Soundstaging was spectacular by any measure. The speakers completely disappeared as sound sources, throwing a wide and deep sense of space. I’m sure that the Duo’s small cabinets, rounded shape, and the separate baffle-less tweeter contributed to this performance. The slightly recessed midrange mentioned earlier added to the Duo’s outstanding depth. Images were presented with pinpoint accuracy and were sharply defined, laterally and along the depth axis. Best of all, however, was Duos’ stunning ability to portray instruments as individual entities. This is perhaps the speaker’s most salient quality, and the one that vaulted its performance, and the attendant musical satisfaction, to unexpected heights. This lack of congealing made each musical line more intelligible, and with that intelligibility came a greater communication of the musicians’ expressions. Complex arrangements, such as those on Antidote, a new album by Chick Corea leading a terrific Latin big band, were completely resolved with no thickening of timbre or spatial cues. This fostered the impression of people playing instruments rather than the perception of just hearing sound. Many systems that cost much more than $4000 don’t deliver this vital aspect of the music nearly as well.
Transient performance was also exceptional, with quick leading edges that made the sound lively while also conveying dynamic expression. This transient fidelity didn’t come at the expense of ease; the leading edges had no etch or exaggerated attack. Rather, transients were presented in a completely natural and relaxed way that encouraged higher playback levels and longer listening sessions. Similarly, the Duo had excellent sense of pace and rhythmic drive. The Duo brought to life the high energy, driven by Peter Erskine’s drumming, of the Freddie Hubbard composition “Byrdlike” from George Cables’ Cables’ Vision.
I experienced one operational anomaly. I had been listening to Tidal streamed via Roon when I switched over to the Formation Audio to listen to music stored on the Aurender A20 server decoded by the Berkeley DAC. For about 30 seconds of Norah Jones from her album Day Breaks, it sounded as though the loudspeakers were out of phase, with no center image. I stopped the playback to consider what was happening, and when I started the track over a few seconds later, the problem had disappeared. Other than that, using the Duo on a daily basis, including streaming from LPs through the Formation Audio wireless hub, couldn’t have been easier.
Bowers & Wilkins’ Formation Duo makes a strong case for the performance and value possible in an integrated loudspeaker. The Duo has many independent sonic qualities, but more importantly, it was always musically expressive, communicative, and involving. I greatly enjoyed my time with it not just because of its sonics, but also because of the simplicity of operation and ease of access to a wide range of music. I doubt that I could assemble $4000 worth of separate components that sounded as good.
But beyond sound quality and appeal to the committed audiophile, the Duo expands the market for high-quality audio by reaching music lovers who might be intimidated by component audio, or who lack the space for separates. The Duo unobtrusively blends into a home, is easy to use, and can be part of a whole-house wireless audio system. The obvious downside, which may not be a consideration for many listeners, is that the Duo is a closed ecosystem that works only with other Formation products, and can’t be upgraded as technology marches forward.
It’s unlikely that the advanced new wireless technology that motivated a Silicon Valley entrepreneur to buy a 53-year-old British loudspeaker company will be confined to the Formation products. The Duo is just the beginning. Don’t be surprised to see Formation-like technology and integration in versions of Bowers & Wilkins’ upper-end loudspeakers. Those products will help answer the question of whether the undeniable advantages of integrated wireless systems are limited to relatively affordable products like the Duo and to consumers for whom convenience is a priority, or if integrated loudspeakers represent a transformation that will eventually pervade even the upper echelons of high-end audio.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Wireless active loudspeaker system
Driver complement: 6.5" woofer, 1" dome tweeter
Frequency response: 25Hz–33kHz
Integral amplifier power: 125W x2, Class D
Connectivity: Apple AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Roon Ready, Ethernet (RJ45 or WiFi), and Bluetooth
Dimensions: 7.8" x 15.5" x 12"
Weight: 23.4 lbs. each
Price: $3999; stands, $799
Eva Automation/Bowers & Wilkins Wireless Technology
The wireless technology at the heart of the Formation series creates a mesh network between all components in the system. This proprietary network can reportedly transfer data at ten times the rate of existing wireless systems, making it robust for high-resolution audio. The network also has much lower latency (lag time) than existing wireless networks, which translates to tighter synchronization between speakers. Latency is the time it takes for data to be transmitted from a server to a client device and back. According to Bowers & Wilkins, existing wireless systems introduce a continuously variable latency drift between the left and right audio streams. The magnitude of this left/right latency drift is reportedly equal to physically moving one of the speakers in the stereo pair forward or backward by 1.5 meters—you can imagine the effect that would have on sound quality. By contrast, Bowers & Wilkins’ new wireless technology reportedly has a fixed latency of just 1µs, an order of magnitude lower than existing wireless systems. In addition to improved sound quality, the new network is said to be very robust as well as very easy for consumers to set up and use.