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Friday, November 14, 2014

Review: Bang & Olufsen Beoplay A2 - the sounding purse (not for House lovers)


Shorty after the announcement of the B&W T7 also Bang & Olufsen announced their own vision of a true portable speaker with omnidirectional sound, a claimed 24 hours battery life, recharging of external devices and max. 180W!! sound... well, too good to be true? All those specs come with a price and this is 399$ or 349€, which makes the A2 even more expensive than the B&W T7 at least in the US because in Europe both cost the same. For the price of one Beoplay A2, you could also have an Infinity One thanks to the recent price drop and still have enough left to buy an extra JBL Charge 2, at least in the US.
So let's find if the Beoplay A2 is really worth the extra and how it compares to the current line of portable Bluetoothspeakers particularly with regard to its direct competitor from B&W.


Within audiophile circles Bang & Olufsen always had a similar reputation to Bose. They were both smiled at by serious audio fanatics claiming both companies to produce overpriced piece of junk that doesn't sound good.
I am not so sure if these flamed companies in reality didn't manage to make the better products in the end, at least in regard to consumer friendly portable speakers.
The Beoplay A2 is the first portable Bluetooth speaker for Bang & Olufsen. They already had some stationary dockinstation models like the Beoplay A8, or a portable Airplay-Boombox Beolit 12, and I must confess that all of those that I have heard sounded pretty good in contrast to some "real audiophile" companies like Bowers & Wilkins, whose products never managed to thrill me much. Both B&W and B&O were priced higher than the competition, but those from Bang & Olufsen sounded much more exciting to me.
In the meantime I found an interesting blog from Bang & Olufsen's "Tonmeister" and sound designer Geoff Martin who shares some interesting insights into B&O's philiosphy of speaker design. Especially the videos 1 and 2 of how B&O designs their speakers is quite informative. Some of the mentioned approaches to optimize directivity do directly apply to portable speakers as well, that's why B&O obviously decided to make the Beoplay A2 an omnidirectional speaker, which is still quite rare among serious portable speakers as most simply rely on conventional design with fullrange drivers that have a strong directivity especially with treble. Instead of copying old and unfavorable speaker concepts, B&O obviously tried to improve on many problems of existing portable speakers and create something that really stands out of the crowd.
Unlike your hifi-stereo which most of the time will be fixed and maybe even equalized for a flat response on your exact listening position, portable speakers do profit from the possibility of being carried around and placed wherever you need them. But only speakers with a broad sound dispersion or even better full omnidirectional sound make sense to be placed completely free, otherwise you could just use your portable speaker in the same way as your fixed hifi-system and place it somewhere against a wall as far from you as possible to get the broadest sound dispersion.
My biggest complain about most portable speakers so far was that they only sounded convincing (if they managed to sound convincing at all due to the restrictions of their small sizes etc) exactly or close to on-axis. One extreme example was the Bose Soundlink Mini, which sounded very mature and far beyond its size regarding bass response. It didn't have much treble extension though as it already started rolling off above 12kHz, but when aimed directly at the listener the sound was still acceptable to one who liked Bose's typical bass accentuated sound tuning. Unfortunately the Soundlink Mini aimed away from the listener just slightly would already result in a boomy muffled mess. I always felt forced to turn the speaker around towards me whole the time, therefore I finally sold it, because I got bored because of this. Outdoor when together with some friends you couldn't just put it somewhere in the center, because only one person would get good sound, assumed the speaker was also tilted upwards to focus the sound to ones head instead of ones feet.
I already have some experience with different omnidirectional speakers like the Libratone Zipp, the Fugoo, or even the FoxL Dash 7 when placed flat. Such speakers have a big advantage over speakers that have a more focused sound and will only give you satisfying sound within their narrow sweetspot (as it was exactly the case with the Soundlink Mini). Thus my hope was big for the Beoplay A2 to offer some particular performance and stick out of the competition.


The Beoplay A2 comes in 3 different colours. It is hard to decide which one looks best, but I have seen all of them live, and I think the black one to be a bit too boring. The green one might be even looking best, despite being "green". I went for the grey one as I expected it to be rather silver. From the official images on the B&O site the speaker looked as if it was made completely of aluminium or at least it looked shiny, but in reality only the slim center part is aluminum, the entire rest of the speaker is just simple plastic. The grey one reminds me a little bit of a wall plug, as those have exactly the same color, thus resulting in a slightly cheap look. Although I prefer the golden colour of the aluminium body most, the grey color spoils the entire look. The green version has a nice reddish brown wrist-strap, which makes a pretty contrast to the hefty green colour. With black everything is black, which some might still like if they want it as simple as possible.


If you care about classy packaging, you will love the one from B&O. Open the box and you will immediately notice the premium tag to it, the interior of the box is lined with some black velvet compared to the simple carton/paper interior of the B&W T7 packaging at least with B&O you know what you are paying for. Inside you will find the speaker and a proprietary charger with some international plugs. Obviously the Beoplay A2 cannot be charged through USB which is a pity.


The speaker itself definitely looks and feels nice, the design is timeless and the fact that some of the grille-holes are covered gives a particular accent. But the A2 doesn't put over that kind of premium finish I was expecting especially regarding the price. An Infinity One feels much better and more expensive, maybe partly because of the uncommon ceramic-coating. The A2 design is quite minimalistic, you only get some control buttons at the top and some ports at the side, nothing else. There are enough companies that would willingly spoil the great design by spangling it with some huge logo covering half of the front or back. Kudos to B&O for adding just a mall sign at the top of the speaker and an even more minuscule one at the strap-knob.



The A2 is not very compact, it is about the size of the original Bose Soundlink and a bit bigger than the B&W T7. It has 1.3l cubature which puts it on par sizewise with speakers like the TDK A33 or the Infinity One with the only difference that the A2 is much slimmer and manages to pretend a much smaller size than the others which rather might appear clunky but otherwise use exactly the same space.


Together with the rounded edges the A2 is much easier to be packed away. Even though the T7 might have an overall smaller cubature, the A2 is nevertheless more convenient to transport, also because of the dedicated wrist strap. You can carry it around like a simple bag, or pinch it under your arm like some men's purse, it really feels comfortable like that, as there are no hard edges, and it is more secure to carry than an Infinity One, which is hardly to grab with one hand because of its thickness.


