Ted Wright has very specific taste in music. The founder and CEO of a marketing agency in Atlanta adores bands like Pylon and R.E.M., an alt-rock sound that took shape in Athens, Georgia, in the 1980s (he bought the latest R.E.M. on CD the day it was released). And he prefers to listen to his music on products designed by the Danish consumer electronics company Bang & Olufsen. The centerpiece of Wright’s B&O collection is a BeoSound 9000 CD player—”the classic,” Wright calls it. This device isn’t like any other CD player you’ve seen: Mounted on a wall, it’s a glittering strip of metal and smoked glass about a yard long (or tall, depending on how you orient it). It holds a half-dozen compact discs in such a way that their labels face outward, visible through the pane of glass. The unit’s “CD clamper” slides back and forth to whichever disc you select. Wright has had it since around the time it debuted in 1996, and B&O sold it until August of this year—the company’s site describes it as a “kinetic sculpture.”
Wright’s CD player is connected to an equally eye-catching BeoLab 3500 speaker, a 4-foot-long tube with a base that makes it appear to hover in midair. He also owns a BeoCom 1401 corded analog telephone. Introduced in 1993, it features an impossibly slim rectangular handset that juts from the wedge-shaped receiver like a Kubrick monolith. Like many B&O offerings, each of these objects is strikingly appointed in brushed aluminum or matte black, and each is strikingly expensive: The CD player will set you back $5,250, the speaker $2,175, and the phone $159.
Wright shrugs off those price tags. To him, B&O gear is like one of his $3,000 suits: It is made better, looks better, and lasts longer than anything else. “Their stuff is so cool,” he says. “The sound is awesome, it’s beautifully designed, and it’s unobtrusive.”
Unobtrusive? That CD player looks like something from Buck Rogers’ bachelor pad in New Chicago. In fact, for much of B&O’s 86-year history, a common compliment—and complaint—has been how much its products resemble props in sci-fi films. Back in the analog era, each new B&O offering was a kind of self-contained world’s fair, a window into a sleek utopian future. The company attracted a coterie of audiophiles and connoisseurs, mostly in the EU, where there are around 500 dedicated Bang & Olufsen boutiques. (There are more than 700 worldwide.) Wander through one of its 41 US stores, which are often devoid of customers, and you’ll see a baffling mix of retro-futurist style and surrealist pricing. An $1,100 cordless phone that’s thin and tapered like a Brancusi sculpture or a walrus tusk, a $23,000 pair of 3-foot-tall loudspeakers that look like Daleks from Doctor Who, an $85,000, 6-foot-wide, 3-D TV with a triangular speaker that juts from its base. Product names generally begin with Beo and end with a number: the BeoVox 1, the BeoSound 2, the BeoSystem 3, the BeoVision 4.
B&O’s distinct menagerie of wares has brought handsome profits—even though the future that it seemed to promise never came to pass. While the Danish company pursued its own cult of design, others like Apple formulated a new aesthetic that took into account the graphical user interface and Moore’s law. As the iPod and iTunes took off, conversation-piece home-entertainment objects seemed less and less relevant. It turned out that the sound system of tomorrow wasn’t an elegant $5,000 device that gave you instant access to six CDs; it was a $400 gadget that allowed you to slip thousands of songs into your hip pocket. Audiophiles lost out to audio files.
In the midst of this consumer electronics upheaval, Bang & Olufsen remained adamantly, diligently, and somewhat endearingly committed to following its own path. But in 2008, the global financial crisis confronted B&O with perhaps its gravest existential threat since Nazi sympathizers blew up its factory in 1945. Between 2008 and 2009, annual revenue plunged from $853 million to $528 million, and its stock price plummeted from $52 to $8.50. The manufacturer could no longer ignore the urgent realities of the present. It was forced to shed product lines, shuffle CEOs, and lay off hundreds of workers.
