(Pocket-lint) - What does your typical Bang & Olufsen-fancier expect from new B&O products? Three things, we reckon: a) exquisite Danish design language, b) a premium price and, c) very decent performance that doesn't justify b) on its own but does when you take a) into account too.
With the Beosound Balance wireless speaker, Bang & Olufsen has most definitely has a) and b) covered. This isn't B&O's first foray into the world of the wireless speaker, not by any means, but the Balance is a far more realistic proposition than something like the full-on design statement of the company's ostentatious A9.
This is a speaker for folks who, while discerning and quite well-off, don't have the inclination to give space to a whacking great wireless speaker. So without sheer size on its side, does the Beosound Balance have what it takes to maintain the brand's reputation as a go-to source of good-taste high-end hi-fi componentry?
- Light-through aluminium top plate
- Real wood base: Natural oak, Black oak
- Knitted fabric grille cover: Sand or Anthracite
The Balance was designed in collaboration with British industrial designer Benjamin Hubert, but despite the outsider input this could really only be a Bang & Olufsen product. The materials chosen are typically opulent and tactile, and execution is flawless. In terms of the actual look, well, that's something you'll make your own mind up about.
The thorough designing of the Balance extends as far as the figure-of-eight mains lead it's supplied with: it's a grey-and-white woven fabric affair with beautiful bespoke terminations at each end. Touches like this help the perceived value of a product no end.
- Seven speakers total, with individual amplification, 880W of total power
- Bluetooth 5.0, Chromecast, Apple AirPlay 2, DLNA connectivity
- BeoLink multiroom
- 2x Ethernet ports
Under its immaculately finished skin, the Balance features seven loudspeaker drivers. These are configured to generate a wide, focused sound when the speaker is optimally positioned - on a shelf or table-top, in close proximity to a rear wall. Basically doing a passable impression of an expensive lamp.
Two 113mm low-frequency drivers work in opposition, with one firing upwards from its position inside the wooden base, while the other faces down at the point where the upper portion of the Balance meets the base.
A couple of 51mm full-range drivers, plus a 19mm tweeter, are grouped quite tightly together and fire more-or-less dead ahead from midway up the fabric-covered upper portion of the speaker, while two 76mm full-range drivers face outwards from the rear of the speaker, angled slightly to effectively bounce sound off a rear surface.
(For the purposes of the above description, the front of this cylinder is the area with the beautifully crafted Bang & Olufsen logo at the bottom; the rear is the area from which the mains lead emerges.
These seven units are driven by seven power amps, generating a total of 880W of Class D power. Which - on paper, at least - ought to be enough to extract quite oppressive volume.
Getting digital audio to the Balance in the first place can be achieved in quite a few different ways. It's DLNA-compliant, for starters, which means it can join your local network (either wirelessly or using one of its two Ethernet sockets) and access any music you have stored on there.
Or you can wirelessly stream from your favourite streaming service using Bluetooth 5.0 (which is good enough to handle full-fat hi-res files from Tidal, Amazon, Qobuz, Primephonic, and all the rest), or Chromecast, or Apple AirPlay 2.
The Balance currently has Deezer integrated into its control app, with Spotify Connect to follow.
This app also features BeoLink multiroom capability, so if this is just one of a few pieces of B&O audio equipment in your home, they can be integrated easily into a multi-room system.
Thanks to the hybrid analogue/digital optical 3.5mm input lined up with the mains power and Ethernet connections, it's possible to hard-wire music sources to the Balance too. And the cutaway where all the physical connectivity options are positioned also includes a switch to defeat the mics sited in the aluminium top-plate.
- Google Assistant voice control, Amazon Alexa coming soon
- Touch-sensitive controls
- B&O Control app
Enjoy the sound of your own voice? Used to getting your own way simply by asking for it? Good news: not only does the Beosound Balance feature Google Assistant voice control, it's very well implemented. The mics sunk into the aluminium top-plate seem very sharp-eared and less sniffy about regional accents than some other wireless speakers we could mention, and as a consequence it's easy enough to get the B&O to do the straightforward things. And Amazon Alexa voice control is promised to be arriving soon, too.
The top of the Balance has physical, touch-sensitive controls for Bluetooth pairing, play/pause, volume up/down and skip forwards/backwards. These are woken by a proximity sensor, and when alerted glow pleasingly through the aluminium surface. It's another demonstration of why Bang & Olufsen ownership is so compelling for so many people.
The volume control is worthy of particular mention. Simply sweep a fingertip around the outside edge of the upper portion of the plate, and volume can be increased or decreased - and it's briefly accompanied by some pinpoint lights to give a visual indication of where you're at, volume-wise. Seldom has turning a speaker up or down just for the sake of it been so tempting.
