Venerable British loudspeaker manufacturer Bowers & Wilkins has introduced a new line of powered wireless loudspeakers, called Formation, that will bring the company’s technology and aesthetic to a new generation of listeners. The Formation series is based on an advanced new wireless technology, developed entirely in-house, that could be a game-changer in the segment.
I attended a press trip to the company’s factory in the south of England to get background on the technology and marketing direction of Formation, to experience the new products firsthand, and to see how Bowers & Wilkins’ premium 800-series products are manufactured. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to visit Bowers & Wilkins’ storied Steyning research laboratory because the building is being expanded (to 30,000 square feet) to accommodate the company’s growing engineering team, now numbering 47 members. The tour also included a behind-the-scenes visit to Abbey Road Studios—the world’s oldest and most famous recording studio has used Bowers & Wilkins speakers in its control rooms for nearly four decades. (See the sidebar on Abbey Road.) Finally, we stopped at the McLaren Technology Centre just outside London to hear the Bowers & Wilkins premium-audio systems in McLaren’s exotic road cars.
The new Formation products combine Bowers & Wilkins loudspeaker expertise with a next-generation wireless technology developed by Eva Automation, the Silicon Valley start-up that acquired Bowers & Wilkins in 2016. Eva Automation, founded by venture capitalist, former Facebook CFO, and San Francisco 49ers’ co-owner Gideon Yu, created and patented an advanced wireless streaming technology that improves sound quality, is robust, and is easy for consumers to use (more on this later). In fact, Yu founded Eva Automation to develop such a home wireless technology, and later acquired Bowers & Wilkins as a partner to bring the technology to market.
Formation consists of five products that fit a wide range of applications and budgets. The first is a soundbar called Formation Bar. The $1199 Formation Bar incorporates nine drivers, three of which are dedicated to a discrete center channel within the single enclosure. As with all the Formation products, the Bar supports Apple AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Bluetooth, and is Roon Ready. Specific to the Bar is integral Dolby Digital decoding. In the demonstration of the 49"-wide Bar and Formation Bass woofer (described below) with an action film, the sound was very dynamic, with effortless reproduction of impacts. Unlike most soundbars, the Formation Bar had excellent dialog intelligibility and a very wide soundstage. The sound was almost like what I hear from three separate speakers across the front of the room in both dialog clarity and soundstage width. The quality of the bass was also remarkable, sounding tight and defined rather than warm and mushy.
The Formation Wedge ($899) is a single-chassis stereo speaker ideal for a smaller room, kitchen, bedroom, or office. It incorporates within a fabric-wrapped chassis two separate stereo speaker systems (one on each end) along with a 5.5" long-throw woofer in the center. The tweeters are identical to those in Bowers & Wilkins’ excellent 600-series speakers. The tweeters, along with the 3.5" midrange drivers, are mechanically decoupled from the chassis. The Wedge’s voicing was all done acoustically rather than via DSP manipulation. Even with compressed streaming from Spotify, the Wedge sounded very clean and pure, particularly in the midrange. Ella’s vocal on “Moonlight in Vermont” from Ella and Louis (which I listen to at home on 45rpm vinyl) was remarkably open and uncolored, faithfully conveying her exquisite voice. The Wedge’s bass was surprisingly extended and dynamic for its size, with outstanding pitch definition, and the treble was clean and free from metallic hardness. I would have preferred to have heard the system sourced from uncompressed Tidal or high-res Qobuz, but the Formation app doesn’t currently support those lossless streaming systems. (As described below, however, you can stream to any of the Formation products from an external server in standard or high-resolution). Nonetheless, the Wedge was authentically musical rather than sounding as though it were tailored to a mass-market sensibility. It’s worth noting that Bowers & Wilkins has long experience with this type of product; its hugely popular Zeppelin was one of the first high-quality Bluetooth speakers on the market.
The Formation Bass is a small barrel-shaped woofer that sits on its side. The enclosure houses a 6.5" driver on each end, configured so that their mechanical vibrations cancel each other. Foundation Bass can be used with any of the other products in the Foundation range. In fact, the Bass detects the other Foundation product with which it is paired, and then automatically adjusts the crossover frequency and other characteristics to optimize performance—a neat trick that takes the guesswork out of the consumer’s hands and ensures optimum performance. Price: $999.
Next up was the Formation Duo, a pair of stand-mount speakers that are instantly recognizable as Bowers & Wilkins from the “bullet” tweeter module atop the cabinet. This “tweeter on top” design is a signature Bowers & Wilkins technology, used on all their upper-end models, that greatly reduces high-frequency diffraction by essentially removing the baffle from around the driver. The $3999-per-pair Duo features the same Continuum cone bass/midrange driver from Bowers & Wilkins’ top 800 series, along with a new patented carbon-dome tweeter. The enclosure is molded from a new composite material, too. Each speaker in the pair is powered by two 125W Class D amplifiers, with the crossover and other signal processing performed in DSP. The Duo features the same connectivity options described above for the Wedge. Dedicated stands are available at an additional cost.
In the demo the Duo played back high-res files sourced from an Innuos server via the Formation Audio wireless hub as well as from a turntable. As good as the Wedge sounded, the $3999-per-pair Duo took the performance to another level, one competitive with a much more expensive system composed of separate components. The Duo’s sound was extremely neutral and uncolored, had spectacular bass extension and weight for the cabinet size, and threw a very large and well-defined soundstage. The midrange had an immediacy and presence that made the music palpable without sounding forward. The Duo pair completely disappeared as a sound source, a hallmark of high-end performance.