Yet remarkably, B&O endured. This eccentric company, which seems so out of sync with current trends, even returned to profitability last year. It’s a testament to the mystique of its products and to the ardent loyalty they have inspired over many decades. B&O is now healthy enough to contemplate the future again and to figure out exactly what its place there will be.
In 1924, a young Dane named Svend Olufsen started tinkering with a relatively new piece of technology—the radio. He soon teamed up with Peter Bang, a gifted engineer and former classmate who had just returned from a stint in the US, where the novel broadcast medium was taking off. The two set up a makeshift laboratory in the Olufsen family’s 300-year-old home. Olufsen became the business guy, while Bang dreamed up new products. In 1927, Bang and Olufsen borrowed money from their fathers to build a factory and quickly established the reputation that their company lives on today: quality media delivery via striking objects. Early products included the Five Lamper, a sumptuous radio in a walnut and maple cabinet. It took its aesthetic cues from furniture, a radical departure at a time when most radios were purely functional. This attention to design as well as engineering found an audience that was willing to pay the price premium it entailed.
Bang & Olufsen, a History of the Future
The Five Lamper (1929)
Launch price: 560 Kroner
One of the earliest B&O products. The radio was enclosed in a cabinet, an elegant art deco chest made of walnut and maple.
Beolab 5000 (1967)
Launch price: $325
A silicon-transistor hi-fi amp with remarkably little distortion. The controls for bass, treble, and volume glided back and forth like slide rules.
Beogram 4000 (1972)
Launch price: $500
The entire tonearm moved as the record played, so it remained at a perfect tangent to the grooves of the record.
Beovision 8800 (1980)
Launch price: $1,600
TV with a 26-inch screen, a 14-watt dual-loudspeaker system, and an infrared remote that could also control a VCR.
BeoSound 9000 (1996)
Launch price: $4,000
A motorized six-CD-changer-cum-kinetic-sculpture designed to be hung on a wall or mounted on an optional stand.
BeoCom 2 (2002)
Launch price: $1,050
A cordless phone so thin that the number buttons are set in rows of two, not three. Designed to be stabbed into its base like Excalibur.
BeoLab 5 (2003)
Launch price: $16,000
Otherworldly 2,500-watt loudspeakers that analyze the room’s acoustics and adjust the sound accordingly.
BeoSound 8 (2010)
Launch price: $999
Fastest-selling audio product in B&O history. Compatible with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, it also streams music from a computer.
BeoVision 4-85 (2011)
Launch price: $85,000
A staggeringly huge 85-inch plasma TV that’s 3-D compatable and can be mounted on a wall or placed on a motorized stand.
Credit: Beovision 8800: Beophile.com
After World War II, B&O embraced television sets, and by 1960 the company had started a push to become a distinct global brand. Its star designers, Henning Moldenhawer and Jacob Jensen, defined a whole new vision of home electronics, one that reveled in iconic representations of accuracy and precision. The Beomaster 1200 tuner featured a dial suggestive of the slide rule. The tonearm on the Beogram 4000 turntable glided automatically into place with sensuous smoothness, like a plane coming in for a perfect landing. The Beovision 8800 TV boasted an infrared remote control and a profile that at the time was remarkably slender. In 1978, New York’s Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition consisting entirely of Bang & Olufsen designs. Each product seemed to symbolize a sort of platonic ideal of its category.
“B&O absolutely ruled the world,” says Lee Marriott, the 40-year-old owner of enthusiast site BeoWorld, where chat boards crackle with B&O gossip and tips about its products old and new. “Once you have one piece, nothing else compares.” He grew up in public housing in the UK and remembers being dazzled by a B&O system at a wealthy friend’s home—especially when he was ordered not to touch it.
“Have you ever experienced any B&O products from the classic period?” asks Tim Jarman, who refurbishes the company’s wares when he’s not running another fan site, Beocentral. “Oh, they are absolutely fantastic. Made out of solid metal and proper hardwood, and the performance is just unbelievable.” The brand’s offerings were spectacularly expensive, he says, but worked so well for so long that they were more of an investment than a splurge.
