B&O Tech: BeoLab 90 – Behind the scenes

#41 in a series of articles about the technology behind Bang & Olufsen loudspeakers

 

Most loudspeaker projects at Bang & Olufsen are conceived in the design or the Product Definition department. This means that someone decides something like “we’re going to make a loudspeaker, this size with this design” and then the project arrives at the Acoustics Department to find out whether or not the idea is feasible. If it is, then it continues through the development process until we reach the end where the is a product in a store. A better description of this process is in this posting.

BeoLab 90 was different. Instead of being a single project that began, evolved, and ended, it was more like a number of little streams coming together to form a river. Each stream was an idea that contributed to the final product.

One of the early “streams” was an idea that was hatched in the Acoustics Department itself around 2009. I went to the head of the department at the time, and offered to make a deal. If I were to pay for all the components personally, could I use my work hours and B&O resources (like the Cube) to build a pair of loudspeakers for home. These would be a “one chair – no friends” style of loudspeaker – so it would not really be a good candidate for a B&O loudspeaker (our customers typically have friends…). In return, I would keep the loudspeakers in the listening room at B&O for an extended time so that we could use them to demo what we are capable of creating, without our typical restraints imposed by design, development time, size, “normal” product requirements (like built-in amplifiers and DSP), and cost of components.

By early 2011, these loudspeakers were built (although not finished…) and ready for measurements and tuning. The photo below shows the “raw” loudspeaker on the crane in the Cube going out to be measured.

 

One of the original "seeds" that began the discussions about whether BeoLab 90 should be considered.
Figure 1. One of the original “seeds” that began the discussions about whether BeoLab 90 should be considered. The woofers are identical to the BeoLab 9 10″woofer. The mid-bass is a Scan-Speak 5 1/4″ Illuminator. The tweeter is a Fountek Pro5i ribbon.

Those loudspeakers lived in Listening Room 1 for about a year. We’re bring people in for a “special demonstration” of a loudspeaker behind the curtain. The general consensus was that the loudspeakers sounded great – but when the curtain was opened, many people started laughing due to the sheer size (and the ugliness of my design, apparently…) of the loudspeakers.

 

Figure 1a - the finished version.
Figure 2: The finished version.

The second “stream” was an idea that was born from Gert Munch’s goal of building a loudspeaker with a smooth power response as well as a flat on-axis magnitude response. The experiment was based on a “normal” two-way loudspeaker that had an additional side-firing dipole on it. The basic idea was that the two-way loudspeaker could be equalised to deliver a flat on-axis response, and the dipole could be used to correct the power response without affecting the on-axis sound (since the on-axis direction is in the “null” of the dipole). For more details about this project, please read this post.

 

The "Shark Fin" loudspeaker - an experiment attempting to independently tune the power response without changing the on-axis frequency response.
Figure 3: The “Shark Fin” loudspeaker – an experiment attempting to independently tune the power response without changing the on-axis frequency response. See this posting for more information.

 

The "shark-fin" loudspeaker - side view.
Figure 4: The “shark-fin” loudspeaker – side view.

 

The "shark-fin" loudspeaker during the listening portion of the experiments in Listening Room 1.
Figure 5: The “shark-fin” loudspeaker during the listening portion of the experiments in Listening Room 1.

 

After the “shark fin” experiment, we knew that we wanted to head towards building a loudspeaker with some kind of active directivity control to allow us to determine the amount of energy we sent to the nearby walls. Two members of the Acoustics Department, Gert Munch and Jakob Dyreby, had been collaborating with two graduate students (both of whom started working at B&O after they graduated), Martin Møller and Martin Olsen on exactly this idea. They (with Finn Agerkvist, a professor at DTU) published a scientific paper in 2010 called “Circular Loudspeaker Arrays with Controllable Directivity”. In this paper they showed how a barrel of 24 small loudspeaker drivers (each with its own amplifier and individualised DSP) could be used to steer a beam of sound in any direction in the horizontal plane, with a controlled beam width. (That paper can be purchased from the Audio Engineering Society from here.)

