Review: Bang & Olufsen Beosound A5
[photo1]Simon Lucas8/10"If you go down to the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise"--although not as big a surprise as the teddy bears will get if you crash their picnic while holding a wireless speaker that looks like it should, by rights, contain marmalade sandwiches. And then when you tell them how much it costs, their surprise will be greater still.Danish audio brand Bang & Olufsen is, of course, no stranger to the design-led approach any more than it's unacquainted with the hefty asking price. But with the new Beosound A5 wireless speaker, it's quite possible the company has surpassed itself.Not only is the A5 considerably more expensive than any rival battery-powered portable speaker, there's no two ways about it--from its oak handle to its Nordic Weave paper fiber casework--it's designed to look like a picnic basket.Officially, Bang & Olufsen wants to draw a straight line from the design of heritage products like its Beolit 607, 800, or 1000 models to the A5, but we all can see the truth. Danish-Italian design company GamFratesi Studio, designers of the A5 in collaboration with B&O, suggests the woven material is reminiscent of the Panama hat associated with sunny outdoor days of all kinds--which is another red herring. This is a picnic basket.[photo2]Of course, if picnic baskets aren't entirely your cup of tea, you can always spend yet more money on the alternative Dark Oak finish. This has black anthracite aluminum as opposed to silver aluminum, a dark oak handle, and is finished with dark oak slats rather than a paper weave. Although spending more money on something that looks slightly less like a picnic basket seems counterintuitive.As is predictable, given the brand we're dealing with he
re, and only reasonable, given how much you're paying, the Beosound A5 is beautifully made from premium materials. The paper weave is flawlessly applied and sits between the aluminum top and bottom plates showing perfectly even panel gaps. The oak handle is tactile. The physical controls on the top of the speaker are gently recessed into the mildly rubberized surface. Yes, the A5 is expensive--but it looks, and, to an even greater extent, feels like it.And naturally, it's as carefully considered on the inside as it is on the outside. The Beosound A5 is designed to offer 360-degree sound (or "omni" sound, as Bang & Olufsen prefers), but not anything as gauche as spatial audio, goodness me, no. To that end, it's fitted with a 130-mm bass driver, a pair of 50-mm midrange drivers, and a 20-mm tweeter--all driven by a total of 280 watts of Class D power.[photo3]Connectivity is handled by Bluetooth 5.2, and Wi-Fi 6 gives access to Apple AirPlay 2 and Chromecast. An IP65 rating means it's happy to withstand any kind of realistic outdoor conditions, and a battery life of 12 hours (as long as you're not going berserk with volume levels) means it has the stamina to last beyond those all-day picnics. There's even a Qi wireless charging area built into the top of the A5--though obviously its battery life will suffer if you charge your phone this way.Like every recent Bang & Olufsen product, the Beosound A5 is built on the company's Mozart platform. It's designed following modular principles, and means the A5 is easy to service and repair. It also allows for straightforward upgrading of the streaming module as and when the need arises. In addition, B&O intends to extend the lifetime of the A5 beyond its "first life" by supporting recycling, reusing, and/or remanufacturing.That's all very laudable as far as the future is concerned, of course, but in the here and now there are some aspects of the Beosound A5's specification that look a little underwhelming.[photo4]It's established practice for Bang & Olufsen to be coy about the composition of the speaker drivers it's fitted, and it tends to be equally unforthcoming when talk turns to the native resolution of its digital-to-analog conversion chipset. This is an especially strange state of affairs when you consider that high-resolution audio has been A Thing for quite a while now, and that customers with this sort of money to spend on a wireless speaker may well have a top-tier subscription to a high-resolution music streaming service they'd like to fully exploit.The fact that the A5 is only compatible with SBC and AAC Bluetooth codecs (rather than the higher-quality aptX or LDAC equivalents) can't help but give the impression that audio quality is playing second fiddle to design flourishes.Happily, though, that's an impression that fades quite quickly once the Beosound A5 is powered up and playing. It may not be a truly high-resolution device, but the sound it makes is convincing and