Header info #1 for full disclosure: I’ve been given the green light from the communications department at Bang & Olufsen to write some articles describing some of the more technical aspects of B&O loudspeakers here on my own blog site. This is the first posting in what will be a series of articles.
Header info #2 for fuller disclosure: This particular posting will look familiar to some forum people at www.beoworld.org, since I wrote the original version of this as a response to one of the questions on their site. However, I’ve beefed up the response a little – so if you’ve come here from beoworld, there is only a little new information in here.
Almost all loudspeakers made by Bang & Olufsen include Adaptive Bass Linearisation or ABL. This includes not only our “stand alone” loudspeakers (the BeoLab series) but also our iPod docks and our televisions. The only exceptions at the moment are our passive loudspeakers, headphones, and the BeoLab 5.
There is no one technical definition for ABL, since it is in continual evolution – in fact it (almost) changes from product to product, as we learn more and as different products require different algorithms. Speaking very broadly, however, we could say that it reduces the low frequency content sent to the loudspeaker driver(s) (i.e. the woofer) when the loudspeaker is asked to play loudly – but even this is partially inaccurate.
It is important to note that it is not the case that this replaces a “loudness function” which may (or may not) be equalising for Equal Loudness Contours (sometimes called “Fletcher-Munson Curves”). However, since (generally) the bass is pulled back when things get loud, it is easy to assume this to be true.
When we are doing the sound design for a loudspeaker (which is based both on measurements and listening), we make sure that we are operating at a listening level that is well within the linear behaviour of the loudspeaker and its components. (To be more precise, when I’m doing the sound design, I typically use a standard-ish playback level where -20 dB FS full-band pink noise results in something like 70 dB (C) at the listening position (sometimes I use 75 dB (A) – but, depending on the amount of low end in the loudspeaker, this might result in the same volume setting).)
This means that
- the drivers (i.e. the woofer and tweeter) aren’t being asked to move too far (in and out)
- the amplifier is nowhere near clipping
- the power supply is well within its limits, and
- nothing (not the power supply, the amplifiers, or the voice coils) is getting so hot that the loudspeaker’s behaviour is altered.
This is what is meant by “linear” – it’s fancy word for “predictable”, (Not to mention the fact that if we were listening to loudspeakers at high levels all the time, we would get increasingly bad at our jobs due to hearing loss.)
So, we do the tuning at that low-ish listening level where we know things are behaving – remember that we always do it at the same calibrated level every time for every loudspeaker so that we don’t change sound design balance due to shifts associated with equal loudness contours. (If you tune a loudspeaker when it’s playing loudly, you’ll wind up with a loudspeaker with less bass than if you tuned it quietly. This is because you’re automatically compensating for differences in your own hearing at different listening levels.)
Once that tuning is done, then we go back to the measurements to see where things will fall apart. For example, in order to compensate for the relatively small cabinet behind the woofer(s) in the BeoSound 8 / BeoPlay A8, we increase the amount of bass that we send to the amplifiers for the woofers as part of the sound design. If we just left that bass boost in when you turn up the volume, the poor speaker would go up in smoke – or at least sound very bad. This could be because
- the woofer is being pushed/pulled beyond its limits, or
- because the amplifier clips or
- the power supply runs out of steam or
- something else.
(Note that BeoSound 8’s do not actually run on steam – but they do contain the magic smoke that keeps all audio gear functioning properly.) So, we put the loudspeaker in a small torture chamber (it’s about the size of a medium-sized clothes closet), put on some dance music (or some slightly more-boring modified pink noise) and turn up the volume… While that’s playing, we’re continually monitoring the signal that we’re sending to the loudspeaker, the driver excursion, the demands on the electronics (i.e. the amp’s, DAC’s, power supply, etc) and the temperature of various components in the loudspeaker, along with a bunch of other parameters…
Armed with that information, we are able to “know” how those parameters behave with respect to the characteristics of the music that is being played (i.e. how loud it is, in various frequency bands, for how long, in both the short term and the long term). This means that, when you play music on the loudspeaker, it “knows”
- how hot it is at various locations inside,
- what the velocity of the air in the port is (if it has a port),
- the loudspeaker drivers’ excursions,
- amplifier demands,
- power supply demands,
- and so on. (The actual list varies according to product – these are just some typical examples…)
So, when something gets close to a maximum (i.e. the amplifier starts to get too hot, or the woofer is nearing maximum allowable excursion, or the air velocity in the port is nearing an unacceptable level) then SOMETHING will be pulled back.
WHAT is pulled back? It depends on the product and the conditions at the time you’re playing the music. It could be a band of frequencies in the bass region, it could be the level of the woofer. In a worst-case-last-ditch situation, the loudspeaker might even be required to shut itself down to protect itself from you. Of course, there is no guarantee that you cannot destroy the loudspeaker somehow – but we do our best to build in enough protection to cover as many conditions as we can.
HOW is it pulled back (i.e. how quickly and by how much)? That also depends on the product and some decisions we made during the sound design process, as well as what kind of state-of-emergency your loudspeaker is in (some people are very mean to loudspeakers…).
Note that all this is done based on the signals that the loudspeaker is being asked to produce. So it doesn’t know whether you’ve turned up the bass or the volume – it just knows you’re asking it to play this signal right now and what the implications of that demand are on the current conditions (voice coil temperature, for example) This is similar to the fact that the seat belts in my car don’t know why the car is stopping quickly – maybe it’s because I hit the brakes, maybe it’s because I hit a concrete wall – the seat belts just lock up when they’re asked to move too quickly. Your woofer’s voice coil doesn’t know the difference between Eminem and Stravinsky with a bass boost – it just knows it’s hot and it doesn’t want to get hotter.
It’s important to note that some of what I’ve said here is not true for some products. Bang & Olufsen’s analogue loudspeakers cannot have the same amount of “self-knowledge” as the digital loudspeakers because they don’t have the same “processing power”. However, we make every effort to ensure that you get as much as is possible out of your loudspeaker while still ensuring that you can’t do any permanent damage to it. However, it’s fair to say that, the more recent the model, the closer we are able to get to the maximum limits of the total system for a longer listening period.