The biggest trend in audio recently has been connectivity. Moving on from the notion of having a Hi-Fi system sitting in one room in your house, the modern music consumer wants to be able to access whatever music they what, wherever they want it.
Traditionalists might scoff at this modern approach to content consumption, but Bowers & Wilkins is acutely aware that it has not been playing in this segment - while serving other segments with some best passive speakers money can buy.
While the advent of accessible headphones and Bluetooth speakers has brought Bowers & Wilkins to the attention of a wider range of consumers, it hasn't been able to offer a complete multiroom system. Until now.
Why has it taken so long to reach this point?
Andy Kerr, senior product marketing manager at Bowers & Wilkins, explained at the UK demonstration of the Formation series that the barrier was the wireless protocols that have existed to date.
While those multiroom formats might work for many of the systems available thus far, they wouldn't offer the quality that Bowers & Wilkins would need for its higher quality speakers, so B&W had to do something different.
The launch of the Formation series sees five products, but it's clear this the start and there's a lot more to come. However, this is a closed system - so it won't work with other speakers from other manufacturers.
How does this wireless system work?
Bowers & Wilkins has developed a proprietary wireless system that aims to deliver the best possible synchronisation between its speakers, meaning that there's a 1ms or less transfer of music between parts of the system. That means there are no detectable sync problems between left and right, the subwoofer or other parts in other rooms.
The system uses a bespoke mesh network transmitting 24-bit/96kHz audio and the suite of Formation products have three different radios - one at 2.4GHz for connecting to your wireless access point (your Wi-Fi network), and 5GHz in high and low channels that connects to other products in the room and other products around the house respectively.
Using different radios means it's not dependent on one to do all the communication - each has its own job communicating within the system - and that makes for a higher performance network.
Of course, that doesn't mean that it won't be accessible to all - it will support Bluetooth - as well as supporting convenience formats like AirPlay 2 and Spotify Connect out of the box. They are also Roon Ready. Conversations to support other formats natively are ongoing - and certainly not ruled out - so while the aim is high performance, ease of use hasn't been sacrificed.
The important point to note is that all parts will work with all other parts in Formation, letting you seamlessly play across devices around your house, or instantly move music from one speaker to the next.
Bowers promises that setup takes less than a minute in most cases, with a smartphone app to guide you through the process. There are also clever features - for example, once one device is connected to your home Wi-Fi network, it can than pass the credentials securely to other Formation devices, so you're not constantly having to type in your password.
The Wedge was described by Bowers as the "spiritual successor of the Zeppelin", a standalone stereo speaker that will elegantly and capably fill a room with great audio. It's a speaker designed to work on its own (you can't stereo pair it as it already contains stereo speakers), but you can combine it with the Formation Bass if you wish - and use it as part of the multiroom system of course.
The Wedge has been designed to project its music, siting the 6-inch subwoofer in the centre and angling out the 3.5-inch main drivers left and right with the 1-inch tweeters sitting above. It's designed to give a wide stereo stage with plenty of height just as the design suggests. There are touch controls on the top.
These aren't just speakers stuffed into a cabinet, however, they are all decoupled and designed for acoustic excellence. We listened to a couple of test tracks, the purity of Bat for Lashes' Laura really coming through with those ghostly vocals and clean piano accompaniment.
Groove Armada's Suntoucher gave the wedge the chance to show off its bass skills. That bass was crisp and distinct, but it doesn't just thump it out, it's dynamically managed based on the volume of the speaker. It sounds superb.
Priced at £899.99, it's an aspirational entry point to Bowers & Wilkins with the convenience of easy connectivity, as much a design statement as it is a capable speaker. It comes in black or silver and there is a wall bracket for mounting if you want - but remember you'll still have to deal with the power cable.
In contrast to the Wedge, the Duo is perhaps what you'd typically expect from Bowers & Wilkins - along with the high price. This is a pair of stereo speakers, with a 6-inch Continuum cone bass midrange driver and 1-inch Carbon dome tweeter inspired by Bowers & Wilkins' 800 series speakers, sitting on the top of the speaker.
