B&O has delivered a gaming headset that sacrifices very little of its "B&O-ness".
Not to start out on a negative note here, but Danish tech-giant Bang & Olufsen, responsible for some of the most iconic consumer electronic designs ever, hasn't been doing so great for the past few years. So when they initially, last year, unveiled a collaboration with Microsoft on Xbox-branded products, some viewed it as a clear last gasp, or at the very least a desperate grab for attention. But it's anything but. In fact, B&O revenues rose 16% to 689 million Danish Kroner, turning around a seemingly sinking ship. And, it would seem that this Xbox deal could end up amplifying that success, rather than serving as an example of struggle.
That partnership is called Beoplay Portal, a headset, which sacrifices very little of its "B&O-ness" -if such a term can be allowed to exist- and does, at first glance, appear to be a console enabled version of its new HX, itself a successor to the popular H9's. Not that that is any criticism, because like the HX, the Portal is a headset of such sumptuous quality, both in design and construction, that all other gaming headsets must flee in its wake. Both sides are fit with a single piece of milled aluminium, the headband is covered in cowhide and its memory foam cups are covered in real lambskin. The top of the brace is soft canvas, but in spite of these luxurious, and normally heavy, materials, the Portal is a light headphone, weighing in at "just" 282 grams.
One central difference though is the space within the cups. Next to the HX, it's clear that the Portal was envisioned as something closer to an over-ear listening experience. Both have gaps between the fabric covered driver and the edge of the cup, but the gap on the Portal is slightly bigger. It creates a roomier physical feeling, and as a result - adds comfort during longer sessions.
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In fact, most of the discomfort that has plagued great B&O headphones of the past are, somewhat, gone. Sure, because of its tight construction, there's still downward pressure from the brace on the top of your head, but it's drastically reduced, rendering the Portal soft yet firm.
B&O has also scaled back some functionality, weirdly. The aluminium discs no longer forces you to spool your finger 'round to adjust volume. Instead, a slight double tap will pause or play. There's a slider on the underside of both cups, where you move your finger from the centre and towards one of the end points of the slider. While not perfect, it's certainly responsive enough to satisfy. It could end up being an issue to some, that the two sliders adjust volume and ANC levels, omitting a chat/game audio balancer, which some consider essential on a gaming-oriented device.
It should be said though, that while its Microsoft-backed, the Portal is more of a "two headsets in one" sort of deal, where dongle-less usage on an Xbox console is seamlessly combined by a headset that, through Bluetooth 5.1 and support for up to eight devices, can just as easily be taken out for a spin. While other manufacturers have made that claim for their devices, there's probably a reason why you don't see many SteelSeries Arctis 9X's or LucidSound LS50X's out about town.
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But seamlessness and usability matters little if it doesn't sound good enough. Well, luckily, it does. B&O has utilised a pretty linear sound signature for years, and to great effect. There's almost perfect balance between its crisp top-end, flanked by a clear mid-range and deep bass. Never once during our testing did it sound out-of-sync or badly calibrated. We played through both Dishonored titles with them, and used them to truly enhance a co-op session that took us from the opening of Halo 5: Guardians to somewhere halfway in the game, never straying too far from balanced audio between game and voice chat, even though there's no physical balancer for it. In addition, listening to H.E.R's I Used to Know Her, Frank Ocean's Blonde and Jamie Isaac's (04:30) Idler, which usually detects imbalance in build-ups, proved that the expertise that's been present for years in B&O products are here, and in force.
In addition, the "virtual boomer mic", that B&O touts as basically being the same thing as a physical one, proves not just to be empty promises. Sure, it really isn't a physical boomer arm, but our co-op partners throughout the test both noted that the sound was "good", if not average, and without having an annoying microphone sticking out constantly, we'd gladly take the slight compromise to noise cancellation.
The accompanying application (for iOS and Android) isn't too bad either, with clear distinction between Xbox and Bluetooth 5.1 unit settings. There's some pre-calibrated listening modes here, such as "FPS", and it mainly fiddles with the noise cancellation, which can also be manually adjusted with the slider on the left ear cup. Again, a chat/game audio slider physically present would've been useful, but apart from that, it's hard to fault either the software, or the hardware.
The Portal are expensive, as in really expensive. It's especially expensive when you unbox them, and find out that B&O left out little things such as a protective carrying case, that you still do get if you pick up the new HX's for instance. That said, the Portal is a headset you really can use for both gaming, and a trip abroad, or on the train, or just when going out for a walk. They look exquisite, sound excellent, and offer seamless connectivity between Xbox and Bluetooth devices. So, if you want to stretch the alternative a tad, it's about the same as you'd spend on both a medium-range set of cans for the road, and an acceptable gaming headset. And this does both. It's stretched, sure, but the point stands, and the Portal are good enough for every Xbox owner with an aesthetic soul to consider it.