It is generally regarded that Bang & Olufsen makes beautiful electronics. Its designs are grown-up, considered, and the combination of luxury materials and quality industrial design principles has carved the brand a niche. B&O doesn’t do boring black boxes.
But although its £60,000 speakers and £40,000 televisions are sold exclusively through swanky dealerships, significantly, you can now buy an extensive range of wireless speakers and headphones on the high street. B&O desperately needs accessibility. It lost three-quarters of its value between 2018 and 2019. Then, in July, it posted a massive drop in revenue.
Ironically, it canned its affordable sub-brand, B&O Play, back in 2018 to sell all of its products under the primary Bang & Olufsen moniker. At the time it was touted as a move designed to cause less confusion to consumers. In reality, B&O Play ended up contributing almost half of Bang & Olufsen’s total revenue. The young upstart was a bona fide success and Bang & Olufsen wanted that cash back under its own roof. Things, as the earnings reports sadly underline, have not gone to plan since then.
Still, the upshot of this mass-market availability for B&O means its products now inevitably get compared to more affordable brands such as Sonos, Sony, Bose and Apple.
So, with a list of audio features that can be found and enjoyed for a few hundred pounds, is the new £1,099 battery powered wireless speaker a luxurious folly, or has Bang & Olufsen finally released a product to turn things around?
Beosound Level is a 3.3kg wireless speaker with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, multi-room capabilities, Spotify Connect, Apple AirPlay2, Chromecast, Google Assistant, 16hr (max) battery life and IP54 dust and splash resistant rating. So far, so Sonos Move.
It’s available in Natural, with dark grey fabric by Kvadrat (does anyone else make speaker fabric anymore?) and pearl-blasted aluminium frame, or Gold with a matte gold aluminium frame and oak veneer cover. WIRED tested the gold version, and aesthetically, it’s a galaxy apart from Sonos.
Designed by long-standing collaborator Torsten Valeur, the slim aluminium frame (incidentally the only part of the Level to be made in Denmark, the rest is manufactured and assembled in China) is flawless, all tight angles and sharp curves. On the top, an illuminated touch control strip displays volume, four presets and Bluetooth pairing, plus manual power and Google Assistant mic switch for privacy.
The slatted cover is a complicated piece of engineering with precision-cut oak veneers laid over an MDF and wood frame. The mitred corners and consistency of wood grain show an attention to detail. It does not look, or feel, mass produced.
Behind the cover is a five-driver speaker setup with two 4in woofers, one 2in full range driver, two 0.8in tweeters and low-distortion amplifiers. The result is 105 watts of adaptive music power with hefty 79dB bass capability and 96dB in mid-range loudness.
Perhaps more significantly, there’s also two compartments – one for battery, and one for all the streaming gubbins – that Bang & Olufsen have designed to be removable, replaceable and upgradeable. The streaming module has been frontloaded with enough processing power and connectivity technology to cope with over-the-air upgrades for years, but when technology moves beyond its capabilities, or it breaks, it can be swapped out for a new one.
Future-proofing is often ignored, or at best payed lip service, but with parts remaining available for 10 years after the last model is sold, this is a genuine sustainable step for B&O, and one WIRED has been assured will be appearing on future launches, too.
To charge the Beosound Level, B&O has developed a USB-C Magsafe-style magnetic puck that slots pleasingly into a hole on the back of the unit. The design prevents cable yanking disasters, but they’ve also included a standard USB-C port as back-up.
It can be wall mounted (shamelessly, B&O is charging another £99 for the mount itself), positioned upright like a classic radio, or laid flat on a tabletop, with sensors adapting the sound from 180-degrees to 360-degrees based on its orientation and position. There’s also a recessed handle to carry it between rooms or out to the garden.
Given that most one-box portable speakers look like squished balls or shiny traffic cones, finding somewhere for the Beosound Level might not be all that simple, especially if you don’t fork out the extra £100 and wall mount it.
Cylindrical designs take up very little space. We struggled to find a length of sideboard or surface the Level felt at home on, and virtually nowhere to lay it down flat that didn’t pose a trip hazard. Admittedly, that could be more to do with the lack of minimalist designer furniture and abundance of clutter found in a ‘normal’ house.
Listening to the classic Nick Drake album Five Leaves Left on Tidal Masters, and what strikes first is the intimacy and fragility of the recording and the texture of fingers on fretboard, while Danny Thompson’s double bass resonates deeply, delivering instant goosebumps. And, yes, we did listen to Man in a Shed in a shed – and on a patio, in the snow. While much of the detail is lost outside, the Level has enough presence to make itself known above usual barbecue chatter.
