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March 2020
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine

Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo System Review
A new audiophile experience.

 

Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo System Review

 

  Bowers & Wilkins Formation System is a recent development in a self-powered and streaming type of music system that comes from the highly regarded and prestigious firm of Bowers & Wilkins. The design is multi-faceted and has numerous speaker choices and applications to make it very user-friendly. Because of the highly sophisticated design, all of the speakers can be linked to operate together throughout the home locations or separately in various zones which can easily be switched to independent choices of music. The system consists of the Duo speakers that are best heard on their custom matching stands, the Wedge stand-alone stereo speaker system, the Formation Bar and Formation Bass for video applications, the small Flex speaker which can be used individually or as a stereo pair, and the Formation Audio box which will allow your signal from an LP or CD to be converted to the Formation wireless input.

I was very interested in having an opportunity to hear and learn more about these speakers and system design since I've been hearing Bowers & Wilkins speakers at EMI recording sessions of The Philadelphia Orchestra for decades. My day and night job for the past forty years has been the Librarian of the Philadelphia Orchestra. A set of Bowers & Wilkins speakers also happens to be used in the recording studio at The Kimmel Center as monitors for our weekly archival and radio broadcasts where I have served on the media committee for many years. All of this piqued my curiosity to see what the new owners and design team at Bowers & Wilkins had accomplished in what has been a three-year development of this new system.

 

My Journey
My first step on the incredible journey of experiencing these speakers was to visit the local Bowers & Wilkins dealer Hi-Fi Sales in Cherry Hill, New Jersey for an introduction and demo of the product. Anyone looking at my bio and introductory comments will learn that I have spent a lifetime as a professional bassoonist and music librarian. My Big Rig reference system is quite elaborate, expensive and has evolved over many years so I wanted to assure that the beautiful looking but much smaller and diminutive looking Formation System was going to be able to perform and sound musical in ways beyond bringing in something that looked like a fancy tabletop radio or little speakers on stands. My impressions at the store were incredibly good and lively.

Upon stepping back for a moment to ponder the possibilities, I asked their technology specialist Pat Mattucci if he would assist in the review evaluation project. Pat was an immense help in setting up a new Sony flat screen and Sonos system at my home last year and I welcomed having the support and help of a dealer with this product line. Arrangements were made for demo loans from Bowers & Wilkins headquarters that were conveniently sent to Hi-Fi Sales. Pat planned to bring them over for the setup and installation along with the coordination of subscriptions to Roon and Qobuz being placed onto my Mac mini and iPhone.

 

Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo System Review

 

I'd like to share several concepts beyond discussing the sound of the speakers during this review. When an industry-leading company of such historical importance and significance as Bowers & Wilkins plans the debut of a new lineup of speakers, there isn't going to be any shortage of good product support including lots of detailed information and pictures on their company web site. They will have a large dealer network supporting sales and promotions along with other reviewers, magazines and online sources offering all kinds of thoughts. The home page of Bowers & Wilkins provides a lovely and detailed overview and description of these products.

One of my interests is to encourage consumers to support local music dealers and stores. While the computer and internet marketing is really going to drive many sales these days, I find there still is no substitution for getting out to a real brick and mortar store where a good variety of quality company equipment designs and systems can be seen and heard in person. My endeavors as a reviewer is to convey and share my impressions and experiences upon having the opportunity of hearing various products. My years as a musician, audiophile and reviewer hopefully offer a perspective to make comments and form opinions of recommendations to others. That's a great start for introducing people to products that are worth their time to track down, hear and consider purchasing. However, the real excitement and decision making deal can happen upon them getting to a store to hear whatever products I was talking about for themselves.

 

Another Role Of A Dealer
Another important role and help from the dealer was with the installation and setup. For a technology challenged person like me, Pat Mattucci's patient guidance and assistance to load new home subscriptions to Roon and Qobuz onto my computer and phone were indispensable. It also took some support from Apple to upgrade the operating system on my computer that's a few years old. However, once this was accomplished, everything quickly linked to my iPhone which has been the way I control and select everything for the Formation System. Pat assembled the stands and also knew from experience how to quickly position the speakers and get them to properly integrate and resonate and image excellent sound in my room.