entertaining, especially once you've fully investigated your options in the Bang & Olufsen Music control app.Thorough is a word that can easily be applied to this app. It's stable, easy to navigate, logical, and even quite good-looking. Here's where you can check on remaining battery life, assign favorite radio stations or playlists to the preset buttons, and investigate EQ settings via both a graphic "target" and the more common bass and treble sliders. Here's where you can set default and maximum volumes, create a stereo pair if you've invested in more than one of these sonic picnic baskets, and switch loudness on or off.Software updates, Bang & Olufsen's admirable Radio feature and the TuneIn equivalent, and Deezer streaming service integration are all available. Here's where you can run a "room optimization" routine in order to calibrate your A5 to its specific circumstances, and switch the omni effect on or off. The A5 cannot, however, calibrate itself on the fly automatically like the Sonos Move--it must be instructed to do so.Once the Besound A5 is set up to your satisfaction, it proves an accomplished and entertaining listen. Once through a stream of Benjamin Clementine's "Residue" is enough to confirm it: The A5 may look like a premium frivolity, but where the serious concern of sound is concerned, this B&O is all business.Overall, it's a poised, hefty, and full-scale listen that sounds quite larger than its physical dimensions. Lots of products optimistically describe their sound as "room-filling," but the Beosound A5 can actually do so. Even large-ish rooms pose no problems for it, without having to break too much of a sweat where volume levels are concerned.Low-frequency extension is quite startling, and the A5 controls its bass presence properly. Straight edges at the attack of low-end sounds means that tempos and realistic, rhythmic expression is good, and momentum is considerable. The world's not short of wireless speakers that can dig as deep and hit as hard as the Beosound A5, but the authority and control this speaker demonstrates is in much shorter supply.At the opposite end of the frequency range, there's brilliance and no little attack to treble sounds. But the authority the A5 has over its top-end output is no more equivocal than it is at the bottom end, so sounds never threaten to become edgy or hard. Even at significant volume (and not only is the A5 capable of playing at significant volume, it's happy and unstressed when it does so, and doesn't alter its sonic characteristics in the slightest), treble sounds maintain their shape or discipline. So it's never less than a comfortable and convincing listen.In between, the midrange is just as accomplished and engrossing. Even a compressed recording or radio broadcast is given adequate breathing space through the midrange--and vocalists are able to fully express themselves as a result. The transition from midrange to bass at one end, and to treble at the other, is smooth, consistent, and in no way obvious. Tonality is neutral throughout, and there's no under- or overstatement of any particular area of the frequency range.The unity and coherence of the Beosound A5's overall presentation is impressive and by no means a given, no matter how much you're spending on your audio equipment. Detail levels are always high, and the Bang & Olufsen is particularly impressive in the way it attends to even the smallest transients and harmonic variations in a recording. The broader dynamics of "quiet" and "loud" are just as confidently dealt with, too, as the A5 puts quite a distance between the two positions with no audible effort.[photo5]However, the claim for 360-degree sound is never quite made good on, it's fair to say, even though the Beosound A5 creates a large, immersive, and properly organized soundstage. The new Sonos Era 300 is a far more convincing performer where the nuts and bolts of spatial audio is concerned, but then, it's not quite a direct competitor of this speaker. It's mains-powered and more affordable, and it looks profoundly daft. The A5 merely looks a bit unusual. But when it comes to presenting a big, enveloping sound, the Beosound A5 is the wireless speaker to beat.So where does this leave the B&O Beosound A5 (apart from on your picnic blanket, I mean)? There's no doubt its appeal will be fairly limited, if for no other reason than that it's several orders of magnitude more expensive than any other worthwhile battery-powered speaker. Those who have the wherewithal, though, and are turned on (rather than mildly freaked out) by the looks, will find themselves in possession of one of the best speakers Bang & Olufsen has ever produced--which, by extension, means one of the best pound-for-pound speakers around.