It is just not that easy to handle the Beoplay A2 bag-like. If you carry it with the handle and want to put it down, it would stand upright, but only at the bottom side are some small rubber feet, not on the shorter side opposite to the wrist strap.

 
If you want to place it on stone or concrete, you will probably quickly scratch that part of the speaker. It is a pity the desingers didn't add some additional feet at that shorter side too or simply some additional rubber coating at the edges. Also when carrying the speaker with the handle with the intent of placing it down, you will probably come in trouble with just one hand. The handle is at the short side, but the speaker has to be placed at the longer bottom side, when just hanging there upright it is not easy to place it without affecting the edge of the speaker somehow, not if you don't use the other hand to turn it around first. You could of course place it upright first, afterwards turn it around to the side, but as already mentioned, there is no protection or any kind of feet at the shorter sides, thus putting the speaker on harder surfaces for quite often might damage the plastic sides.



As the plastic covers are deattachable, I could even imagine them as spare parts, although I am not sure B&O would offer them separately, which is to hope, as the Beoplay A2 will probably fall over quite often thanks to its slim design. While the flat design might be favorable for packing or transport, it is not that ideal for secure positioning. The small feet at the bottom are less than 3cm apart while the speaker is more than 14cm high, or even 25cm if placed upright. It stands very wobbly especially on slightly uneven surfaces. Better to place some cushions all around, just in case it tips over thanks to some wind maybe...


I didn't manage to place it on my sofa for example. But also outdoors on the ground it is nearly impossible to make it stand. Even if you manage, it will fall over shortly after. You have to apply some tricks to make it stand on a lawn, or you can try to find a branch or something where you can let it hang.

 
Of course you might just lay it down flat, and it would even work like that, but you will cover one speaker side and lose one stereo-channel because of that. In a pinch it will be still usable, but it definitely sounds better when standing. I sometimes even had the impression as if the A2 was sounding better when standing upright, which might be a result from the tweeter being farther away from the reflecting surface unterneath, I cannot say for certain, but there is definitely a difference in sound depending on whether placed horizontally or vertically.


When turning the speaker on it will play an unremarkable click-like sound, if pairing is successfull a similar tone will be played, as well as when the speaker is turned off again. The tone is not very loud, and much less obtrusive than that from the Infinity One, the JBL Charge 2 etc. let alone the Pill XL. I can definitely live with such a kind of sound and prefer it over the virtuosic harp-playing you hear when you turn on the B&W T7.
Bluetooth connection is pretty simple, just keep the Bluetooth-button pressed for 2 seconds and it will jump into pairing mode, there is no additional NFC for even quicker pairing though. The A2 supports AptX if your non-Apple device supports that too and it can connect to 2 devices simultanously. The 2 devices must have been paired to the speaker at least once, so that they can both connect to the speaker at the same time. Otherwise you will have to break up the connection to one device if you want to pair it with the other one first. Unfortunately the A2 always wants to connect to the latest paired device. If you have more devices already paired to it, it will still always expect the latest one and ignore to automatically connect to the others except if you force the connection directly from the device. Volume control is mirrored between speaker and the connected device at least on iOS devices and the A2 offers 32 volume steps which are subdivided sensibly to allow for some fine volume control even at lowest levels, unlike all the recent speakers from JBL, Infinity, Beats etc...
Bluetooth connection seemed quite OK and stable without any hickups or drop outs but it was not class-leading. It was stable as long as the distance between speaker and streaming device didn't get too far, but my old Soundlink Wireless Music System managed to keep the connection at much longer distances, while the A2 had already lost connection from the same spot.
I noticed some stronger mobile network interference from my mobile phone. When the phone was placed closer to the speaker and started searching for a network etc, it was easily hearable through the A2. It seems as if shielding was not really well executed. Especially with the phone attached to the speaker for charging lying next to it resulted in repeated interference noises. Only switching it into flight-mode did help.


The A2 will charge external devices through the built in USB-port. The speaker has to be turned on for charging though. Some speakers can be turned off again and will continue to charge, it doesn't seem to be the case with the A2 though. Some will probably be missing speakerphone ability, the A2 just doesn't offer that. There is no track-control available through the speaker either, so you will always need your player at hand to stop or resume music, skip to the next track etc.


Now some technical data: The speaker is driven by a claimed 60W D-class amplifier with max. 180W power!!! Not sure how B&O calculates those values, but 60W would be extremely powerful for the given size, let alone 180W outperforming even larger speakers like the Bose Sounddock Portable, which only has 40W. The Infinity One has a claimed 25W amplifier only but will play louder with more bass than the A2.
There is a 3" fullrange driver together with an additional tweeter and a passive radiator at each side of the speaker. If you take the speaker grille off, you can see the "heart" of the Beoplay A2 quite well. It is interesting to spot that the drivers are slightly offset at the front and back part of the speaker, particularly noticeable with the tweeter which is close to the edge at the front, but closer to the center at the back. Also the main drivers are placed slightly differently for the front and back part of the speaker. I am not sure if this is for acoustic reasons or if it is pure coincidence due to some internal design limitations. But when looking at the speaker up front, you will have the front driver at the right side, while the non visible back driver will be left hand. The same goes for the tweeters. This setup allows for some increased stereo-separation which is pretty obvious on the Beoplay A2 compared to most other speakers. As you also hear the back drivers bleeding through to the front slightly, there will not only be a front/back separation but also left/right. More on that effect later.