For me, the biggest attribute and enjoyable feature of the Formation System has been the extraordinary lifestyle impact and a new way of enjoying a large variety of recordings with incredibly musical pleasing results. Having self-powered speakers with internal streaming capability of the fit and finish to create this magnitude of musical results has made placing and integrating them into our home simple and straightforward. Selecting and picking out music on Qobuz couldn't be any easier than a few flicks on my phone. Their vast music library of millions of recordings is a never-ending source of something to hear by familiar performers along with links to all kinds of performances and recordings that are new to me. This has been a revolutionary experience to have the realization and experiences from a membership to Qobuz that brought even greater choices and organization to our recorded legacy than I can manage with my large collection.

It was decided to feature the Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duos in my main listening room. Setting up the much smaller Duo monitors felt like pitting David against Goliath since my normal speakers are the huge Magnepan 20.7 Speakers. Surely, this was a practical joke tossed my way by the universe to contemplate how a little speaker like these that cost a fraction of the expensive Big Rig could manage to provide satisfying and engaging musical experiences. I found myself having lots of grins and foot-tapping times every day I turned it on with a few commands from my phone.

Further thoughts were the costs seemed so reasonable in comparison to the typical audiophile system. Suddenly I didn't need expensive cables, racks with special footers and platforms under a variety of equipment. I didn't need to take up living space with towering speakers. How was it possible for an audiophile to manage without a preamp and amp or at least a good integrated amp? Then I even thought I wouldn't have a CD player or turntable to access and hear my huge collection! Yet Bowers & Wilkins even took care of that dilemma with their optional Formation Audio wireless box that allows inputs from a line source such as a cd or turntable phono stage. What a clever touch for those of us that aren't quite ready to give up on that side of our physical possessions.

 

Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo System Review

 

Ask A Friend
I began to share thoughts and experiences with some of my audiophile friends and musicians that occasionally drop by to visit. I kept telling them I couldn't believe the kind of simple joy and satisfaction living with the Formation System was able to bring. They seemed skeptical of my happiness till they came over and also heard some very good sounding music. Another benefit emerged when picking our selections on Qobuz and finding so many choices and performances available. A good friend that visits often happens to be a cellist in the Philadelphia Orchestra. I've been doing demos of all kinds of equipment for my friend Cafaro for years. Obviously, as a graduate of Julliard, he has good ears too but is a novice when it comes to being an audiophile. Ironically, many musicians don't pursue the hobby of developing state of the art stereos or have audiophile quests.

I find they are so busy practicing and performing that they don't take the time to listen to music in detailed ways during their free time. Or perhaps it can be so frustrating hearing the numerous recording compromises and artifacts that they find a decent enough cheap system that allows them to hear the performers, understanding their playing and interpretation. Then they figure the sound is close enough to manage because none of it is real. However, the Duos impressed Cafaro enough that he asked about getting them for himself instead of his usual commentary that I have yet again added another new demo item added to the system that doesn't interest him.

 

How Did Bower & Wilkins Formation Duo Sound?
So how did the Duos sound and why am I so enthusiastic? To begin, they brought back very good memories of my first endeavors to develop a high-end system years ago based upon the Celestion SL700 monitors sitting on their custom stands. My enthusiastic acquisition of those speakers led to the purchase of other upgrades including a Krell preamp and amplifier along with a California Audio Lab CD Player and DAC. I'm referring to vintage late 1990s era equipment and an outlay of $15,000 back in the day!

Now here it is over twenty years later and I am pleased as all get out with the dynamic and involving sound of the Duo Speakers. Not only are they capable of true high-end audiophile musically pleasing sound, but the overall cost is a fraction for what I had paid over twenty years ago. Wow, these speakers that are self-powered streamers because of their internal amp and DAC might arguably be the most amazing value and fun for any budding audiophile to acquire to enjoy. However, I contend that they can also be a great performing value-based system for anyone to own including someone like me that already has an expensive reference system.

