The new age of B&W

The new Formation suite of wireless multiroom audio really does represent a new age for Bowers & Wilkins, as it delivers the results of combining B&W’s strengths in traditional loudspeaker engineering with the new technical leadership of Silicon Valley company EVA Automation, which surprised the hi-fi world by buying B&W in 2016. The ‘Home’ app which oversees the Formation suite comes direct from EVA, and the six new products (see overleaf) communicate via a proprietary mesh wireless network able to stream up to high-resolution 24-bit/96kHz audio.

Hence we might call B&W’s new age an ‘Age of Wireless’, except that wireless operation is hardly new to the company. It’s easy to forget what a leader the company was in lifestyle audio when back in 2007 it introduced the Zeppelin, an active speaker system which was the first truly premium iPod docking speaker, arriving at a gasp-inducing price of $999. For an iPod dock? Surely madness!

But it wasn’t madness, it was the future. The Zeppelin’s exceptional design and performance showed that the company’s founder John Bowers was right when he once said that “If you can make a better product, you can sell it.” An ongoing series of Zeppelins tracked the changes from iPod docks to modern wireless operation. Other wireless products followed, both speakers and headphones. But an integrated ecosystem never quite emerged, until now, with the release of the Formation Suite.

It’s hard not to describe the Formation platform as a higher version of Sonos, since the product is aimed at delivering a similar solution as Sonos and its rivals HEOS, Bluesound, MusicCast and so on. This is another wireless multiroom platform, capable of playing and streaming music in each room individually, or the same music to all connected rooms. Yet notably, like some of those competitors (and perhaps more than any of them), B&W is pushing to a higher quality, growing the pie upwards, as it were. Connectivity options include traditional home networking via Ethernet and Wi-Fi, plus Apple’s AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Roon readiness, and Bluetooth aptX HD streaming. But particularly crucial is the wireless connection between Formation products, which uses a bespoke mesh network operating outside the usual Wi-Fi frequencies, with each product dynamically choosing the optimal path in a not dissimilar way to the recent spate of Wi-Fi mesh networking systems (see Netgear’s Orbi elsewhere in this issue). But B&W/EVA went beyond the usual frequencies to achieve this.

“They have sought and received permission to use parts of the spectrum that aren’t typically available for domestic use,” B&W Australia’s John Martin told us. “They had to get military approval because they’re outside the accepted network. This is what makes the mesh very stable and gives them the ability to have incredibly low latency between the products.”

You can see the full collection of products above; in this article we focus on the top of the range, the Formation Duo, which offers that rarity among wireless multiroom systems: a proper two-speaker system, rather than a single wireless speaker box. No matter how cleverly angled the stereo speakers in a single-box solution, no matter how clever the signal processing within, single-box systems are never able to deliver the true hi-fi qualities of separation and soundstaging, at least not unless you stick your head right between their drivers. So the Duo starts with an advantage from its configuration alone. B&W has chosen its name well.

And in appearance the Duos farm certain key B&W attributes. They have the distinctive ‘tweeter-on-top’ borrowed from B&W’s 700 Series and others, the 25mm carbon-dome tweeters mounted in a Nautilus-tubed enclosure which flops over the curved top of the main cabinet, decoupling the tweeter from vibrations of that lower cabinet, which is itself matrix-braced against such things.

Behind the big circular grille (a wonder of concentrically-punched circles) is a 165mm Continuum bass/midrange driver, B&W’s latest midrange cone material as introduced on its 800 Series — it first appeared on the 802 D3, released in 2015. These silver-white woven cones have already trickled down all the way to the 600 Series, though the company remains tight-lipped as to what Continuum actually is, other than being its own synthetic woven material with an aluminium coating that gives it the shiny silver finish.

As for the Duo’s cabinets, we had thought from early publicity images that they looked worrying like a giant plastic computer speaker peering out like a periscope from the good
ship B&W. But when you actually see the Duos, especially on their bespoke stands (pictured here), the effect is more luxurious — the decoupled (it wobbles if you flick it) tweeter chamber on the pair we listened to is finished in a gloss black, which contrasts with the matte deep grey of the main cabinet (they also come in white), which is formed from two sections that meet in a long curve back around and behind the continuous top and front section. The rear piece has four small slots through it, which we presume to be for ventilation rather than porting, since these are specified as sealed cabinets. The main pieces look like moulded plastic but are actually Formi, a composite developed around a decade ago using virgin polypropylene mixed with 20-50% natural and renewable cellulose fibre sourced from sustainable managed forests. The resulting granules can be injection-moulded in the same way as standard plastics. Formi has claims to strength and stiffness well beyond those of most common thermoplastics, while being cheaper than engineering plastics such as ABS.

