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Bowers and Wilkins Formation Duo Loudspeakers | Review

Best powered bookshelf?








The availability of streaming devices is endless, offering convenience and friction-free listening. We have become accustomed to a quick tap or voice command and the tunes start flowing. Although I am blessed with an incredible reference listening setup, it’s complicated. A mass of components, platforms, and cables working together to create a symphony. I’ve been on the hunt to find something simpler. Something that I could recommend to friends and family who are looking to build a small engaging setup that is available at a fraction of the cost of my reference room.  When Bowers & Wilkins announced the Formation Duo Bookshelf system (website) taking cues from the 705 D2 and 805 D3 series, it got my attention.

B&W Formation Duo Series

The Formation Series was the first major project after B&W was purchased by Eva Automation in 2016. As they embarked on the B&W Formation series, the Eva team focused on the wireless voodoo and the B&W crew in the UK focused on the speaker design.

Crushing Wireless Latency

The Formation Series products are completely wireless. No cables required outside of a power cable. When Eva got started on the development, the best wireless technology they could find was hindered by a 2-3 millisecond wireless delay between the left and right speakers. Based on this they decided to roll their own technology.

Their goal was to limit latency to 5 microseconds. B&W claims that at 5 microseconds, you cannot hear any time shift between the left and right. Early prototypes of the formation series demonstrated achieving latency of less than 2 microseconds, and B&W claims at production, they achieved a latency of less than 1 microsecond when the speakers are in the same room.

On the Inside of the Formation Duo

The design starts with a B&W Continuum woofer that was used in both the B&W 705 and the larger B&W 805 D3. Our first listen to the B&W 800 D3 was a few years ago at Music Matters at Definitive. To my ears, that was the start of a fresh B&W sound that was more neutral and offered a pleasing tonality.

Up top of the Formation Duo, you will find the same carbon tweeter from the B&W 705 series.

The woofer and tweeter are bi-amplified; each speaker enclosure contains a dedicated set of amplifiers. The crossover is done in the digital domain, which provides an interesting upgrade path, allowing B&W to continually improve the speaker using firmware updates.

Surprisingly, the cabinet is a sealed design (the corresponding B&W 705 and 805 are both vented designs). Typically, with a sealed enclosure, the bass roll-off is shallow and can go out for days. B&W seems to have worked some magic as the speakers are rated to go down to 25hz in an incredibly small cabinet. The combination of DSP and dedicated amps have been able to achieve a level of low-frequency energy that was potentially the best I have experienced in a bookshelf speaker.

Formation Duo Setup

Setup of the speakers took under 10 minutes. Once the speakers were unboxed and on stands, you simply plug them in and download the app.

Finding the app was confusing since B&W has multiple apps in the iOS and Google Play stores. The application you want is called “Bowers Home”.

The setup process was seamless. The first screen found the Formation Duo, followed by providing my wireless information, then by pressing the formation button on the left and right speakers to identify them, and voila.

The formation series requires a secure 2.4Ghz wireless network to be used. If your network doesn’t support the 2.4Ghz band or if you don’t have a wireless password set, you will be out of luck. Wireless Connectivity was rock solid to my Ubiquiti Unifi wireless network (It’s the best networking gear we’ve tested).

Sources

The Formation Series are either going to work or not work for you depending on what you plan to use as content.

Post setup, your options to stream music are as follows: Apple Airplay 2, Bluetooth (with AptX support), Spotify ConnectTIDAL, Roon, Qobuz (via Roon).

The provided application works, but it is fairly basic. I used the B&W application for firmware updates. I did try using it to stream Spotify and Tidal, but the client wasn’t my favorite.

Instead I got the best experience using the Spotify App on my iPhone to connect directly to the speakers via Spotify Connect, or using Roon.

Spotify is my go-to for playlists, and integration was seamless. Family members simply opened Spotify, selected some tunes, and targeted the B&W Duo. Press play. Done. Friction-free.