With the grille taken off and peeking a bit closer you will notice an additional USB-port at the front side. I assume this to be there for update reasons. Hopefully it will also get some use for possible future firmware improvements. On the back side you will have probably noticed the additional cover. I guess the battery to be hidden behind. As you can probably imagine the whole available space looks a bit small, and I wonder what kind of battery might fit in there being able to drive a "180W" amplifier. At least the battery seems easily replaceable, I hope so because I found the real battery life to be a bit intermittent. The first day of usage I got about 4 hours out of it. I was using it mainly outdoors at higher levels sometimes close to maximum, sometimes much lower, but suddenly the speaker cut the volume by half with the red charging LED starting to blink. I didn't pay much attention to that and thought it probably wasn't fully charged yet. But the next day the same happened again. I let the speaker play fully charged for maybe 2-3 hours at home at comfortable levels around half volume, then took it outdoors for a walk and started to crank it until the volume again dropped to half after maybe another 2 hours of playing. Alltogether I got probably 6-7 hours, of which 1 hour was close to maximum volume. The A2 is not the loudest speaker I have heard, a Pill XL is much louder, so I wouldn't call the top volume of the A2 ear-splitting loud, especially not outdoors, where you won't hear it that much anymore from some meters distance. Therefore I tried a stress-test and let the A2 play fully-charged at its maximum volume to see how long it will play. After 50 minutes the volume dropped again to half, you will also hear a short triple-beep when this happens, then the speaker continued to play for another 50 minutes at half volume until it turned off completely which would result in a battery life of 1:40, only half of that at maximum volume. Quite a bit different from the claimed 24 hours. Of course I never expected 24 hours at maximum volume, but if someone states the speaker to play up to 24 hours, I would expect 5-10 hours cranked, but not even less than one hour. I also noticed that after the first 50 minutes of playing maxed out the A2 became quite hot, it seems as if the amplifier was just too powerful, or simply not efficient enough to be powered by the built in battery. The next day I tried another test to see if I could somehow reach 24 hours. I set the A2 to a level slightly below half, which would result in some comfortable listening volume at home, and I got 13 hours until the red LED lit up, then the speaker continued to play for around 2 hours and turned off on its own after that. 15 hours slightly below half volume is still not even close to 24 hours. I really wonder how B&O calculated the running time, with letting the speaker play at 20% only? You will hardly be able to hear it like that. The problem is that even when keeping it at lower levels as soon as you turn it up higher for some tracks, it will cut the battery life considerably. Just forget being able to use the A2 at some outdoor event with friends where you might need higher volumes. This is a pity and a real dealbreaker at least for me. I remember how upset I was about the provided battery life for the Bose Sounddock Portable, which according to Bose should be 4 hours only. When I finally got the Sounddock Portable on my own I was able to squeeze out more than 12 hours at quite reasonable levels (higher than half volume of the A2). Later I read that the claimed 4 hours were simply related to the maximum volume. Meanwhile also Bose changed their strategy and they specify the battery life at some notional volume level now, you can either get more or less out of a charge "depending on volume and music content". I am really quite disappointed about the 24 hours claim for the Beoplay A2, because in reality I doubt anyone will ever be able to reach that value. As the Beoplay A2 has no battery level indicator of any type and unfortunately you won't even get an own battery symbol on your phone, it is hard to estimate the remaining battery life, especially if it varies that much between low volume and high volume playback. The only thing you will get is a red LED close to the charging plug, which indicates the battery to be close to empty soon.