This matte moulded material mates perfectly with the Duos’ bespoke fillable stands — indeed we at first thought the bottom of the speaker to be part of the stand, until we realised the buttonry was on that section. The stands can be spiked to the carpet, and although other stands can be used (or none, for benched use of the Duos), it makes sense in performance terms to have the whole designed package working as intended.

Ins and outs
We must note for the second time this issue that we didn’t have the Duos at home for an extended period, as is our normal review procedure; we did our listening in B&W Australia’s headquarters, where they left us alone for an hour or two to bang through our favourite test tracks. Thus we didn’t experience set-up (though we did move them around a bit, and found we enjoyed close listening the best); nor did we feed them the highest of resolutions or the purest of signals as all our listening was done via AirPlay from music stored on our iPhone or streamed from our device using Spotify and Tidal accounts.

Mind you, that’s likely how a great many users will likely listen to the Duos, as their external inputs are not such much limited as just plain absent (see connectrions bay above right). There’s Wi-Fi or Ethernet to get you on your home network and out to the internet, and there’s the Formation mesh network formed between the products. There’s a USB slot, but it’s only there for “service and diagnostic use”. And that’s it. So everything here arrives via the network, including the available AirPlay 2, or is streamed direct via Bluetooth. No input even for a TV, we wondered, thinking many might like the Duos to handle TV audio as well as music.

“I think they’re envisaging the Duos as a music product, and the Bar and the Bass [see panel above] as an AV product”, said John Martin. “Of course you could buy the Formation Audio and connect to that via an optical connection, allowing you to stream from that to anything else in the Space.”

We were able to try doing that, as the room in which we listened to the Duos also had a separate system with a Formation Audio preamp connected to an Arcam amplifier and B&W 603 floorstanding speakers. The ‘Audio’ has all of Formation’s wireless abilities, along with a still minimal two physical inputs, one analogue RCA pair and one optical digital. It then uses the Formation mesh network to send its signals to the Duos — though this seems an extravagant solution just to plug in your TV.

The Duos are powered loudspeakers, of course, driven by a 125W amplifier in each speaker, though we couldn’t elicit the parameters at which that 125W has been measured, nor an envelope for the remarkable quoted in-room frequency response extending from 25Hz to 33kHz. Buttons below the grille provide volume control and play/pause, plus a final selector marked with the Formation wavy icon (called the ‘Form’ button) which shuttles through the various sources and streams available to the speakers. But you may never walk up to them and use these buttons, since you’ll interact with the product through B&W’s ‘Home’ app, available for iOS and Android.

On start-up, the Home app (see screengrabs) searches for Formation products and assists in their set-up. Subsequent operation is based around identifying and building ‘Spaces’ (as B&W quite sensibly calls rooms, since ‘rooms’, as used on several rival apps, can be a restrictive definition in our modern world of open-plan living). Each ‘Space’ shows its current or most recent activity, and tapping on an active Space opens the “now playing” screen with volume and transport controls.

However, the Home app doesn’t, like many others, access the various music services directly. You send your music to the Duos from Spotify, for example, or Roon, although B&W’s Home app will also offer its ‘now playing’ screen for control.

In the case of Roon software (which requires purchase or subscription), users should pick the direct Roon-ready path rather than the AirPlay option that Roon will also offer, especially if you plan to play high-res audio files. B&W also suggests that Roon users should refrain from having Roon address multiple Formation Spaces, as the signals will then be limited by your home network. Better, it says, to send via Roon to one Formation product, then use the Formation’s own mesh connections to share it on to the others.

The music sounded good from the first tune. Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side showed the Duo’s strengths at delivering detail, both in a well-portrayed shaping of Herbie Flowers’ twinned bass guitars and in the clarity of the panning and reverb on the singers during their entry at the end of the second verse.

