Bowers & Wilkins Formation Wireless Audio Suite Review
Bowers & Wilkins may well have been late to the high-resolution wireless audio party but with all eyes on them as they release their Formation Suite, it seems they've more than delivered a comprehensive, and formidable product range.
Bowers & Wilkins
I knew the Bowers & Wilkins name long before I became an audiophile. To my eyes, the brand rubbed shoulders with the likes of TAG, BMW, Bang & Olufsen and Ortofon, to name but a few. I knew it to be an unalloyed luxury brand that specialised in audio.
As I became increasingly immersed in, and fascinated by, high fidelity sound in my early twenties, I aspired to one day own something from the B&W range. Just over ten years later, I purchased a pair of 800 Series Diamond loudspeakers. To this day, this particular pair remains one of my proudest investments, even though it has long since gone.
For most of its history, Bowers & Wilkins has been a purveyor of traditional hi-fi loudspeakers, aimed primarily at specialist two-channel fans. The people there know what to do, and have done it arguably better than any other speaker maker in the world. The company's research and development facilities, for example, are unquestionably top tier.
Yet as technology has marched on, I couldn't help but wonder if the brand risked being left behind. This feeling began when Sonos indelibly stamped itself all over premium consumer audio, and continued as the likes of Amazon and Google entered the market. At the same time, several more specialist marques got an early foothold in multi-room audio and wireless streaming. Companies like Bluesound and Denon – thanks to HEOS – looked very clever by being early to market.
Bowers' only real 'lifestyle' audio product was the Zeppelin, and while it won friends and influenced people, it still seemed a pretty solitary speaker system in the vast B&W stable.
A NEW FOUNDATION
Then, in 2016 at the breakfast table in a hotel in Munich, with Bowers & Wilkins senior executives sat directly across from me by pure coincidence, I received a text message – or as we media types call it, 'a scoop'...
StereoNET was there for Germany's annual High-End Show, and I met many B&W personnel for the first time simply because I happened to be staying at the same hotel. The text read that Silicon Valley's EVA Automation – a tech company with extensive experience in Wi-Fi technology – had purchased Bowers & Wilkins. My imagination went into overdrive with projections of what this might mean for the company and its future products. More on that here.
Perhaps the management shared my view that the brand risked being left behind, and so the acquisition and potential for third party technology made perfect sense? This was surely a head start for Bowers & Wilkins in the technology-driven audio space. The company was indeed late to the party but has now made up for it with the announcement of its new Formation Series – less than three years after the proverbial changing of the guard.
For some reason I keep thinking of this new range as the 'Foundation Series', perhaps because this literally is what this new range has to be for the company, going forward. The potential is vast because it lets Bowers unlock the huge wireless speaker market. It takes the company out of the specialist hi-fi ghetto, so to speak, and puts it right into the mainstream. Now in late 2019, the future of Bowers & Wilkins looks even more promising than ever.
STATE OF THE ART
Bowers & Wilkins developed what they refer to as 'Formation Wireless Technology' as the backbone of its multi-room wireless audio suite. Designed from the ground up, it has “an imperceptible in-room 1-microsecond sync between speakers”, claims the company, utilising proprietary 5GHz mesh Wi-Fi technology operating at 24-bit/96kHz resolution.
The range at launch included the Formation Bar (soundbar) and Formation Bass (subwoofer), Formation Wedge (large wireless speaker), Formation Duo (stand-mount stereo speakers), and Formation Audio (bridge for existing audio systems). Also announced this month is the addition of the Formation Flex, a more portable wireless speaker to complement the range, but it's not yet available in Australia.
Setting up the suite is a simple process. Download the 'Bowers & Wilkins Home' app to your smartphone or tablet, press the Link button on each device and follow the prompts to add each product to groups or 'spaces' within your home. You use B&W's app to set up each device, and then use your platform or app of choice for the actual control of the device – be it be Spotify, TIDAL, Roon, AirPlay 2 and so on. Many of these apps are now third or fourth generation, so are now refined and intuitive.
By now, most people have their preferred app for music playback, so I applaud B&W's engineers for this approach, rather than forcing the consumer to learn and navigate yet another one.
