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How long has this been going on?

24th November 2006 by Tim Jarman

One mark of good design is that it doesn’t have to change – the famous quote is that “good design is timeless”. A useful, well designed object remains so over a long period due to the care taken in its design. Truly great design remains attractive long after the novelty of a new product launch is forgotten. Like VW Beetles and Barcelona chairs, B&O products remain in production visually unchanged for far longer than is usual in the fast-moving electronics industry. This is due to the care taken in the initial design.

An early example of a long-running success is the Beomaster 3000. This mid-range FM receiver was sufficiently well equipped to satisfy the serious listener without being too big or complicated. Its format and concept were well suited to its role as the centrepiece of a quality audio system. Although the sources changed, all variations of the Beomaster 3000 (the 3000-2, the 4000 and the 4400) looked much the same as the original. It is interesting to note that when the Beomaster 3000 was launched there was no such thing as a “hi-fi” cassette deck, but when the 4400 was finally dropped the CD was only a year or so in the future.

On a larger scale, the Beosystem 5000 and its 5500, 6500 and 7000 successors enjoyed a long period as the B&O audio system of choice. The blend of familiar 4-box separates format and B&O’s sleek detailing created a system that was easy to relate to; it was both obviously a quality hi-fi system and obviously B&O. Ever-changing technology lead to countless detail revisions but colouring aside the first systems looked nearly identical to the last, produced nearly ten years later.

The design of B&O televisions is also noted for its timeless quality. The theme of a slim wooden cabinet, edged with metal trim and fronted in black with the screen occupying as much of the frontal area as possible runs through from the first colour models in the late 1960s to the final LX models of the mid 1990s. This styling theme might be dismissed as obvious and generic, but just compare B&O’s consistent designs with those of rival manufacturers whose sets show how many fashions have come and gone in television styling over this period.

The traditional TV sets demonstrate the development of an idea, but the MX range shows how a skilful piece of design can emerge fully formed and not need to change during the life of the product. Launched in the mid 1980s and current until B&O no longer produced CRT based televisions, the MX series demonstrates most clearly how well though-out designs defy ageing. The original MX 2000 may not have been up to much technically but as the series developed and B&O designed their own chassis to fit into the pretty, compact cabinet, some truly great sets resulted. True, the MX cabinet is easy to find fault with: the loudspeakers are too close together, the contrast screen attracts dust and the controls are awkwardly placed, but the advantages of the design more than compensate for these weaknesses. It is compact for the screen size, attractive from all angles and offers a flexibility of placement unmatched by any other full-size television set. Furthermore, it is distinctively a high quality product without being too showy or crass. The styling works best with the smaller 20 and 21″ models which have prefect proportions, though the larger ones also do a fine job of disguising the bulk of a 28″ tube.

There are long-running successes in the current range too. The Beolab 8000 dates from the early 1990s–a loudspeaker developed with the otherwise forgotten AV 9000 system in mind. The BeoSound 9000 has also had a long run, as has the recently discontinued BeoVision Avant. Can one expect more designs along similar lines? Perhaps.

Recently B&O have introduced models into new market areas where a fast-changing product line is not just expected, but required. The BeoSound 2 MP3 player and the Serene mobile telephone both compete against ranges from rival manufacturers where new additions appear monthly, so it will be a challenge for B&O to establish a timeless design here.

The larger products are also in a delicate position. B&O is increasingly reliant on third party manufacturers to provide the basis for their products. The DVD 1 had to be completely redesigned when the Philips model on which it is based was discontinued. Although it remained outwardly unchanged, the large cabinet was not actually necessary any more as it was mostly empty.

Televisions also represent a problem as the industry adapts to changing display technologies. The modern compact displays require very little cabinet work and offer limited scope for differentiation. Almost every manufacturer settled on the “correct” answer of a thin silver frame around a large black screen at the same time.

Taking the range as a whole, the manner in which audio and video material is stored and retrieved is changing. CDs are in decline and VHS and audio cassettes have all but disappeared. The medium on which music and video is stored defines so much of a product’s design – its size, its appearance and how a user interacts with it. The increased use of hard drives and the wider availability on-demand broadcasts are setting the trend for how we’ll store and use our music and video collections. Although the means of storage and delivery may change, it seems clear that computers will replace simple, easily understood mechanics in the systems of the future. The current interfaces are cumbersome, awkward and even obstructive. If B&O can make them as easy to use as some of their great designs of the past then maybe they could come up with another timeless classic, even in these difficult times.

