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Bang & Olufsen Beosound Level (aluminum)
Bang & Olufsen Beosound Level (oak)
Without a doubt, the Bang & Olufsen Beosound Level is the prettiest and best-sounding wireless streaming speaker I’ve encountered that operates on both AC and battery power. It holds true to the aesthetic spirit that’s long driven this legendary Danish electronics brand, ever striving for a magical fusion of design and technology.
But be forewarned, buying into this functional work of art isn’t for the financially faint of heart: A single Beosound Level costs either $1,499 or $1,799, depending on which model you choose. You might need to rationalize this luxury indulgence as a long-term investment; like the pitch proffered for a Rolex timekeeper, or an exotic Euro sports car. And like those rare goods, the Beosound Level has a sensitive nature that in some ways demands a bit of coddling (more on that in a bit).
This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best Bluetooth speakers, where you’ll find reviews of the competition’s offerings, plus a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping for this type of product.
At the heart of this device (and a few of B&O’s other Wi-Fi-enabled speakers) is a new, modular circuit core called Mozart, which the manufacturer says can be swapped out for another if the onboard upgradability ever reaches its limit. The lithium-Ion battery pack is swappable too—as is the Level’s front cover. You could say you’re buying green with your wad of green, because in a market bursting with disposable electronics, this one might never need to be trashed.
The learning curve is a little steeper here than it is with rival music-streaming systems that integrate all operations into one grand on-screen menu. Level buyers can get it going with just B&O’s own app, which includes a terrific global array of internet radio stations (B&O Radio) accessible by language, location and genre. (I’ve discovered some exceptional reggae and ska, Afro-pop, Brazilian samba, English trad folk, and far-flung jazz outlets this way.)
But if you want to activate the Google Voice Assistant to fetch content, or link other compatible wireless audio components to play in unified groups, you’ll need to link your Level to the Google Home app on your phone or tablet. Voice-integrated play pals include Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, YouTube Music, and TuneIn.
If your taste runs to other services—the likes of Qobuz, Tidal, or Amazon Music—installed on your mobile device, you can “cast” them to the Level using either Airplay 2 or Chromecast. Bluetooth 5.0 is also supported, although I rate its audio performance on this speaker as just fair. Still, it does enable the Level to keep playing music when you can’t connect to the internet (assuming you have music stored on your device, that is).
Impeccable industrial design
The Level is handsome and slightly brighter sounding in its less pricey form: a matte aluminum-framed cabinet with a dark gray rubbery ribbed backing and a charcoal Kvadrat speaker grill cloth (a classic B&O color scheme). But I found the Level even more fetching—and a tad warmer in sonic tone—in the top trim version: a light copper-colored anodized metal frame with a putty-tinted back panel and a light oak wood grill.
Product designer Torsten Valeur says he took inspiration from minimalist Japanese décor. Yet, this version of the Level also is evocative of classic wood-cased radios, like the mid-1940s Philco “roll top” portable I scored eons ago at an upstate New York knick-knack shop. Trimmed in brown leather, this spiffy wood-boxed model was “very popular with students—a staple in dorms, on picnics, at the beach,” shared the antique seller. “Every BMOC had one.”
In either trim, the talented and transportable Beosound Level makes my heart flutter every time I gaze upon and encourage it to sing. The Level is relatively light (7.25 pounds) and very tidy at 9.06 x 14 x 2.2 inches (HxWxD). It’s slim enough to fit on the narrowest windowsill, fireplace mantel, or bookshelf. That has made it easy (as has the well-balanced scoop handle) to keep this charmer by my side as I move around the premises. And with 16 hours of play time between battery charges (performed with a quick-connect, Mag-Safe-styled rear charging puck), this thing is ready to party on for a long spell. Peel off a rubbery cover and you’ll discover the recessed charging zone in back also harbors an ethernet port, a USB-C charging port, and a line in/optical combi jack.