For people that already have their Big Rig, I suggest using these speakers as a very practical auxiliary system to enjoy when establishing a secondary system in an extra room or location. They will simplify the lifestyle of an audiophile. Honestly, listening to music with my big stereo is amazing and an awesome experience but it also is a lot of time and effort. It's as much of a ritual for me to play LPs as it takes to play a concert on my bassoon. Think about this. A musician doesn't just show up and play. It takes dedicated practice time and effort to play well. It takes time to warm up and be prepared for the downbeat. Thus, in a similar way, I am accustom to a long and elaborate routine for playing LPs.

 

Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo System Review

 

The Duos turn on and play a nearly unlimited choice of music with a few taps of my cell phone from the convenience of any room. Whereas playing an LP needs to be cleaned and prepped, placed onto the VPI HW40 Turntable with a center weight and outer ring. I have to turn on a tube-based phono stage, preamplifier and two monoblock vacuum tube amps, and wait about half an hour for everything to reach a good warm-up and performance zone. That's my routine for great sound on the reference system. It's why I say it's like warming up to perform music on an instrument. During the summer, it's a lot of tubes burning and putting out heat. During several days of a heat spell in the fall, the Duos were used all day and late into the night while I enjoyed a ton of music.

Whereas the Duos simply sound great upon turning them on! There are legitimate times when I want to hear great music but am busy with other aspects of my life that prevent me from spinning LPs. Let's say it's time to make dinner or grab a quick breakfast. Who has the time and ability to flip records? Even playing CD's can be an issue with busy hands prepping food. Whereas I can pick the music on Qobuz and know it will play until I take the time to choose another selection. I've learned many new artists and performances from all of the recommendations and links on Qobuz. I've heard people sometimes call streaming "Lazy Listening" as if it's a problem not following a long initiation ritual to hear music effortlessly. However, the Duos and Wedge let me now enjoy great music without the need of a wall filled with a big stereo rack and giant-killing speakers. It's the sound and results of what I'm hearing that gets my toes tapping and head nodding. The Duos have what I call the Smile Factor. They are such a pleasure to hear that I used them for weeks on end during the review period. I'll even admit that some days I didn't even bother turning on the reference stereo and enjoyed the Duos for many late-night listening sessions.

 

Self-Contained Music System
I think the Bowers & Wilkins Formation System should be welcomed by anyone seeking an amazingly good self-contained speaker system that is reflective of the mainstream state-of-the-art in both sound and technical innovations with their built-in 24-bit/96kHz capable streaming to DAC, amplifying power, and easy controllability from a phone app. The Duos can form the basis of the main stereo system while the Wedge can be used as an auxiliary beautiful independent speaker that's easily placed in any room, along with the Formation Bar and Formation Bass options for video and TV applications.

Each of the speakers in the entire Formation System can be controlled to operate individually or separately with a very special ability to function without a noticeable latency or time lag between any of the speakers. This lack of latency allows a coordinated source to the sound from the multiple speakers that are in use in different rooms. I sometimes carried the Wedge around from the bedroom to the kitchen and the basement depending upon where I was spending time.

These speakers should appeal to any audiophile that wants to simplify their lifestyle and stereo system space requirements. Their quality as the main listening system, while having the ease and variety of a hi-rez streaming service like Qobuz, is great and a lifestyle breakthrough! They can be used as a backup or auxiliary system like I do when I'm unable to turn on the reference stereo. They will appeal to a new audiophile that would like an immediately excellent sounding stereo system without having to make many stereo equipment choices to assemble a system. The Formation System doesn't require all the space and cost of traditional components being wired together and sitting on a space-occupying rack. Further, for everyone that is looking to downsize their physical medium space requirements, the choices of music on Qobuz is nearly limitless (given the average human lifespan).

 

Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo System Review

 

I think these speakers should be given serious consideration for the many advocates of personal audio that are using headphone based music listening as their lifestyle. Rather than being confined to a solitary pursuit of listening to music with friends also having to hook up during a Can Jam, these speakers can provide an entirely self-contained music system that would be enjoyed by everyone. They are the perfect musical evolution away from streaming low-level resolution files with earbuds or small computer speakers. They can be instantly set up as a real audiophile-level accepted style stereo but without all the fuss, space and complications of loads of conventional equipment choices that can be expensive, confusing and difficult to understand and buy.