As for depth, we didn’t initially feel quite the weight implied by the published 25Hz lower response (which we think can be taken as at least a -6dB figure); nevertheless there was something of the ultra-low bass in Neil Young’s Walk With Me coming through, and that’s in the 30s of hertz, so still a respectable performance, and once we found a neutral listening position in the room, the overall sound was impressively balanced (a sweep showed remarkable flatness up to 200Hz).

There is certainly none of the feel of heavy EQ adjustment via digital signal processing. Even though we gather there is some of that going on here, B&W has kept the Duos sounding natural rather than artificial, and without the characteristic of a pushed bottom and a dip above which occurs in so many mass-market wireless speakers.

Chick Corea’s Australia concerto was a delight in several ways — for the natural spread of its orchestral elements across and into the soundstage, for the dynamics which burst forth as the piece progresses, and for the impressive realité of the central drum work — the transient crack of a rim shot, the long audible extension of the ride cymbal decay. This is where the Duos started sounding like something beyond a mere multiroom system product, rather a piece of hi-fi which has been given multiroom abilities.

Orchestral tones were well handled, and yes we loaded Diana Krall (with Michael Bublé no less) on Alone Again Naturally from ‘Wallflower’ to check the Duos’ treatment of female vocal, which proved to be another highlight. Ms Krall was velvety real, present and correct, as was Joni Mitchell on the later version of Both Sides Now, and also kd lang on our favourite tester of The Air That I Breathe, the Duos holding her delicacy through the opening verses, perhaps just a teeny bit thinned of warmth in the lower mids. The rise into lang’s layered harmonies on the chorus can often cause congestion in delivery, but the Duos proved able to rise to that occasion.
Their tone was also shown to be impeccable when we played spoken word, and we judged that from our own recordings of known voices.

Since we were in a room which had the Formation ‘Audio’ streaming preamplifier (above) also available, we switched our AirPlay stream to that, which output into an Arcam amplifier driving B&W 603 floorstanders. We could then use the Formation app to send the music on to the Duos as well. Able to A-B between the two adjacent systems, it was a clear win for the 603s in terms of having similar clarity but additional filling out of image size in the bass (courtesy of the 603’s larger Continuum cone and additional bass drivers). But what was impressive was how little the Duos gave up in tone or musicality. And of course there is always the option to wirelessly link in the new B&W ‘Formation Bass’ subwoofer to play with the Duos; this comes with onboard DSP in the style of B&W’s high-end subwoofers and a Class-D amp that drives two 165mm long-throw bass drivers.

But a spin through tracks by Tyler The Creator soon reassured us of the Duo’s own qualifications in the bass department. How alive the Duos became under that spread of power, the fizziness of bass through EARFQUAKE, the disturbing phase play of I THINK, all pushed to near-party levels without the Duos suffering any apparent stress. They may ultimately reach their limits with complex material pushed hard, but those limits are well beyond comfortable, even partyable, listening levels achieved in a medium-sized room.

We had initial reservations regarding the price of the Duos, even their plastic composite looks and build, but after time settling into their sound, those doubts faded away (and also, when seated in front of them, they look less odd and more like B&W 805s). The Home app was great in getting out of the way, pairing up ‘Spaces’, and otherwise leaving us to enjoy the music, which was clearly hi-fi, and delivered to B&W’s usual standards, impressive in itself, high value in the market.

If you’re going multiroom (or keen to upgrade from that market leader), then take a listen to the Duos. They offer a chance to have all the wireless multiroom convenience, while rediscovering how good your music can sound.

B&W Formation Duo active wireless speakers
Price: $6400

+ Great sound quality
+ B&W technology
+ Hands-off app concept

– No physical inputs at all
– No separate remote control

Price: $6400 (stands $1199)
Type: Wireless active speaker system
Enclosure type: Sealed cabinet
Quoted power: 2 × 125W (no parameters given)
Quoted frequency response: 25Hz-33kHz (no parameters given)
Inputs: Ethernet, USB-A (service only), Wi-Fi, AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Roon Ready, Bluetooth (SBC, AAC, aptX HD)
Drive units: 25mm carbon-dome tweeter, 165mm Continuum mid-bass
Dimensions (hwd): 395 × 197 × 305mm
Weight: 10.6kg