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Q&A with Andy Kerr of Bowers & Wilkins

What ignited your interest in high-end audio? Did it come from the music side or the electronics side?

Music! I’m fortunate that I can trace my family tree back a long way—to Scotland in the 12th century, in fact. It seems that most of my ancestors tended to either serve in the military or become engineers. I, however, chose the “other” route; I set my heart on pursuing a military career in my youth and joined the cadet corps as soon as I was able. However, it didn’t quite work out in the end, which forced me to reassess and reset my ambitions. As my passion was music, which I had been obsessed with since childhood, it seemed the obvious choice for a career. Music compelled me to buy hi-fi; hi-fi compelled me to buy more music. It became an uroboros ring of enthusiasm and expenditure!

What components made up your first high-end system? 

I had a Linn LP12 from 1982, although I wouldn’t say the amplifier or speakers it was connected to were particularly high end (those were the “source-first” days, and I was still young and on a budget!). By the mid-90s I was working in audio, but in the end I settled on a couple of systems: the primary TV-watching and music-listening room had a Pioneer LD player linked into a Meridian Digital Theatre with 500 CD transport, 565 processor, and DSP5500 speakers (with the matching center and DSP5000s as rears). In another room, I had a “purist” stereo system with my Linn connected to a Musical Fidelity F22 tube preamp with F18 power amp, driving a pair of Bowers & Wilkins (then B&W) CDM1. 

What kind of education did you receive?

I went to Nottingham High School, a very traditional private school that can trace its origins back to the year 1513. Despite its traditional approach I really value the time I had there: the school was as much about teaching pupils to think as it was teaching them to learn.

What differentiates high-end audio from other segments of audio? 

The customer expectation is different, because buyers in this category are to a degree both more tolerant and more dedicated than typical buyers. Ask a mainstream customer to accept a speaker that takes up as much space or which weighs as much as an 800 D3, and you might have a difficult task on your hands, but to enthusiasts in the high-end audio space it’s less of an issue. The same applies to price, of course: The high-end audio consumer is definitely more tolerant of cost than a mainstream buyer, where every small increment in price has potentially massive implications for sales. 

How would you describe the B&W philosophy?

We are founded on and driven by the need to make a better loudspeaker. John Bowers famously said that the best loudspeaker “isn’t the one that gives the most; it’s the one that loses the least.” We want you to hear what the artist intended with no coloration or distortion. That sounds simple to achieve; in practice it’s anything but. In addition, we want you to hear sound levels close to those of a live performance with no apparent sense of stress or strain from the loudspeaker. Our approach is this: We are compelled to do better in everything we do. With every loudspeaker generation, especially with a model as advanced as the 800 Series Diamond, we all learn a lot, and that helps us to make our other, more affordable loudspeakers better, too. 

Audiophiles have been reluctant to embrace active/DSP and wireless loudspeakers in the past. Has there been a shift? 

I’m not sure. I think many enthusiasts have so much invested (on both a financial and an emotional level) in amplifiers, cables, and so on that it’s hard for them to turn their backs on them. I think some of the smarter amplifier brands have made good strides in offering DSP-driven platforms that can complement and potentially improve the performance of passive speakers. Today’s young consumer is growing up in a world where sound comes from one device and is stored or streamed from one device (the phone). As those customers age they may want to scale their audio systems to meet their needs, but asking them to adopt amps, cables, and so on when they have zero track record or experience of that is a tall order. I want to be clear: We absolutely will not stop making passive speakers for so long as there are customers out there who want them. But it’s just as important that we remain relevant. 

What are the greatest challenges facing B&W and the high end?

I see more young people wearing headphones and listening to music every day now than I did 20 years ago. So the potential target market is there, but we need to give those people a reason to believe in what we offer. Now that’s not easy, because, like it or not, the hi-fi industry is not cool. We have somehow, as an industry, created an environment where more people are put off by what we do than are drawn to it. We need to not only come up with better products, but better ways to communicate the value of those products to new consumers. Make no mistake, our industry should be way larger and way more relevant to today’s consumer than it actually is.

What (still) inspires you about your work?

The passion of the people I work with, the collective enthusiasm we all share, and the knowledge that there’s always more to learn. 

Tags: BOWERS & WILKINS Q&A

By Neil Gader

Writer

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