Bowers & Wilkins Formation Series First Impressions
Following the breaking announcement of Bowers & Wilkins' new Formation Wireless Suite, we caught up with the full range for a hands-on demo.
To recap, Bowers & Wilkins Formation is a fully-formed multi-room wireless system aimed at those wanting top-notch audio but without the cables.
B&W has made its name producing well-received two-channel and home cinema speakers at a variety of price points. It has also previously dipped its toe in the wireless speaker waters with the likes of the Zeppelin which was also well liked.
However, this time Bowers & Wilkins mean business. After three years of research and developing its own wireless protocol as well as an in-house app, the company is ready to reveal its Formation range.
We got up-close and personal with the entire system and here are our initial thoughts.
The most instantly recognisable speakers as being B&W are the Formation Duo. These are a fully active pair of wireless speakers and the flagship product in the Formation range.
Just look at the curved cabinet housing a Continuum coned driver with a decoupled tweeter sat on top.
The design aesthetic comes across as like having a concept car - it's a futuristic version of what is easily recognisable as being a B&W speaker.
The Duo is available in black or white and sat on the made-to-measure stands (available as an optional extra), and they certainly look the part.
The speakers measure just under 40cm tall and just over 30cm deep and weigh in at 10.6kg. The stands are mass-loaded to make the whole set-up stable.
The duo's 6.5-inch Continuum driver is the same as found in the B&W 800 Series, and that is paired with a 1-inch carbon double decoupled domed tweeter. In the base of the speakers are 125-watt digital amplifiers that I understand are Hypex units. The onboard 32bit DACs are from AKM.
Around the rear of the speaker, just underneath the wireless module are the power connection and Ethernet port. These are wireless, remember? The USB port is for service updates. The join in the cabinet also performs a duty as we were told this is a “cracked bell” construction. A cracked bell won't ring and so neither will this cabinet resonate in a way to disrupt what we should actually be hearing, i.e. the music being played.
At the front of the Duo speaker is a set of controls along with the Formation connection button. It's always handy to have some physical controls on the units even though you will mostly be controlling the speakers from a smart device or laptop.
Naturally, the Duo will work with all the other B&W Formation speaker, of which there are plenty more to come.
The entire Formation suite boasts Apple AirPlay 2 and aptX HD Bluetooth support. Additionally, they have Spotify Connect and are Roon Ready, so can be controlled straight from the Roon app as well as the homegrown B&W Formation app.
B&W Formation Duo Sound Quality
At the Bowers & Wilkins show-and-tell, we got a taste of what the Duo and other products were capable of. This was by no means a chance for prolonged critical listening, but it did serve to give us some idea of what we could expect.
The listening session kicked off a cut from St Vincent with Chris Stapleton, Neil Young and Led Zeppelin following with the latter spun on a Rega P1 through the Formation Audio hub.
St Vincent's piano version of Masseducation was up first to demo the Duo's clarity and imaging. The piano's tonality was impressive through these wireless standmounts, and the vocal placement was spot on.
Neil Young's Martin guitar strums were the star of the next track, although the warmth of this 1971 recording also belied its analogue history. The detail that the little powered speakers were able to convey from this recording was impressive.
The bluesy tones of Chris Stapleton were up next in our Roon-powered streaming demo. Again, the mid-range clarity from the Continuum was very much apparent here.
Switching to the Rega Planar 1 turntable and Rega phono plugged into the Formation Audio, we had a blast of Led Zep's In My Time of Dying. What struck me with this part of the demo was how 'analogue' the audio was even though the record was being squirted across the room wirelessly. Now, I can already hear sharp intakes of breath and exclamations of “if I'm listening to an analogue source, why would I want it digitised?”. Well, my friend, this product might not be aimed at you. However, there are those that want the tactile experience of placing a needle on a record but also don't want cables trailing about the place.
B&W Formation Duo First Listen Conclusion
The B&W Formation Duo speakers are the flagship of Formation range and come with a price tag to match that claim. Furthermore, I believe that they also have the looks, presence and performance to match.
However, regarding that performance, and granted, I was off-axis in a high-backed chair during the demo, the low-end did seem a bit 'smeary' in the St Vincent and Chris Stapleton tracks. I am, for the moment, putting that down to my positioning and the room and I look forward to hearing a pair in my room at some point.
B&W Formation Wedge
The B&W Formation Wedge is the successor to the famous Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin wireless speaker. Appearing at the pointy end of the wireless revolution the now iconic speaker is renowned for its sound as well as design both of which the Wedge is hoping to bring up to today's standards. This also explains why there hasn't been a new Zeppelin.
The Wedge stands at just over 23cm tall, 44cm wide and 24cm deep and its shape does make it perfect for sitting in the corner of a room. The curved wooden back of the Wedge is formed in B&W's Worthing factory - well, they already had some pretty curved cabinets being made there, so it makes perfect sense.
Behind that undulating curved frontage, you'll find five brand new speakers explicitly designed for the Wedge, each with its own amplification module. Here you have a pair of 1-inch double-dome tweeters set at 120-degrees along with two 3.5-inch FST midrange speakers and a 6-inch subwoofer in the middle.
