudspeakers
Stylish, well-connected and essentially future-proof, these speakers sound stellar.
If there has been a bit of digital ink spilled on Bang & Olufsen lately, it’s because the Danish consumer-electronics manufacturer has been particularly busy creating new products for the design-conscious music lover. That a lot of hi-fi gear has a decidedly generic appearance—with form following function and looks be damned—is apparent from a stroll through the pages of any audio journal or a visit to one of the few (bless them) brick-and-mortar audio stores still standing. But companies like Bang & Olufsen recognise that great sound, refined aesthetics and responsible manufacturing can all go hand-in-hand.
Bang & Olufsen’s latest loudspeaker is the Beolab 28, whose appearance is anything but speaker-like. With nary a square edge to be found, much less a box, think instead of a column, about nine inches in diameter and 137cm, optically floating above a truncated cone that sits on the floor or mounts to a wall. The speaker is supported by an external backbone that conceals cables and makes the column appear as if it’s levitating in air.
For listeners accustomed to seeing traditional loudspeakers—usually large, veneered boxes the size of a steamer trunk—the Bang & Olufsen Beolab 28 is a liberation from the stylistic and technical constraints that accompany most audio and home-theatre systems. Employing luxury materials like anodized aluminium, fine wood and fabric has been a hallmark of Bang & Olufsen designs for decades. Authenticity is a benchmark of the company’s design process too, not just in the attention paid to details, but in its aim for sustainable manufacturing practices and product support for loudspeakers, electronics and turntables that are often decades old.
The industrial design of the Beolab 28 was carried out in collaboration with NOTO, an independent firm in Cologne, Germany, working under the direction of Kresten Bjørn Krab-Bjerre, creative director of design at Bang & Olufsen. For Krab-Bjerre, inspired design begins with a functional, fast and unlabored prototyping process, and then becomes fleshed out as engineers and creatives collaborate to refine the concept.
So, while some companies begin by developing elaborate full-scale models, that process can limit freedom, almost obliging teams to accept costly, labour-intensive models as a fait accompli, according to Krab-Bjerre, simply because so many resources went into producing them. On the other hand, using utilitarian materials like cardboard and construction paper allows much more freedom to explore a greater variety of designs and fast-track development, arriving at a solution that can then be advanced to prototype stage. Conveniently, the Bang & Olufsen design studios are located roughly 164 feet from the company’s Factory 5 in Steuer, Denmark, a welcome proximity given the extensive manufacturing capabilities that put the firm at the forefront of aluminium forming and anodizing.
We spoke via Zoom to Heidi Hausted Fredberg, senior product manager at Bang & Olufsen, who explained that while the design of the Beolab 28 appears simple, the process of making it is anything but, the tall cylinder of the speaker enclosure being spun while the conical foot is expanded, reduced and finally pressed into shape. The aluminium components of the speaker—anodized in house—are available in natural silver, black anthracite or bronze tone, while speaker covers (grills) can be specified in natural fabric (grey or grey mélange) or, alternately, in wood.
The wood, available in light oak, oak, smoked oak and walnut finishes, is provided by Bjerrum Nielsen, a local, family owned supplier from whom Bang & Olufsen has sourced wood since 1949. Authentic, indeed. And as with so many of Bang & Olufsen’s components, the Beolab 28 loudspeakers—priced per pair at $14,750 and $16,500 with fabric or wood grilles, respectively—offer a bit of entertainment beyond their sonic attributes. The speaker covers, which conceal the drivers when the speaker is not in use, automatically open like curtains when playing, their width dependent on the listening mode selected for either narrow or broad sound dispersion—about which, more later.
Wireless and adaptive, the Beolab 28 requires no interconnects or source cables, only an AC cord to power the internal electronics. The adaptive part of the sonic equation means that Bang & Olufsen’s latest generation of Adaptive Room Compensation (ARC) circuitry tailors bass response to the room, based on speaker position. Because ARC can compensate for the attenuation of low frequencies that occurs when loudspeakers are placed in free space without adjacent wall boundaries to reinforce them, users have almost unlimited freedom to situate the Beolab 28 where they look best within a space and still enjoy full-range reproduction.
When the recording calls for it, those low frequencies are substantial and go from 27 Hz up to 200 Hz, when the single 6.5-inch woofer, employing a ferrite magnet and a coated paper cone, bows out and lets the three full-range drivers take over the heavy lifting. These 3-inch transducers, which use neodymium magnets and paper cones, cover the lion’s share of the audio spectrum. In the spirit of an omnidirectional design, one driver is frontally placed circa ear level, with an additional driver on the left and right side, above and below the centre driver. A single 1-inch tweeter, using a neodymium magnet and a textile dome, is situated above the full-range centre driver and carries on business from 4,000 Hz up to 23,000 Hz.