The results of a research project using 24 drivers placed radially symmetrically on a barrel. The boxes on the top are the amplifiers, one for each driver.
Figure 6: The results of a research project using 24 drivers placed radially symmetrically on a barrel. The top box is the DSP which feeds the bottom two boxes containing the amplifiers, one for each driver. The assembly is placed on the crane in the Cube.

 

The next step was to start combining these ideas (along with other, more developed technologies such as Thermal Compression Compensation and ABL) into a single loudspeaker. The first version of this was an attempt to reduce the barrel loudspeaker shown in Figure 6 to a reasonable number of loudspeaker drivers. The result is shown below in Figure 7.

 

Prototype 1. The original idea was a loudspeaker that could act a little like a lighthouse. The beam would be rotatable in any direction. There are 6 tweeters and 6 midranges arranged in a hexagon. The 4 woofers are arranged as a square.
Figure 7: Prototype 1. The idea for this version was a loudspeaker that could act a little like a lighthouse. The beam would be rotatable in any direction. There are 6 tweeters and 6 midranges arranged in a hexagon. The 4 woofers are arranged as a square. This version failed due to the lobing of the drivers – essentially, they are too far apart to result in an adequately-controlled beam.

This first prototype had a hexagonal arrangement of tweeters and midranges (6 of each) and a square arrangement of woofers. Each driver had its own DSP and amplification with customised filters to do the “usual” clean-up of magnitude response in addition to the beam steering much like what is described in the AES paper.

Unfortunately, this version was not a success. The basic problem when trying to do directivity control actively is that you need the loudspeaker drivers to be as close together as possible to have control of the beam width in their high-frequency band – but as far apart as possible to be able to control their low-frequency band. In the case of prototype 1, the drivers were simply too far apart to result in an acceptably constant directivity. (In other words, the beam width was different at different frequencies.) So, we had to try to get the drivers closer together.

 

For the second prototype (shown below in Figure 8, 9, and 10) we decided to try to forget about a steerable beam – and just focus (forgive the pun) on a narrow beam with constant directivity (the same beam width at all frequencies). In addition to this, we experimented with a prototype 8mm supertweeter that would take care of the band from about 15 kHz and up.

 

Prototype 2. This version did not have a rotatable beam, but it did have the capability of creating a very narrow beam due to the cluster of 5 midranges and 5 tweeters. Notice as well the cluster of prototype 8 mm supertweeters.
Figure 8: Prototype 2. This version did not have a rotatable beam, but it did have the capability of creating a very narrow beam due to the cluster of 5 midranges and 5 tweeters. Notice as well the cluster of prototype 8 mm super tweeters on the top. Also note that this version used 3 woofers instead of 4.

 

Prototype 2: side view
Figure 9: Prototype 2: side view

 

Prototype 2: Back view
Figure 10: Prototype 2: Back view

Although Prototype #2 sounded great in the sweet spot, it lacked the versatility of the first prototype. In other words, it was an amazing loudspeaker for a person with one chair and no friends – but it was not really a good loudspeaker for sharing… So, we started working on a third prototype that merged the two concepts – now called “Beam Width Control” and “Beam Direction Control”. The result in shown below in Figures 11, 12, and 13.

As you can see there, the “cluster” of 3 tweeters and 3 midranges comes from prototype 2 – but we re-gained side-firing drivers and rear-firing drivers to be able to steer the sound beam in either of 4 directions. The Beam Width could only be controlled for the front-firing beam, since it is a product of the cluster. You’ll also notice that the super tweeter was still there in this prototype. However, we also changed to a different tweeter and were starting to question whether the extra 8mm driver (and its amplifier, DAC and DSP path) would be necessary.

