Audiophilia: Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 5 Active Loudspeaker

February 25th, 2011

By Jeff Kitts

Note: This review appears in the March/April issue of Guitar Aficionado with an incorrect price listing of $16,000 per pair.  The price listed below is the correct price.

A quick trip through the speaker section of any home theater outlet, with its rows of front-facing black and brown boxes, should serve to demonstrate that, aesthetically at least, most loudspeaker companies have difficulty stepping out of their comfort zone. For Bang & Olufsen, the Danish company that’s been producing high-end, architecturally innovative audio/video products for more than 85 years, there is no comfort zone.

A perfect example of B&O’s commitment to daring A/V design is its BeoLab 5 active loudspeaker, which, even after a few years on the market, continues to rank among the world’s most advanced home speakers. A recent re-examination of these artfully engineered speakers down at our local Bang & Olufsen New York City showroom gave GA’s staff a newfound appreciation for B&O’s top-of-the-line speaker system.

No review of the BeoLab 5 could begin without acknowledging the speaker’s unique design. The BL5 boasts a cone-shaped base with three top-mounted “acoustic lens” discs. The discs are made of brushed aluminum, while the cabinet containing the two bass drivers (one 15-inch and one 6.5-inch) is constructed of composite material and covered in black or white cloth. Each of the four interior speaker units (bass and upper bass in the cone; midrange and tweeter in the elliptical discs) has its own internal ICEpower amplifier nestled inside the base, totaling 2,500 watts of output per speaker (and eliminating the need for a separate power amplifier). Each speaker weighs 135 pounds and offers connectivity via two Power Link inputs, one phono input, two digital SPDIF inputs, and one RS-232 port for servicing and firmware updates. Volume is controlled via the included remote.

So just what are those discs above the base? They are the key to what makes the BeoLab 5 special. Most loudspeakers fire sound from the front, requiring the listener to stand within a designated sweet spot for optimum effect. The BL5, instead, directs its treble and midrange upward and into a reflector, so that it is dispersed at a 180-degree angle in the horizontal plane (something called Acoustic Lens Technology that B&O licenses from Sausalito Audio Works). This means you can sit just about anywhere in the room and still be in the right place for listening.

Another feature that puts the BL5 in the upper echelon of speaker systems is the Adaptive Bass Control, which analyzes the configuration of the room and adjusts the bass output accordingly. Simply press a small button on the top of the unit and a small, moveable microphone near the bottom of the base extends outward to begin the two-minute acoustic test. Anytime the listener changes the materials inside the room, the furniture or the placement of the speakers, Adaptive Bass Control can be engaged to recalibrate the bass output.

It’s obvious the BeoLab 5 is a marvel of technology and design innovation, but it wouldn’t amount to much if the speakers didn’t impress us in a real-world test. At the B&O showroom a block from the Guitar Aficionado offices, the staff gathered ’round for a sonic sampling. Armed with an assortment of CDs and iPods with both MP3 and Apple Lossless files, we threw everything we could at the BL5—from AC/DC’s Back in Black (for crunch) to Steely Dan’s Aja (for instrumental separation) to some Ottmar Liebert (for delicate acoustic fingerpicking). As we moved around the room, the experience was, in a word, soul-stirring.

Bang & Olufsen’s BeoLab 5 speakers may not be the newest kid on the block, but what does it matter when performance and price come together in such spectacular fashion?

LIST PRICE: $23,000 per pair
Bang & Olufsen,

  • Hi there,
    We received a very nice magazine from Greg Di Benedetto today. After reading the actual magazine, I noticed that the price in the magazine shows these speakers at $16,000.00 per pair. On this online version you have correctly listed the price at $23,000.00 per pair. Not really sure who or where you got a price of $16,000 but someone should have probably picked the $7,000 difference up PRIOR to printing and distribution of your magazine.

    • GA_Admin

      Hi Scot,
      Good catch! That’s actually the reason we posted the review online so soon after the magazine appeared on newsstands; we wanted to make sure people got the corrected information. We added a note above the article to make this a bit more clear. Thanks for pointing this out and we hope you enjoyed the issue!

    • cscapelliti

      Yes, Scot, thanks so much for pointing out our error.

  • paul

    yeah right!!! i’d rather by me a car!!hahaha 16000? 23000? no matter how good these speakers may be one should be a sheik to have these 2 babies!!

  • Jose

    Uhmm… Can anyone give me the lotto numbers??? I want ten (10)!!!

  • Rich Davis

    Ok, let’s come back down to earth. first off, B&O, to the audiophile community is more of a style first, sound secondary, To the audiophile crowd, they really aren’t setting standards in sound reproduction,. now, there are heavy counterweights added to keep the bass driver from causing too much vibration, Let’s look at this lens technology. first off, high frequencies travel in a straight line. what it appears is that with this lens design, they are trying to disperse the sound 180 degrees through reflecting the sound through the lens. most people are more familiar with norm lens where compression drivers are used and they have a lens that helps direct the sound. But n the case of the B&O, they have a tweeter facing upwards and it has this cool looking expensive case and polished lens and the sound bounces around behind that little wall before it gets through the opening. I m sure these things look cool, and if the listener is listening to the system directly in line with the lens opening you’ll probably get detail, but as you move off axis, you’ll get a more smeared sound which is a form of distortion, even though some will think it is filling the room with sound like it is coming from all over. These systems are more of an attention getter, but this is not audiophile grade. This seems more what B&O Is known for. VERY expensive, cool looking industrial art that also plays music than that most mass merchandised audio products, but it doesn’t really compete against the high end audiophile products. for $23,000 I could get better audio that iOS not trying to use spacey alien looks to attract my attention. I would strongly suggest auditioning a variety of audiophile systems before buying these. I would look at Meridian, B&W, Wilson, Focal, to name a few that offer speakers. if you want expensive space looking speakers to attract attention, go for MBL. I think they definitely got B&O in “what the heck is that” department.

  • Jan Fab

    @Rich: thanks, are you recommending based on an actual listening test?

  • Ian

    It is all too common for so called “audiophiles” to dismiss Bang and Olufsen products with a fervor and fury possibly only eclipsed by their hatred of Bose. B&o products are, for the most part, a heavy dose of style along with some level of substance in many cases. However, there have been instrumented tests done that demonstrate the BL5 reproduces an astonishingly neutral and accurate sound without adding or subtracting anything.

    That said, I have also auditioned the B&W 802D2 and I must say that while the BL5s may not be on par with the *800s* that they share an MSRP with, they CERTAINLY can hang with the 802s no problem. These speakers each have their own character, with the 802s being very forward and more like a concert and the BL5s being more laid back but with a fuller and more satisfying overall presentation, especially at very low listening levels. Technically, the BL5s are a semi bargain pre-owned when you consider the fact that B&o is essentially eliminating the need to go and spend thousands more on equipment to DRIVE your speakers. Don’t be so quick to dismiss these without auditioning them, first.