Experiencing the ultimate Bowers & Wilkins sound system - but you won't find it in any home

Think of festivals and a mix of mud-caked wellies and lukewarm cider tends to spring to mind. That and the music of course: but it's usually a mix of body-shaking bass bins and enough excess top-end output to carve away another couple of years of hearing health.

Not so with Bowers & Wilkins involved. The high-end British audio brand has diverted some of its attention from the premium car stereo options, studio setups and pricey home audio products to create the almost unthinkable: a festival-scale reference sound system large enough to cater for 1,000 people. The company's biggest ever.

The sound system was premiered at Primavera festival in Spain, before making its only UK 2014 appearance at the Womad festival on the Society of Sound stage - in reference to the partnership with Real World Records and the existing audiophile subscription-based service - where Pocket-lint was on hand to talk to the team behind the project.

Danny Haikin, brand director at Bowers & Wilkins, sits alongside Dan Bailey Ornellas, the sound system's project engineer and system designer, smoking a cigarette in the sunshine. It's perfect festival weather and along with some of that overrated lukewarm cider that we've just drunk, everyone seems on a high after Welsh ambient-rockers 9Bach leave the stage.

"The challenge that Bowers & Wilkins has from a strategic point of view is that because a number of people have rarely heard good sound they often don't have a reference for what that means. So getting people to hear it is the obvious thing to do", says Haikin, cleanly answering our first question as to how the sound system came into being.

It's an apt answer, particularly as the system's design is based around the company's existing flagship Diamond 800 series - and a pair of those floor-standing speakers will cost you upwards of £18,000 before adding any sources or amplification.

In its physical Society of Sound stage setting, the Bowers & Wilkins sound system takes on a very different form to its usual high-end home hi-fi. And one that isn't just about the quality of sound, but also about the shared social experience.

"The core technologies in this sound system are the same, ultimately. From the way the drive units are built, and how we've approached the system, but it is all scaled up. What we wanted to make was the listening experience you get with the [Diamond] 800 but at a distance with big scale and 1,000 other people experiencing it at the same time", says Bailey Ornellas.

No corners were cut to make such a system, with the sound system being a very Bowers & Wilkins approach to making a PA system.

"Bear in mind that we're not making this to sell to people, so we haven't looked at all practical issues, like the weight of it, which in this case is literally one metric tonne per speaker stack", explains Haikin.

"This is unusually heavy because we've built it like a studio high-end hi-fi speaker system. And that's all about the damping involved and massive cabinet construction so there's no vibration. You could make a cabinet out of concrete which is very strong, but it doesn't have the right damping characteristics. So there's a bit of instrument science involved in these speaker cabinets."

And that's just the speakers themselves - all four tonnes of them - before even adding the considerable amplification needed in such a system design.

"The PA company we hired the amps from told us that it's an amplifier setup they'd normally take to do Wembley [Arena]", says Haikin.

"But that's a peculiarity of how we've done it. Because we've done it in a hi-fi way using drive units with a lot of power. And we're fully active so each box needs an amplifier channel, which ends up with a colossal amounts of amps.

"But then it's not being proposed as a saleable system that you would buy and sell in any normal kind of PA environment", he concludes, acknowledging this sound system is all about being a no holds barred Bowers & Wilkins showcase.

Bailey Ornellas continues: "It's driven by 130,000 Watts of amplification. It's an insane amount of power. But we've got loads of headroom in the amps.

"The challenge was getting the SPL (sound pressure level) out of a concentrated source. If you took a pair of hi-fi speakers there's not the power handling or the power density there. So that's the challenge: to get the power density into that one stack of speakers. The way that we've done that - because we don't want to compromise the sound with buying off-the-shelf horns, drivers and what have you - we've stacked it in the most practical way we can. That's a line to the HF (high frequency) and a line source to the mids, then lower down the frequency range where line sources don't really work any more - or are just not as relevant - we've gone with a sealed box on the low-mids and a very clean ported system for the subs."

But technicalities aside, the key is about how it truly sounds under its Society of Sound stage dome tent at Womad. The answer is probably just as you'd expect, given all the work and expertise that's gone into it: an impressive slice of hi-fi on a scale that we've never seen before.

It's such a clean listen that even when stood right by a stack during David Holmes' late night DJ set there was none of that ear-crushing resonance that all too many club sets are often guilty of.

We roamed around the 700-capacity Society of Sound stage during various performances, soaking up educational presentations, live acoustic performances, and even beatbox extraordinaire Beardyman showing that a classic hi-fi can still handle the bass and beats no problems.

Everything kicked with pomp, never sounding dull, but then that's largely testament to the artists taking to the stage in many respects.

If that whets your appetite to go and hear the system in action for yourself then, well, you're going to have to hold fire and try not to shed too many tears. Because, for now at least, this special project is living in the Bowers & Wilkins warehouse, lying dormant until next season. But, fear not, keep your eyes peeled for its 2015 re-appearance - something well worth penning into the calendar when spied, whether you're an audiophile geek or simply a music lover looking for a new experience.

Ultimately the Society of Sound stage, matched with its Bowers & Wilkins sound system, was a spectacle unlike any other festival or carnival experience we've seen. We were stood on grass in a field after all, and it's not often you have the feeling of that between the toes while being submerged in an bath of aural wonders. Yep, this is Bowers & Wilkins elevating its craft to the next level, all the while keeping things fun.

Time for some more summertime sun-kissed cider while the memories of it all reverberate in the mind...



>