“If you look back 10, 20, 30 years, Bang & Olufsen had a fantastic position,” Tue Mantoni agrees. The 36-year-old returned to his native Denmark to become president and CEO of the company in March after earning praise for helping the moribund British motorcycle maker Triumph successfully retool its bikes and image. But he’ll have a harder time reviving B&O’s aura of design and engineering superiority. A motorcycle plays the same role in an owner’s life today as it did a decade or even a generation ago; the function of a piece of consumer electronics morphs as quickly as its form. “Bang & Olufsen made some fantastic products, made a lot of money. And at some point, they simply became complacent,” Mantoni says.
That complacency coincided with the rise of portable audio players, networked computers, and digital media. (At the same time, Asian competitors were learning to make slim TVs with good-enough picture quality that cost a fraction of the price of even the cheapest BeoVisions.) New product categories ushered in a new rate of progress, one in which continuous upgrades made entertainment devices seem practically disposable. Everything about this emerging paradigm was anathema to the proud Danish company.
B&O tried to compete as it always had, by creating the most elegant and luxe offering in each category. There was the BeoSound 2 digital music player, a stainless steel disc with no display, no built-in hard drive, and a $460 price tag. Then there was a $1,275 mobile phone. These products acknowledged the digital revolution, but they had a me-too quality. Also, the pace of innovation made it increasingly difficult to make the devices feel like future-proof investments—why pay so much for an MP3 player or a mobile phone if you suspect you’ll have to upgrade in a few years?
B&O got out of mobile phones and MP3 devices entirely, and those cutbacks have helped it survive the global financial crisis. But the company is still struggling to adjust to the contemporary universe of products, software, and services. “This is about carving out our niche—our reason to be, really—in a market that has completely changed,” Mantoni says.
It’s open to debate whether the image projected by B&O’s products is even desirable nowadays. “There’s an ‘impress the neighbors’ quality” to this gear, says Lucian James, founder of brand consultancy Agenda, which specializes in the luxury market. “And that’s an embarrassing concept to a lot of people these days.” Louise Rosen, a 40-year-old brand consultant in Paris, illustrates the problem from the consumer’s point of view. Her Danish mother, she says, is of a generation that aspired to own the company’s wares: “Every electronic device in her house is Bang & Olufsen.” But Rosen has never bought B&O, finding its aesthetic off-putting. “For me,” she says, “it’s nonsense.”
Good taste is no minor matter in Denmark. “We are very aware that Danish design is something the world knows us for,” says Jeppe Trolle Linnet, a social anthropologist and consumer-culture expert in Copenhagen. For proof, go to the city’s Stroget shopping thoroughfare and step into Illums Bolighus, a stunning emporium with four floors of home-design products. You’ll see long-celebrated Danish creations like the refined housewares of Georg Jensen and the legendary PH lamps of Poul Henningsen, with their nested shades that tame glare by emitting reflected light; they were devised around the time B&O was founded and are still sold today. You’ll also see newer arrivals on the Scandinavian design scene: Normann Copenhagen’s amusing round-bottomed tumblers, Muuto’s clever tea-light holders that feature a slot to accommodate a match. These engaging wares make a collective statement about “thingness,” a palpable feeling that every object, no matter how trivial its function, ought to be treated seriously and built to last.
That view of material culture guides B&O, as everyone will tell you at company headquarters in the hamlet of Struer, about four hours outside of Copenhagen and just a short drive from the house where Peter Bang and Svend Olufsen toiled 86 years ago. A visit here begins in a high-end simulacrum of a family room displaying the BeoLiving concept. The Beo6 remote control—a silvery ball with a small screen mounted on top—can operate every piece of gear in the room. Later, the visitor is plopped in front of the half-ton, 103-inch BeoVision 4 plasma HDTV, which swivels while six booming BeoLab 5 speakers (the ones that look like Daleks) surround the viewer. The total B&O immersion feels like actually being in a science fiction movie, a scary one that triggers your fight-or-flight response.