Now I own a ton of music. Several tons of records! I know this because of a recent flood that damaged 10,000 LPs that couldn't be saved and had to be disposed of. The dumpster weighed 3.3 tons upon clearing out about half of my record holdings. While this was heartbreaking and a huge tragedy, I had the realization and experience of still keeping the music going because of the Bowers & Wilkins Formation System. Although I still own 15,000 LPs, the resources and listings on Qobuz far outnumber my collection. Further, everything on Qobuz is indexed and searchable. The compositions are all linked. As a professional librarian, I found it fascinating and mesmerizing to see 30 or 50 or even 100s of various recordings of some favorite tunes on multiple recordings by dozens of artists.

 

Loving Qobuz
Even with the depth of my collection and years of buying, there isn't any way to possibly have this wealth of millions of recordings available to hear and enjoy in high resolution streaming. There are many times when I can easily spend hours comparing various performances of the same tune from various artists and composers. I thought I had it good owning 100 Count Basie LPs and another 75 from Duke Ellington. Yet Qobuz offered many other choices that I didn't have. Qobuz offers a world at music at our fingertips. The music is all indexed and linked together with bibliographic information that makes understanding the performers and composers easy.

The Duo Speakers are near full range and have an incredible volume output that is musically balanced and engaging from bottom to top. They use an internal DSP setting that is part of the sophisticated engineering design development. I assume it's also very helpful for the designer to know all the other performance aspects of the speaker drivers, amplifiers, and cabinetry. The knowledge of the entire signal path can ensure the resulting sound of the speakers is optimized to perform perfectly as intended without the consumer needing to make all of the usual audio choices for cables and equipment. It's an ingenious design and look. I was able to hear the full layers of the sound of the musicians performing a large variety of styles and recordings. I found the speakers lively and engaging with orchestra music or chamber music. They had a terrific way with vocalists and instrumental solos. While the bass wasn't as full and powerful as my reference system with subs, I never found the low end lacking authority and music portrayal. It's simply astonishing the wide dynamic range that can be managed with the quality drivers being made today along with excellent speaker cabinetry and stands that eliminate unwanted resonances and resolution robbing vibrations.

 

Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo System Review

 

The Results
The development of these speakers and the Formation System took three years and created many new patents. The goal was to achieve a highly optimum performance for a streaming self-powered speaker that would have the speed and sound delivery of a wired stereo system. While there are other self-powered speakers, I haven't heard any that perform at this level of resolution, speed of transmission without latency along with a sound so realistically enjoyable musically in the realm of audiophile standards. The core operating system is installed in my Mac Minicomputer and is coordinated with operating Qobuz with Roon.

As many of you know, Roon is a third party software solution that allows users to find music on their network and subscription services. The Bowers & Wilkins uses zones to designate which speakers are being heard along with choosing what is to be played. This simplifies the connectivity for everything. I have subscribed to both of these services to have easy access to music and control of the Formation System. The speakers have been a technical breakthrough and easy to learn how to operate. They have provided a very enviable and realistic audiophile approved listening experience without complications. For a librarian and musician, it's been such a winning combination that I highly endorse buying them for your music and video system needs.

 

Tonality

Sub–bass (10Hz – 60Hz)

Mid–bass (80Hz – 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz – 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear
Soundscape Depth

Soundscape Extension Into Room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money

 

 

Specifications
Type: Wireless active speaker system
Frequency Response: 25Hz to 33kHz 
Drive units: 1" carbon dome tweeter and 6.5" Continuum midrange / bass unit.
Internal Amplifier Power: 125 Watts for each driver 
Connections: RJ45 Ethernet or Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, AptX HD, AAC, and SBC (USB for service only) 
Streaming Capability: 24-bit/96kHz
Dimensions: 15.5" x 7.8" x 12" (HxWxD)
Weight: 23.4 lbs each
Price: $3999.99 per pair

 

 

Company Information
Bowers & Wilkins
1020 Marsh Road
Menlo Park, California 94025

Voice: (978) 664 2870
Fax: (978) 664 4109
Website: www.BowersWilkins.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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