In terms of setting up the Balance in the first place, though, and probably for the majority of your interaction with it after that, there's the Bang & Olufsen control app. It's a clean, good-looking and, crucially, stable app, with plenty of equaliser (EQ) adjustment available and very straightforward administration of a multi-room setup on board too. It's also where you access TuneIn internet radio.
The app also features a room compensation algorithm, intended to optimise your Balance for its position in any given room. It does this by playing a swift, full-frequency tone sweep and then adjusting its EQ accordingly. Which is all well and good in theory, but in practice the app insists our Balance is "against a wall or corner" no matter where in the room it actually is.
- Strongly position-dependent
- Punchy and expressive
- Some Chromecast issues
Bang & Olufsen wants you to position the Balance close to a rear surface; it's tuned the Balance to sound most effective that way. And there's no denying this is how it sounds most pleasing and effective.
Using an Android smartphone to stream a Tidal Masters file of We Will Always Love You by The Avalanches and Blood Orange via Bluetooth, the Balance uses its driver array to generate a wide, quite tall sound-stage with plenty of elbow-room for competing elements of the recording to open up.
Focus is good, with a pretty strong impression of location to each instrumental strand - and there's more than enough space for voices (both sampled and original) to exist in their own little pocket without interfering with any of the other information.
Tonally, the Balance proves quite even-handed - the journey from the bottom of the frequency range to the top is smooth, with no uncomfortable recesses or protrusions anywhere. It's fair to say the top of the frequency range is rolled off somewhat in the name of good taste, which is a little galling at lower volumes but a positive blessing at party-on volume levels.
The B&O extracts plenty of detail from a recording, giving even the most fleeting transients proper representation. And it's pretty capable where rhythmic discipline is concerned: once through the retro disco stylings Karen O and Danger Mouse's Turn the Light is enough to demonstrate the Balance knows its way around the dancefloor.
It's not the most dynamic listen around, mind you. The distance between quite quiet and very loud isn't much of a distance at all, as far as the Balance is concerned. Everything that happens in a recording happens at pretty much one consistent level, with scant opportunity for a tune to reveal the light and shade that other wireless speakers are happy to disclose.
Switching to Chromecast-derived files of the same songs is quite telling. First off, Chromecast doesn't pass on high-res audio files - so those big MQA-derived files are squashed down to CD-quality 16bit/44.1kHz standard. It's hardly the end of the world, but it does rather force the listener to choose between optimum audio quality and convenience - because there's no denying the Chromecast versions lack a little of the airiness and attack of the Bluetooth equivalents.
It also demonstrates some uncertainty in the relationship between Chromecast and the Balance. Quite often during the course of our review testing, reaching the end of a song, or a playlist, caused the Chromecast connection to be lost. Admittedly it's the work of a moment to re-establish it, but nevertheless it runs contrary to what most people expect from a wireless speaker costing the thick end of two grand.
Don't be tempted to move the Balance from its preferred location and out into some free space - it won't thank you. Without a rear surface to fire those two big full-range drivers against, the B&O's sonic presentation loses a ton of its scale and positivity. What was previously a solidly punchy, rigorously focused sound instead becomes lightweight and hazy around the edges. Speakers that can be so thoroughly undermined simply by moving them around a room are few and far between.
Even putting the unique aesthetic to one side for a moment, there's lots to like - admire, even - about the Bang & Olufsen Beosound Balance. Pander to it, as far as positioning goes at least, and it can generate a sound of authentic scale and drive. It's a pleasure to operate, it's well-specified enough to sonically satisfy, and it has power to spare.
But it's not the last word in audio fidelity even when it's in its preferred position, and should you take it out of its comfort zone the sonic case it makes for itself starts to fall apart. Plus it's expensive enough to be competing with some genuinely capable alternatives - even if none of them are quite as decorative.
Factor in the looks, the choice of materials and the exemplary construction, and you've a product that can loosen a wallet faster than most.
Naim Mu-so 2
While pricey, Naim's alternative setup is still more affordable than the B&O - and it has a sense of sonic authority the Balance simply goes without. No, it's not shorthand for "judicious good taste" in the same way the Balance is, but it's not bad-looking - and it's the better-resolved listen. Which ultimately is what you want from a wireless speaker, right?
Devialet Phantom 900
Ok, so perhaps Devialet's Star Wars-like Phantom is even quirkier looking. But its substantial sound - bass is rarely so efficiently produced by a speaker of this size - makes it a must consider in this price category. Thing is, you'll want a pair, which will leave you with a rather large bill - but one that's totally worth it.