Beolab 90: Innovative design & human centered design

Making of Beolab 90

A bold idea and passion for making the “future of sound” real

Author: André Poulheim

The most complex product we have ever done started with a simple brief: “We want to create the new reference speaker – the future of sound”. This was accompanied by a prototype of that vision, a chunky stack of wooden boxes which could make the sound move in the room. It was an extraordinary listening experience which revealed that it would require a concept idea on an equal level – an unprecedented visual and haptic experience.

When we look at BeoLab 90 today there is no doubt that this concept hit the target. But imagine the early days after receiving the brief when we started with just a white piece of paper, days of exploring dozens of different directions with endless possibilities.

From briefing to beyond expectations

Sometimes just a little piece of information is the seed of an idea: A woman was asked about the magic in products during customer research. She told us, there was one absolutely magical product in her house, a product which she really loved- the chandelier in her entrance hall. She loved the way its appearance changed from different areas and at different times of day. This is exactly what the speaker does: it changes the listening experience from each different perspective. We decided to reflect this in the design- a “changing design” to reflect the personality of the speaker. A changing experience not only in sound, but also in appearance.

Working with the distribution of sound over a full 360°, it was vital to work with an acoustically transparent fabric. Fabric is a warm and flexible material, it’s welcoming, it’s used to create pleasant homes. But fabric usually covers the drivers and not the whole speaker. Our challenge was to create a structure for the fabric, which would not destroy the sound.

The German architect Frei Otto created a 4-point roof construction which is a principle to create a textile surface with maximum tension and minimum structure. Two higher and two lower points define the surface in a beautiful shape on which light and shadow can literally dance.

Multiples of these fabric constructions create a fascinating 3D volume which appears different from every angle and is underlined by delicate polished aluminium crowns. In the core of this lightweight shell rests the rock-solid engine of the speaker made from cast aluminium, ready to tickle your senses and hit you in the guts.

Making it real

It took us more than two years to get the speaker ready for Bang & Olufsen’s 90th anniversary. We had the pleasure to work with an enthusiastic and open-minded engineering team, who anticipated the power of the conceptual idea. The speaker needed to be spectacular, an icon for the Vision of Sound. This meant, there were a few challenges along the way.

The engine

The design is based on an aluminium cabinet totalling more than 65 kg. It is cast in one piece, with lost cores, to make it as stiff as possible. That it is made in the same way as an engine is more than poetry when you experience the more than 8000 Watt hidden under the hood.

The shell

The semi-transparent fabric covering the driver units creates a subtle contrast with the massiveness of the internal structure. The delicate aluminium beams framing the sails are the best expression for the effort put into the product. They are made without a seam, without a front or back – to illustrate the story of 360° sound. Starting point is an 80mm wide aluminium extrusion. Next step is a milling process which leaves an aluminium ring in racetrack shape. This ring is forced into a flat hexagonal shape before a robot precisely bends all the sides simultaneously to get to the final shape. The images below show the prototype tool for the 3D forming process, proving the feasibility.

“The idea for a Bang & Olufsen statement speaker needs to appear challenging to make – otherwise any other company could do it.”

André Poulheim, Managing Partner at Noto

A design solution according to sound

Making sound move in the room requires complex technology under the hood. 18 drivers had to be arranged in such a way to achieve a slender sculpture but also be as compact as possible. The body also contains 18 amplifiers and other electronic components. Figuring out how to mount these and make them accessible for service was also part of our job. But the most important task for a high-end speaker like this is that none of the decorative elements on the outside cause any loss in acoustic quality. The best compliment that we could receive is that even the head sound engineer at B&O, Geoff Martin listens to the BeoLab90 with the covers on.

Ready to launch

Right in time for their 90th birthday, we managed to present a new Bang & Olufsen flagship to the public. Many thanks to all the amazing people at Bang & Olufsen we worked with. It was a tough job, but also an incredible amount of fun to turn the vision of sound into a tangible product. Expect more amazing products to come.