 

Prototype 3. This version had almost as narrow a beam as the previous prototype, with the ability to steer the beam in 4 directions.
Figure 11: Prototype 3. This version had almost as narrow a beam as the previous prototype, with the ability to steer the beam in 4 directions. The wired hanging from the front of the woofer cabinet connect to a thermal sensor on the magnet. At this point, we were still wondering whether to use an 8 mm supertweeter (on the top). It was eventually decided to not use this driver, since the Scan-Speak tweeters measure up to 40 kHz.

 

Prototype 3: Side view
Figure 12: Prototype 3: Side view

 

Prototype 3: back view
Figure 13: Prototype 3: back view

 

One thing that any good acoustical engineer knows is that corners cause diffraction. This is well-known at B&O as you can read here. Looking at the enclosure for the midranges and tweeters in the three previous figures, you can see many flat surfaces and corners – which, we assumed, were bad. So, we set about on an informal experiment to find out what would happen if we smoothed out the corners in an effort to reduce diffraction – or at least to change it. This was initially done by applying putty to the MDF enclosures and measuring the off-axis response of the result. One example of this (in progress of bring coated with putty – this was not the final version – it’s just there to show the process) is shown below in Figure 14.

 

One of the tests for Prototype 3 was to find out whether there was a problem with diffraction due to the hard corners in the top cluster. Smoothing the shape with putty was done by hand.
Figure 14. One of the tests for Prototype 3 was to find out whether there was a problem with diffraction due to the hard corners in the top cluster. Smoothing the shape with putty was done by hand.

 

Surprisingly, we found out in these tests that the “smoothing” of the structure around the midranges and tweeters either made no difference or made things worse. So, we continued on, knowing that the final result would be “smoother” anyway…

While that work was going on in the Cube, a third “stream” for the project was underway – the development of the Active Room Compensation algorithm. In the early versions, it was called “ASFC” or “Active Sound Field Control” – but as time went on and the algorithm evolved, we changed to a different system and gave it a different name. Photo 15, below, shows the listening room during one of the tests for the original algorithm. I count 9 microphones in there – but there may be more hiding somewhere.

 

One of the early Active Room Compensation experiments. Notice the 18 microphones distributed around the room.
Figure 15: One of the early Active Room Compensation experiments. Notice the many microphones distributed around the room. (I count at least 8 mic’s there…)

 

All of the prototypes shown above are just loudspeaker drivers in MDF enclosures. All of the DSP and amplification (in a worst-case, 17 channels in total per loudspeaker) were outside the loudspeakers. In addition, the amplifiers needed active cooling (a fancy way to say “fans”) so they had to be in a different room due to noise. The photo below shows the rack of DSP boxes (on top) and amplifiers (4 channels per box) used for the prototyping.

 

The electronics needed to drive the prototypes. The left stack is for the left loudspeaker, the right stack is identical. the top box is the DSP prototype with 1 analogue input channel and 20 line outputs. The remaining 5 boxes contain ICEpower amplifiers - 4 channels per enclosure.
Figure 16. The electronics needed to drive the prototypes. The left stack is for the left loudspeaker, the right stack is identical. The top box is the DSP prototype board with 1 analogue input channel and 20 line outputs. The remaining 5 boxes contain ICEpower amplifiers – 4 channels per enclosure.

 

While this equipment was being used to evaluate and tune the complete prototypes, a parallel project was underway to find out whether we could customise the amplifiers to optimise their behaviour for the use. For example, if you know that an amplifier will only be used for a midrange driver, then it doesn’t need to behave the same as if it were being used for a full-range loudspeaker. I’ll describe that development procedure in a future blog posting, since it’s interesting enough to deserve its own story.

 

Finally, we were at a point where we built a first prototype of the “real thing”. This was hand-built using 3D-printed parts and a lot of time and effort by a lot of people. The first example of this stage is shown below on the crane in the Cube, sitting next to Prototype #4 for comparison. Notice that, by now, we had decided that the supertweeter was unnecessary, since the Scan-Speak tweeter we’re using was reliable up to at least 40 kHz. The only significant difference between the 4th prototype and the mechanical sample is that the wooden version has only one tweeter and one midrange pointing directly backwards. The “real thing” has two, aimed slightly towards the Left Back and Right Back. (See the Technical Sound Guide for more detailed information about this.)

