This week, we reviewed the B&W Formation Duo wireless speakers with their network streamer, the B&W Formation Audio. Sold for €4000 and €699 respectively, these new Bowers & Wilkins products are part of the British manufacturer’s Formation multi-room audio range. These B&W multi-room speakers use a wireless mesh network (MESH) to ensure wireless transmission of audio streams in high resolution up to 24-bit/96kHz from a dematerialized or physical source. Does this new high-performing wireless system live up to the iconic hi-fi brand’s reputation?
B&W Formation Duo: the brand
Bowers & Wilkins, more commonly known under the acronym B&W, was named after founders John Bowers and Roy Wilkins. In 1966, these two passionate high fidelity enthusiasts joined forces and began to assemble their first speaker, the B&W P1, in their Worthing factory. Only the speaker’s cabinet and filter were manufactured by Bowers & Wilkins. The drivers were made by EMI and Celestion.
The profits from the sales of the P1 allowed B&W to invest in new calibration equipment, which was used to design the B&W DM1 and B&W DM3 speakers in 1968. B&W also invested greatly in research and development and in the 70s, the brand became one of the first to focus on carbon fibers, and Kevlar in particular. Robust, light and durable, this material has mechanical properties that are perfectly suited to the restrictions encountered by drivers. Consequently, yellow cone drivers began to emerge, providing precise and tight mids. The yellow driver remained a trademark of Bowers & Wilkins for many years. Some models, such as the B&W 684 S2 speakers, still feature them. In 1977, B&W released the B&W DM7, the first speaker to place the tweeter outside of the cabinet. This model served as inspiration for the decoupled tweeter featured on B&W’s current high-end speakers, including the B&W Formation Duo speakers that we reviewed this week.
Constant innovation is needed to continually push the boundaries of audio restitution. This is why B&W created the Steyning research centre in 1981. This facility is entirely dedicated to the development of acoustic science and was responsible for the creation of the B&W Nautilus speaker. Presented in the late 80s, the latter required over five years of research and development, during which every aspect of speaker design was questioned to ensure an extremely accurate restitution completely free of any coloration. To do this, the Nautilus uses damping tubes to channel and absorb rear sound waves. The innovations developed when creating the Nautilus continue to inspire the design of each new B&W speaker range. From the spiralling diffusion channels in the brand’s car audio systems to the 600 Series’ tubular vent system, traces of the Nautilus are present in all of Bowers & Wilkins’ products. The B&W Formation Duo speakers are no exception with their Nautilus tweeter.
2007 saw the release of the first iPhone, but also that of the B&W Zeppelin, speaker dock made for iPods and iPhones that left its mark on the decade and whose innovative shape is still an inspiration for B&W’s engineers. The recent B&W Formation Wedge wireless speaker has a very similar silhouette. In the years that followed, B&W continued to diversify its catalog, notably in the high-end car audio field with a partnership with Jaguar, in portable audio with the B&W P5 headphones, and also in multi-room audio with the new B&W Formation range, whose B&W Formation Audio network streamer and B&W Formation Duo compact speakers we tested this week.
B&W Formation Duo: a comprehensive range
With the Formation range, the British manufacturer provides a comprehensive ecosystem in which each element can either work alone or in perfect harmony with the others. To do this, all of the audio systems in the B&W Formation range use a mesh network that provides an optimized response time of 300ms. This technology allows wireless transmission of audio streams in high resolution up to 24-bit/96kHz, without any interference whatsoever. This system is combined with a wide range of connectivity options, including network connectivity via Ethernet or WiFi, AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Roon, as well as Bluetooth transmission compatible with aptX HD, AAC, and of course SBC codecs. An update is expected in the coming months to provide support for the DLNA protocol and many other services such as Apple Music, Amazon Music, Qobuz, Deezer and TuneIn. Very comprehensive, the B&W Formation range includes the B&W Formation Bar soundbar, the B&W Formation Bass subwoofer, the B&W Formation Wedge 240 watt wireless stereo speaker, as well as the subjects of this review: the Formation Audio network streamer and B&W Formation Duo compact speakers. Another B&W Formation device will soon be added to the range. It will allow users to create a wireless 5.1 channel home theater installation by exploiting the different Formation devices.
B&W Formation Duo: packaging and accessories
The B&W Formation Duo wireless speakers are delivered as a pair in a single box. Inside, the speakers are held in place and protected against possible damage by thick pieces of polystyrene. The British manufacturer provides two power cables for each speaker: one European standard and one British standard. A quick start guide and a small booklet illustrating B&W’s many innovations are also included.
The Formation Duo speakers are independant and work efficiently without the B&W Formation Audio network streamer. The latter is only needed to wirelessly stream sound from a physical source, such as a CD player, a turntable (preamplified or paired with an RIAA phono preamp), or a television, for example. Naturally, it is sold separately and comes in its own box, which also includes a power cable and a quick start guide.
