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Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo Wireless Integrated Loudspeaker

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.

 

Each Duo incorporates two 125W Class D amplifiers, with the crossover and other signal processing performed in DSP. DSP crossovers permit any filter characteristics, along with the ability to correct for driver behavior. In addition, DSP crossovers obviate the need for signal-robbing capacitors and inductors between the amplifier output and the drive units; the amp output is connected directly to the drivers’ voice coils. The arrangement also means the system is bi-amped, another advantage. And the driver designer knows what amplifier will be driving his product, and the amplifier designer what speaker the amp will be driving. Consequently, this crucial interface can be engineered as a unit to work together optimally. 

The attractive and sturdy metal stands, which can be filled with sand for greater stability and vibration damping, are a $799 option. Two types of spikes are included, one set with sharp points and one with rubber feet. The stands and the speakers themselves are available in matte black or matte white finishes.

The Duo supports Apple AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Bluetooth, and is Roon ready, with a 60-day free trial of Roon included. Unfortunately, the Duo doesn’t incorporate MQA decoding. The system can accommodate up to 24-bit/96kHz audio. To take advantage of the Duo’s high-resolution capability, however, you’ll need the $699 Formation Audio network hub. This hub accepts analog and digital signals from multiple sources, encodes those sources in Bowers & Wilkins’ proprietary wireless format, and distributes the signal to any Formation product on the network. Any number of Formation products can connect to the proprietary mesh network for whole-house wireless audio. As you can read in the sidebar, the wireless network is significantly more advanced than standard off-the-shelf solutions employed by other manufacturers of integrated wireless loudspeakers. It is reportedly ten times faster, has lower latency, is more robust and easier to set up, and most importantly, delivers better sound quality than existing wireless systems. This superior sound quality is realized by reducing the variable latency between the left and right wireless signals driving the loudspeakers, which is reportedly a problem for conventional wireless. 

The Duo (and any other Formation product) is set up through the Bowers & Wilkins app; you plug in the components, launch the app, and after a few taps, the Formation products are connected to the network. You can stream music directly to the Duo, but the experience is so much richer with Roon (as noted, a free trial is included with the Duo). Once you use Roon there’s no going back. This was my first experience with the software, and it is a wonderfully amazing product—not just for handling the mechanics of selecting music, but for encouraging you to explore a music library as well as discover new music. I set up my Windows PC as the Roon Core, and then selected and managed my music library and streaming services through Roon Remote on an iPad. Setup was extremely simple and worked the first time. 

The Formation Audio wireless hub takes in analog and digital signals, converting them to the wireless stream sent to any Formation product on the network. It offers TosLink digital input, stereo analog input on RCA jacks, a digital out, and an analog output. Connectivity, as previously noted, includes Apple AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Roon Ready, Ethernet (RJ45 or WiFi), and Bluetooth. The integral DAC operates at 192/32. The Formation Audio syncs all devices across the network; you can listen to the same source in all rooms, or simply push a front-panel button on any Formation product to cycle through sources driving that particular unit. Setup was by far the easiest I’ve encountered with any wireless product. I connected the record-out jacks from the Constellation Altair II preamplifier to the Formation Audio’s analog input, which allowed me to listen to any source (Basis Transcendence turntable or Berkeley Alpha Reference DAC) through the Duo. 

The Duo immediately impressed with its smooth tonal balance, full bottom end, and wide dynamics. But the Duo had an almost startling clarity and alacrity through the midrange that elevated the performance beyond what one would expect from a system of this price. The Duo’s transparency and presence were simply sensational, giving vocals and lead instruments a lifelike immediacy and tangibility. Paradoxically, I would guess that the frequency response from the presence range through the lower treble had a very slight and broad dip. A somewhat recessed midrange usually works to reduce the sense of immediacy, but the Duo’s clarity and transparency overcame a slight reduction in upper-midrange harmonics to present images that were fully fleshed out tonally and spatially. In fact, the Duo had an almost spooky sense of presence. Buddy Guy’s closely miked vocal on the track “Done Got Old” from the album Sweet Tea, accompanied only by his spare acoustic guitar playing, had an intimacy and directness that powerfully communicated his world-weary delivery. In addition to the midrange clarity and lack of coloration, the sense of presence was heightened by the extraordinary image focus and sense of bloom around instrumental outlines.

Significantly, the upper midrange and treble were extremely clean and smooth, without coarse textures or a glassy sheen. These qualities contributed significantly to the Duo’s exceptional overall musicality and absence of listening fatigue. This is pure speculation, but it’s possible the Duo’s designers balanced the speaker with this easy-going upper-midrange and treble to compensate for the hardness and glare endemic to lossy streaming services such as Apple Music and Spotify. The majority of Duo buyers will likely use one of those two sonically compromised services without knowing that there are much better-sounding options in Tidal Hi-Fi and now Qobuz. Nonetheless, the combination of a slightly laid-back midrange, detailed yet not overbearing treble, and midrange liquidity went a long way toward my overall impression that this was a musically compelling system.

The Duo’s bass was warm, rich, and full rather than lean and tight. The midbass had a bit of a bump that compensated for the lack of true extension. This gave the system more tonal weight and gravitas than expected from a single 6.5″ woofer. Extension was surprisingly good within the physical limitations of the smallish cabinet. Remember that a woofer under DSP control in a sealed cabinet isn’t bound by the usual laws of physics that dictate the roll-off characteristics of a passive loudspeaker. In other words, the designer can realize deeper extension (within the driver’s mechanical limits and the amplifier’s output power) than is possible in a passive speaker of the same size. Consequently, the Duo’s bass was credible on Joey DeFrancesco’s Hammond B-3 pedals on the Bobby Hutcherson release Enjoy the View, even when it was played at a loud level. In the bass the Duo sounded like a small to mid-sized floorstanding speaker, not a compact stand-mount. Pitches were fairly well defined, although the system leaned a bit toward the plummy side, but in a pleasant rather than distracting way. When pushed hard, the bass could get woolly, and the bottom-end transient performance wasn’t up to the same standard as the exemplary dynamic agility and transient quickness of the rest of the spectrum. Nonetheless, the Duo’s bass was musically satisfying and seldom called attention to itself. The Duo also played surprisingly loudly without strain. I never heard the woofer get into trouble when pushed hard; it’s possible that DSP prevents the woofer from being overdriven. Another outstanding characteristic was the Duo’s top-to-bottom coherence. The system sounded “of a piece,” with no discontinuities between the drivers and no part of the spectrum calling attention to itself. 

 

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.

Conclusion
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.

By Robert Harley

My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.

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