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.
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.
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
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.
Ask A Friend
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
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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
Voice: (978) 664 2870