B&W Formation Duo: presentation
For this review of the Formation range, we focused on the B&W Formation Duo speakers and the B&W Formation Audio network streamer.
B&W Formation Duo
The Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo wireless speaker is an active, sealed cabinet model featuring a 6.5” midbass driver with a Continuum cone inherited from the B&W 800 Series. This driver is paired with a 1” carbon dome decoupled tweeter. It is a high-end model identical to the one used in the B&W 700 Series speakers. This tweeter is loaded in the iconic Nautilus tube to ensure rear sound waves are reduced. Lastly, the tweeter is strategically placed inside a solid aluminum block that is decoupled from the cabinet of the B&W Formation Duo speaker with damping gel and fitted with a protective steel grill. Called “decoupling”, this method brings a lot of depth to the soundstage and stops vibration interference from the midbass driver. Thanks to this design, the B&W Formation Duo speakers are able to expertly reproduce music in high resolution, as they cover a wide frequency range from 25Hz to 33kHz.
Each B&W Formation Duo speaker features a digital amplifier in its base that is rated at 2×125 watts, for a total output power of 500 watts for a pair of speakers. The Duos’ amplifier is enhanced with digital signal processing (DSP) and dynamic EQ. Concerning connectors, each B&W Formation Duo speaker features the bare minimum, namely a mains adaptor and an Ethernet port to connect the speakers to the network if they are in a room without a stable WiFi connection. The B&W Formation Audio will quickly become a must if you wish to listen to physical music sources with the speakers (CD player, turntable, etc.).
B&W Formation Audio
The B&W Formation Audio audio network receiver is used to connect physical sources to the various speakers in the Bowers & Wilkins Formation range. To do this, it features an optical digital input and an RCA analog input. Therefore, it can be connected to a CD player, a preamplified turntable, or a television, for example. The B&W Formation Audio’s internal DAC then converts the analog signals so they can be streamed up to 24-bit/96kHz in every room with a B&W Formation audio system. Transmission can be carried out via WiFi or Ethernet.
On the front panel, the B&W Formation Audio network receiver includes a tactile control interface so that you may begin streaming and adjust the volume quickly. To be completely honest, we were a little disappointed by the Formation Audio at first. Although it is very elegant, its chassis is made entirely of polymer and seems rather basic. However, we discovered later on in our review that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover…
B&W Formation Duo: configuration
The B&W Formation Duo speakers are easily set up via the free Bowers Home app for iOS and Android. The latter automatically detects the available devices in the room through the Bluetooth connection of the speakers and the mobile device. Then you simply need to indicate the room in which the speakers are placed (living room, bedroom, bathroom, etc.) and enter the WiFi password if you wish to use a WiFi connection. Next, the app will allow you to check that the left and right speakers are correctly positioned in the room. If this isn’t the case, it is possible to switch them directly in the app. The configuration is then completed by updating the speaker. This takes around five minutes. An extra step will be added during future updates which will allow the B&W Formation Duo speakers to perform an automatic calibration to adapt their restitution according to the room’s acoustic properties. For now, it is possible to manually adjust the lows and the highs in the app. Furthermore, the B&W Formation Duo speakers will soon be compatible with Amazon Alexa. It will then be possible to associate them with a smart speaker and control them via voice command.
The B&W Formation Audio network receiver is just as easy to set up. Conveniently, the Bowers Home app saves the WiFi network used for the speakers and each new device is automatically added. Once the B&W Formation Audio has been added to the app, it is possible to rename the different sources and select the one you want to use (RCA or optical). Once the source receives a signal, the music can be streamed over the speakers.
B&W Formation Duo: listening impressions
We began our review by listening to the B&W Formation Duo speakers. We used an iOS smartphone as a source to stream music to the speakers via Spotify Connect, so we didn’t use the network receiver straight away. When we configured the speakers, we connected them to the WiFi network. However, because our router wasn’t placed near the speakers and because there were already a lot of devices on the network, the connection wasn’t great. The music kept jumping and the stereo connection was frequently desynchronized. Consequently, we decided to connect both speakers via Ethernet, which completely eliminated the desynchronization. There was no delay in the connection between the speakers and the smartphone. The speakers communicated seamlessly with one another and there was no noticeable lag between the right and left channel.
The speakers communicated seamlessly with one another and there was no noticeable lag between the right and left channel.
From the very first track we listened to, we were blown away by the incredible precision displayed by the B&W Formation Duo connected speakers. On Feist’s One Evening, the singer’s voice was restituted smoothly and was perfectly centered. It was almost as if there was a center speaker working in the room. These qualities were confirmed throughout our listening session. On Rodrigo y Gabriela’s track Tamacun, the B&W Formation Duo speakers impressed us once more with their amazingly precise reproduction of every minute tonal variation and each strum of the electric guitar. Even the highest notes were reproduced smoothly and accurately. The sound was genuinely enchanting!