Let it rip
The allure is far more than skin deep. A Beosound Level performs with a clarity, sweetness, roundness of sound, and you-are-there realism unmatched by rival portables such as the Sonos Move, Bose Portable Smart Speaker, Polk Omni SR2, UE Megablast, and Como Audio Amico. As well it should, given the Level’s four- to five-times higher asking price than the comparable offerings from Sonos and Bose. Top-notch components include twin 0.8-inch tweeters—curiously connected in a phase-reversed form (relative to each other) to just one 15-watt Class D amp, plus a single 2-inch full-range speaker driven by 30 watts of amplification, and a true stereo pair of 4-inch woofers, each of which gets 30 watts. Each of the speaker cones is fabricated from a “high-performance polymer,” according to B&O.
Well-engineered content—acoustic jazz, symphonies and string quartets, alt-pop, folk, and country—shine bright and true. Iconic L.A. singer/songwriter Jackson Browne’s fresh, full-band supported Downhill From Everywhere comeback set really set my jangly folk-rocking heart beating faster in high-res Apple Music form. Ditto the latest post-mortem Jerry Garcia Band release: Garcia Live: Volume 16 (recorded at Madison Square Garden) that I found jamming in Ultra HD form on Amazon Music. Meanwhile, Devendra Banhart’s surprising left turn to ambient music-ville, Refuge, sounded positively haunting in Hi-Res Audio form from Qobuz.
The Level’s most compelling attribute is its finely detailed high-end response, but I have no complaints about its honest mid-range performance that pushes vocals and soloing instruments just enough forward. And while the bottom end is never gonna win a bangin’ contest, bass notes are tight, true, and remarkably palpable for a box this thin. You’ll never confuse a Fender electric bass for a standup here or find yourself wondering “What’d he say?” as a rapper cuts loose with a spitfire tirade. A hits collection by hip hop fave Mos Def was most articulately defined by this field leveler.
As for stereo spread; uh, let’s not go there. Even when seated directly in front of it, I rarely sensed more than an occasional hint of channel separation. Yes, it’s now possible (thanks to a recent B&O software update) to combine two Levels as a stereo pair, but at a cost that strikes me as lunatic absurdity.
The Level’s black-magic digital signal processing and that curious tweeter phase inversion—meant to enhance the spaciousness of sound—might also be responsible for a mildly troubling personality quirk I discovered. This thing is not kindly disposed to distortion, whether accidental or man-made. On a rare day when my mainstream jazz fave WBGO was having some signal encoding/transmission issues, the sputtering sounded worse on the Level than on the Bose and Sonos streaming speakers that were within earshot.
Likewise, the bass buzz distortion I newly heard on a WXPN “Flashback 80s” blast of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” was so blatant on the LeveI that I feared I’d blown a driver or discovered a design shortcoming in the slatted oak grill. I ran to compare the same track playing on other devices. Yup, the electrical buzz in Garry W. Tallent’s bass line was certainly audible there, as well, though not nearly as pronounced—or irritating.
This might help explain why the Level is not as satisfying in general on rock recordings, a realm where engineers are intentionally compressing, phase shifting, and otherwise distorting the hell out of the “stems” to lend more, um, personality and might to the production, for more car-stereo appeal. But the Beosound Level is just not one to stomach such shenanigans. It spits them out.
Honestly, the target audience for the Level is neither a head-banger, nor an audio zealot willing to buckle into a dead-center sweet-spot. Rather, it’s designed for sensitive-eared, deep-pocketed music aficionados who won’t settle for wallpaper-quality background music as they go about their daily tasks. What really counts in a music box like this is its articulate presence, spacious throw, and ultra-discrete appearance.
Despite its diminutive proportions, this thing can fill a room—even to a second floor. Cranking the volume control to the max for a lush Baltimore Symphony rendering of Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story’ Symphonic Dances on Vermont’s VPR Classical stream, my trusty sound pressure meter showed the Level outputting a house-filling, distortion-free 98 decibels. That’s the same level as the Sonos Move (which, to my ears, sounds bloated when pushed to such an extreme), and it’s 4dB more than the Bose Portable Home Speaker delivered. But honestly, there’s no need to crank the Level to 11 to make it sound special. Any setting above the 50-percent volume mark wakes its full dynamic range and nuanced “Hear the rosin on the bow?” delivery skills.