This type of audio system architecture—a loudspeaker with integral streaming, amplification, and DSP crossovers, with no crossover components in the signal path between amplifier and speaker driver—has many advantages over the traditional component-system architecture of source, amplification, and speaker, all connected by wires. One such advantage is in sound quality per dollar; I doubt that it would be possible to equal the Duo’s overall sound quality with $4000 worth of separates. The second advantage is that such a system makes high-quality audio much more accessible to consumers. Many music listeners may be intimidated by component audio, not have the space for it, or simply prefer the simplicity of wirelessly streaming to a pair of speakers. Any technology that makes high-quality music easily accessible to more people is a boon to music and to the audio industry.
Formation Audio Wireless Hub
Finally, the Formation Audio is a wireless hub that allows you to connect analog or digital sources to the wireless network and play those sources through any number of Formation products throughout the house. It offers TosLink digital input, stereo analog input on RCA jacks, a digital out, and an analog output. Integral technology includes Apple AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Roon Ready, Ethernet (RJ45 or WiFi), and Bluetooth. The integral DAC operates at 192/32. The Formation Audio was demonstrated with a turntable connected to its analog input, with the Formation Audio encoding the signal in the wireless format for distribution to any other Formation product on the network. 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 of the Formation products to cycle through sources driving that particular product. Price: $699.
All the products in the Formation series are in production and shipping now.
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.
Eva Automation was founded in 2014 specifically to develop this technology that, according to its website, will “significantly enhance the user experience of audio/video in the home.” Eva Automation acquired Bowers & Wilkins in May, 2016, and nearly three years later has introduced the first of what will likely be many products based on the patented technology. It will be interesting to see if Eva Automation licenses it to other companies or keeps it proprietary to Bowers & Wilkins products.
Behind the Scenes at Abbey Road Studios
Touring Abbey Road Studios as part of the Bowers & Wilkins press event was a once-in-a-lifetime treat. The studio was of course made famous by the Beatles album of that name, but Abbey Road has a long and storied history of which the Beatles are just one part (although a huge part).
In 1928 The Gramophone Company bought a nine-bedroom Victorian home in west-central London with the intent of building the world’s first recording studio. This was in the era when recordings were made exclusively in concert halls and music venues by the scientists who invented and built the early recording equipment. By the time the studio opened in 1931, The Gramophone Company had merged with Columbia Gramophone Company to form Electric and Musical Industries (EMI). (Incidentally, Alan Blumlein, the inventor of stereo, worked at EMI and patented stereo recording in the same year the studio opened.) The studio looks unremarkable from the street, the small façade belying the building’s massive depth. The inaugural recording at the first purpose-built studio, called EMI Studios, was Land of Hope & Glory conducted by Sir Edward Elgar. The studio was ideal for recording large orchestras; Studio 1 could (and still can) accommodate a 110-piece orchestra and a 100-member choir simultaneously. The somewhat smaller, but still enormous, Studio 2 is where the Beatles recorded 190 songs of their 210-song body of work.
Today’s Studio 2 looks identical to the way it did in 1939 when the acoustics were updated, though the control room has been modernized and features the latest equipment. Walking through the door into Studio 2 is like stepping back in time. Abbey Road kept Studio 2 in its original condition not with the intent on making it a museum, but because the acoustics have a certain magic that they don’t want to lose. Even the wooden floor is original. Nearly every piece of equipment the studio ever bought is still on the premises, including more than 800 microphones.
Although Abbey Road is a working studio not a museum, it keeps on display in Studio 2 some items that would have been criminal to lock away in a storage closet. Right there is the piano where John and Paul often sat and worked out parts. It’s the same piano that Paul played on “Lady Madonna” as well as the final chord of “A Day in the Life.” (They preferred the sound of this particular piano for those songs over the grand piano that was also available.) In another corner was the four-track tape machine and recording console on which Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was made. It was magical to see these iconic pieces of music and recording history.
For the Beatles, the recording process was very different between their first album and their last. In fact, over the seven years they recorded at Abbey Road, the Beatles upended the strict hierarchy which put the musicians at the bottom of the pecking order. The record company was at the top of this hierarchy, followed by the producer, and then the engineers (who wore white lab coats over shirts and ties), with the musicians treated virtually as day laborers. It’s hard to believe now, but before the mid-1960s the musicians entered the studio through the loading dock, and weren’t even allowed in the control room. The band came into the studio, performed under the direction of the producer, and left, with no artistic input on the recording process. The Beatles changed all that, not just for themselves but also paving the way for other artists to take greater control of their work and to think of the studio as an integral part of the creative process. Consider that the Beatles’ first album was recorded in a single day; Sgt. Pepper took six months.
Today’s Abbey Road Studios, now owned by the Universal Music Group, is one of the busiest and most technically advanced recording and mastering facilities in the world. More than half of all major film scores are recorded there, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Skyfall, the Harry Potter series, Gravity, and many others. A Dolby Atmos Premier mixing stage allows films to be scored and mixed at the same facility. In addition to the massive Studio 1 and Studio 2, a number of smaller studios and control rooms serve a wide range of music clients. Abbey Road is fully equipped for digital and analog mastering including half-speed and direct-to-disc LP cutting. The list of artists and iconic albums recorded at Abbey Road is staggering, from Paul Robson to Pink Floyd to contemporary artists such as Lady Gaga. It’s amazing to consider that Abbey Road has been a working studio since 1931.
Abbey Road’s association with Bowers & Wilkins goes back to 1979 when the studio began using the company’s famed 801 loudspeaker as a control-room monitor. In fact, the 801 became a standard for recording monitors throughout the world, particularly for classical music. The latest generation Bowers & Wilkins 800-series speakers were in every control room we visited on the tour. (I’ve also visited Skywalker Sound at Lucasfilm which also uses 800-series speakers in the scoring stage’s control room.) The engineers spoke of the sound quality and accuracy of Bowers & Wilkins speakers as well as the sonic consistency from room to room within Abbey Road.