 

Prototype 4 (on the floor) was basically the same as Prototype 3, but with a different woofer arrangement. Instead of 4 matched 13" drivers, this version used three 10" drivers and one 13" in the front. On the crane is the first sample with the original mechanical design.
Figure 17 Prototype 4 (on the floor) was basically the same as Prototype 3, but with a different woofer arrangement. Instead of 4 matched 13″ drivers, this version used three 10″ drivers and one 13″ in the front. On the crane is the first sample with the original mechanical design.

 

Once the measurement of the first mechanical samples were done and the correct filters programmed into it, it was time to move a pair into the listening room to see (or, more importantly, to hear) if they performed the same as the wooden prototypes. The first setup of device numbers 2 and 3 (the first one stayed with the electronics team for testing) in Listening Room 1 in Struer is shown below in Figure 18. For reference, the room is 6 m deep x 5 m wide – and that’s a 55″ BeoVision 11 on the wall.

 

The first two samples in the listening room. These have internal electronics and did not require the external DSP or amplification.
Figure 18: Samples #2 and 3 in the listening room (they’re still there today, since this is the “master reference” pair). These have internal electronics and did not require the external DSP or amplification.

 

 

When we did the measurements on the samples shown in Figure 18 – both in the Cube and in the listening room, we could see that there was an unusual (and unexpected) dip in the on-axis magnitude response of about 1 dB at around 8o0 Hz. Unfortunately, it did’t seem to be easily correctable using filtering in the DSP, which meant that it was probably the result of a reflection somewhere off the loudspeaker, cancelling the direct sound at the listening position. After a day or two of playing with putty placed in various locations around the loudspeaker, we found that the problem was caused by  a reflection off the “shelf” just below the face of the top unit. That can be seen in Figure 19, below.

 

A closeup of the sample. The "shelf" below the midranges caused a reflection at the listening position from the top midrange. This resulted in an approximately 1 dB dip at about 800 Hz. This was fixed, resulting in a new shape, shown below.
Figure 19:  The “shelf” below the midranges caused a reflection at the listening position from the top midrange. The result was an approximately 1 dB dip at about 800 Hz. This was redesigned, resulting in a new shape, shown below.

 

The way to correct this problem was to bring the height of the shelf up, which also meant that it was closer to the face of the top cluster. (Note that the front panel is missing in Figures 19 and 20 – the actual face is the pink panel seen in Figure 22.) This fixed the problem, but it meant changing the mould for the aluminium enclosure. In the meantime, while that change was happening, we were able to 3D-print an insert of the same shape that could be used for the listening reference pair of loudspeakers. This meant that we didn’t have to wait for the new aluminium versions to start tuning.

 

The fix for the "shelf". The pink 3D-printed portion raised the shelf closer to the midranges and is almost flush with the faceplate that is mounted in front of the loudspeaker cluster.
Figure 20: The repaired “shelf”. The pink 3D-printed portion raised the shelf closer to the midranges and is almost flush with the faceplate that is mounted in front of the loudspeaker cluster. The bad paint job on the top loudspeaker enclosure is a sealant. The enclosure is 3D-printed plastic which (we found out) is not airtight, to it had to be sealed to eliminate leaks.

Of course, the electronics team developed their components on a test bench, piece by piece. Eventually, all of those pieces came together into a single unit (minus the loudspeaker drivers and enclosures) which could be used for testing and software development. An example of one of those test boards (actually, the first one of its kind to be made – and one of the few with all of the amplifiers attached…) is shown below in Figure 21.

 

I’ll probably show some better photos of the DSP board in a later posting.