When judging the sound of a speaker I think the first impression you get is very important. Playing the first tunes you might sometimes even get the impression that the speaker was broken (this is what I got when I first listened to the B&W T7) then slowly getting used to it to finally persuade yourself that it doesn't sound that bad in reality. Or you might start smiling after the first notes of a song, which was the case, when I tried the B&O Beoplay A2 for the very first time.
Let me begin with the fact, that the A2 is definitely not a "neutral" or flat sounding speaker. It has some colorations for sure. You will probably hear some humps with higher frequencies, some dips with mids and upper bass too, but overall sound is nevertheless pleasant and not fatiguing in any way, it is just that you will probably hear the sound to be sculpted quite a bit and not 100% faithful to the original recording. It is equally sculpted as what Bose usually does to make their speakers sound "better". But B&O did this with much more finesse and with more style. Listening to the A2 makes fun and wants to make you actually listen to your favorite songs again to hear how they will sound, while when listening to the B&W T7 I never wanted to listen for too long, as it didn't give me any satisfaction.
Overall I would roughly describe the sound of the A2 as treble-friendly with lots of deep bass, but without any artificial basst boost and slightly recessed mids at the same time.
Treble is very clear and detailed but boosted too much to be called flat and tending to sound a bit sharp on some tracks, but at the same time it hardly rolls-off even when listened exactly from the side of the speaker, which you will usually avoid doing under normal circumstances. But you could even put the A2 directly on the floor and listen standing from above without having a too strong treble loss, placed near the floor will also pronounce bass even more, which you may like or not, depending on the music. Of course it sounds clearest when listened exactly on axis (and with the speaker grille taken off, yes I did also some measurements to compare the sound with and without speaker grille, and the speaker grille definitely takes away some of the treble), but even when listened from less than optimum positions it will still sound clearer than many other speakers listened perfectly aligned. This is a 360° speaker, so you might even stand behind it and still get the same sound. Some might counter that nobody needs a speaker playing in all directions, I tend to contradict, because for a portable speaker this is the best you can get. Just put it anywhere and you should be able to move around without losing much quality. Try that with any Bose speaker, and come back again for discussion.
Mids sometimes seem to be covered a little bit. It is not that obvious when listenening solely to the A2, but switching between different speakers you will sometimes get the impression as if the singer was singing through a funnel. There is some coloration that makes the A2 sound quite a bit different than most other speakers pretending a "flat response", like the B&W T7 for example. It is definitely a matter of taste too, but I rather prefer the colored sound of the A2, than the lifeless and boring sound of the T7. B&O obviously tuned this speaker to make it sound pleasant instead of trying to tune it for the most neutral sound reproduction. As it is more demanding for a portable speaker to sound good at any position, I am quite sure that the intention behind the A2 tuning was exactly to make it sound good at many different places one might think of. Portable speakers are different, and B&O finally seem to be the ones who really figured that out, while other companies try to translate their common old school Hifi-knowledge into portable speakers and fail.
Bass is the other more impressive part of the A2 as it reaches very deep, maybe even deepest of any comparable speakers I have heard so far. I heard clean bass notes down below 50Hz, but not only as slight hints of bass with a much lower amplitute, but real bass. Most other comparable speakers hardly manage to reach 60Hz. Of course you won't get any subwoofer-like bass at higher loudness levels, as the Beoplay A2 will also reduce bass to some degree as soon as you start raising the volume, it is just the same as with all the other small portable speakers out there, no particular magic going on here. But up to medium volume you will get a much more full-bodied sound than from any of those (including Bose Soundlink III, Infinity One etc). At the same time bass from the Beoplay A2 is not overly boosted, it is just deep, so it should still sound very natural for those who do not like any artificial bass. What surprised me a bit was that B&O decided not to include any form of loudness compensation. Usually B&O are known for optimizing the sound with their own loudness curves, not so with the A2. It will sound equal at the lowest setting, as it will at medium volume. It is just that bass is starting to get more and more reduced the higher you turn it. Unfortunately at really low levels, let's say the first notches, it will sound a bit too flat for my taste. You have to turn it up some more notches to get a satisfying amount of bass. I found the Sony SRS-X3 to sound more impressive at comparably low levels, it was only at higher levels, where the advantage of the A2 became obvious.
As the bass has no particular boost, you can even try positioning the Beoplay A2 near a wall or corner (I would avoid doing so with most Bose speakers). You will lose the whole 360° feature like that, but you can pronounce bass even more without making it drone, because the boomy frequencies above 100Hz are kept relatively conservative. With some particular placements you can really get the impression as if you were listening to a much larger system, while with other placements the A2 might also sound a bit thin or flat, as I would call it, because it never sounds tinny, but sometimes the bass is not as pronounced as other times. The A2 seems to be more sensitive to placement in regard to bass response than other speakers. I am not sure what is the reason for that, but the A2 can sometimes sound either big or small, depending on where you place it or where you are standing. I assume room modes are to blame for that. The A2 has lots of bass down to 50Hz and even lower, while many rooms have a resonance between 50-60Hz. In such a case, all the deeper part of the bass will get cancelled out, if the speaker or listener both catch a negative room-mode. Other speakers have more upper bass and won't even reach that deep, thus will probably sound more full-bodied, as the room won't have that much influence on the upper bass frequencies, this is just an assumption though, but I got this impression when I was listening to the Beoplay A2 and JBL Charge 2 side by side. Sometimes the JBL sounded considerably fuller with stronger bass while the A2 standing right beside left a much flatter impression. Other times the A2 had a huge advantage where you could hear deeper bass notes, that were simply not present on the JBL Charge 2 regardless of positioning.  I was nevertheless quite surprised to hear how nice and natural the A2 sounded outdoors standing completely free, as it managed to sound more impressive than inside when placed badly.
What is a bit missing on the A2 is some stronger upper bass punch that you will notice with bassdrums. It seems to me as if the A2 was simply relying on its deep-bass impact, but falling a bit short of the stronger punch you get when there might be some slight upper bass ephasis. Bassdrums often seemed to miss attack, instead you could more hear the lower decay part, thus overall bass felt a bit flabby.
This deeper bass tuning comes at a cost though. First I didn't notice it that much, but the more I listened to the A2 and the more different tracks I tried, the more it became obvious. The A2 can suffer from some considerable bass-distortion with particular recordings. The overall sound remains pretty clean even at maximum volume, there is neither any kind of intermodulation distortion nor crackling etc. everything is well under control, except bassdrums which can start to drone already below half volume. I listened a lot and nailed it down to mostly electronic drums, which can cause problems on the A2. These typcial housekicks you know from the legendary TR-909/808 drum machines, which are still so popular nowadays (or rather samples or clones of them) can make the A2 sound really bad. The problem becomes obvious from the 15th volume step upwards, which is one step below half volume. Some house tracks with really punchy bassdrums will start to distort with a sound similar to "whoop, whoop", funny thing is that it won't become much worse anymore at even higher levels, it is just this one step below half volume where everything starts to break apart, below that step everything sounds clean, even the strongest kicks will remain deep and profound.
If you like Housemusic or other forms of danceable genres, you won't be happy with the A2. Many of my favorite tracks sounded plain unlistenable when I tried turning them past half volume. The problem is that you will find these kind of electronic bassdrums in most other modern music genres, starting from Hiphop to Smoothjazz, Pop, R'n'B and even "Deutsche Schlager". If a track is prone to this problem, it won't satisfy when listened through the A2. I wouldn't complain if this issue appeared at really high levels only. Many other speakers have similar problems, I noticed that both Soundlink Mini and the Soundlink III sometimes also tended to produce some kind of bubbly bass-artefacts on particular tracks, either with bassdrums, or even with bass-notes, but those only appeared when the speaker was closer to its limits. They could then go away at even higher levels as bass was reduced stronger or dynamics compression kicked in making this problem less obvious. But in case of the A2 this already can happen at half volume, which is really sad because it doesn't become better, nor does it become much worse at higher levels. If you hear it once, you will catch yourself looking for it in any other new track. Many of my favorite tracks from Brian Culbertson, Jonathan Fritzen, who seem to have a special liking for electronic drums simply sounded bad through the A2, particularly some of Brian's smooth ballads from his album "It's On Tonight", where he uses lots of fat drumkicks even on his slowest tracks.
I don't think that this is real driver-overload. I rather think that this is a badly tuned DSP or compression algorithm. The A2 seems to subdue any louder peaks of a bassdrum quite efficently but at the same time the decay-part of the bassdrum is raised too high for the driver at the given loudness level. Especially with House music this algorithm will result in music sounding mushy without any drive the punch of the kickdrums compressed away nearly completely. When listening to the same songs through the JBL Charge 2 or Infinity One there is also some noticeable compression going on, but it sounds more musical still being able to keep most of the attack of a bass-drum. If you like House and want higher volumes, you should avoid the Beoplay A2. It just doesn't sound good, it rather sounds good with acoustic music, smooth music not too heavy on bass etc. I would also avoid overly bright recordings as the A2 is pretty bright sounding on its own.
Of course due to the back/front driver layout sound can appear more diffuse on the A2 at times, because half of it is always projected backwards away from the listener. Songs with lots of stereo separation may sometimes sound as if you were listening to a speaker from the back. If a track has some instruments mixed to the far left while others are placed to the extreme right in the stereo-image, half of them will sound more distant, because you will hear them rather as indirect reflections bouncing off your room than the directly hitting sound from the front drivers. I was nevertheless quite amazed by the openness of the A2's sound. It is airy and spacious and manages a hint of stereo separation too, unlike most other similar speakers. The stereo separation you get from the A2 is not distinct, rather more washed-out but still discernible so that it manages to add lots of ambience to the music. With the speaker placed closer you will not only get obvious left/right separation, but also a kind of front/back separation which manages to spread the sound better inside a room and is still noticeable from some distance too.The A2 tends to sound much bigger while other comparable speakers rather resemble a single point-source soundwise. With the A2 you can get a bit of an impression as if some "soundcloud" was floating around the speaker, this is remarkable and much more satisfying than the usual mono-sound you get from most single cabinet "stereo" speakers. Even if the sound of the A2 will appear a bit washed out it is still preferable than an ordinary speaker listened from an angle which will also result in a washed out sound but still coming from a single focused point source.