The strength of the Beolab 28 is its ability to be enjoyed over a wide listening area; not truly omnidirectional like an MBL or Ohm loudspeaker, but capable of presenting a coherent and realistic soundstage without screwing one’s head into a vise and sitting still. After all, these speakers are meant to be lived with.
That versatility is a result of the speaker’s Beam Width Control, which optimises the listener experience depending on setting. In the Narrow directivity mode, the three full-ranges are used from 200 Hz to 4,000 Hz, so driver output favours a listener sitting in front of the speakers, without the interference of side and rear wall reflections. This is where “serious” listening will be done, and the Beolab 28 rewards just that. In Wide mode, the sonic stage diffuses to maintain a natural tonal balance to the side or when moving about the room, as one might experience in a social setting with more than a listener or two. Here, the front-mounted full-range is still used from 200 Hz to 4,000 Hz and the side-mounted full-ranges are used all the way up to 15,000 Hz, albeit at a lower level at the higher frequencies. They can also play loud—110 dB—in part because of the driver’s high sensitivity and the dedicated Class D amplification within each speaker enclosure. The woofer is powered by a 225 w amp, and each full-range driver by its own dedicated 100 w amp, with another 100 w amp for the tweeter. At about 41 pounds apiece, each Beolab 28 is easy to move around, allowing experimentation with room placement and letting the piano movers take the day off.
We visited the new Bang & Olufsen store to spend a day listening to the Beolab 28. Impeccably designed and furnished, the store features the full range of Bang & Olufsen products in addition to offering mid-century lighting masterpieces from Scandinavian designers like Arne Jacobsen and Louis Poulsen. Additionally, the space incorporates Mikodam architectural acoustic wall panels that complement contemporary interiors, unlike most of the effective but aesthetically compromised alternative treatments in foam, fabric and wood.
The Beolab 28s were presented in a dedicated listening room that was fairly “live,” with wood floors and good rear-wall acoustic damping. Spaced about eight feet apart and within 24 inches of the rear wall, the loudspeakers had a Beovision Harmony TV situated in between (the TV’s own speakers were disabled). While nothing but an empty wall between speakers is generally preferred for dedicated two-channel listening, it’s reasonably expected that most users will incorporate video into the environment.
The first impression is that the sonic weight and corporeality of the Beolab 28 system is far greater than their delicate appearance would suggest. Partly due to its relatively small size, and operating in a ported enclosure, the down-firing woofer delivers articulate, fast and impactful bass without overhang, and is optimally integrated with the rest of the drivers. In the spirit of many Bang & Olufsen speakers since the first Beolab Penta of 1986, the Beolab 28s are narrow, with no baffle to greatly affect horizontal dispersion. With the cluster of full-range drivers and adjacent tweeter, imaging and placements of instruments and voices is fairly specific, and their height is not exaggerated.
The ability to project a broad and immersive soundstage is impressive, especially with soundtracks and in Wide mode. Most auditioning was done in Narrow mode, where acoustic and even electronic jazz had appropriate scale, and high-energy instruments like Miles Davis’ trumpet and John Coltrane’s sax achieved realistic levels and scale. Choral work, like Ockeghem’s Missa Pro Defunctis, recorded with simple microphone placement in great acoustic spaces, rendered individual voices with detail and precision. Playing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, Rostropovich and his solo instrument were life-sized and rendered with corporeal substance.
While not the very last word in transparency and speed, as is an electrostatic or Magnepan-style planar/ribbon, the Beolab 28 loudspeakers present well-rounded capability and ingratiating design that makes them ideal for a “real-world” listening environment, and doubly so for home-theatre application. Audiophiles with a wide range of musical tastes will find these very satisfying loudspeakers, indeed.
The company’s most advanced connected speaker, the Beolab 28 will likely be used for streaming music. Listeners can use their mobile device and stream directly, using AirPlay 2, Chromecast, Spotify Connect, Bluetooth and the B&O app. Automatic software updates will make them compatible with Beolink Multiroom, and any of the Bang & Olufsen TVs—with their jewellike screens—is a recommended paring.
Auxiliary sources like CD and LP can be used via traditional inputs at the rear of the speaker, a turntable requiring phono preamplification ahead of the analog input. The speaker does have a mind of its own: proximity sensors bring it to life and initiate access to the built-in Bang & Olufsen Radio or Spotify playlists. Any of the company’s remote controls will operate the system, as will smart devices via the B&O app. A Bang & Olufsen remote control is a luxury, and reminds one of the difference between holding and using a beautifully designed, precision device compared to the plastic throw-away remotes that have littered landfills for decades.
Apropos of which, planned obsolescence is not a part of the Bang & Olufsen design brief. These products are built to last, and if needed, repair or upgrade. I continue to enjoy a few now-collectible products from the company that I purchased new—in some cases decades ago. So, with the new Beolab 28, its internal connectivity module has more than sufficient processing power to download performance updates and features as they become available. If future advances demand greater capacity—or unlikely repairs—the module can be replaced to keep step with technology, rendering the speaker essentially future-proof.