But it’s not just delicate folky vibes that sound good. Classical, rock, pop, hip-hop and even the energy of an old school rave playlist is conveyed with exuberance and authority. The soundstage is wide, the space between instruments is terrific – well, not on the poorly produced rave stuff – vocals sit prominently and soar through the mix and the bass thumps beautifully.
Level is the finest battery-powered speaker available. The Sonos Move (£399) is a great allrounder, and the next best portable option, but pales in comparison here. Now, admittedly, you can buy three Moves and have yourself a cracking good multi-room system for the same outlay (and even wall-mount them), but from a purely audio point of view nothing else battery powered comes close. But, at over a grand, it would be a crime if this were not the case.
As with other connected B&O products, the audio profile also can be tweaked via the app, if you must. A graphical pie is divided into Bright, Relaxed, Energetic and Warm and you can create your own EQ with ease, or you can trust the judgement of Bang & Olufsen’s audio engineers and do nothing. There are also some pre-sets worth avoiding, especially the Night mode that strips out the bass for the sake of the neighbours. Nice concept, horrible result.
Moving the Beosound Level from upright, to lying it flat changes the sound considerably. Lie it down and the sound gets fuller and less directional. It’s not simply a case of having the drivers pointing to the ceiling as sensors adjust to give it a more 360-degree, room-filling sound.
Upright the speaker still sounds fabulous, but, at volume, tracks generally sound better (or at least fuller) in its recumbent position. That’s all well and good, but it would be a brave person to leave this speaker lying down at a party. It might be splash proof, but we don’t want to know what happens if a glass of red or dollop of hummus seeps through those oak veneers.
Google Assistant is built-in – no Alexa for B&O, thank you – and the mics do a decent job picking up commands, even when the music is played loud. You can also turn off the mic manually via a button at the back if you prefer.
Is it worth it?
Beosound Level sounds great and is impressively versatile. If money isn’t an issue, you have the space and the style to do it justice you’ll be richly rewarded. The ability to upgrade should also mean less tech in landfill and a product offering a lifetime of loyal service.
But, given the competition, it remains a niche proposition that potentially highlights deeper issues within the brand, especially one that recorded five profit warnings over an 18-month period. At £1,099, Beosound Level is the cheapest of the ‘premium’ range of B&O products, but significantly more expensive than the alternative high-street options, and a jarring financial leap up from the next most expensive B&O product, the excellent £450 Beolit 20.
Bang & Olufsen seems to be struggling with the transition to a more traditional wholesale retail model, and how to balance a mix of semi-affordable and unattainable luxury. The result is a collection of impressive products that seem to tease, rather than tempt, the mass market, while not necessarily ticking all the boxes at the upper end of the spectrum.
Traditional high-end audio brands, such as Naim and Bowers & Wilkins, have done a fantastic job keeping, and even increasing, their core audience through being able to expand their product ranges down into more affordable and aesthetically demanding territory. B&O has had this affluent design-driven playground to themselves for decades, but now everyone’s discovered the appeal of Kvadrat cloth and on-trend colourways, there’s a much longer queue at the slides.
Should you buy one?
Beosound Level is a stylish and versatile cordless speaker. The design is a welcome change to all the cylindrical traffic cones doing the rounds (B&O are just as guilty of this as anyone with the Beosound Balance). It offers a slice of classic transistor nostalgia and cutting-edge machining, premium materials and a flawless finish.
It sounds glorious, and should remind everyone just how good the B&O sound engineers are. It’s by far the best battery powered speaker we’ve heard, and it can also wipe the floor with many well-regarded plugged-in variations.
But despite the sonic loveliness and aesthetic appeal, there are issues, most notably, where to put it. Although being slim, it still commands the same footprint of a much larger one-box speaker system. The ability to lie it flat only compounds this problem and the idea of leaving it lying about just doesn’t compute. Wall mounting seems like the best option if sound quality isn’t compromised, even if the price inevitably is.
Bang & Olufsen’s decision to make it easy to replace batteries and upgrade streaming hardware is laudable. It’s a welcome return to something approaching traditional, and inherently sustainable, production values, and goes some way to justifying the price. Sadly, the issue B&O faces with that, however, is the fact most people – the vast majority, in fact – will be just as impressed by the Sonos Move.
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