Of course I wanted to prepare some audio recordings, so that you could compare the sound of the Beoplay A2 with the B&W T7, but this particular sound characteristics of the A2 did cause some problems. When I tried to record the Beoplay A2 in my usual room and compare it to the B&W T7 the A2 sounded really strange when directly compared. With the recording I got exactly this washed out and distant sound as described before, but much more pronounced and not sounding like it was in reality. Therefore I wanted to try some binaural techniques for my further A2 recordings and didn't do the recordings in my usual recording room, but rather in our living-room which is much larger and has a much more natural acoustics, unlike our garderobe which aborbs lots of frequencies.
First I would like to show you the direct comparison of both B&W T7 and B&O Beoplay A2 with the same old recording procedure I usually did with all previous speakers. You will probably notice that recorded like this the A2 sounds "different" to put it gently:



And now a kind of "live"-video comparing both again, but this time recorded binaurally with me walking around the room demonstrating the change in sound when not listened exactly on axis. I think that this recording does the A2 much more justice than the previous one and it shows better how the speakers interact with the room acoustics.



With the Infinity One still being one of the most interesting speakers around it shouldn't be missed in this comparison, that's why I prepared a comparison of all 3 speakers, but this time recorded consecutively with me sitting exactly at the same spot and the switching done in post processing. Thanks to my friend again for offering me his gadget one more time for this test:



I think it is obvious from this recording which is quite close to the sound I was hearing in real life, that the bassdrum doesn't sound right on the Beoplay A2, instead of some punchy "plopp" like on the other two speakers you rather get a kind of "poww" which seems as if the speaker was trying to melt the synthbass sound together with the bassdrum.
To demonstrate this distortion effect better I prepared another video, where this problem is non deniable anymore. I also mixed in a little bit of the JBL Charge 2 for comparison how it should sound in reality:



Now let's have a look at some frequency response measurements. Similar to the audio recordings the measurements were not that easy to achieve for the Beoplay A2 as half of the sound is always going backwards, therefore you will always have to deal with some stronger room-reflections if not performed inside an anechoic room.

First let's see the entire volume range of the speaker shown with every 2nd volume step measured on-axis from 50cm distance in my usual recording room (smoothed with 1/6 octave). Red is maximum volume and blue is the last distortionfree volume step, you can see that up from there bass is reduced considerably with any higher volume step. Also a big frequency dip between 2.5kHz - 6kHz is quite noticeable here:


Maybe we can try to find out thanks to the measurements what's going on with the obvious bass distortion at levels above half. Here I superimposed the measurements for the volume steps 12-20 with 2 steps increment. Above you see the fundamental, below the curve for the total harmonic distortion. The most pale curve is the lowest volume step, the strongest curve is the highest step. I think it is pretty obvious that there is some increase in THD from the 14th step upwards within a wider range of frequencies (the stronger distortion below 60Hz is pretty normal for such small speakers) but it seems that the one single peak at exactly 500Hz which suddenly starts increasing with the 14th step is the one we were hearing in the examples above:

If we try doing the same for the B&W T7 we can see that although the distortion increase seems higher overall (especially with lower frequencies) it remains more consistent across the whole frequency range without such a strong peak at one single frequency:

As the A2 is an omnidirectional speaker let's se how it measures from different angles. In the following graph you can see the measurements for the front side, the back side, with the speaker turned around 45° and 90° (90° means it was standing faced completely sideward towards the microphone). There is some treble-loss at 90° which is to be expected, but at 45° treble remains pretty much the same. I am not quite sure why there is such a strong difference between the front and back measurement though.

To minimize room influence I also took some close-up measurements from 10cm. I measured the main driver, the passive radiator and the tweeter on-axis and then averaged the responses. In the following graph you can see the average curves for the medium volume level from both the Beoplay A2 (red) and the B&W T7 (blue). I think it is pretty clear that the B&O Beoplay A2 despite having some inconsistencies above 2kHz extents much deeper and much higher at the same time than the T7. The obvious treble boost of the A2 is still not to overlook either:

