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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Hands-on with Bang and Olufsen's BeoSound Essence Music System

This week in Las Vegas at CES, Danish electronics manufacturer Bang & Olufsen (B&O) unveiled a new multi-room music control system designed for supreme ease of use: BeoSound Essence. The Essence controller mounts on a wall like a light switch providing easy access to your music: internet radio stations, Spotify or network-stored music collections. Meanwhile a hideaway box provides back-end control and wireless network integration. A new BeoMusic app was also launched to provide more granular access to your favorite songs, internet radio station and Spotify playlists.

B&O CEO Tue Mantoni explained that there are two layers of interaction with technology in their products: a simple user interface for the most common use cases and a second layer for those who want to get deeper into the technology or perform customization and other more complicated tasks. B&O's goal is to "domesticate technology:" to make the devices serve the end user, rather than the user being a slave to complicated hardware and processes.

With this two-level paradigm in mind, the Essence controller, a simple but elegant disc about the size of a hockey puck, includes only four buttons and a volume dial. From the controller, you can start or stop your music, change internet radio stations and adjust the volume. If you want to switch over from internet radio to Spotify or switch between local playlists, you can do the from the BeoMusic app (that second layer).

 Band & Olufsen's CEO Tue Mantoni holds the BeoMusic Essence while explaining its operation. 

B&O's Essence controller emphasizes simplicity.

In addition to the wall-mount option for the controller, you can also pick up extra controllers with a back plate, available in multiple colors. With the backplate attached, the Essence controller can be kept on a coffee table or nightstand. This allows you to get the music playing, not just when you walk into a room but when you're getting into bed, sitting down in a comfy chair or just waking up in the morning. The BeoMusic Essence system does not come with any speakers but mates well with B&Os BeoLab line of in-wall and standalone wired and wireless speakers.

At the press event, I got a chance to play around with the Essence controller and found it remarkably simple to use. It has a nice solid feel when turning the dial or pressing in the control buttons. The controls worked as expected, switcning internet radio stations and adjusting volume. I wish they gave you the option to switch sources (e.g., from Spotify to Internet radio stations) right on the controller, but this is easy enough to do in the app. Also, B&O reps told me the existing functionality of the controller buttons could be enhanced in the future if necessary.

 The Essence controller can be attached to a backplate when not wall-mounted.

BeoSound Essence is expected to be available at Bang & Olufsen stores worldwide this spring at a retail price of $995 for one controller plus the hideaway box. Additional controllers will be available for $295. One BeoSound Essence system supports up to three controllers. The BeoMusic app for Apple and Adroid devices is expected to be available at the same time.

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