 

The entire electronics assembly for the BeoLab 90. The top portion in the brown MDF box is the power supply. Moving down the photo, the 4 PCB's are the woofer amplifiers. Next are the input and DSP boards. (Note the 18 DAC's in a row on the DSP board.) On the bottom are the 14 ICEpower amplifiers.
Figure 21: The entire electronics assembly for the BeoLab 90. The top portion in the brown MDF box is the power supply. Moving down the photo, the 4 PCB’s are the woofer amplifiers. Next are the input and DSP boards. On the bottom are the 14 ICEpower amplifiers. The circle not he right is the light ring comprised of 72 LED’s.

Finally, everything came together into a product that, acoustically and electrically, was identical to the production model. This is the version that we use for sound design. It’s shown (about to go out into the Cube for yet another round of measurements) in Figures 22 and 23, below.

 

The early sample, on the crane in the cube, undergoing measurements to ensure that it is ready to start the sound design process.
Figure 22: The early sample, on the crane in the cube, undergoing measurements to ensure that it is ready to start the sound design process.

 

bl90
Figure 23: An early production mode in the Cube.

 

  1. Hi Geoff –

    South Miami is a long way from here. I will keep that location in mind, but wouldn’t there be somewhere in Orlando or Tampa?

    Thanks,
    Gary Eickmeier

  2. Hi Geoff,

    Fascinating articles on audio and the Beolab 90. In fact I was inspired to go audition the Beolab 90 because I believe this is a real step forward in advancing speaker performance.

    Unfortunately, I had a rather poor audition because the B&O store I went to in Toronto did not set them up correctly. To start off, both speakers were playing the left channel. I was not impressed from the first listen, as the sound was dry and the imaging had no depth or width to it. Then by the second song I knew 100% why because there were some sounds that was almost completely missing, and it was only in the right channel (Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead Or Alive, the 4 notes in the right channel that happens in the first 10 seconds of the song).

    Even when that was corrected, the speaker still didn’t blow me away. The biggest problem was the imaging. The center image leaned to the right, and everything was very fuzzy. I could hardly locate the sound, let alone pinpoint the location. I did not really hear a difference between wide and narrow mode, which strongly suggests to me the speaker was improperly set up.

    The other problem was I didn’t feel the speaker didn’t sound anywhere near as detailed or, just flat out good sounding as I expected. I actually built a speaker myself with the same Illuminator D3004/602010 tweeter and a similar, but lower quality midrange (the Discovery 10F/8424G). I didn’t feel it really sounded better than my own speaker, which is nonsense. I have no fancy DSP algorithms, no room treatment, no directional steering, or fancy engineering in my speaker. I expected the Beolab 90 to completely blow my speaker away, but it didn’t. That has to be because the setup is faulty.

    On the good note, the bass absolutely blew me away. The best I’ve ever heard, bar none, from any speaker or subwoofer, and I’ve heard some extremely good subwoofers before being a bass head first and audiophile second. This is what I expected from the Beolab 90, to blow me away thinking this is the best I’ve ever heard, but in every audio performance category. Not a speaker that sounds like a good $5000 speaker instead (ignoring the 11/10 bass performance).

    That’s why I felt I needed to inform you of this. You’ve put a lot of work in this speaker, and I hate to see something amazing being crippled by poor setup. I’ve told the salesperson of my opinion. While he is a very nice man, and a class act throughout the audition, I don’t think he’s going to do anything about it. I’m hoping you can do something about it, because it’s an insult for a speaker like the Beolab 90 to sound like what I heard that day, and completely unacceptable for a store to set up a $80,000 flagship speaker so poorly that both speakers were playing the left channel.

  3. Hi Brian,

    Thanks for the heads-up – and the (very likely) correct diagnosis that something more than two left shoes speakers is wrong with the system that you heard. The description you give doesn’t sound like the Beolab 90 that I know…

    I’ll forward your comments on to some people internally and ask that they look into it.

    Thanks again!

    Cheers
    -geoff

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