Ted Wright has very specific taste in music. The founder and CEO of a marketing agency in Atlanta adores bands like Pylon and R.E.M., an alt-rock sound that took shape in Athens, Georgia, in the 1980s (he bought the latest R.E.M. on CD the day it was released). And he prefers to listen to his music on products designed by the Danish consumer electronics company Bang & Olufsen. The centerpiece of Wright’s B&O collection is a BeoSound 9000 CD player — “the classic,” Wright calls it. This device isn’t like any other CD player you’ve seen: Mounted on a wall, it’s a glittering strip of metal and smoked glass about a yard long (or tall, depending on how you orient it). It holds a half-dozen compact discs in such a way that their labels face outward, visible through the pane of glass. The unit’s “CD clamper” slides back and forth to whichever disc you select. Wright has had it since around the time it debuted in 1996, and B&O sold it until August of this year — the company’s site describes it as a “kinetic sculpture.”
Wright’s CD player is connected to an equally eye-catching BeoLab 3500 speaker, a 4-foot-long tube with a base that makes it appear to hover in midair. He also owns a BeoCom 1401 corded analog telephone. Introduced in 1993, it features an impossibly slim rectangular handset that juts from the wedge-shaped receiver like a Kubrick monolith. Like many B&O offerings, each of these objects is strikingly appointed in brushed aluminum or matte black, and each is strikingly expensive: The CD player will set you back $5,250, the speaker $2,175, and the phone $159.
Wright shrugs off those price tags. To him, B&O gear is like one of his $3,000 suits: It is made better, looks better, and lasts longer than anything else. “Their stuff is so cool,” he says. “The sound is awesome, it’s beautifully designed, and it’s unobtrusive.”
Unobtrusive? That CD player looks like something from Buck Rogers’ bachelor pad in New Chicago. In fact, for much of B&O’s 86-year history, a common compliment — and complaint — has been how much its products resemble props in sci-fi films. Back in the analog era, each new B&O offering was a kind of self-contained world’s fair, a window into a sleek utopian future. The company attracted a coterie of audiophiles and connoisseurs, mostly in the EU, where there are around 500 dedicated Bang & Olufsen boutiques. (There are more than 700 worldwide.) Wander through one of its 41 US stores, which are often devoid of customers, and you’ll see a baffling mix of retro-futurist style and surrealist pricing. An $1,100 cordless phone that’s thin and tapered like a Brancusi sculpture or a walrus tusk, a $23,000 pair of 3-foot-tall loudspeakers that look like Daleks from Doctor Who, an $85,000, 6-foot-wide, 3-D TV with a triangular speaker that juts from its base. Product names generally begin with Beo and end with a number: the BeoVox 1, the BeoSound 2, the BeoSystem 3, the BeoVision 4.
B&O’s distinct menagerie of wares has brought handsome profits — even though the future that it seemed to promise never came to pass. While the Danish company pursued its own cult of design, others like Apple formulated a new aesthetic that took into account the graphical user interface and Moore’s law. As the iPod and iTunes took off, conversation-piece home-entertainment objects seemed less and less relevant. It turned out that the sound system of tomorrow wasn’t an elegant $5,000 device that gave you instant access to six CDs; it was a $400 gadget that allowed you to slip thousands of songs into your hip pocket. Audiophiles lost out to audio files.
In the midst of this consumer electronics upheaval, Bang & Olufsen remained adamantly, diligently, and somewhat endearingly committed to following its own path. But in 2008, the global financial crisis confronted B&O with perhaps its gravest existential threat since Nazi sympathizers blew up its factory in 1945. Between 2008 and 2009, annual revenue plunged from $853 million to $528 million, and its stock price plummeted from $52 to $8.50. The manufacturer could no longer ignore the urgent realities of the present. It was forced to shed product lines, shuffle CEOs, and lay off hundreds of workers.
Yet remarkably, B&O endured. This eccentric company, which seems so out of sync with current trends, even returned to profitability last year. It’s a testament to the mystique of its products and to the ardent loyalty they have inspired over many decades. B&O is now healthy enough to contemplate the future again and to figure out exactly what its place there will be.
In 1924, a young Dane named Svend Olufsen started tinkering with a relatively new piece of technology — the radio. He soon teamed up with Peter Bang, a gifted engineer and former classmate who had just returned from a stint in the U.S., where the novel broadcast medium was taking off. The two set up a makeshift laboratory in the Olufsen family’s 300-year-old home. Olufsen became the business guy, while Bang dreamed up new products. In 1927, Bang and Olufsen borrowed money from their fathers to build a factory and quickly established the reputation that their company lives on today: quality media delivery via striking objects. Early products included the Five Lamper, a sumptuous radio in a walnut and maple cabinet. It took its aesthetic cues from furniture, a radical departure at a time when most radios were purely functional. This attention to design as well as engineering found an audience that was willing to pay the price premium it entailed.