Bang & Olufsen reinflate music files

B&O 's creative director wants to improve digital audio quality, writes Ben Sin

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 April, 2015, 11:20am

Johannes Torpe has a problem with the way most of us consume music today: tunes are either generated from a compressed digital MP3 file or streamed over YouTube, and usually travel through small, underpowered speakers on our laptop or smartphones.

It's hardly a surprising stance, considering he's the new creative director of Danish luxury audio electronics brand, Bang & Olufsen. But Torpe probably would have felt the same way last year, because, long before the 39-year-old Dane became a globetrotting design expert, he was a musician.

"The sound quality of an MP3 file is already low," he says. "Now we're streaming music, which compresses and flattens the sound even more, and playing it through the speakers of a glass phone."

His complaints have been echoed by other musicians but few are in position to do something about it like Torpe, currently one of the chief creative minds of a company which has a long legacy of building audio equipment.

B&O has created the "Playmaker", a box that takes the music coming out of your mobile devices or laptops, and, in turn, streams it to B&O brand speakers. The company claims the device has a "high-performance digital audio converter" which greatly enhances the sound.

The technology behind turning MP3 into a true high-fidelity sound is in its primacy. Other companies, such as the California-based Sonos, have introduced similar products, but reviews have been hit and miss.

The problem is that most digital music, even songs purchased legally from a major company, is designed to take up as little digital space as possible. These files use codecs such as MP3 and AAC with bit rates that max out at 256 kilobits per second. To put it in layman's terms: the sound is, literally, flattened and reduced to a smaller size.

But few people actually care about the drop off in audio quality. They'd rather have portability and convenience. So although Torpe the musician will never like the digital trend, Torpe the businessman knows that's the direction in which B&O will have to go.

"I know that everyone has one of these glass phones and glass pads," he says, refusing to name names. "And that's why we've branched out from our traditional high-end stereo equipment with a new line."

Titled "Play", the new line consists of B&O products designed to work with portable devices.

As creative director - the first in the company's 88-year history - Torpe's job will be to help shape, literally, everything about the brand, from the style in which a line of products is designed to redesigning the aesthetics of all 800 B&O stores around the globe.

It's a big job, especially considering that Torpe is taking it on as a part-time gig.

"When [B&O CEO Tue Mantoni] offered me the job, I initially turned it down, because I have my own design studio," Torpe says. "But then we agreed that a partnership would be beneficial to both sides, so we agreed for me to take on the role part time. I'll spend half my time at B&O and half at my own studio."

Torpe is certainly up for the challenge. He's designed everything, from nightclub interiors (most notably Nasa in Copenhagen) and high-end restaurants (for China's South Beauty Group) to brand concepts (Evisu) and furniture (Denmark's Hay Furniture, for which Torpe won a Royal Danish Design award).

Along with his half-brother, DJ Rune Reilly Kolsch, Torpe is part of a dance music production team known as Artificial Funk. They've won more than 20 awards, including the "Danish Grammy".

Half-Danish, half-Irish, Torpe says everything was self-taught.

"I dropped out after my third year of elementary school," he says. "And I just started playing drums."

Things snowballed from there: the drumming led to music production, which led to playing live shows. When they needed stage lights for the show, Torpe picked up lighting design. Then he learned graphic design, which led to product design, and on to interior design.

"I feel that if you believe you can do something, you can eventually do it," he says. "Who are other people to tell you otherwise?"

With his track record and attitude, Torpe's goals with B&O - to bring back hi-fi music - must be music to the company's ears.