Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Big 'Bang & Olufsen A1' Review

I love music, and I also love portable speakers. Over the years, I've demoed quite a few to replace my Bose SoundDock which I've had for 10 years now. But I wanted something smaller. (The Bose is about 503 in³ and 5.2lbs) But I needed it to still be loud and sound great.

I decided to try Bang & Olufsen's Beoplay A1. (43 in³ at 1.3lbs) B&O is known for their design and craftsmanship of home entertainment products. Designed by Cecilie Manz for Bang & Olufsen, the A1 doesn't disappoint in the design factor.

Packaging is clean and simple. A bit snug sliding the bottom half out, but the weight of the A1 helps. Inside you'll find the speaker, a USB-C charging cable with the B&O logo, and a quick start manual. That's it. No charging block or case. Very bare. A nice velvet pouch would've been nice specially for $250. But all that aside, the speaker itself is beautiful. Sophisticated, classy, and refined. The aluminum dome is perfectly sculpted and has a very luxurious feel to it. The base is made of a rubber-like material and helps keep the speaker stable when set down on a surface. The buttons are hidden and spread around the base area, along with a 3.5mm input jack and USB-C port. The speaker comes with a leather strap which you can use to hang the speaker on a hook while you're indoors or on a tree branch when you're outdoors.

Pairing the Beoplay with your phone is easy. Turn the speaker on. Press and hold the Bluetooth button til the white power indicator flashes blue. Select the A1 on your phone's Bluetooth list, and you're done. You can also download the free Beoplay app which allows for some basic tone functions. It lists preset EQ curves as 'warm, excited, relaxed, and bright'. There is some benefit to using the EQ, but the speaker naturally sounds good that other than the initial novelty of the EQ, I leave it off most of the time.

I was preparing myself to be underwhelmed by the audio quality. Usually, when a speaker is this compact, the first thing that gets compromised is the bass. B&O claims the A1 can go as low as 60Hz. Your ears will confirm that claim. Not only does it reproduce adequate bass, it does it accurately and cleanly. No muddiness or distortion. No hollow sound. Quite an amazing feat for such a compact speaker. The treble is smooth and controlled. Not harsh or ear grating. Very pleasant. Although the A1 shines with classical, jazz, and ambient tracks, it does justice to rock, electronica, house and even dubstep. With bass heavy tracks, I found that keeping the volume at around half maintains the bass balance of the track. But what if you want more bass at a higher volume level?

Then get a second Beoplay A1!

For true stereo or ambient audio. Adding a second A1 increases its performance dramatically. Pairing can be done via the Beoplay app, but any EQ presets you have will be turned off when paired with another A1. You can also pair two A1s without the Beoplay app, I've found this method more reliable. To pair the speakers without the use of the app:

  1. Turn on the first speaker, you'll heard a power on beep and the indicator light will be white.
  2. Press and hold the Bluetooth button. Indicator will start flashing blue for about five seconds then it will start flashing white.
  3. Wait about 20 seconds for a second beep then turn on the second A1.
  4. Press and hold the Bluetooth button on the second A1 for five seconds until the light starts flashing white.
  5. Wait a while, then you'll see the indicator lights on both speakers sync up then glow a steady white.
  6. Now connect your phone to the first speaker, this will be the Master speaker as well as the LEFT audio channel. The second speaker will be the Slave speaker as well as the RIGHT audio channel.

And how do two paired A1s sound? Like bringing your home stereo system out with you where ever you go! Seriously good portable audio. Although at this price point, you may be asking why not just get the Beolit 15 or 17? It's louder and the bass is a lot deeper. So why choose two A1s over the larger Beolit 15? It boils down to a matter of preference and purpose. Two A1s (100 in³ and 2.6lbs for two) are still easier to pack and carry than a single Beolit 15 (358 in³ and 5.7lbs). Two A1s can be spread out over two rooms to play different music in each room. Two A1s can be stereo paired to give much better imaging and ambient audio. You'll definitely be happy with either purchase, but for my needs, I chose to have two A1s that can be used together or separately.

Now, it's not all party all day and night with the Beoplay A1. There are limitations that come with the compact size, great audio, and relatively low price (low for B&O anyway). And partying all day and night is one of those limitations. To be specific, a short battery life. B&O claims 24 hours of playback at moderate levels. This probably means about 25% volume. Because anywhere close to 50-60% volume, that rating drops to about 6 hours. Crank that up to 70% or more and you're looking at maybe 2-3 hours max.

The other limitation is related to the stereo pairing. The range is extremely short. Bluetooth has an effective range of about 30ft. The A1 can only be about 8ft apart with a CLEAR LINE OF SIGHT. Any obstruction within that 6ft of separation and you will start getting dropouts on the slave speaker. The more realistic distance is about 4-5ft. I'm guessing power to the Bluetooth chip was limited to minimize the effect on the already short battery life. Either that or the beautiful aluminum dome acts as a Faraday cage and shortens Bluetooth range. Either way, this limits how far you can place the speakers from each other when paired. Another limitation of stereo pairing is that it doesn't work if the source is a line-in source. So only Bluetooth streamed audio will work for the stereo pairing.

With regards to the design, my only complain are the buttons. They look great hidden behind the rubber bottom but they're not very easy to press. Now, this can be a good or a bad thing. It does prevent accidental presses but it also makes actually pressing the button quite difficult. Even though there's minimal interaction with the buttons, when you do need to use them it takes a bit of hunting to actually find the right one and press it. The tiny icons make the control surface look clean and very minimalist but the lack of tactile indicators means you have to actually look for the symbols to know which button you're actually pressing.

Are any of these deal breakers? Not for me. I'd rather take the time to memorize the button locations and work around the limited Bluetooth range just to be able to use these wonderful sounding works of art. If you want a Bluetooth speaker that is small and easy to pack for traveling, sounds like a home hi-fi system anywhere you go, and looks like tiny work of art, then the Beoplay A1 is the speaker you've been waiting for.

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