If you followed our coverage of the CEDIA expo in September, you might recall our not talking about a certain wireless audio technology Bang & Olufsen had up its sleeve. Well, now we can finally talk about it. In New York today, Bang & Olufsen took the wraps off two new wireless speaker models and a wireless subwoofer. If you’re thinking something along the lines of, “so what, everyone has a wireless speaker!” we understand, but this is a completely different kind of wireless audio system, and it is just the first in a wave of revolutionary wireless audio products we’re going to see in the coming year. This is something to get excited about.
Before we go too far, let’s take a look at the new speakers:
BeoLab 17: The smaller BeoLab 17 has a unique, useful shape intended to fit well on display while sitting on a speaker stand or tucked into a corner of a room. Its baffle is squared off, its grill circular and its body triangular. In many ways, it is reminiscent of the popular HTC One smartphone, with its curious mix of aluminum and white plastic. The “broken ice grid” speaker grill can be swapped out for black, blue or white if you like, but at an additional cost. Each BeoLab 17 speaker mates a 6-inch driver to a 3/4-inch tweeter and is powered by an duo of internal 160-watt, class-d amplifiers. If 320 watts sounds like a lot of power for one speaker, that’s because it is. B&O wanted to make sure the BeoLab 17 didn’t just provide really good sound, but provided the very best, room-filling sound possible.
BeoLab 18: The BeoLab 18 is an update on B&O’s iconic BeoLab 8000 – a tall, slender and striking speaker. This iteration artfully blends 21 thin wood panels with aluminum accents to create the sort of futuristic aesthetic that gets B&O’s products placed in motion pictures so often. You can’t not look at this speaker. Driver compliment involves two 4-inch midwoofers and a 3/4-inch tweeter powered by the same duo of 160-watt internal amplifiers. The design here allows the speaker to radiate sound in 180 degrees, an approach that is mean to deliver a wide and realistic sound stage, delivering that “you are there” feeling when listening to music.
BeoLab 19: The final product entry for the day was the BeoLab 19, a wireless subwoofer packing two active 8-inch drivers, each in their own chamber and powered by their own 160-watt amp. The forward-facing driver angles up slightly while the rear-facing driver is angled down. This arrangement is meant to reduce phase issues and provide a fuller-sounding response.
Naturally, these speakers will cost a penny as pretty as they are themselves. The BeoLab 17 is priced at $3990 per set, the BeoLab 18 at $6590 (unless you want the solid oak panels, which go for an additional $1390) and the BeLab 19 subwoofer will run a cool $3395.
So what makes this wireless technology different than, say, Bluetooth or Airplay? Well, for starters, it offers much higher quality audio – better than CD quality, actually, at 24 bits and 96kHz. It has a solid range, too – you can place speakers up to 33 feet (12 meters) away from the source transmitter and not have to worry about signal dropout. But what really makes this wireless audio standard that B&O has bought into revolutionary is its stability and ease of use. It’s remarkably high-tech, but, like the speakers themselves, you don’t have to think about it. It just works. And soon you’ll be able to buy a number of components that will “just work” along with it.
The system works in the 5.2 – 5.8GHz band and while it doesn’t require line of sight, it doesn’t work through walls or floors either – the speakers really need to be in the same room with the transmitter. If you know your wireless tech, then you know that 802.11 (commonly used by Apple devices) lives in the same frequency range, which might cause concerns for interference. But these WiSA-certified systems are designed to switch frequencies so fast, you’ll never hear interference.
For now, feeding any of B&O’s wireless speakers with sound will require that you own either a BeoVision 11 plasma TV with the wireless audio transmitter built in, or pick up B&O’s set-top box, which can be connected to any number of source components. For the most seamless home theater audio experience, you’ll want the BeoVision 11; it can receive a Dolby Digital or DTS audio track from a DVD or Blu-ray disc and distribute it to the correct speakers automatically. But if you want to use the system with your own electronics, you’ll need to use the set-top box ($500) and the only way you’re getting true Dolby Digital or DTS surround sound with it is if you have discreet outputs for each and every channel on the back of your Blu-ray disc player, preamp/processor, or A/V receiver. From there, you’d connect individual RCA cables for each channel from the source to the little black box.
But going forward, things are going to get much, much simpler. Soon, we’ll see a whole host of WiSA certified televisions, Blu-ray disc players and other electronic components with WiSA-compliant transmitters built right in. And since all WiSA-certified devices communicate with each other, setup will involve little more than just plugging everything into a power outlet. The system knows where the speakers are in the room and what to do with them automatically. Like we said: it just works.
WiSA is currently working with outfits manufacturers such as Sharp, Paradigm, Klipsch, Onkyo and many more.
Not the first WiSA wireless speaker
While Bang & Olufsen can lay claim to offer the first WiSA-certified wireless speakers (an important distinction, due to WiSA’s rigorous testing and certification requirements) we think it is important to mention that this is not the first wireless speaker system to use the Summit Wireless chipset, which is at the foundation of the speakers’ wireless functionality. That distinction goes to Aperion Audio, which first worked with Summit Wireless to produce the 4T Summit Wireless system. That system, which is no longer available, ran into some stability and consistency issues which were a product of the wireless system configuration used at the time. A representative with Bang & Olufsen today told Digital Trends that the configuration at use in its speakers was different and not susceptible to the same problems experienced by earlier iterations of Summit Wireless’ technology.
We like what we hear
We’ve had the chance to hear the new BeoLab speakers twice now, and our first impressions are very, very good. The BeoLab 17’s, in particular, are capable of remarkable bass, open, congestion-free, midrange, and sparkling treble. They are so robust, in fact, that you almost don’t need to worry about a subwoofer, though the addition of the BeoLab 19 adds the visceral quality needed for many movie soundtracks. With that said, we’ll reserve our enthusiasm until we’ve had a chance to check out the speakers in a proper testing environment.