I use enterprise-level Wi-Fi gear from Ubiquiti Networks at home and in the office. While I initially had difficulty with the Home app finding the Formation products on my local network, honing in on the problem revealed I was running a Beta firmware version on my UniFi access points. Once I rolled back to the most recent stable release, I have to say that the setup of the entire suite of Formation products was easily one of the most intuitive and seamless processes I've experienced. It just works, quickly and painlessly.
THE PILLARS OF FOUNDATION
Formation Wedge ($1,499 RRP)
In many ways, the Formation Wedge is the evolution of B&W's Zeppelin Wireless of yesteryear. Standing at just over 23cm tall, 44cm wide and 24cm deep, its shape makes it perfect for sitting in the corner of a room, or in my case, a display cabinet in the corner of my office.
Designed in B&W's Worthing UK factory, it sports a curved cabinet that's at home in any contemporary decor. The futuristic aesthetic – seen across the whole range – has proved divisive within the flow of visitors through our home and office. I dig it. To me, it's Bowers & Wilkins being a forward-looking tech company.
Behind the undulating curved frontage, there are five new speakers designed for the Wedge, each featuring its own amplification module. The driver lineup consists of 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.
With Roon driving, I started with Radiohead's Creep, which can get downright dirty and distorted on anything less than great speakers. The Wedge handled the track with ease at reasonably loud volumes, and still had a little left in reserve.
Roon's 'Radio' feature decided that Meat Loaf's Paradise by the Dashboard Light was in order, and the Wedge handled the fast tempo bassline with authority. Layers of instruments were clearly defined, and despite the absence of a stereo soundstage, the full-bodied sound with extended bass had my foot swinging in time as the fingers tapped away on the keyboard.
I'm struggling to think of a Wireless Speaker that produces a sound as substantial as the Wedge. Devialet's Classic Phantom springs to mind but coming in at $1,500 more than the Wedge's very reasonable asking price, that's a big tick for the Wedge.
For interest's sake, I paired the Formation Bass subwoofer with the Wedge via the Home app by grouping it in. Interestingly, it added very little. This says more about the Wedge than the Bass, but depending on room placement and size of the room, there's no reason why you couldn't add a Formation Bass for a little more output.
As the prospect of setting up a stereo pair of Wedges just for fun comes to mind, it's quickly dismissed given the Formation Series offers the Formation Duo in its range. If you had to pick only one product in the Formation Series for room-filling sound in a dining or family room perhaps, the Wedge fits the bill and will leave you more than impressed.
Formation Duo ($6,400 RRP + matching stands)
As a highly-respected loudspeaker manufacturer – and let's face it, B&W's latest 800 Diamond D3 Series loudspeakers are one of the most technologically advanced in the world – the company draws on what it knows best with the Formation Duo.
A more traditional loudspeaker in design, the Duo looks every bit Bowers & Wilkins today. These fully active speakers – the flagship of the series – stand proudly on optional integrated stands, and feature stunning curved cabinets.
In either white or black finish, without stands they measure just under 40cm tall and just over 30cm deep, weighing in at 10.6kg. The stands are mass-loaded for stability. The 6.5-inch Continuum driver is based on that found in B&W's flagship 800 Series, paired with a 1-inch decoupled carbon dome tweeter. The speaker base houses two 125-watt digital amplifiers and a 32-bit AKM DAC.
Around the back of the wireless module are the power connection and Ethernet ports. You'll need to avoid the temptation to plug something into the USB port as it's just for service updates. The noticeable seam in the cabinet forms part of what Bowers & Wilkins calls its “cracked bell construction”. A cracked bell won't ring, so B&W makes the argument that this cabinet won't resonate in a way to disrupt the music we're hearing.
At the front are a set of controls offering Volume up and down, Play/Pause and the Formation connection button. While it's handy to have physical buttons on the speakers, I found there was never a need to use them as control was performed exclusively through Roon and Spotify.
Dragging myself away from the Wedge, I settled into my acoustically treated 6.7 x 5.5m media room for a threesome with the Duo. Roon's self-appointed music selection cued up Juke Joint Blues with the delicate rhythm of Junior Wells' Chicago Blues Band, and In the Wee Hours. Set up in an equidistant triangle of around 2.5 metres, the percussion comes in from far out wide of the left Duo, with Buddy Guy's licks far out beyond the right. “Stunning stereo imaging and soundstage”, I wrote in my notes, and over the next half-an-hour, the music started to sound warmer and more balanced, as some heat got into the drivers and electronics.
