Bang & Olufsen CEO: 4K TV on the way, stacks more premium products due this year
Bang & Olufsen is synonymous with design; the Danish company's products are like the audio equivalent of a Paul Smith suit. So it's no big surprise that Pocket-lint's London meet-up with the audio brand's chief exec, Tue Mantoni, is held at the designer Cafe Royal hotel on London's Regent Street. All jaunty corridors and extravagant decor in a modernist, minimal style, the venue makes a vibrant stage.
Behind the glitz - literally, as a giant plush red curtain is pulled up like a big reveal - we meet a suited and booted Mantoni backstage after his lead in a product and marketing presentation. A few chairs are parked between wires and stacks of amplifiers that offer a stark contrast to the hotel's exterior. But that's exactly the behind the scenes detail we're here for: to get the inside line from the man at the helm of Bang & Olufsen on what's next from the audio brand.
"I've been with the company for two years now and we've worked a lot on the product side," Mantoni confirms. "A lot of attention has gone into BeoPlay in the last two years… but really with Bang & Olufsen as the mother brand you will see a very strong new product line-up in the next 12 months."
With products ranging from TVs to audio and even designer intercoms, if one thing's clear when browsing B&O products it's that they demand a premium price. Why the high price point?
"I think that it's always important - even if you're a luxury or premium brand - to offer substance. Products that perform, products where the quality is very high. And if you look at our products the emphasis is really on the quality experience, the sound experience, and the craftsmanship of the product. But at the same time I think if you look at the pricing of B&O products they are becoming…" Mantoni pauses in brief thought, before continuing, "more competitive than what they've been in the past."
Craftmanship being of such importance, we wonder how the company's designers and engineers clash heads when it comes to making products happen. With the latest BeoLab 14 surround sound system at our side, Mantoni takes his cue in promoting the latest product:
"What's really important here is that the quality of the acoustics is still great despite it [the BeoLab 14] looking good. And this is because we will allow this friction [between designers and engineers] to go on for quite a while. It will take us longer to develop a product like this than if you look at maybe some of our competitors who might be a little bit quicker, let the engineer win and say, 'We'll do a black box,' and so that's what they do.
"But if you had let Geoff Martin [B&O's tonmeister & technology specialist in sound design - his genuine title] have his word in this, this product would probably become twice the size. If you ask the designer to decide then it would be half the size. But between them they have to find the best solution."
Size is a key issue too from a consumer's point of view. B&O products haven't gone down the micro route, as everything tends to be of considerable physical size. Can size be reduced and quality maintained - if not now, then in the future?
"Obviously what happened - or has happened if you look at the last 20 or 30 years - is that speakers have become smaller. So you can create better sound with a smaller speaker. Better quality amplifiers, drivers and so on. But you always need a certain size. You will have a curve of innovation that will reduce it, but we see a speed that is significantly lower than software [advancement], for example.
And what of B&O's TV range - when will we see 4K grace the high-end range?
"Looking at our future TV portfolio we always follow what's happening with screens and you will see something in the future from us." The answer is concise and Mantoni won't budge when we press for more.
It's not all home audio though. B&O is big in the in-car audio business as it includes partnerships with BMW, Aston Martin, Audi and Mercedes Benz. Will we see an expansion in the automotive sector?
"Our focus is really on those four partners," Mantoni explains, before offering up a little extra: "We've been approached by other partners every once in a while. We've said no to a few simply because of brand fit. But we're also looking at a couple of other partners… Unnamed others."
Our eyebrows perk. Which ones are we talking about here?
"We're looking at a couple of new partners, but our main focus is on the existing ones. There's huge potential for us still within those and the brands are great. It doesn't get much better. But you could imagine another couple of brands that would be ideal for us to work with."
With time ebbing away on our imaginary egg timer, we ask one last question about B&O's market position. Will the brand ever open up to a wider audience, to offer more budget products?
"I always think about products in two dimensions: one is the value that they offer and the other is the price that we charge for it. There needs to be a relationship between those. The more value we offer the more we'll charge for it. If we don't offer the value then we cannot charge a high enough price.
"If you look at what we'll be doing in the future, I think BeoPlay has been introduced as almost like the entry into Bang & Olufsen as a sort of more mainstream part of the business with wider reach in terms of distribution. Many of the people who are looking at our products and saying they are expensive are saying that probably because they should be looking at a different category - like portable products, or headphones or small speakers. And that I think we've addressed that now with BeoPlay. So there will be no need for a budget version of Bang & Olufsen."
And that's it. A firm handshake and the smartly dressed Mantoni makes his exit back into Cafe Royal for round two of his presentation to a wider European group.
More products, more partnerships and 4K on the horizon - it sounds as though 2013 is the year when Bang & Olufsen shows off more of its high-end pedigree. We look forward to what's to come.