To sum up everything, I would say that the Beoplay A2 could have been a game changer for the entire portable Bluetooth speaker market. Depending on where you live it might appear a bit expensive, but in Europe it costs hardly more than many other competing speakers like the Bose Soundlink III for example. Although the sound of the A2 is not flat in any way it is nevertheless pleasant to listen to and impressively tuned in most regards. The 360° sound is one of the top-features for sure. Just place the speaker anywhere and you should still get perfect sound regardless if the speaker ist standing below, above or somewhere at the side. There is no need to place it at ear height or turn it around to aim it at you like with the majority of portable speakers. There are other speakers which claim 360° sound like the Libratone Zipp for example, but it nevertheless had quite a strong vertical directivity and sounded considerably more muffled when not standing at ear height. From memory the Libratone Zipp sounded much more average being even more colored due to some thin sizzling treble than the B&O and missing that impressive bass response despite being much larger and much heavier at the same time.
The design of the Beoplay A2 is classleading, handling is simple although you will have to fight with careful positioning because the speaker doesn't stand very stable and appears a bit wiggly. But there are 2 complete dealbreakers which hinder the Beoplay A2 to become the absolute top model currently. One of them being the obvious distortion with many modern recordings which can already start at half volume, the other one the disappointing battery life at higher levels. The distortion could be maybe even fixed with some future update and some finetuning of the DSP, as it rather sounds like some clumsy limiter/compression problem, because it just jumps in from one volume step to the other slightly below half volume but doesn't really become worse at subsequent higher levels. B&O usually applies lots of DSP tweaking to optimize the sound of all their speakers. I could be wrong though as the A2 measurements show some obvious distortion-issue at 500Hz, which might be the reason for the heard problems. But the battery issue won't be easily fixable. The amplifier is either too inefficient or the battery too weak to be able to deliver enough power for higher loudness levels. Speaking of high levels: the A2 might be "loud" for some, but it is definitely not the loudest speaker out there. There are tons of other similar even cheaper speakers that can play considerably louder but without any distortion or compression problems.
On the one hand I was quite impressed with the performance of the A2, I really wanted it to be THE SPEAKER to outclass all the others, but on the other hand I became quite disappointed when I noticed the issues it was suffering from. If you just want some background music at lower levels, you might be quite happy with the A2, but I found that a Sony SRS-X3 managed to sound more full-bodied at comparably low levels, because the A2 doesn't apply any loudness compensation thus tends to sound a bit slack at its first volume steps. You need to turn it a bit higher to really make it come to life, but already at half volume you might come into trouble especially if you like pounding bassdrums, because they will start sounding like farts on the A2. For such tasks there are also better and cheaper solutions out there, which can make the A2 even sound funny directly compared. The A2 remains something like a "specialist" for me, it sounds good with some kind of music from that level upwards and up to that level... But I would prefer a speaker which perfoms well with all genres at all levels. I know this is quite a challenge for a small portable speaker, and the A2 is pretty close to that, just fix this nasty distortion problem and squeeze out a bit more of battery life at higher levels and this speaker would be the "king".

+ great classy design
+ available in 3 different colors
+ flat compact body with soft edges
+ full-bodied and detailed sound
+ bass reaching very low but without any unnatural boost
+ 360° sound with hardly any treble loss from most angles
+ good battery life at low levels
+ mirrored volume between speaker and streaming device
+ simultaneous Bluetooth connection to 2 devices
+ charging of external devices
+ AptX support

- obvious distortion on kickdrums already at half volume
- very disappointing battery life at high levels
- no battery level indicator
- no track control possible through the speaker
- won't automatically connect to other than the latest device 
- bad shielding against mobile network interference
- no loudness compensation thus may sound thin at lowest levels
- treble may appear a bit harsh sometimes
- bass is missing some punch
- mids can sometimes sound covered
- doesn't stand very stable
- may get scratched easily when placed on stone, concrete etc.
- feels slightly plasticky
- expensive

42 comments:

  1. The USB-Port für charging external devices is too weak. 500mAh aren´t enough for charging iPhones. The missing battery-indicator is a big failure. Hope they will update the firmware, so that you can see the status of battery on your phone.

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  2. hi, great, honest and thorough review
    I agree with you, I still bought one though, its particularly good for quiet near field listening, eg in bed, but its loss of composure when loud isn't good at all.
    My girlfriend has a house of marley get together, which sounds good when not pushed, I haven't been allowed to see it loud though, have you heard it?

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    1. haven't heard it yet, but currently they are going pretty cheap and I thought I might grab one and compare the get together to the infinity one maybe. I already sent the A2 back, so I won't be able to prepare any direct comparison with that one.
      Maybe B&O will issue a firmware update in future which improves the sound on high levels. Would be great if you keep me informed in case you get to know something as I won't be able to track everything.

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  3. Erst ganz großes Kompliment für diesen tollen Blog, so ein breites Testfeld findet man sonst überhaupt nicht.

    Ich hätte ein zwei Fragen und ich hoffe es ist in Ordnung, wenn ich das hier im Kommentarbereich und auf deutsch mache. Wenn gewünscht kann ich das in Zukunft auch auf englisch machen.

    Du hast so viel verschiedene Bluetooth Lautsprecher getestet, welche Box hat dich überzeugt und gibt es irgendein Preis Leistungs Tipp?

    Als Vergleich hab ich vor einiger Zeit die UE Boom Box gehört, die macht schon ganz schön "Lärm". Aber UE Boom Box soll ja nur durchschnittlich sein.

    Bei den vielen und ausführlichen Tests von dir, ist es schwer "die Beste" mobile Bluetooth Box zu finden ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Den besten gibt es einfach nicht. Ich wollte schon längst mal eine Bestenliste zusammenstellen, aber es gibt immer was, das nicht passt. Irgendwann werde ich mal meine persönliche Lieblingsliste vorstellen, aber es sind mehrere dabei, da einfach für jeden Einsatzzweck ein anderer besser passt.
      Einen Preis/Leistungstipp kann ich leider nicht nennen, da fast alle empfehlenswerten Modelle hoffnungslos überteuert sind. Das Vodafone Angebot für den Sony SRS-X3 um 49,- wäre ein heißer Tipp, um den Preis bekommt man sicher nichts besseres, auch wenn der Sony bei hohen Lautstärken stark abflaut.

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  4. hi,
    as the guys already said before, great blog and great & honest reviews!
    I'm up to buy one of B&O's speakers, the A2 or the Beolit12 and I wonder if you had the chance to hear both!?
    The A2 is interesting because of it's 360 sound but the battery life and the bluetooth is putting me a little bit off.
    I have another airplay speaker, the zeppelin air from B&W, so the airplay of the Beolit12 is quite interesting as it would work well with the rest of my stuff.
    But as I don't want to care much about where I but the speaker, I wonder how directional the sound of the Beolit12 is?
    Can you recommend one above the other from your experience?
    Thanks and cheers

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    Replies
    1. I always found the Beolit 12 to sound a bit muffled, it was missing sparkle with the highest frequencies. I was ineed able to hear both side by side, and although the Beoplay A2 is a bit bright, the Beolit 12 sounded really covered when directly compared. It is pretty directional too, you cannot stand at the side and still expect any impressive treble response, it is not completely hopeless, but the Beoplay A2 is much better in this regard. The Beolit 12 has more power and a deeper bass, but for casual use i preferred the sound of the Beoplay A2. From what I read the Beolit 12 also seems to have some issues with Airplay connectivity, at least if you can trust all the reviews, but many complain.
      For my own purposes it would be too large. It is quite loud but the sound deteriorates at close to max. volume and it loses all bass starting sounding pretty harsh.