<REC>

1st August 2005 by Tim Jarman

Imagine if you could read but not write. Most of the time it would make surprisingly little difference to what you do, you could still be reading this for example. However, there would definitely be something “missing” if you felt you did not have mastery over the complete process. You may also feel restricted if you could not originate your own material.

In audio-visual terms, recording is the equivalent of writing. B&O have, until recently, been at the forefront of offering recording machines, so why has this part of the range begun to lapse?

B&O were one of the first manufacturers to offer a magnetic recording machine for general sale after the Second World War. The wire recorder of 1948 allowed simple recordings to be made and replayed (magnetic tape had been invented but was not yet in general use). Recordings to be erased so that the media could be re-used, and recordings made on one machine could be replayed on any similar machine: this set the pattern of use for all useful domestic recording machines.

Despite B&O’s limited resources, their development of recording machines continued. By the mid 1960s this yielded, in the Beocord 2000 De Luxe, a machine that offered the home user the chance to produce recordings that were of a comparable quality to those that were possible in a studio. All in a compact package and at a price that was high, but not foolishly so.

A few years later B&O even added a video recorder to the range, but little credit can be taken for the Beocord 4000 (as it was known), for it was simply a Sony machine in a nice B&O wooden box, fitted with B&O metal knobs.

The Philips Compact Cassette, introduced in 1964, expanded home recording into a truly mainstream activity. Already a change was noticeable in the design of the recording machines, as it became clear that they would be used more for recording LP records and radio broadcasts than original material. The most noticeable causality of this change was that the microphone amplifier stages became less elaborate, and in some cases disappeared altogether. B&O expanded the usefulness of cassette technology by finding it a new role, time-shifting of radio programmes. Models such as the Beocenter 7000 of 1980 could make unattended timed recordings of pre-set radio programmes in much the same way that a video cassette recorder could record television. This was only possible in a straightforward and understandable way because of B&O’s expertise at integrating the timer, radio and recorder functions. This idea was perfected less than 10 years later with the Beocenter 9000, which could record many different programmes from a choice of stations for up to two hours without attention, but remained easy to program and operate.

The complexity of video recording meant that a small company like B&O were able to make less of an impact, though they offered a sensible and practical choice of machines from the early 1980s onwards. The initial adoption of the Philips Video 2000 system in the Beocord 8800 V may seem like a mistake in retrospect but the combination of technical superiority, operator convenience and the fact that it was a completely European format meant that at the time the decision was completely logical. A later change to VHS brought B&O in line with the trend the majority of the industry was following. With Beocord VX 5000, B&O showed that even if they lacked the resources to completely design and manufacture a machine themselves they certainly could specify to another manufacturer (Hitachi in this case) exactly what was required.

The situation today is somewhat different. The two currently available recording machines are the BeoSound 3200 and the HDR 1. The most important thing that they have in common is that their recording media is fixed, making recorder and recordings are inseparable. Compared to the pattern of domestic use set by the wire recorder of 1948, a deficiency is immediately clear. In addition, the BeoSound 3200, which includes a radio, can only record from compact disc. The possibilities of a hard disc based radio recorder are so great and so useful that they cannot have simply have been overlooked, more likely they have been blocked, but by who, or for what reason is unclear.

The HDR 1 seems more useful. Instant TV recording without tapes is indeed a boon, and when used in combination with the matching DVD 1 player all bases seem to be covered. However, while the HDR 1 offers greater storage capacity than a single video tape, once it is full the media cannot be removed and changed by the user. Archiving of favourite material using this device is therefore impractical, and programmes that the user may wish to have a permanent copy of then need to be bought on DVD, should the copyright owners wish to make them available.

Recordable DVD seems to be the recordable format of the moment, but at present it seems to be mired in a “format war” – a depressingly familiar occurrence. The technology itself is unsatisfactory, too. For example, playback of recordings is seldom (if ever) guaranteed in other machines. The useful life of the recorded discs is open to question too, and given the “all or nothing” nature of digital playback even the slightest deterioration is of serious concern.

Computer-based storage systems have no natural place in the B&O range either. The cumbersome nature of the requisite operating systems and the user interfaces required to control them are completely at odds with the design ideals behind previous B&O products. While it’s fairly straightforward to style a computer to look like a B&O product, it’s as good as impossible to give it a user interface as simple, smooth and slick as B&O’s customers expect.