We continued testing the B&W Formation Duo speakers, this time using the B&W Formation Audio network receiver. Using a Norstone Jura Optic cable, we connected the receiver to the Pioneer UDP-LX500 UHD 4K Blu-ray player, which in turn was connected to the LG OLED65E9 OLED UHD 4K television via HDMI. During the Hans Zimmer Live in Prague concert, the different arrangements performed by the orchestra were perfectly reproduced. The B&W Formation Duo connected speakers proved to be both dynamic and generous. The lows produced were pretty impressive for compact speakers. However, due to the B&W Formation Duo speakers’ sealed cabinet structure, the bass was sometimes a little on the lean side and could have benefitted from more depth. Nevertheless, this isn’t a huge problem and it can even be an advantage if the speakers are placed in a small room that doesn’t require a high level of bass. The two 125 watt amplifiers proved to be very efficient and the volume started to become oppressive in our 20m² room before it was even turned up halfway. It is therefore safe to say that the B&W Formation speakers will perform just as well in a large listening room.
B&W Formation Duo: compared to…
KEF LS50 Wireless: at €2,290 per pair, the LS50s are highly linear and possess a dynamic balance that is equally distributed across each frequency range. They offer a lively sound and do not emphasize one frequency range more than another. However, the highs can sometimes be a little harsh and they aren’t as detailed as those offered by the B&W Formation Duo speakers. Each pair of KEF LS50 Wireless speakers features a master speaker and a slave speaker that must be connected to one another using an Ethernet cable. Unlike the B&W Formation Duo speakers, this isn’t a system in which both speakers communicate wirelessly.
Cabasse The Pearl (pair): the B&W Duo connected speakers’ main rival, the Pearl is a three-way model sold for €5,580 a pair. Each Cabasse The Pearl speaker features a much higher output power (1000 watts for the lows, 300W for the mids and 300W for the highs). Moreover, each Pearl speaker includes a USB, optical and analog input, as well as a 32-bit/768kHz DAC. Therefore, there is no need for an external audio network streamer to connect physical sources, unlike the B&W Formation Duo speakers. The Pearl’s sound is more generous in the infra-bass and the restitution has more clout. That said, the Pearl also has a sealed cabinet structure resulting in somewhat lean lows. The highs offered by the Pearl are very smooth, but cannot compete with the precision and detail provided the B&W Formation Duo’s decoupled tweeter. Overall, the B&W speakers’ restitution is more balanced and true to the original recording.
Devialet Gold Phantom (pair): sold for €5,470 per pair, the Devialet speaker offers much more generous lows, but its overall balance isn’t as good. The B&W Formation Duo speaker is more precise and accurate. It also provides a better restitution in the highs, which are more detailed and smoother thanks to the decoupled tweeter. However, the Devialet Gold Phantom has the upper hand when it comes to software and the control app, which is more advanced.
B&W Formation Duo: conclusion
B&W’s many years of experience in designing audiophile systems are reflected in this latest generation of connected speakers. When listening to these speakers, the acoustic qualities that made the brand a success are clearly audible, namely the dynamic and detailed sound that is true to the original recording. The iconic decoupled carbon dome tweeter with its Nautilus tube to reduce rear sound waves ensures incredibly smooth and accurate highs. Every tiny detail is impeccably restituted and voices are perfectly centered. The B&W Formation Duo speakers’ WiFi transmission system is very efficient, as long as the speakers are placed near a WiFi router and the network isn’t saturated. Should this not be the case, it is better to use an Ethernet cable. Another of these speakers’ strengths is the fact that no cable is required to connect the two speakers, unlike the vast majority of other connected hi-fi models. The B&W Formation Audio network streamer is also very effective at streaming sound from wired sources over the Duo speakers. The integrated DAC guarantees a perfect conversion, while the communication protocol ensures instant streaming to the speakers. This makes it possible to connect a television without encountering any delay between the sound and the image.
With the B&W Formation Duo, the English manufacturer has achieved the feat of creating a fully connected, audiophile speaker. Sold for €4000 a pair, the B&W Formation Duo speakers can easily compete with compact passive speakers in the same price range that are paired with a mid-range/high-end hi-fi amplifier. They are a credible alternative to many hi-fi systems composed of separate elements.
What we liked:
- The accurate tones
- The dynamic balance
- The exemplary musicality
- The high output power
- The ease of use
- The unique design
What we would have liked:
- More integrated music services (update planned)
- Compatibility with Amazon Alexa (update planned)
- A remote control