Bowers & Wilkins Formation Wedge Review
Life on the Wedge
What is the Formation Wedge?The Bowers & Wilkins Formation Wedge is a self-contained wireless network speaker. We’ve looked at quite a few of those in recent times and in the case of some of them, they’ve evolved into products that offer a meaningful alternative to the more conventional audio system. It’s also truly massive business with almost every manufacturer of note getting heavily stuck in.
As we shall see, the Wedge is not a ‘me too’ product. Bowers & Wilkins clearly feels that in order to deliver on the promise of wireless multiroom, certain design aspects need to be very carefully addressed. It also demonstrates some bold decisions about how you will use it that will either meet with your enthusiastic endorsement or have you running for the hills.
There’s also the small matter of reputation. Bowers & Wilkins has two levels of this invested in the Formation. The first is as a premium speaker brand. This is the same badge that adorns the £22,500 800D3 (as well as the elusive Nautilus) so there is a weight of expectation that the Wedge will perform. This is also a company that knows its way around the business of wireless speakers - as the ongoing success of the Zeppelin continues to show. Beyond the extensive technical headlines, does the Wedge do enough to vanquish the stiff competition or is this engineering for engineering’s sake?
Specification and DesignThere are some terminology details to the Wedge that need to be mentioned before we delve into the speaker itself. As far as Bowers & Wilkins is concerned, Formation is not a range of speakers but ‘a high-resolution, high-speed audio platform’ that can be adapted to their needs at any price point that the company feels it wants to use it at. Key to this is a rigorous approach to the business of network audio that combines technical sophistication with a healthy dose of real world pragmatism.
Each product is designed to make use of both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz segment of a traditional wireless network. Information reaches the Wedge (or Bar or Duo) via 2.4GHz receiver. Then, if other Formation products are present (or in the case of the Duo, simply to communicate with each other), additional receivers work at the 5GHz frequency to communicate with each other via a MESH network arrangement. As far as Bowers & Wilkins is concerned, this has two benefits, one relevant to absolute performance and one more to day to day practicality.
The performance one concerns timing. Bowers & Wilkins says that the delay between speakers in different rooms is in the microsecond range and that latency is the best in class. In the case of a solitary Wedge on test, this is more of an abstract advantage but when dealing with the Duo (which we shall in due course), it offers the potential for the response of a pair of wireless speakers to be as good as that of a conventional set of passive models on the end of speaker cable.
The practicality one is potentially more useful. As the Formation products are communicating via their own network, the ‘load’ on your own router is reduced. In a busy household, even if you have high quality network hardware, anything that reduces the demand on it has to be celebrated and the idea of the more products you add having no real effect on it has to be seen as quite a desirable one.
The nuts and bolts of the Wedge itself are quite conventional in terms of its design and configuration. It makes use of a pair of 1-inch ‘Double dome’ tweeters combined with a pair of 3.5-inch FST midrange drivers that are underpinned by a single 6-inch ‘subwoofer.’ The drivers have their own amplifiers, 40 watts apiece for the tweeters and midrange and 80 for the sub. All amplification is class D as you might reasonably expect.
At this point, the topic usually switches to the inputs and network capabilities of the speaker but that’s not exactly how this one is going to go. Out of the box, the Wedge offers AirPlay2, Spotify Connect and aptX HD Bluetooth. It has no UPnP software of its own and neither has it any form of physical inputs at all. For many would-be owners, of course, it doesn’t need anything more - music comes out of your phone and into the speaker, job done. You might baulk at the £900 price tag attached to it but we’ll let the market decide on that.
If you want the Wedge to do more though, it will, you just need to splash more cash. If you want full network streaming, it is fully compatible with Roon and will join a family of Roon endpoints as soon as it on a network. It will handle sample rates to 24/96 but Roon being Roon, you can send whatever you like to it so long as you set the maximum permissible sample rate to 24/96. Likewise, if you want the ability to attach something by either RCA analogue or optical, you can add a Formation Audio that offers these inputs and sends the information wirelessly over the 5GHz connection to the Wedge. The logic is clear enough. If you don’t need them, you don’t pay for them and rather than labour to make their own UPnP app, Bowers & Wilkins has simply made use of the best on the market.
It’s not a perfect strategy though. If we take the Naim Mu-So 2nd Generation, this is £400 more than the Wedge but you get the physical inputs (plus HDMI ARC) included and it has its own UPnP app and Chromecast (and it’s still Roon ready if you wish). To bring the Wedge to a similar level of compatibility, by adding an Audio and a year’s Roon subscription, will take the price to a rather lively £1,600 (and that doesn’t include any hardware to run Roon). That is, however you choose to look at it, quite a lot of money. I personally feel that adding Chromecast support would go a fair way to bridging the gap but for the moment Bowers & Wilkins has said it isn’t on the ‘to do’ list.