As with the Zeppelin, the Wedge is literally plug 'n' play, and it will be up and running within moments with you sending tunes to it via aptX HD Bluetooth, AirPlay 2, Roon or Spotify Connect. As mentioned before there's also the B&W Formation app for additional control and for managing multi-room smarts.
B&W Wedge Sound Quality
The Wedge supports 96/24-bit high-resolution audio and as soon as Bat for Lashes started via Spotify Connect Natasha Khan's voice was so real I even put my beer down for a moment. I do have a soft spot for her vocals, but the sound coming from this futuristic sound urchin was spellbinding with no boomy bottom-end.
Next up was an Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong classic, Moonlight in Vermont and another impressive performance with no harshness from the highs, even when Satchmo plays. The vocals, as with the earlier track, maintain a level of intimacy too.
The Wedge might be compact, but it packs a punch and will easily fill a room. However, it's not just power. It performs with clarity and decent stereo imaging from one attractive device.
B&W Wedge First Listen Conclusion
I dare say that I was even more impressed by the Wedge than the Duo at this event. I guess I was expecting a lot from the Duo, but that's not to say that I was hoping for good things from the Zeppelin heir(ess).
The Wedge design might be divisive, as might the price tag. However, Bowers & Wilkins knows how to get a great sound from an oddly shaped wireless speaker, and it seems to have managed it again.
We look forward to spending some quality time with the Wedge soon but, on the strength of this first listen, I would say that if you're in the market for a high-end wireless speaker then add the Formation Wedge to your auditions list.
B&W Formation Bar and Formation Bass
The new Formation range from Bowers & Wilkins starts with five products, including the Duo, Wedge, Audio as already mentioned above, and we have been told that more are on the way. On this first wireless assault, B&W was sure not to miss out the needs of home cinema fans.
The intuitively named Formation Bar is a soundbar, and the Formation Bass is, yup, a compact subwoofer. Even though they are grouped together here these two are bought separately and don't have to be used together.
Thus far am an enjoying how the Formation series looks and performs and the Bar and Bass match the rest of the range in design.
The Formation Bar is quite a statement as most soundbars these days are trying their best to hide away with slim profiles the Bar measures 124cm wide and just over 10cm deep by 10cm tall. The Bar does a decent job of disguising its size by tapering off at the ends. Still, it could also work as an excuse to buy a larger telly, too!
The Bass is wonderfully compact and features an opposed driver design within its 25 x 28 x 26cm (HWD) cylindrical form. You also get a digital amp pushing out 250-watts through those two 6.5-inch drivers with output controlled by DSP and Dynamic EQ.
I reckon it's attractive enough to have out front-and-centre which will also help with its imaging.
The reason for the Bar's length becomes apparent once you realise that its angular design is home to no less than nine speakers. There is a trio of 1-inch double dome tweeters bolstered by six 2.6-inch woven glass fibre mid/bass drivers as found in the B&W 600 series. Pushing all of them along are six 40-watt digital amplifiers. Finally, there is also DSP and Dynamic EQ onboard.
Connectivity comes in the form of a digital audio optical connection, no HDMI here. There is support for Dolby Digital but not Dolby Atmos, DTS nor DTS:X. However, the Formation Bar has the same wireless skills as the rest of the range and so is compatible with aptX HD Bluetooth, Apple AirPlay 2 and Spotify Connect, as well as being Roon Ready.
B&W Formation Bar and Bass Sound Quality
We were given a blast of Mission Impossible: Fall Out and then some music through the home cinema pairing.
The movie did sound large with the audio positioned pretty close to the centre of screen-height rather than below where the Bar was. The Bass did add dynamics and a precise low end.
It was the same team who worked on B&W's 800 Series that worked on these and when listening to purely audio the Bar and Bass worked remarkably well. I don't think that I've heard a more musical soundbar and sub.
B&W Formation Bar and Bass First Listen Conclusion
Both of these speakers look great and, of course, matches the rest of the Formation range. There may be less expensive soundbar and sub pairings but, as the Bar and Bass form part of the growing Formation series, it is that compatibility that you are also taking into consideration - something that Apple users will be all too familiar with.
Bowers & Wilkins Formation Final thoughts
I think that Bowers & Wilkins has a winner with their Formation suite of products. They are all well-designed and appear to be of high-quality construction, and a high-end whole-home wireless system will appeal to many.
Naturally, it is the company's own Wi-Fi mesh network that makes the Formation range different from anything else on the market. B&W are proud of what they have achieved with this, and it is this tech that ensures instant synchronisation across all the devices around your home. Additionally, this is the smarts behind the Duos staying in sync with each other, the same going for the Bar and Bass. Also, this B&W network connection doesn't interfere with your home wi-fi.
The B&W Formation series is currently set as a premium wireless collection, and the prices reflect such. However, it will be interesting to see what else follows these first five products.
The B&W Formation series will be available in Australia and New Zealand soon, but local pricing has not yet been finalised. For interest, in the UK they will sell for Formation Duo (£3,499.99), Formation Audio (£599.99), Formation Wedge (£899.99), Formation Bar (£999.99), Formation Bass (£899.99).
For more information, go to Bowers & Wilkins.
See Bowers & Wilkins at the 2019 StereoNET Melbourne Hi-Fi Show, October 18-20 - Lake 2 Room, Pullman Hotel, Queens Road, St.Kilda. Tickets on sale now.