The blame for the somewhat miserable situation that currently exists with home recording cannot be pinned on B&O. The company is far too small to influence the direction of the industry as a whole, and it is of course courting commercial disaster to attempt to introduce a format of its own. Even giants like Philips (with LaserVision, V2000, DCC and CDi) and Sony (with Elcaset, Betamax and to a lesser extent, Minidisc) have failed to bend the market in their direction.

Home recording stops when the companies who have the clout to introduce and sustain formats also own the studios and artists who generate the material. That is the case now.

Hundreds and Thousands

1st July 2005 by Tim Jarman

Numbering and naming of products is a difficult subject. Not only does there have to be some logic to the scheme, it also has to be attractive to the user and convey positive signals about the product and the company that made it. Car manufacturers know this subject the best of all, and mistakes can be costly.

B&O’s product numbering system evolved over the years, but it suffered from the same problem as every other numbering scheme: eventually all the numbers which fitted into it were used up. Before the range was popular in the UK, a simple system based on names/letters and a pair of numbers (to indicate the year) was used. This was well suited to a small range that changed every year and, most importantly, where products were designed to be used on their own and not built together into systems.

The Beomaster 900M introduced many things, including a numbering system that would last for the next 35 years. Simple product titles such as Beomaster, Beocord and Beogram, coupled with a large but simple number perfectly described the precision and accuracy of the product, whilst being easy for potential customers to remember. The system really came into its own when Beosystem 1200 was launched in 1970. Straight away one could tell which units were to work together, with the numbering providing a strong sense of unified purpose to the system as a whole.

Despite the large numbers used, the system could only really work if the numbers were memorable. In practice this meant leaving the last two digits as zeros (though in some cases the final digit was used to indicate improved versions of existing designs). There were other pitfalls, such as “unlucky numbers”. There never was a “1300″ model anywhere in the range: the Beomaster 1200‘s replacement was named Beomaster 1001. The system on the whole started out well though, and the music centres of the mid 1970s were particularly well numbered, with Beocenter 1400 being replaced by Beocenter 1500 and supplemented by Beocenter 1600 and Beocenter 1800, leaving the “Beocenter 1700″ tag unused for a completely logical addition to the range that never came. When this range was updated, 1000 was simply added to each number, so Beocenter 1600 became Beocenter 2600 and Beocenter 1800 became Beocenter 2800. This even held true for Beocenter 3600, which became the very popular Beocenter 4600.

However, in the end the inevitable happened and the numbers began to run out. The early 1980s saw the introduction of the second Beomaster 6000 in 7 years. The correct title for the original model was “Beomaster 6000 4channel“, so this was left to pass, but the turntable for the latter system had to be given the rather clumsy name of Beogram 6006.

A few years later a second Beomaster 5000 appeared, and although the original had been dropped in 1970, the matching Beocord 5000 recalled a model that had been in the range until very much more recently. The CD player for this system was given a non-standard title, “Beogram CD 50“, presumably so that the printing on the front panel took up no more room than that on the other units, such was the attention to detail and neatness in this range. The same period also saw the third use of the term “Beogram 3000“, a machine that was used in a system that shared a cassette deck with a more basic version, so “Beosystem 3000” was correctly constructed using the Beocord 2000. At a similar time, the large 6000/8000 ranges were in decline, with the final offering being Beomaster 6000, Beocord 8004 and Beogram 8002. Despite being more “8000″ than “6000″, this setup was sold as Beosystem 6000 (having previously been named Beolab 6000). The Beocenter 7000 also outgrew its numbering, and with 7000, 7002 and 7700 all used, the final version was confusingly called “Beocenter 7007“.

Things settled down later, with the 5000 and 3000 ranges being nicely replaced with the 5500 and 3300 and a new line of numbers being started with the Beocenter 9000. Around this time the TV range changed its naming to include a prefix denoting cabinet style (LX/MX), a sensible move as it allowed visually distinctive models with the same screen size to be grouped together. Only obscure models such as the Beosystem 10 hinted that the end could possibly be near for the numbering system as it stood.