Where the Wedge is on firmer ground is the design, aesthetic and build. This is another product that joins the ranks of ‘better in the flesh than photos.’ Even the supplied pics can make it look a bit like Hugh Hefner’s favourite lampshade and the reality is that when you unpack it, it is a damn sight more elegant than that. The proportions are well judged, the faceted front edge looks brilliant in both natural and artificial light and I love the wooden rear panel (in some ways, it’s a shame it isn’t more visible). This is really a lovely thing and it feels worth the asking price (in basic form anyway). It’s also superbly made and the set up procedure works like a charm. Bowers & Wilkins have been consistently good at ‘user experience’ over the last few years and this is no exception.
The logic is clear enough. If you don’t need them, you don’t pay for them and rather than labour to make their own UPnP app, Bowers & Wilkins has simply made use of the best on the market.
How was the Wedge tested?The Wedge has largely been used as a standalone device, connected to an IsoTek Evo 3 Aquarius Mains conditioner and taking an AirPlay feed from an iPad Pro, an aptX HD Bluetooth feed from an Essential PH-1 and a Roon feed from a Lenovo T560 ThinkPad using a Melco N1A as a library. The Formation Audio has been connected too and used with an LG 55B7 OLED connected to the optical input. Material used has included FLAC, AIFF, ALAC, Tidal and Qobuz, some Deezer and broadcast and on demand TV material.
Sound QualityA few people reading this will be wondering if an AirPlay speaker can possibly justify a £900 price tag - I won’t lie, I had some questions about it too. After some time spent with the Wedge, my answer is that yes it probably can. I also think that the Wedge is slightly underutilised in this fashion but it doesn’t stop it being a great listen. Given the lossless feed from a streaming service, the Wedge is a genuinely excellent performer and one of the very best single chassis speakers I’ve listened to.
First of all, its overall presentation is usefully open for something that radiates from a single point. Like all of these devices, it would be a stretch to describe what comes out the Wedge as truly stereo in the manner that taking a pair of the company’s standmounts and placing them two metres apart will produce but there is a width and three dimensionality to it that ensures that when you listen to the live version of 78 Stone Shuffle on Gomez’s magnificently named Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline, it manages to feel like a live performance that has an actual band, playing together and playing off each other.
The tonality is good too. The Wedge has a slight sense of emphasis to the midrange that possibly isn’t in keeping with a take of absolute accuracy but it does help it feel rich and full bodied, conveying a weight and scale to voices, in particular, that is really enjoyable. The top end is entirely civilised without being dull and while it does its best work with lossless material, compressed services also sound perfectly listenable.
Above all these things, it’s fun. I will be honest and say that there are times with Bowers & Wilkins that while I can reach for many adjectives, fun isn’t always one of them. The Wedge is genuinely good fun to listen to though. A brief foray into the probably not terribly Hi-Fi world of Use Your Illusion II by Guns & Roses reveals a speaker that never misses a beat and is constantly seeking to get the head nodding and the foot tapping. If you want to sit there, iPad in one hand and beverage of your choice in the other and meander through a streaming service for an evening, this is a good partner.
The behaviour of the Wedge is pretty much identical via aptX HD save for the issue that I found it a bit of a pig to pair and re-pair with my Essential. Once connected though, the performance is extremely good. Of course, Roon is the operating system the Wedge was born to use and, while there isn’t the performance gain with this sort of product that there is elsewhere, it means that you’re combining the industrial design with an interface of the same quality.
Adding the Audio is no less technically impressive. I use the word technically for two reasons. The first is that the Audio has no real sonic fingerprint of its own - it sends a digital signal to the Wedge and the Wedge proceeds to decode it so you never hear the Audio in any real sense. The other reason for its use is more philosophical. The cost balance between the Audio and Wedge is such that if you need from the outset to connect something to your one box speaker, I would suggest you look at offerings from Bluesound or Naim because, in price ratio terms, it just makes more sense to do so. One thing I will say is that watching TV via the Audio and Wedge, the latency with the LG OLED is perfect. Not, ‘pretty good’ or ‘near perfect’ but ‘perfect.’ It certainly suggests that the effort that Bowers & Wilkins has expended on the system has paid off.
Above all these things, it’s fun.
- Sounds genuinely excellent
- Very well made
- Nice piece of design
- Limited spec out of the box
- Expensive accessories
- No shortage of rivals
Bowers & Wilkins Formation Wedge ReviewThe world of one box speakers is enormously competitive at the moment. Respected Hi-Fi brands are spending serious time and money on developing them and their performance is a world away from what could be expected even a few years ago. The Wedge arrives into this mass with a lot to prove and, by and large, it achieves most of what it sets out to do. If you are looking to buy a product solely with a view to interacting with it via your phone or tablet, I think the Wedge is the best of its kind. We have a review of the Naim Mu-So 2nd Generation in the offing and it’s truly outstanding. For £400 less though, via AirPlay, the Wedge is just as good.
The catch is simple enough. The Naim might be £400 more but it offers additional functionality that will cost more than £400 to replicate with the Wedge - when you can replicate it at all. Bowers & Wilkins can argue that it is better to present a product with a more limited set of interface options in the pursuit of it being as slick as the aesthetic but it still means that the Wedge can feel a little expensive for what it is. For many people though, the combination of sound quality and aesthetics is going to be winning one and the Wedge earns our Recommendation for these outstanding attributes.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £899.99
Ease of Use9
Value for Money8
Our Review Ethos
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