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    2. Hi

      How do you think it will perform with less bass-heavy tracks, such as clasic and progressive rock, symphonies etc.?

      Delete
  5. Hi

    How do you think it will perform with less bass-heavy tracks, such as clasic and progressive rock, symphonies etc.?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. so far I only noticed problems with electronic drums, I listened also to many jazz and funk recordings and distortion was not an issue. classic music does not have drums at all, i doubt the A2 would suffer from any distortion.

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    2. Thank you, thats good to hear as I have ordered one, and i don't listen to music with electronic drums. The battery life though is still a turn off, if it really is as bad as you have described, I guess I'll be returning it after all.

      Would you recomend any other speaker for the kind of music i mentioned?

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    3. If you don't turn up too loud, you should get about 12-14 hours. But as soon as you are close to max. volume the battery goes down completely.
      You can have a look into my latest posting with my current favorite speakers, I have listed several other ones too:
      http://oluvsgadgets.blogspot.co.at/2014/12/best-portable-bluetooth-speakers-oluvs.html

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  6. Hi Oluv,

    Maybe this in no news for you, but last week I went to a store (in Budapest, Hungary) where they sell Apple products and accessories, including bluetooth speakers. I listened to the a2, and the first thing I noticed that it wasn't loud at all, even on max setting. I couldn't hear any distortion. I asked the guy at the shop if he new anything about a software update for the a2. He said that something was going on not so long ago, 'cause all the a2s were taken from company's shops, and were replaced by new ones.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. yes, the A2 is not extremely loud, but usually it should be enough for most circumstances. The distortion is not noticeable with all tracks, but I had several where it was very obvious. When I asked B&O some weeks ago if there was some fix, they denied, but maybe they want to keep it secret, who knows...

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  7. Thank you very much for a brilliant and thorough review. It makes me so happy that people like you exist, taking the time putting attention to details unlike most other crap reviews of this speaker.

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  8. Hi Oluv,
    would you prefer A2 or Bose soundlink Mini?

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    Replies
    1. they are not comparable at all. I would rather compare the Soundlink III to the A2.
      It depends what you like more, both do not sound very natural and have some colorations, but I think the A2 sounds just more mature, more refined and if you like clarity it is really impressive how much detail it can render, while the Bose is rather muffled. Bass from the A2 reaches extremely deep at moderate levels but is not boosted, while the Bose has a boomy character that drowns out the mids quite a lot. The Bose is impressive and gives you quite a "wow"-effect but it becomes boring pretty quickly. I would rather go for the A2, although it is not perfect either.

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    2. thanks! I prefer A2, although I havent heard the sound as of yet. will check it next days. I bought a pair of headphones B&O few yrs and was not really happy with sound (Form 2i) thats why I am thinking BOSE. thanks any way once again.

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    3. The Form 2i are indeed a total crap, they sound like some cheap 20$ junk you can get everywhere, I was wondering how B&O can charge that much for them. If you want to hear really decent cans from them, try the H6, I love them, my favorite headphones so far, very natural and smooth sounding. I use them for monitoring my recordings.
      Bose has some treble-problems if you ask me, all of their products I know are missing upper treble, they sound muffled, but they tend to boost lower treble instead to compensate for that, at the same time most of their products are very bass heavy. Many seem to like that, but it is not very natural sounding.

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  9. The A2 has a mini-USB plug hidden under the plastic front cover. I wonder what happens if you plug that into your PC? I guess it might be the way to push new firmware updates or adjust the DSP - It would be nice tune the speaker for e.g. house to get rid of the distortion.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think this USB port is just for internal service, when I asked about updates I was told that there are none. If you like House etc forget the A2 it reduces bass too much at higher levels, the 180W is a fairytale, the RIVA turbo X is much better for this and louder as well and it will play for 6 hours at maximum volume instead of 50 minutes.

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    2. We can't get the riva turbo x in Australia. Can you recommend another speaker for house music or is the a2 improved?


      Delete
  10. hi, just got this speaker and i have a quick question:
    is it normal that the volume is much way lower when the A2 is connected by cable to some device (like an iphone 4s)?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You might have the EU volume limit active on your iPhone in this case yes, it will be much lower. But even without limit it will be probably slightly lower through cable than through Bluetooth.

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    2. it is weird because i know that the limit is actually deactivated. it goes pretty down. did you try it?

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    3. No I didn't with the A2 I only know from some other speakers where I noticed that they played softer through aux than through Blueooth, but the difference was not extreme.

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    4. maybe i got it. could be the battery that is almost gone. i will try again when the battery is full. thanks for you time.

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  11. I came across your review after I had purchased the A2. I had been thinking of getting a portable Bluetooth speaker for a while, and this was one of the models I was considering. And then, on Amazon Prime day, they had this as one of their 'lightning discounts' (only in black though, which was a shame), and I got it for £159 (about €227)!!! So far, I have been reasonably happy with it, other than the battery life, which just as you say collapses if played at anything more than half-volume (although since I'll be using it mostly plugged-in, it isn't a big issue for me).

    Having read your review, I was interested in your thoughts.....at £159, have I bagged myself an exceptional bargain, given the good points you highlighted above? Every other speaker I was considering was significantly more expensive at this price point, so I certainly feel as though I have! :)

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  12. Hi Oluv,

    The Christmas is coming and I have a little problem choosing between a Bang&Olufsen Beoplay A2 and Bose Soudlink mini II.

    I would mainly use it at home. Occasionally take it with me to vacation.

    The clearance of the sound is the most important factor for me. Becasue of having it at home, the loudness is not very necessary.
    The better battery the better.

    Thank you very much for your help
    Matus

    PS: I was also thinking about Harman Kardon Onyx Studio 2, but it is not so portable and I don't know much about the sound (because you haven't reviewed the 2nd version)

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  13. Hi, I would like to comment on the distortion issue, I just updated the Beo A2 with new firmware. (Also updated my Beolit 15). I can tell it has more stable sound, above half volume. I tested it with a deephouse track that distorted before the update above half volume, now it's fine. Beo reduced the bass and the way it's reduces it when using the speaker at higher volumes. Only on the Beolit 15 they didn't had to reduced it in my opinion, but it might has now a more balanced sound now, I will compare with a other Beolit 15.