When using Roon, I had access to my local music collection on my NAS as well as streaming via Tidal and Qobuz. The B&W Duo’s spent a majority of their time in my reference room, placed just inside my Wilson Audio Alexia Series-2. Using Roon, I could quickly switch back and forth between streaming music on my Alexia’s via my dCS Vivaldi + Dan D’Agostino stack vs. streaming directly to the B&W Duos.

When people would visit, I would always start playback using the Duos, but never mention it. It was the usual reaction of people leaning in and enjoying a favorite track. Each time, they thought they were listening to the big rig. After a little while, I would let them know that they were listening to just a pair of bookshelves, with 2 power cords. We would cut over and listen on the reference rig, and it was immediately obvious the heft, weight, and detail from the big rig, but those little bookshelves definitely left a great impression.

Multi-Room

In addition to the Duo bookshelf speakers, the formation offers other pieces in their mix.

  • Formation Wedge – a single unit that can fill a small room with sound with its 120-degree casing
  • Formation Bar – a sound bar elevated with 9 optimized drive units and a dedicated center channel
  • Formation Bass – a subwoofer that you can add to any room
  • Formation Flex – Small standalone speaker that can be paired. Think of a Sonos Play 1 on steroids.
  • Formation Audio – Allowing you to add any source (analog or digital) into your Formation Network

One of the unique features of the formation series is the ability to easily move the audio from one zone to the next by simply pushing the Formation button on the device you want to pull the music over to. That is, if I am using Spotify or Roon on my Formation Duo, I could walk over to the Formation Wedge in my dining room and press the Formation button. Pressing the formation button allows you to mirror music in any other zone. This successfully worked with both Roon and Spotify in my testing.

My favorite accessory was the Formation Audio. This small box serves as an on-ramp for you to add any source to your formation network. Simply connect your favorite turntable, CD player or another device to its audio input, and you can stream that to any Formation device on your network. The Formation Audio serves as a 24/96 A to D converter for analog sources you connect to it, as well as supporting digital sources via Toslink.

It is not always possible to put your sources near your speakers depending on how your room is configured. I can imagine someone who has their Duos in one location where they listen, and their turntable and records in another location. The Formation Audio allows you to put the source anywhere in the room and wirelessly connect it to the Formation network. This includes streaming that source to other rooms in your home.

Can they play like a Rockstar?

My friend Dan Teisan works as a recording engineer as well as a local Seattle musician for “Late September Dogs.”

Dan was planning a CD release party for his new album Learning to Fall. He wanted to ensure that whatever sound re-enforcement was used to play his new album at the party did justice to many months of hard work. We had an idea, what if we took the B&W Formation Duos to the club and used them to debut his record?

Photo by Mark Kelley

On Saturday, February 29th, I headed over to Do The Vault Speakeasy. You enter through an unmarked door to a small dimly lit room that was used as access to an old bank vault.

Photo by Mark Kelley

A small stage was assembled for Dan’s band to play and would house the Duos. We did a soundcheck, and the small Duo’s filled the room.

The event went off without a hitch, and it was exciting to see a small bookshelf take on center stage. No crappy PA speaker would ever offer the level of detail and tonality.

During the event, the room was filled shoulder to shoulder, requiring us to run the Duo’s at close to 100% volume for a couple of hours. No damage was done, and they held up like champs. I think they must have sold a few pairs of Duo’s that night.

Critical Listening

All of the critical listening was done in my room, with the stock power cords swapped out with AudioQuest NRG Series cables plugged into an AudioQuest 1200 power conditioner.

One of my favorite test tracks is “Yulunga (Spirit Dancer)” on the “Into the Labrinth” album from Dead Can Dance. The DSD version used is great, the vinyl release is spectacular. If you don’t own it, you should buy it now.