The first important model to break from the traditional numbering was the BeoSound Century. The reasoning behind this was unclear, but perhaps realising that 5-figure numbers were cumbersome and “BeoSound 100″ sounded too obviously “entry-level”, the use of a name for a stand-alone product was sensible. However, this soon spread to the Beosystem 2500, which was re-named the “BeoSound Ouverture“, even though the no-cassette version retained its name of Beosystem 2300. The “old” numbering system made its last appearance on a major product with the BeoSound 9000, presumably a clever ploy to tempt owners of Beocenter 9000s who were considering replacing their equipment.

After a few years of confusion, a new numbering system has emerged. Thankfully the names have been dropped (such things are not normally sensible if the products are exported to a large number of countries) in favour of single digit numbers. This reflects the increasingly non-technical nature of the buyer of TV and radio equipment, who are more likely to recognise a potential purchase by appearance than by title. Of course, the new numbering scheme gives the product planners a clean sheet, at the expense of only allowing nine models in each range before either “recycling” or needing another new system. The sequential way in which the numbers have been assigned also brings problems, as it become very obvious when something has been discontinued or a number re-used.

From this we can predict that within the next 5 to 10 years there will be yet another method of distinguishing one model from another. The inspiration could come from anywhere – nature, legend, colours perhaps. The BeoSound Orange could be less than ten years away…

Pocket Money Masterpieces

1st June 2005 by Tim Jarman

There are lots of words that come to mind when thinking of B&O, but one is universal and ever present: expensive. In many cases the cost of the equipment is justified, the development of new technologies, the precision manufacture, the high quality materials, the fine finishes and the long term service backup all cost money, and for a small company to be able to provide all this at prices that are still reasonably affordable to the determined is really very impressive.

However, it may surprise you that you can own some of B&O’s best products for very little indeed. Whilst some of their earlier products are now highly valued, a few have slipped through the net and have oddly been ignored, despite offering performance that would not embarrass them even if compared to the current range.

Beocenter 3500

B&O is above all renowned for its audio systems so this is a good place to start. The stand-out model amongst the leagues of the ignored is undoubtedly the Beocenter 3500. This beautiful machine is fully described elsewhere on Beocentral, but it can be added here that if one wished to demonstrate that B&O products are not as well made now as they once were then this would be the example to use. Almost all of the exposed parts are solid metal and all the controls move with a well weighted precision that is simply not available with current user interfaces. The performance of each part is well up to scratch, particularly the amplifier, which gives a smooth, effortlessly powerful sound.

These models can be bought very cheaply, and unfortunately this means that they may need some attention. It is lucky that the high quality electronics have proved largely trouble free, normally replacement of the indicator lamps (fiddly but possible without soldering) and careful cleaning of the many switch contacts will restore the radio and amplifier to good working order. Serious blow-ups are rare, even at this age. Nice, original examples may even still have a full circuit diagram folded up inside to aid any more serious work in the unlikely event that this becomes necessary. The turntable can be more problematic, but normally the causes of incorrect operation are the seizure of old lubricants and misadjustment. The parts are large enough for any careful person to work through these problems if they are careful and methodical, careful study followed by cleaning and relubrication often pays dividends. Unlike later models with integrated pickups, the replaceable stylus can still be obtained without too much difficulty. B&O have also arranged for a new supply of belts too, though because of the round section the correct grade and diameter of o-ring cord makes a good substitute.

Beovox 3800

A system of this quality needs decent loudspeakers of course, and again the unfashionable end of the range can help. Most old B&O loudspeakers are worth avoiding as the foam roll-edges of the driver will have rotted away by now, requiring expensive repairs or replacement. An exception to this is the Beovox 3800, which hides a quite excellent loudspeaker in a plain rectangular wooden box. Because of their plain appearance these are often overlooked, but their full-toned sound would put many of the current offerings to shame. Drive unit problems are unusual, though to obtain maximum performance the capacitors in the crossover network should ideally be renewed with modern high-quality items. The crossover can be accessed by removing the fret, the woofer and the internal wadding first.

Beocord 1700/2200

If desired, you could complete this system with a cassette recorder, but this is where things get difficult. All cassette recorders are unfashionable at present, despite many of them being capable of excellent performance. A recording machine is a useful addition to any system, something which B&O seem to have overlooked in their current range.

Unfortunately, all cassette recorders are complicated and only work properly when in first-class mechanical order and set up carefully. There is a possibility though as the machine will cost you so little (if anything in some cases) that the cost of professional attention could be justified. A good model for the above system would be the Beocord 1700 or Beocord 2200. The electronic sections of these are daunting, though they are mechanically simple so you could always get this section in order yourself first to keep the costs down. However tempting it may seem, the Beocord 5000 (types 4705 and 4715) should be avoided since they are very difficult to get working properly. At the other end of the scale, the Beocord 900 is perhaps that bit too basic for regular use these days, though perhaps straightforward enough for the undemanding to learn some simple repair techniques on.

