Bass Management in Beosound Theatre

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

In a perfect sound system, all loudspeakers are identical, and they are all able to play a full frequency range at any listening level. However, most often, this is not a feasible option, either due to space or cost considerations (or both…). Luckily, it is possible to play some tricks to avoid having to install a large-scale sound system to listen to music or watch movies.

Humans have an amazing ability to localise sound sources. With your eyes closed, you are able to point towards the direction sounds are coming from with an incredible accuracy. However, this ability gets increasingly worse as we go lower in frequency, particularly in closed rooms.

In a sound system, we can use this inability to our advantage. Since you are unable to localise the point of origin of very low frequencies indoors, it should not matter where the loudspeaker that’s producing them is positioned in your listening room. Consequently, many simple systems remove the bass from the “main” loudspeakers and send them to a single large loudspeaker whose role it is to reproduce the bass for the entire system. This loudspeaker is called a “subwoofer”, since it is used to produce frequency bands below those played by the woofers in the main loudspeakers.

The process of removing the bass from the main channels and re-routing them to a subwoofer is called bass management.

It’s important to remember that, although many bass management systems assume the presence of at least one subwoofer, that output should not be confused with an (Low-Frequency Effects) LFE (Low-Frequency Effects) or a “.1” input channel. However, in most cases, the LFE channel from your media (for example, a Blu-ray disc or video streaming device) will be combined with the low-frequency output of the bass management system and the total result routed to the subwoofer. A simple example of this for a 5.1-channel system is shown below in Figure 1.

Figure 1: A simple example of a bass management system for a 5.1 channel system.

Of course, there are many other ways to do this. One simplification that’s usually used is to put a single Low Pass Filter (LPF) on the output of the summing buss after the signals are added together. That way, you only need to have the processing for one LPF instead of 5 or 6. On the other hand, you might not want to apply a LPF to an LFE input, so you may want to add the main channels, apply the LPF, and then add the LFE, for example. Other systems such as Bang & Olufsen televisions use a 2-channel bass management system so that you can have two subwoofers (or two larger main loudspeakers) and still maintain left/right differences in the low frequency content all the way out to the loudspeakers.

However, the one thing that older bass management systems have in common is that they typically route the low frequency content to a subset of the total number of loudspeakers. For example, a single subwoofer, or the two main front loudspeakers in a larger multichannel system.

In Bang & Olufsen televisions starting with the Beoplay V1 and going through to the Beovision Harmony, it is possible to change this behaviour in the setup menus, and to use the “Re-direction Level” to route the low frequency output to any of the loudspeakers in the current Speaker Group. So, for example, you could choose to send the bass to all loudspeakers instead of just one subwoofer.

There are advantages and disadvantages to doing this.

The first advantage is that, by sending the low frequency content to all loudspeakers, they all work together as a single “subwoofer”, and thus you might be able to get more total output from your entire system.

The second advantage is that, since the loudspeakers are (probably) placed in different locations around your listening room, then they can work together to better control the room’s resonances (a.k.a. room modes).

One possible disadvantage is that, if you have different loudspeakers in your system (say, for example, Beolab 3s, which have slave drivers, and Beolab 17s, which use a sealed cabinet design) then your loudspeakers may have different frequency-dependent phase responses. This can mean in some situations that, by sending the same signal to more loudspeakers, you get a lower total acoustic output in the room because the loudspeakers will cancel each other rather than adding together.

Another disadvantage is that different loudspeakers have different maximum output levels. So, although they may all have the same output level at a lower listening level, as you turn the volume up, that balance will change depending on the signal level (which is also dependent on frequency content). For example, if you own Beolab 17s (which are small-ish) and Beolab 50s (which are not) and if you’re listening to a battle scene with lots of explosions, at lower volume levels, the 17s can play as much bass as the 50s, but as you turn up the volume, the 17s reach their maximum limit and start protecting themselves long before the 50s do – so the balance of bass in the room changes.

Beosound Theatre

Beosound Theatre uses a new Bass Management system that is an optimised version of the one described above, with safeguards built-in to address the disadvantages. To start, the two low-frequency output channels from the bass management system are distributed to all loudspeakers in the system that are currently being used.

However, in order to ensure that the loudspeakers don’t cancel each other, the Beosound Theatre has Phase Compensation filters that are applied to each individual output channel (up to a maximum of 7 internal outputs and 16 external loudspeakers) to ensure that they work together instead against each other when reproducing the bass content. This is possible because we have measured the frequency-dependent phase responses of all B&O loudspeakers going as far back in time as the Beolab Penta, and created a custom filter for each model. The appropriate filters are chosen and applied to each individual outputs accordingly.

Secondly, we also know the maximum bass capability of each loudspeaker. Consequently, when you choose the loudspeakers in the setup menus of the Beosound Theatre, the appropriate Bass Management Re-direction levels are calculated to ensure that, for bass-heavy signals at high listening levels, all loudspeakers reach their maximum possible output simultaneously. This means that the overall balance of the entire system, both spatially and timbrally, does not change.

The total result is that, when you have external loudspeakers connected to the Beosound Theatre, you are ensured the maximum possible performance from your system, not only in terms of total output level, but also temporal control of your listening room.