When it comes to Bang & Olufsen’s audio gear you can bet on three things: 1.) It’ll look unique, 2.) It’ll sound great, and 3.) It’ll cost a pretty penny. The BeoPlay A6 ticks all three boxes with aplomb — it doesn’t look like anything else on the market, it offers stellar audio reproduction, and it costs R23,000. But, despite its pedigree, performance and price, it’s far from perfect.
Introducing the band
In theory it’s possible to setup the A6 wirelessly. In practice, it’s a frustrating exercise. We tried two different Android handsets and an iPhone to do the initial setup, and while one of the Android phones was able to pick up the A6’s own Wi-Fi connection and then see the device in the BeoSetup app, the A6 kept vanishing. We eventually gave up and went for the manual approach: plugging it into our Wi-Fi router with an Ethernet cable.
Thereafter the setup process was easy enough. Using the BeoSetup app we added it to our home Wi-Fi network and then performed the recommended firmware update. We’d have liked it to be up to date out of the box, but given the latest update brings support for Google’s Cast, it’s a minor quibble.
What that means is, instead of buying a Google Chromecast device, you can use your A6 as you would a Chromecast and send audio to it from a range of devices. Really, though, you’re not sending the audio, you’re getting the A6 to do the connecting and using your phone or tablet as a controller, but let’s not get too technical — if you’re interested in Google Cast, you can read more here.
With the update done we were ready to play some music… only it turns out this requires another app, the BeoMusic app. But at least we were able to disconnect the Ethernet and reposition the unit in a more sensible spot than next to the Wi-Fi router. The A6 doesn’t come with a remote control, which is where the app comes in.
BeoMusic supports TuneIn (essentially a catalogue of internet radio stations) and music streaming services Deezer and Spotify (though the latter you’ll need to control through the Spotify app by selecting the A6 via Spotify Connect), along with any audio content you have on your phone or tablet.
Of course, that’s not where the audio options end. There’s a line-in for audio and support for DLNA, Apple’s AirPlay and any device that supports Bluetooth 4.0. The A6 also supports all the major audio formats you’d expect, including MP3, AAC, WMA, ALAC, FLAC and WAV. And if you have more than one high-end B&O speaker (like the A9 or the Beosound range), you can link it to the A6 and indulge in some BeoLink Multiroom magic.
Despite the inclusion of a carry handle — which would suggest B&O wants to encourage you to move its speaker around — changing between the audio profiles means removing the cable cover on the rear to access the switch that let’s you choose between “free”, “wall” and “corner”. Also, the A6 needs to be plugged in as there’s no included battery. Given it’s not really compact or light enough (at 4.3kg) to be considered a portable speaker this is fair enough, but it does make the handle seem a little superfluous.
So why the different audio profiles? The clue is in the holes in the white, plastic rear-end of the device. Behind the holes lies a 38mm full-range driver — plonk the A6 in front of a wall, flick the audio profile switch to the appropriate setting and it’ll bounce sound off the wall to create a roomier sound. Frankly, we couldn’t discern much of a difference between each profile, despite positioning the A6 in all sorts of different spots. It always sounded excellent.
Though the A6 isn’t meant to offer 360-degree sound like some rival’s offerings, we found the sound was excellent even when behind the speaker. And, looking as pretty as it does, you’d be forgiven for wanting to give the A6 pride of place in the middle of a room or on a plinth all of its own, though it does of course sound it’s best when you’re in front of it.
Aside from its hefty price tags, B&O is best known for the aesthetics of its products. The wool-like front cover gives the A6 a warm and retro feel we really like. It’s designed by another Danish firm, textile company Kvadrat. The A6 comes with the default pale grey cover, but if you feel you haven’t spent enough money (or want the A6 to match your lounge suite) you can buy replacement covers in “dusty blue”, “dark rose” or “dark grey”. You can also fork out for an option wall mount or floor stand if you’re concerned you’ve not done enough to boost the economy (you charitable soul, you).