The cabinet here is UPM, a polymer material, as that's better for wireless reception than the wood that Bowers & Wilkins is known for on its high-end speakers. It's a cracked bell design, that line on the rear designed to ensure that the cabinets don't resonate.
Unlike the Wedge which is a single unit, the Duo is a stereo pair of speakers, again completely wireless. Duo can be partnered with the Formation Bass for increased bass delivery, but we suspect that won't be necessary for many. Again these are fully active speakers with two built-in 125W amplifiers.
We listened to a number of test tracks from the likes of Chris Stapleton's Death Row, but also sampled Gregory Porter's Take Me To The Alley on vinyl, playing via the Formation Audio - more on that below. The sound quality is spectacular, but the Duo is a substantial investment compared to the other parts of the Formation package.
The stands are substantial but optional, but do contain channelling for the power cable for a tidy installation. A Duo speaker measures 395 x 197 x 305mm and there are some discreet buttons on the front for direct control if needed.
The Formation Bar might be seen as the meat in the sandwich, with Bowers & Wilkins going directly for the TV market with a soundbar. It's designed for TVs 55-inches and above as it's 1240mm wide. It only features an optical input - there's no HDMI - with Bowers justifying that saying that it is the most widely used format in its target markets. That means there's no HDMI passthrough or anything else.
Formation Bar houses three 1-inch tweeters and six 2.6-inch drivers, arranged to give you a centre channel and left and right. It can be paired with the Formation Sub, but Bowers & Wilkins says that's not totally necessary and the Bar will deliver ample bass as a standalone unit.
What about rear channels for surround sound? Watch this space basically - while there aren't any speakers that will do that job in the launch line-up, Bowers & Wilkins will be releasing more - and we expect some sort of satellite speaker to be announced later in 2019.
Naturally it supports all the convenience features as part of the Formation family, so you can send music directly to the Bar, designed both for movies and music. We watched some of Mission Impossible Fallout and the Bar delivers great immersive audio, as well as the crazy Cymatics from Nigel Stanford.
What's perhaps most surprising about the Formation Bar is the £999 price. Yes, it's expensive, but that's the same sort of price you'd might pay for the top soundbars from Sony or Samsung. Here, of course, the subwoofer is separate, and a fairly costly piece.
The great thing about the Formation Bass is that it works across the Formation suite - it's not limited to just being paired with the Bar - which is the case for many soundbar bundles. In that sense, it's more like the Sonos Sub, able to act across the family.
The Formation Bass has two opposing 6.5-inch woofers sitting on either end of the barrel-like Bass. This is designed to ensure distortion is reduced. The Bass itself measures 254 x 281 x 260mm, so it's not huge.
It's elegantly designed though, so you won't mind this sub sitting in your lounge.
The final part of the puzzle is Formation Audio. This really provides a bridge to the system, meaning you can connect legacy or analogue devices and add those to your wireless multiroom system.
For example, if you have a record player you can connect that to the Audio (you'll need a phono stage/pre-amp) so you can then send your vinyl to the wireless speakers. As we mentioned above, we witnessed this working with the Duo speakers to great effect.
The Formation Audio offers optical and analogue inputs, so your older devices don't become obsolete - but if you're entirely digital, it's not essential.
A word on voice control
Outside of multiroom streaming, voice control has completely shaken up speakers in recent years, from the humble Amazon Echo through to support from many other manufacturers. The Formation suite doesn't support voice control at launch, but Bowers & Wilkins isn't ruling it out at some point.
Andy Kerr, responding to the question of voice control, said that there were a number of considerations, firstly about which platform you'd have to support and secondly considering the sound pressure the Formation speakers will produce - you don't really want to be shouting over them to be able to use voice control.
However, Kerr did go on to say that it might be supported by a separate device, rather than integrated. The important thing is that the Formation devices have the processing power to be able to evolve to support wider functions in the future.