Bang & Olufsen

The Danish company Bang & Olufsen is a leading manufacturer of top quality audio equipment and televisions. Bang & Olufsen products are renowned for their blend of high-tech performance and elegant, minimalist styling, summed up in the slogan it registered in 1931, “B&O—the Danish Quality Brand.”

Two young Danish engineers, Peter Bang and Sven Olufsen, who had met while studying at the School of Engineering in Århus, founded the company in 1925. They were fortunate to have families wealthy enough to back them financially, and their first workshop was in the attic of the Olufsen family’s country manor near Struer. Their first product was a mains radio receiver, that is, one that was powered by a wired electricity supply—unusual at a time when most radios were battery-powered. However, the company’s first commercial success was not the mains radio itself, but its eliminator, the device that rectified the incoming alternating current to produce direct current. B&O began to manufacture the eliminator as a separate device that enabled any battery-powered radio to be run off mains electricity. Expanding production led Bang & Olufsen to open its first factory in 1927 in the town of Gimsing. In 1929, the company returned to producing mains radios with the launch of a five-valve radio that delivered high output.

In the 1930s, Bang & Olufsen diversified into the production of a range of audio equipment, including gramophones, amplifiers, and loudspeakers. The company’s products and advertising graphics were heavily influenced by the design aesthetics of the Bauhaus school. The key design characteristics were simple, geometric lines and detailing that emphasized the function of the product and an absence of ornament for purely decorative effect. B&O was a pioneer of the radiogram, a radio receiver and record player combined in one cabinet. The first B&O radiogram, the Hyperbo, was launched in 1934. The tubular steel frame of the Hyperbo was influenced by the chair designs of the German Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer. Bang & Olufsen’s first radio with a Bakelite cabinet, the Beolit, was introduced in 1939. From the mid-1960s, the prefix “Beo” was incorporated in all B&O model names. In the same year, B&O’s Master de Luxe radiogram incorporated a feature that became very popular—push-button radio-station selection. The radio was pretuned to 16 radio stations.

Bang & Olufsen went through a quiescent period during World War II because it refused to cooperate with the occupying German forces. Worse still, after liberation from German occupation in 1945, the factory was bombed by Danish Nazi sympathizers. After the rebuilding of the factory, Bang & Olufsen entered the field of television manufacture. In the 1950s, B&O commissioned a number of Danish architects, including Poul Henningsen and Ib Fabiansen, to design the cabinets for its audio and television equipment. It was keen to produce cabinets that were lighter and easier to move around. In 1962, B&O introduced the Horizon TV, its first television to be mounted on a four-wheeled metal stand.

The transistorization of audio equipment and televisions paved the way for compact, modern product designs. The Beomaster 900K, designed by the Danish architect Henning Moldenhawer, was the world’s first low-line radio cabinet, a forerunner of the stereo receivers that formed part of the popular modular hi-fi systems of the late 1960s and 1970s. The designer who did most to establish a distinctive B&O style of audio equipment was Jakob Jensen. His designs, beginning with the Beolab 5000 music system of 1965, were expressive of the technical sophistication of B&O’s products. This system introduced user-friendly sliding controls. The Beolab system was accompanied by cube stereo loudspeakers, with the angular speaker cone mounted on thin stems with a circular base. However, Jensen’s most famous design for B&O was the Beogram 4000 stereo turntable of 1972, because this introduced the world’s first tangential pickup arm. The straight double tone arm was electronically controlled by a spot of light, and its tangential path eliminated the wandering in the groove that curved arms were prone to.

Recognizing that its products were never going to achieve the mass-market penetration of rival Japanese electronics products because high quality meant high prices, B&O concentrated on lifestyle marketing and design. It targeted a wealthy international clientele for whom style and quality were the tantamount product characteristics. B&O’s continuing commitment to functionality and ease of use was exemplified in the controls of the 1976 Beomaster 1900 receiver. The most frequently used controls were mounted visibly at the front for easy access, while the secondary controls were behind, concealed beneath a hinged lid. Similarly concealed controls became standard on televisions in the 1980s. The other innovative feature of the Beomaster 1900 controls was that the buttons were touch-sensitive electronic buttons, not mechanical push buttons. The Beosystem 5000 modular hi-fi system of 1983 eliminated controls from the hi-fi units in favor of a unified remote-control panel. This concept was taken a step further in 1984 with the introduction of the Beolink 1000 remote-control unit that incorporated television as well as audio controls.

In the 1990s, B&O broke away from stacking, modular hi-fi design in order to distinguish its products from those intended for the mainstream mass market. The Beosystem 2500 of 1991 was an integrated unit with the decks mounted vertically and therefore more visibly. The Beosystem 2500 and its successor, the BeoSound Century, also echoed the slim verticality of B&O’s televisions. Introduced in 1984, the BeoVision MX 2000 television was the first of B&O’s slim televisions. Its shallow cabinet and the minimal frame around the screen emphasized the picture, the core function. Audio and television were brought together in the BeoCenter AV5 of 1997, a complete home-entertainment system. As the twentieth century ended, Bang & Olufsen’s final contribution to user convenience was the development of the BeoVision 1 television, which incorporates an intelligent automatic program selection function, whereby the user selects the preferred types of program and the television matches the selection to the programs available.