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    Replies
    1. Hello Hugo,
      do you have any comparison experience of the beoplay a2 to another system of another manufacturer?

      Regards,
      Arthur

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    2. Hi Arthur,

      Yes I have, in comparison i have compared it with the Bose Soundlink III and the bigger Beolit 15. (still want to test the JBL extreme)
      After the software update of the Beolit a2 it has better sound performance. I really like it now! And for a small unit, (it's flat design) it's very musical, with Classic (mahler) and Jazz. And even with house tracks ;-) It's goes deeper still then other unit's, there for usable with more music genres then others.

      The Beolit 15 is in my opinion the best speaker I own, not very compact but for it's format it's still small for it's performance and i like the design.

      Also tested others and some i own, the JBL charge 2, Bose soundlink Mini II, Denon Envaya and Envaya mini, Sony srs 55

      Regards,

      Hugo

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  14. Ein toller Review-Blog! Danke schon mal vorab für deine Arbeit, Oluv.

    Let's assume money does not play a role up to 350 Euro and I have a choice of the following: Beoplay A2, Sonos Play 1, Sonos Play 3, Bose Soundlink Speaker III, Bose Soundlink Mini II and JBL Charge 2 Plus.

    Which of the upper devices would you recommend for playing rather dance/electronic music in the appartment as well as outside? According to your great reviews, I should disqualify the B&O A2 system right away, because of distortions for higher volumes. Having distortions in mind and reading your reviews I should go for the JBL charge 2+ system, because there is no reported massive distortion. However this is a smaller system and it is never compared to the bigger ones such as the Soundlink Speaker III or the B&O A2 system.

    I am really überfragt and do not know what to get anymore :( Any hint, please?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If I may do a suggestion, the BeO a2 goes deeper and has speakers on both sides, then the Bose soundlink III, If you update the software of the a2 you will not have the problem as described, I had the same problem, but after update the problem wasn't there anymore (playing house tracks).
      Only the battery live is not too good still at max volume, but heey, why playing at max? If you need more sounds pressure then go for a bigger system like the beolit 15, really It goes loud at 75% of the volume and still keep a good battery life! ;-) The beolit 15 goes for about 450 euro's and is not very small but very impressive.

      The JBL charge 2+ is a differed class speaker, If you want compact good speaker, de JBL is the way to go. For a compact speaker with some nice design (apple style) I would go for the Bose soundlink mini II.

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    2. The recent B&O speakers sound pretty honky, especially the A2 with very unnatural mids, they may have the distortion better under control with the recent update, but it loses too much bass above half volume. If you want a balanced speaker with very good performance at high levels (even louder than the Beolit 15) check out the VIFA Helsinki, it sounds a bit thin at low levels, but the upcoming app should allow for an additional night-mode with bass boost at low levels. It will play for 2:30 at maximum volume, the Beolit 15 just like the A2 both only play 1 hour and then automatically reduce volume on their own.
      I wouldn't buy neither A2 nor Beolit 15.

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    3. Dear Oluv, I don't agree completely on that. The B&O are not linear like almost all portable speakers, the B&O play a2 has not strong mid's, I agree on that, but heey it's a matter of "sound" taste in this case. In my opinion, they still have very nice performance. This VIFA Helsinki, the design, i will not cary it to the beach, to me it's really a womans handbag, then again there is no arguing about matters of taste, isn't it?

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    4. Hello Oluv, Hello Hugo,
      thank you guys for your replies. The VIFA Helsinki was not in the pool of choices and is unfortunately not considered. Due to some reportings (I know there is also positive feedback) of distortions at higher volumes I did not take the risk to get the B&O A2 system. I also did not have the chance to listen to it in an electronics shop. Further, only later I realised that the Sonos systems do not use batteries and thus do not suit my needs, although they sound quite good. Finally, the showdown went between the two Bose systems and the JBL speaker. I took the chance to listen to these speakers in an electronics shop. Comparing the loudness, to my opinion, the JBL charge 2+ was louder than the Soundlink Mini II and at least as loud as the bigger Soundlink Speaker III. The bass on the bose systems seemed to be rather flat and muffled at higher volumes. On the other hand I felt that the Bose systems were rather less prone to their placing. The JBL Charge 2+ had more of a directional sound.
      All in all, I am going for the JBL charge 2+ due to:
      - its price
      - the additional battery which allows to charge my mobile device on the go
      - its superior loudness compared to similarly sized devices
      - its size
      - and, to my opinion, clearer sound compared to devices from a similar cost range.

      Delete
  15. Hello, So there's no way to interact with speaker from a tone control pov? Shame, it was a Christmas present to ourselves from my wife & I. Sound is streets ahead of the others I heard, instantly better. I plat a lot of EDM, house, techno & a lot of blues, guitar stuff, very happy with sound if you place it right, allow space behind the speaker to get the full 360 spread. Would recommend, paid £239 in grey.

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    Replies
    1. The latest firmware update now allows you to change the tonality of the speaker through a Beoplay phone app (currently iOS only, Android version due later this year) which connects to the speaker. You can change the tonality on a continuum across four settings: warm, relaxed, excited and bright. You can also vary the soundstage of the music, and choose from a number of presets (including Lounge and Party). Overall, it works pretty well, and you can tweak the sound exactly how you want it. Nice to see that B&O continue to update the speaker and add new features!

      Delete
  16. Hi guys,
    Thank you so much for this wonderful article! Here we all can learn a lot of useful things and this is not only my opinion! Even BLNCK corp. and http://www.meetupsites.com/ confirmed it!

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  17. Thanks from my side, too! I wondered if someone has tried out to Change the battery. I heard, it should be a 18650, but i am not sure, if i will get a guarantee-problem, when i change it to a stronger one?! Any ideas?

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  18. Hi Oluv..

    Thanks for the great review. Purely from a price to sound quality POV, will you prefer JBL charge 3 worth £99 or Beoplay a2 worth £149?

    Thanks.

    ReplyDelete