Andre Poulheim and Thorsten Frackenpohl are roaming the corridors of the concept managers’ offices in Struer. They have just flown in from Cologne, and the two German designers are eager to get started. The task at hand – final revisions to the new BeoLab speaker.
It’s been 4 years since Bang & Olufsen started working with Noto, Poulheim and Frackenpohl’s design studio, and so far, the collaboration has resulted in the BeoSound Essence and BeoSound Moment sound systems, and the ground-breaking BeoLab 90 speaker.
The newest endeavour is every bit as exciting, simple and difficult. “We have to meet and exceed the expectations of the customers – and we have to do it with finesse and efficiency,” says Andre Poulheim, noting that it took a few rounds with Bang & Olufsen’s design and concept team before the product identity was set in stone. Was this to be the replacement of the most successful speaker ever, the BeoLab 5? Was it to be the little brother of the BeoLab 90, probably the most advanced speaker on the market today? Or was it instead going to be something completely separate?
As with most things Bang & Olufsen, it was decided to go for something unique.
Kill your darlings
“We started with a clear geometry,” says Andre Poulheim and continues, “and from then on it was a matter of refining as much as possible.” In the past, Bang & Olufsen products were typically straight and geometric, almost graphical in their expression. The design department has gradually started softening the forms, going for more organic shapes and details when it makes sense. This would also be the case with BeoLab 50.
“What fascinates people is when there’s a clear purpose to a product and you’re able to look at it for years without it losing its relevance,” says Andre Poulheim.
BeoLab 50 is a true performance speaker, and it has inherited some of the pioneering groundwork developed for BeoLab 90. The crucial trick when working on something as technologically complex as this speaker is managing the components and the mechanics – because the goal is always to hide or beautify the inner beast. “The less you want, the harder work,” as Andre Poulheim notes with a smile before explaining, “and with BeoLab 50 you have a very clear front and two distinct rear sides. The rest is hidden from plain sight. A solid aluminium shell keeps all the functionality in place and provides rock solid stability. You see the essentials, while the complexities are tucked away. It looks simple, but it is a difficult task.”
“What fascinates people is when there’s a clear purpose to a product and you’re able to look at it for years without it losing its relevance.”
It was important that you could see some of the BeoLab 90 technology in the product, and that was achieved with the acoustical lens, that slowly rises from within the body to analyse the room when the speaker is turned on and moves back inside when turned off. “The lens is so visually strong that it would disturb the simplified structure of the speaker if it was visible at all times, and that is why it moves and creates a bit of magic,” says Andre Poulheim, while stressing, “but it’s a functional part when playing. It serves a direct purpose and illustrates the technology, which is imperative. When the speaker is turned off, the lens disappears automatically.”
Inner performance, outer beauty
Visually speaking you can see references from both performance speakers and design speakers in the Beolab 50, and there are also stylistic hints from BeoLab 18, Beosound Moment and Beovision 14. The wooden lamellas on the back clearly define the rear side – and if you had used fabric instead you would not have been able to see the back immediately. Standing behind the speaker, looking at the lamellas from a straight perspective, you get to experience the depth of the product – and you also get a peek at the raw power under the hood.
“You get a glimpse of the technology inside, but as soon as you change your angle you only see the surface and the materials,” says Andre Poulheim, noting that the wooden lamellas also create a natural and warm contrast to the sleek aluminium shell that encases everything.
The aluminium body is a story in itself. With no sign of shyness, the polished and turned metal is shown as it is. You get to see its edges, to showcase the solidity of the speaker, and you clearly see the gaps between metal, wood and fabric, to appreciate the fruits of the 92 years of precision engineering it takes to produce something as unique as BeoLab 50.
“The bottom of the speaker is lighter, more refined, like a ballerina on her toes,” says Andre Poulheim, “and the footprint is small, making it easy to fit into people’s homes. It’s a question of balance really, and by playing with volume, surface and shapes we were able to create something that could end up as everyone’s darling.” The versatility of the BeoLab 50 in terms of its appearance is another dimension to the product that brings it closer to everyone’s liking. By changing the lamellas and fabric, you get the ballerina just the way it suits you and your décor.