In the nearby Struer Museum, a third-generation B&O employee leads a tour through a wing devoted to the company’s products. Everything from an early Bauhaus-inspired radio to electric shavers (a brief B&O foray) displays the brand’s signature mix of unique form and quality function. The guide points out a scroll-wheel control on a 1990s stereo and makes a sideways remark about where Apple gets its ideas. Danes are polite but not necessarily modest.
But the genuinely impressive moments in a journey through B&O’s world come from peeking at its process. You expect a company that sells incredibly expensive products to pour tremendous time, effort, skill, and craft into making them. But in an age of outsourcing and cost efficiencies, it’s still something to witness. In one of the dozen soundproof garages where B&O car stereos are fine-tuned, engineers are testing the audio in an Audi Q7 tricked out with some 50 speakers. Elsewhere, a Rube Goldberg machine burns cigarettes and shoots the smoke at TVs to make sure their screens can withstand such abuse. Best of all is the tidy Factory Five, where robots and humans mill and polish aluminum to insanely precise standards. The guide points out an enormous Swiss-made Niederberger grinding machine used to create the grain on the frame of the BeoVision 7 TV. Like everything in the factory, this assembly line was meticulously organized to turn designers’ exacting visions into reality.
“At a time when everybody’s doing design, we have to think about true design,” Torsten Valeur says. The 45-year-old represents the future of Bang & Olufsen; he works closely with the company’s longtime design guru, 72-year-old David Lewis, and will take over when his mentor retires. Valeur explains what he means by “true design” by citing the $23,000 BeoLab 5 speakers. “I’m very much in love with them,” Valeur says. Each speaker’s unique conical shape is dictated by its function—2,500 watts of digital amplification, with bass control that reads the acoustics of a room and adjusts accordingly. Valeur admires that they are sui generis, not a tweaked version of something else. “Every new product we do for Bang & Olufsen,” Valeur says, “should come as a surprise.”
It’s hard to overstate how much free rein B&O has given its designers. In 2005, then-CEO Torben Ballegaard Sorensen practically bragged to Fast Company about caving in when Lewis objected to tweaking the design of a TV, even though it would have accommodated technology that could have extended the set’s life cycle into the emerging hi-def era. Since adhering to Lewis’ taste would have cost B&O “only” $10 million in cash flow, it was evidently a no-brainer to capitulate. “I have no influence on design,” Sorensen is reported to have said.
I hear no such boasts from the new CEO. In fact, Mantoni sounds intent on prodding B&O toward a less aloof attitude about the marketplace. “We need to go out and talk to customers,” he says. He recently told 30 of his top executives that they would be working in B&O stores for a while to meet customers face-to-face. There’s a message here about design: Of course the company has to keep producing distinctive wares—but these also have to fit shoppers’ actual lives. “We need to get the core of our target customer group really interested in the brand again,” Mantoni says, “so they’ll say, ‘Bang & Olufsen is back.’”
Consider one of its latest products: the BeoSound 8, a docking device for iPods, iPhones, and iPads. This is a first for B&O, which took until 2010 to finally concede that we’re all now living in a future of Apple’s making. Granted, at $999, the BeoSound 8 is about 10 times the price of most iPod docks. And it looks otherworldly and obtrusive, with two plate-sized speakers joined by a brushed-aluminum bridge. But audiophiles rave about its sound quality. “Pin sharp, tight, and precise,” declares brand-obsessive site BeoWorld. According to Zean Nielsen, president of B&O’s American division, the dock already accounts for up to 14 percent of US sales and is bringing in customers who may have previously regarded its products as mere curiosities. B&O seems to see a future here. This summer, the company announced plans for a line of products designed for a distinctly non-B&O retail venue: Apple stores.
Rob Walker (email@example.com) is the author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are.