Beomaster 2200

Another unjustly ignored model is the Beomaster 2200. This really is one of the best B&O amplifiers ever, and has a highly commendable radio section too. It is not uncommon to find the hinged cover and the dial drive broken, but these mechanical issues can be worked through with patience and care. The electronics are assembled in a highly modular fashion which seemed odd at the time but may help the inexperienced repairer yield a working example from two broken ones. Being logical and careful are the keys to success here. The adjustment of the correct bias current in the output stages is important for top performance and reliable operation with these models, but if this seems a bit difficult to do at home a dealer with a service department should be able to do it for you.

Beovision 5502/8902

As well as being makers of fine audio equipment, B&O have also produced some truly excellent television sets. Big changes are occurring in TV design at the moment in the move away from traditional CRT sets to those employing various flat panel techniques, which has lead the fashion-conscious to discard the older models in quantity. Even B&O themselves will admit, if pushed, that sets employing cathode ray tubes still give the best results, so there are bargains to be had for the discerning.

The 33XX/77XX range is more or less the perfect television design. It’s compact, reliable and capable of outstanding performance. Despite even the youngest being nearly 20 years old, many are still in regular use and so they are easy to come by. Experience has shown this design to be the most rugged and reliable of all the Beovisions, helped no doubt by high quality components and low power consumption. For simple, high quality viewing there is none finer, at any price.

Even now there are plenty of good, tidy and properly working examples left, but a clean set with faults should not be dismissed out of hand. Repair and overhaul of any television is not recommended for the complete beginner, as there are too many risks, but for those with a bit of skill in this area these sets are a delight to work with. They are quite complex but the chassis is fully modular and there are plenty of scruffy sets available which can be used as donors. Even a tired tube is not a disaster, the types fitted to these models were widely used across the industry, with the exception of the 20″ version which is not used in any other set sold in the UK. A bit of searching should yield something suitable, though tube life was never really the problem with these sets that it became with later models. Cracked solder joints and noisy pre-set controls seem to be the cause of most of the problems, and neither should be too difficult or expensive to resolve. There are many versions, but the Beovision 5502 (small) and Beovision 8902 (very large) seem to be the best.

With care, one can enjoy B&O quality without massive outlay. Care, attention to detail and a willingness to try things will perfectly substitute for hard cash. Keep a lookout, it’s amazing what’s out there.

BeoLab 9 Speculation

21st May 2005 by Nick Jarman

This article originally appeared my own website, before the BeoLab 9 loudspeaker was launched. At the time of writing, the speaker was expected to be named BeoLab 4 but I have updated all references to that name to avoid confusion.

There’s been plenty of speculation about what the third loudspeaker in B&O’s acoustic lens range will look like. The fact that it is under development is well-known, as is the fact that it will be positioned in the range between BeoLab 3 and BeoLab 5.

Here’s my concept, which mixes features of BeoCom 2 and the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai. Forming the aluminium enclosure may be problematic as it is curved and has a variable diameter. However, B&O have managed this on a smaller scale for the BeoCom 2, so it would be a good way for them to demonstrate how far their expertise in aluminium manufacture extends.

B&O’s designs used to be composed almost entirely of straight lines, but recently they have been dominated by curves. The new designs have a radially different appearance to the current ones. A decade or so ago, new designs evolved gradually from existing ones, but now each new product seems to have an entirely individual appearance. Despite this, they are still somehow instantly recognisable as coming from B&O. So it seems clear that any new speaker design would have an entirely different appearance to anything in the current range, making plenty of use of curves.

The inspiration for this design was to attempt to integrate the curves of the acoustic lens into the design as fully as possible. Viewed from the front, the contours of the acoustic lens are picked up by the edge of the black speaker fret. This describes a smooth loop which arcs from the top of the lens, descending almost to the bottom of the speaker, before returning to the opposite side of the lens.

From the side, the back of the lens continues the line of the back of the main enclosure, while the front makes a smooth transition into the side of the speaker fret. How these lines resolve themselves in three dimensions is conveniently left out of these drawings – they are just intended to be a rough concept!