As you’d expect from B&O, no corners have been cut on the hardware front. In addition to the 38mm driver in the rear (driven by a 60W amplifier) there are two 14cm woofers up front — each driven by a 60W amp — and two 20mm tweeters with 30W amps. What does this mean? Rich, full, crisp and undeniably impressive audio.
What’s particularly impressive about the A6 is the quality of the bass, and the balance between it and the mids and highs. Pavarotti’s rendition of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” is vivid and moving. Cake’s energetic bassline in “The Distance” is ebullient and irrepressible. And Beck’s “Wow”, with its hip-hop beats and blips (surely a waving middle finger at Kanye West), is appropriately infectious and swagger-filled.
From opera, classical and Mongolian throat singing to hard rock, hip-hop and dubstep, the A6 produces consistently outstanding audio and sounds impressive even in a fairly large room. But then, we’d be terribly disappointed if that wasn’t the case. If great sound quality is your primary concern and you want an all-in-one speaker solution, the A6 should be high on your list. Assuming, that is, you can justify not only its R23,000 price tag, but its temperamental features.
Instead of physical buttons the A6 uses the sort of touch controls originally introduced with B&O’s A9. The controls are situated on the top edge of the A6 and allow you to turn it on or off, put it into pairing mode, cycle through content sources, adjust volume and skip backwards or forwards between tracks. It sounds great on paper, but in reality, can prove pretty frustrating.
Because there’s no display you need to remember the order you’ve arranged sources in when tapping the centre control to switching between them, and there’s no visual or tactile feedback when adjusting volume or skipping tracks. That said, adjusting the volume is as simple as sliding a hand across the top surface of the unit from left to right to increase it, or the reverse to decrease it, and resting a hand on the centre of the top edge toggles mute on or off.
A touch interface may seem high end, but if you’ve left your phone out of reach and want to change something it means you’ll need to get up to do it. That’s probably a good thing in this age of lethargy, but would a remote be too much to ask of a device in this sort of price range?
Sure, there’s the BeoMusic app, but it’s not great. In fact, it’s pretty shoddy. Even Spotify’s somewhat dated interface looks positively contemporary compared to BeoMusic, and navigating large playlists is dreadfully cumbersome. Thankfully, if you’re using Spotify you can do the necessary queueing and skipping from it directly, but even then the A6’s behaviour is somewhat erratic.
On numerous occasions we’d be playing music from a phone, tablet or laptop only to have it cut out at random. The track would still be playing, but we couldn’t hear a thing. We’d stroke the volume-up control on the A6, we’d turn it up on our device, but to no avail. To get things working again we’d have to disconnect the device from the A6 (whether using AirPlay or Bluetooth), reconnect it, and then turn the volume up on the speaker because it had reset itself to the lowest volume setting (no doubt to prevent accidentally blowing the speakers, or the listener’s ear drums).
At other times the audio would cut out, we’d be too busy to do anything about it and a few minutes later, just as we’d gotten up to investigate, the A6 would kick back in again. And no, it wasn’t only when we were streaming, the ghost in the machine would rear its head with locally stored content and streams, over both AirPlay and Bluetooth connections. Frustrating? Immeasurably.
Even with its plastic posterior, the A6 looks and feels like a sufficiently premium piece of kit to justify the B&O insignia. And when it behaves itself, it sounds incredible. But its inconsistent connectivity, fiddly physical controls, lack of remote control, and lack-lustre app leave us feeling we’d be better off waiting for the next generation of the device. Actually, why wait when we could spend a third of the price on something like JBL’s excellent Authentic L8 or a Sonos Play:3 instead or, you know, buy two of them and have some change?
B&O positions its products as the best on the market. That may be true of other devices, but not of this one by any stretch of the imagination. The A6 is beautiful (if you like the sort of Scandinavian minimalism it embodies, which we do), but its simply far too fickle to justify its price. At R23,000 it ought to work perfectly every time, but it doesn’t, and that’s intolerable.