Are powered wireless loudspeakers the future of audio? Tom Martin posits in this issue’s feature “The Future of Audio: Integrated Systems?” that integrated loudspeakers which combine amplification and digital streaming are potentially game-changers in the high end. He writes: “We could be executing a slow but powerfully important transition to a new system architecture. This new architecture is necessary to take significant further steps toward musical enjoyment. Those steps may be big enough that the new architecture becomes dominant. Or, the new architecture may simply create an alternative that works for some listeners and not for others. But, either way, I think this new architecture could be hugely significant.”
The introduction of an entirely new configuration for music-reproduction systems raises many questions. Do integrated systems sacrifice sound quality for convenience? Or does their one-box architecture confer technical and cost-savings advantages that allow them to outperform a similarly priced component-audio system? Is the inability to upgrade components a fatal liability? Or will manufacturers develop a modular architecture that combines the simplicity and technical advantages of an integrated system with the flexibility of separates? Will audiophiles even want a system that they can’t incrementally upgrade over time? Or will high-quality music playback systems that are simple and unobtrusive provide the long-sought road to greater mainstream acceptance of high-quality audio among non-audiophiles?
One path to better understanding integrated systems and their potential is simply to start reviewing them—there’s no substitute for hands-on (and ears-on) experience. We’ve looked at a number of integrated systems recently—the KEF LS50 Wireless (Issue 285), KEF LSX (Issue 294), Dali Callisto (Issue 293), and Technics Ottava (next issue), to name a few. Note that all these systems have things in common—they are small, relatively affordable for the high end (the Dali at $4300 is the most expensive), and aren’t designed to push the envelope in absolute performance. One of the most ambitious integrated systems is the $25,000 Eikon, created by MartinLogan co-founder Gayle Sanders. Sanders came out of retirement to pursue what he believed to be the best technology for reproducing music—a loudspeaker under digital control with integral amplification and DSP room correction. (Watch for my in-depth review.)
All this leads me to the subject of this review, the new Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo. The first integrated system from the venerable British loudspeaker manufacturer, the $3999-per-pair Duo is a self-contained playback system that needs no components other than a source. That source can be as simple as a phone or tablet streaming music from your library or from a streaming service.
The Duo has a lot going for it on paper: Bowers & Wilkins’ heritage, a track record of building great-sounding products, and the company’s advanced loudspeaker-development laboratory. But the Formation products have another trick up their sleeve—an entirely new wireless technology, developed in-house, that the company claims vastly improves the sound quality of wireless integrated systems, provides easier setup for the customer, and is more robust than conventional off-the-shelf solutions.
The wireless technology at the heart of the Formation products was developed independently by a small Silicon Valley start-up called Eva Automation. Founded by venture capitalist, former Facebook CFO, and San Francisco 49ers’ co-owner Gideon Yu, Eva Automation was formed to create and patent an advanced wireless-streaming technology with the idea of ultimately acquiring an established audio company as a vehicle for bringing that wireless technology to market. Yu thus bought Bowers & Wilkins in May 2016, and three years later, we have the Formation products. (See the sidebar on the wireless technology behind Formation.)
In addition to the pair of Duos at $3999, the Formation line includes a single-speaker system ideal for a kitchen or bedroom (Formation Edge, $899), a soundbar (Formation Bar, $1199), a woofer (Formation Bass, $999), and a wireless hub that works with any of the Formation products (Formation Audio, $699). Incidentally, the Formation Bass knows which Formation product it is paired with and automatically adjusts its crossover frequency for that product.
One glance at the Duo and you know that it couldn’t be anything other than a Bowers & Wilkins product. The 6.5" woofer slightly protrudes from the cabinet as it does in the company’s upper-end 800 series speakers, and the sloped top panel houses Bowers & Wilkins’ famous tapered “bullet” tweeter. Mounting the tweeter separately from the baffle reduces cabinet diffraction, and the tapered structure dissipates the tweeter’s rear wave (a concept taken to the extreme in the company’s visually striking Nautilus). This “tweeter on top” design is featured on all its upper-end models. The tweeter itself is a patented driver with a 1" carbon dome. The 6.5" mid/woofer features the same Continuum cone used in Bowers & Wilkins’ top 800 line. The cabinet is made from a composite material that is molded into the final shape, and includes the company’s Matrix bracing inside. Molding a cabinet this way instead of gluing flat pieces of sheet stock together allows for rounded edges and compound curves that reduce diffraction. The enclosure is split into two parts, with an obvious seam running vertically on each side. This split-cabinet design decouples the front and rear halves of the enclosure, which reportedly reduces enclosure resonances. The cabinet felt sturdy and solidly constructed.