Youn Sun Nah's Uncertain Weather showed an abundance of detail, but also the benefits of a well-executed two-way crossover seamlessly blending the Continuum midrange driver and carbon dome tweeter. The Formation Duo's ability to project a soundstage near as wide and tall as my reference JBL K2s is nothing short of remarkable, and something that speakers much larger in size than the compact Duos has been unable to do in this room.
The Duos are impressively accurate and refined, so I dare say they've been voiced to please audiophiles. Newcomers to serious sound quality will be amazed at the clarity and intricacy of the music – something they have likely never experienced before. While the Duos don't have the authority of B&W's 800 Series, they seem to sit somewhere between the 600 and 700 Series, with the added benefit of being fully active and of course all the connectivity options you would ever need.
As Art Pepper's saxophone burst into life some impressive distance back from the Duos, the piano, double bass and brushed percussion were accurately pin-pointed across the stage. You can almost see Arthur Edward Pepper Jr. walking around the stage as he moved within and beyond the boundaries of the speakers.
Where the bottom end lacks a little extension – due to the physical limitations of the 6.5-inch driver and compact cabinet – the musicality, tone, detail, and lifelike soundstage all give us a glimpse into the future for Bowers & Wilkins. The company has now shown its hand in what fully active speakers may be capable of when its engineers employ their technology to speakers higher up the range. Fully active 800 Diamond Series? Don't mind if I do …
We're entering an exciting era of high-fidelity audio where modern technology meets tradition, and for an outlay of $6,400 in Australia (plus matching stands), you're rewarded with genuine hi-fi sound without the need for a rack, separate components, cables, and of course all that clutter.
Formation Bar and Formation Bass ($1,999 RRP and $1,699 RRP)
Audiophiles often get sniffy about soundbars, but I had to admit that the Formation Bar was surprisingly effective – especially when you remember its target market. It proved good with movie soundtracks and outstanding with good old fashioned stereo music – indeed it gives its rivals a real headache, as opposed to those listening to it.
The Bar measures 124cm wide and just over 10cm deep by 10cm tall and despite its lengthy stature, it does a decent job of disguising itself by tapering off at the ends. Housed within is 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 Bowers' 600 series. Pushing all of them along are six 40-watt digital amplifiers.
Adding the Formation Bass brought a real fillip to the low frequencies as you might imagine, proving to be a net improvement rather than – as so often the case with subs – reproducing low notes but not quite at the same time as the rest of the music.
The compact Bass add-on 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 would have loved to see the inclusion of HDMI connectivity rather than just an optical Toslink input, but with HDMI standards rapidly changing and at the moment being widely open to interpretation, I can understand this decision. That said, using an Apple TV 4K to stream Ready Player One proved an immersive movie experience unsurprisingly.
The convenience of your living room becoming yet another zone and part of B&W's Formation ecosystem certainly has merit.
Formation Audio ($1,149 RRP)
Adding further to the convenience of whole-home wireless (for the most part) audio ecosystem, the Formation Audio allows you to turn any traditional audio system into another 'zone', and adds high-resolution streaming capability.
In my case, I made the connections to my existing Mark Levison/JBL reference system. Using the Formation Audio's internal DAC and set up as a Roon Endpoint, it served up an enjoyably punchy and engaging performance that didn't have you continually having to make excuses for it. Indeed, back-to-back against the already very capable Bluesound Node2i, it was notably better. That's quite an achievement, with an asking price of just $150 over the Node2i, but with a larger physical footprint.
Factor in its excellent connectivity options and stylish looks and all-round convenience, and the Formation Audio is a class act that caught me by surprise. Indeed, it's great to add to an existing system if you're investing in the Bowers' ecosystem. More Applause!
You might think that Bowers & Wilkins had it easy – given its mighty engineering resources and copper-bottomed pedigree of producing serious high-end hi-fi loudspeakers for decades. Yet for these exact reasons, the company had to hit the wireless audio ground running – there were no excuses to be made. Happily, this it has done – and done so well that you can envisage this side of the company's business becoming all the more key to its future.
Each product, or 'pillar' so to speak, of its foundations in the Formation range, is rock solid. It has put a marker down for best-in-class wireless loudspeakers, and with products like these, the future is bright for Bowers & Wilkins.
For more information visit Bowers & Wilkins