It’s a great test of imaging and tonality and includes some wonderful low-frequency instruments. The low notes of that organ have this visceral sound, just the way I like it. Just after hitting play, I was anticipating the entry of the percussion, to see how much energy, speed, and texture these little speakers could produce. For package this size, they did not disappoint. If I closed my eyes, I would how expect these speakers to be 3 to 4 times in size. I cranked the volume in Roon to 82.2 and the bookshelves were still pushing, but my ears were asking me to dial back. No, it wasn’t my Alexia’s, not the same level of detail, texture, and dynamics and grip, but it wasn’t a slouch and most people wouldn’t notice.

Mystified at how good they sounded, I cut over and played the track on the Alexia’s to just remind myself of the differences with the voice and instruments at the start. It was light and airy from the reproduction at the higher frequencies. I closed my eyes and dropped my pen and paper, no need to note anything more.

Next up was Kandace Springs, playing “Angel Eyes” with Norah Jones on Qobuz in FLAC 24/96.

If you haven’t already checked out this album, it’s a delight. Kandace has a great voice and she has assembled an amazing set of women vocalists that accompany her on this album.

The piano had weight; Kandace’s voice was piercing through the mix. Norah was with us as she sang alongside. It was in the lower octaves where the speaker really shined with the bass sliding under everything.

Norah’s voice had that roughness I want, but something wasn’t perfect, almost a little edge to it (as compared to when I played it to the big rig), but I’m being picky.

We moved onto Mac Miller playing “Complicated” on Tidal in MQA

This track seemed to bring out the best in the Duo’s in the mid-range and low-frequency region. The ability to dig low and have Mac’s voice slide over and dig deep. My feet were tapping, and my head moving, and no other notes were required.

Shifting gears, I listened to “Baby Mine” from Bonnie Raitt.

When reproduced correctly Bonnie will whisk you away, play after play. The bass texture was lovely, but I wanted a little more detail around her voice. This recording is recorded low, so I had to run the volume at 86 out of 100 to pressurize my room. This resulted in a background that was a touch noisy and not as quiet as I am looking for. I realized that I had removed the AudioQuest 1200 power conditioner for another project. I dropped it back in place and that more quiet background returned. Phew!

It was not as quiet as the big rig, but with the power conditioner in place, it wasn’t noticeable. This seemed to only exhibit at very high volumes.

Summary

At $4,000 USD per pair, these bookshelves are not cheap and do not include stands (offered for an additional $799). Ouch. That said, a pair of B&W 705 bookshelves would still need at least an integrated amplifier, a source, cables etc. and even then, you probably would not get the level of flexibility offered by the Duo. So, perhaps it’s worth considering the Formation Duo not as a pricey bookshelf speaker, but rather as a complete system. Simply plug them in and stream your heart out.

If you want a simple all-in-one system, that can be easily controlled by your phone, and you the music sources listed earlier fit your needs, give these a listen.

The big driver for me is simplicity and performance. They aren’t perfect, but they are the best performing bookshelf speaker that I have tested in my room. If I needed a set of powered bookshelves, these would be on my shortlist.

-Mohammed








4 Comments on Bowers and Wilkins Formation Duo Loudspeakers | Review

  1. David Sturdevant // August 4, 2020 at 8:26 PM // Reply

    Please look into the Linn Series 3 “wireless” speakers. These appear to be a tour de force; Linn claims “best wireless speakers in the world.” Half again the cost of the Formation Duos. They have a couple of dynamite reviews. I think they are right up your alley.

    • Mohammed Samji // August 5, 2020 at 12:37 PM // Reply

      Thank-you for the suggestion. Hopefully our friends at Linn can provide us a review sample to listen to.

  2. Enjoyed your comments. Have you heard the Devialet Reactor ? I recently bought a pair of 600’s. Very impressed.

    • Mohammed Samji // August 5, 2020 at 12:39 PM // Reply

      Thank you. I love the industrial design of the Devialet Reator, but have only listened to to the briefly. I’d love to spend more time with them.

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