B&O’s companion app for the Beosound Level invites the user to choose between several EQ Listening Mode settings—including Energetic, Lounge, Party, and Night. You can also dial in a personalized EQ on an interesting virtual wheel of options that shifts the tonal balance between bright, bassed-out, and several points in between. After a lot of fooling around, I decided the default “Optimal” setting was the best.
A bit of customized room equalization is also possible, once you activate the Level app’s room compensation option. A brief spiraling sound wave goes out and bounces off the room’s surfaces back to the speaker’s onboard microphone and processor, which instantly calculate and adjust the EQ for the room’s shape, size, and resonance. This room-tuning feature, however, is only available when the speaker is connected to AC power. The Level defaults to its factory EQ when unplugged.
Even more tweaking is possible by varying the speaker’s orientation, from standing upright to lying flat on its back (after the charging puck is removed). Or you can mount the Level to the wall using an optional integrated hanging/charging bracket ($119). An onboard gyroscope tracks the shifted position and triggers modifications in the DSP (this takes a couple seconds). The bass was boldest when the Level was reclining on my dining room sideboard, a safe space removed from anything that could spill, shed, scratch, or drool into its grill work.
Flies in the ointment
For better—and worse—I discovered the Level’s top panel touch controls to be extra sensitive. A proximity sensor lights up the panel as you approach, which responds best with very light taps and swipes across the panel. Lay a finger down too long on one of its four station/command presets and Google Assistant will spout “Want to reprogram?” Wrap your palm around the touch strip as you’re toting the Level and whoops, you might inadvertently instigate a reboot.
It also helps to apply a feathery touch as you slide or roll across the volume control zone. All but one of the seven ascending volume-up (and down) tap points are good for three level steps, so there are 19 level gradations in all. I found the most accurate way to alter the volume level was to roll the side of my index finger up and down this zone.
Early on in my testing, the Level’s thermal touch controls and traditional power button also had a bad habit of freezing—and sometimes disabling the music—when I moved the Level from room to room. It was then impossible to get the rig going again without asking B&O customer support to remotely take over and reboot the system—a sometimes delayed process given the company’s Danish base of operations. (The support team answer the phone and respond to emails 24/7, but the top-tier engineers who can perform an online fix are only available from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. local time.) After the third time this freeze-up happened, I started to see a pattern. The Level would only act up if I’d moved it from one room to another while the unit was powered on, music was playing, and I was moving it from one Wi-Fi zone to another in my three-zone home network. While all three Wi-Fi nodes use the same SSID and password, the Level couldn’t transition gracefully from one to another.
So, I‘ve learned to practice some behavior modification: I shut off the Level before I cart it to another location. Once it powers up again, the Level discovers the closest Wi-Fi source and re-connects perfectly. This takes just a few seconds, and it saves hours of heartache.
A B&O rep has assured me that the “global demand” for these remote service intercessions has been minimal. And that if the Level owner has just one centrally located router, this won’t be a concern. But hopefully they’re taking my “Catch-22” discovery to heart: Their normal advice for triggering a Level reboot or factory reset—“simultaneously press the forward and back buttons” or “press and hold the power button for 18 seconds”—won’t do a bit of good when those same buttons are disabled by a device meltdown.
For sure, mastering the art of a portable Wi-Fi speaker is a tricky business. Sonos is one of the few companies to pull it off. Bang & Olufsen is 95 percent of the way there with the Beosound Level. Treat this princess right, watch out for peas under the mattress, and she’ll reward you with impeccable audio performances for many years to come.
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Bang & Olufsen Beosound Level (aluminum)
Bang & Olufsen Beosound Level (oak)
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