A casual glance may leave you thinking you know everything about the Bang & Olufsen Beosound Level speaker, as on the surface, it looks like a typical B&O product. Minimalist. Classy. With an understated design and all the technology you could want hidden away inside. But a glance doesn’t reveal all of the Beosound Level’s secrets.
“When we started the Beosound Level’s design process, we asked the important question about how to succeed with long-lasting consumer electronics products,” Mads Kogsgaard Hansen, Bang & Olufsen’s senior global product manager, told We in an online interview.
Twelve months after beginning the process, the speaker is the consumer electronics industry’s first product to be certified by Cradle to Cradle, a nonprofit institute that sets the standard for environmentally friendly, responsibly made products, and it goes far beyond recyclable packaging. B&O wants the Level to last a decade — at least — and that makes it very different from most other products we see.
We spoke to Hansen and Dr. Christina Raab, Cradle to Cradle’s vice president of strategy and development, about the journey to make the Beosound Level, the commitment needed, and what it means for the future of the brand.
A speaker to last a decade
The Beosound Level has been designed for longevity. Hansen explained how this approach has permeated not just the exterior of the speaker, but the technology inside, too.
“The Beosound Level is a portable connected speaker created to be anything but static. It’s made to move, adapt its appearance, and stand the test of time,” Hansen said. “Over time, you can totally change the look and the feel of the product by changing the front grille, with the idea being that as you evolve as a person, or your home’s design evolves in terms of interior design, the product can follow your taste.”
That’s not especially unusual. But it gets a lot more intriguing the deeper you go, as the Level is modular.
“It’s born with excessive processing power, so it can evolve over its life cycle,” Hansen continued. “We know that besides customization, for something to be proven as a timeless design, we need to step out of the conventions. We want to make sure we are different, but different for a purpose and a reason. We know there are limitations in battery technology, and in several years, battery performance can degrade. We made it possible and easy to replace the battery pack.”
Replaceable batteries disappeared from smartphones some years ago and haven’t really been part of consumer audio electronics for even longer. However, Bang & Olufsen isn’t just looking a few years ahead — it’s looking a decade into the future with the Beosound Level, and swapping the battery out won’t be enough to reach its goal.
“One of the major concerns is technology obsolescence, and we have addressed this in two ways,” Hansen said. “First, we have equipped [the Beosound] with processing power, where we only take advantage of 50% of its ability when you take it out of the box. The idea is to buy extra time and have the freedom to adapt to changes. It could be new connectivity, streaming services, signal processing, or just us as a brand providing new features with software updates. Even though we designed for this, we also know a decade from now, technology may radically change, so we also designed some flexibility into the architecture, with an upgradeable solution for the streaming module with standardized connectors and interfaces, and our own streaming platform, so we can control the evolution of the hardware and the software.”
End of life
Modularity has the potential to make a product last longer than one may usually expect, and it also can be helpful should it be passed on to someone else, either through easily replaced components or simpler servicing, effectively giving the device a second life after initial ownership. But what about when it eventually reaches the end of its life?
This is where Cradle to Cradle’s certification comes in. Early in the Level’s creative process, Hansen was committed to extending the lifetime of the product. Through his own personal knowledge of Cradle to Cradle, he reached out to a consultancy and got the conversation started. The institute was formed in 2010 and has head offices in Oakland, California, and in Amsterdam.
”We want to redefine the value of products,” Raab said. “It means there is no concept of waste, everything is a resource for something else, and that waste can be designed out of products. Our work at the institute is around a global standard that provides a framework to companies to achieve these ambitions. We develop the product standard, which is the most ambitious and actionable standard yet for designing and manufacturing products that are safe, circular, and responsibly made.”
A continuing standard
B&O is one of the first companies in the world to have a product certified to the Cradle to Cradle’s latest version of its standard. Raab described it as a “very holistic, comprehensive approach.” There are five main categories assessed, with two related to design — material health and product circularity — while the other three are related to manufacturing, clean air and water, and social fairness. It means every certified product is checked across the board, from having clear documentation on what to do with the product at the end of its life to it being safe for human and environmental health, as well as built on a supply chain that respects human rights and contributes to a fair and equitable society.
However, what Cradle to Cradle isn’t is a one-stop shop giving out certifications to all who want one.
“We are the institute and issue the certification, but we don’t do the data collection around the product,” Raab said. “This is outsourced to assessors that are vetted, trained, and audited by us on an annual basis. The institute does the final checks once all the data is collected and presented.”
Raab said the Bronze certification achieved by Bang & Olufsen was “remarkable” for the complex and component-heavy consumer electronics industry, but added that it’s far from a one-off prize.
“Bang & Olufsen’s Bronze level certification is setting the mark of leadership for the consumer electronics industry,” Raab said. “Most companies would not even be ready to be certified in our framework. However, [the certification] is only valid for two years, and recertification is required where we [need] a measurable improvement to be demonstrated in at least one of the standard categories. It’s a pathway to innovation.”
There is a cost involved for all this, including a $3,600 application fee, $2,000 for the recertification, plus an annual fee of between $1,800 and $15,000 depending on the company’s revenue, which covers everything from support to special events.
By going on the record with its intentions about the Beosound Level, and being required to recertify it again in 2023, Bang & Olufsen is publicly committed to change.
“It’s important to state clearly the consumer electronics industry and the operating model we have is not a long-term sustainable one,” Hansen pointed out. “There’s a lot of material used, a lot of energy used through the chain, and it’s growing. We see declining product life cycles, so they become waste earlier. We are part of that industry and part of the problem, but the good news as we see it is that we’re also part of the solution.
“With this initiative, we’d really like to show the industry there is a different way to produce and design consumer electronics. The certification of the Beosound Level is not the only one we will do. The program will be an integral part of our design process going forward, and we are looking into how we can expand it over our entire product portfolio. We can’t change everything overnight, so we decided to take a closer look at our portable and wireless speakers, and are crafting plans to bring them into Cradle to Cradle certification.”
But what does this mean for Bang & Olufsen’s product range? We put that question to Hansen in a follow-up email, and he told us:
“We are building an innovation model that supports our vision of creating reference-class products only. This goes across all product categories, including wearables, and will include a process to integrate modular design thinking in all products. We will still create special editions, collections, and brand collaborations to stay relevant, but we believe that we can do this in a way that will not compromise the longevity potential of the product”
Just the beginning
His answer suggests the Beosound Level is a strong representation of what other Bang & Olufsen products will look like over the coming years, and that we can expect modularity to become a major feature, as well as the possibility of a lengthier release cycle for core products. What the company wants to do is not a short term goal, and Hansen understands it’s a hard path to follow.
“Real change has to be painful. If it’s not, maybe we’re not changing enough.” he said. “The way we have chosen to approach this is the right one for us, but it can be achieved in other ways. I really hope other brands will follow. It would be better even if we can collaborate because we are all facing the same issues.”
Raab is also aware of the time it will take for certification like Cradle to Cradle’s to become widely adopted, but is also confident about the impact Bang & Olufsen may have.
“It will take us decades to be everywhere on the shelf, because [the certification process] is so rigorous and we evolve the system when we upgrade it each year. We are super happy because Bang & Olufsen is an example that it can be done, and the more that are out there, the more other companies will have the courage to try.”
The Beosound Level speaker is available to buy now, and it starts at $1,499.