What is the Formation Bar?
The Bar has been designed to deliver a big performance from a sleek and relatively discreet cabinet. To that end, Bowers & Wilkins’ engineers have created nine new high-performance drivers optimally positioned to retain a dedicated centre channel while producing a wider soundstage.
As part of the Formation Suite, the Bar also includes support for Apple AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, and Roon, allowing it to stream 24/96 high-resolution stereo sound. There's also built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and multiroom functionality using the Bowers & Wilkins Home app.
The app not only allows you to set up and control the Bar, along with other Formation products in your network but can also use the robust mesh network to create a full 5.1-channel system using the Bass subwoofer and a pair of Flex speakers as the surround channels.
The Bar isn’t cheap and costs £999 as at the time of writing (December 2019), putting it up against some very capable alternatives. That price seems even higher when you consider the Bar has no remote control, lacks any HDMI connections, and doesn’t support immersive audio.
The soundbar market is large and highly competitive, so this new entry from Bowers & Wilkins needs to sound amazing if it’s going to have any chance of standing out from the crowd.
Design, Control and Connections
The build quality is excellent, resulting in a soundbar that certainly looks and fees like a high-end product. The Bar measures 1240 x 109 x 107mm (WxHxD) and weighs in at 5.5kg. You have a choice of stand or wall mounting the soundbar using the included brackets, but the latter is probably best because the Bar's height will block most modern screens.
The design emphasises minimalism and there’s no display, and virtually no controls. At the top rear of the soundbar, you’ll find play/pause and volume up/down buttons, along with the Form button (more on that later). But incredibly for a soundbar that costs nearly a grand, there isn’t even an included remote control.
If your TV uses an IR remote the Bar can learn the basic volume commands, but if it’s RF (like my LG C8) then you’re forced to use the Bowers & Wilkins Home app (iOS and Android). This is far from ideal because I don’t want to get my phone out every time I need to change the volume.
The app is essentially the main method of controlling the Bar and while it is fairly basic, it does offer a nicely designed user interface that takes you through initial set up with the minimum of fuss. Once completed, the app allows you to control the Bar and any other Formation products on the network.
The physical connections are located on the bottom rear of the soundbar and, for a 2019 model, they are very disappointing. There’s an optical digital input, an Ethernet port for a wired connection, a USB port for service diagnostics, and a two-pin connector for the power cable.
There’s also a reset button down there, should you need to set the Bar up again from scratch, but that’s it. There isn’t a single HDMI connector – so no ARC, CEC or lossless multichannel support, let alone eARC or object-based audio. This is unacceptable at this price point.
As with all the Formation products, the Bar includes a number of wireless options: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1 aptX HD and Apple AirPlay 2.
Features and Specs
There’s a dedicated centre speaker, which is good, and the drivers are optimally positioned to deliver a wide soundstage. However, for a modern soundbar, the Formation Bar is woefully lacking in the kind of features you’d expect at a quarter of the price.
The lack of HDMI connections limits the AV input to optical digital audio. That means there’s no ARC or CEC and all the benefits they provide, nor is there any support for lossless multichannel audio. The Bar is not only restricted to lossy Dolby Digital, but limited to only three channels out of the box.
These days, a soundbar in this price range would be expected to support object-based immersive audio like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. It would also be expected to include an active wireless subwoofer. While there is the optional Formation Bass, it costs an additional £899.
It feels like Bowers & Wilkins has spent all its time on developing the drivers (hardly surprising given that its a speaker manufacturer), and put very little thought into the requirements of a modern soundbar. When you look at Bowers & Wilkins partnership with Philips on the 65OLED984 the results are excellent but, in that example, another company is handling the non-speaker aspects.
Bowers & Wilkins has also invested a great deal of effort in creating a technically sophisticated and robust network system that can stream audio at a resolution of up to 24-bit/96kHz. Once again, this has more to do with speakers and listening to music, than it does with an AV-related product like a soundbar (although it does allow you to build a wireless 5.1-channel system).
The Formation system is designed to use both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies found in a normal wireless network, so information reaches the Bar via its 2.4GHz receiver. If there are other Formation products present, they use the 5GHz frequency to communicate with each other over a patented mesh network.
The advantage to this approach is that the Formation network is not only robust, but also has a claimed delay of just 1 microsecond. Another benefit is that because the various Formation products are communicating via their own network, they aren’t taking up bandwidth on your home router. It also means you can wirelessly pair the Bar with the Bass subwoofer and Flex speakers.
The Bar supports Spotify Connect, and thanks to AirPlay 2 you can listen to Apple Music. The inclusion of AirPlay and Bluetooth also allows you to listen to other streaming services, as well as Internet Radio. The inclusion of aptX HD also means you can enjoy a high quality Bluetooth connection.
However, the Formation platform has no UPnP software of its own, so if you want to stream music from your home network or enjoy the benefits of 24/96 audio on your soundbar, you’ll have to stump up for Roon. This music playback software is excellent, but it also costs $119 (£95) a year plus the hardware to run it on (although you get a free three month trial with your Flex purchase).
Bowers & Wilkins Formation Bass
The Formation Bass measures 281 x 254 x 260mm (WxHxD), weighs 12.5kg. It’s certainly an eye-catching subwoofer, with its cylindrical shape and brushed metal drivers at either end. The entire sub is wrapped in black fabric, aside from a brushed metal strip near the top where the Form button is located. It’s definitely pretty for a subwoofer, and matches the design aesthetic of the rest of the Formation Suite of products.
At the bottom rear of the Bass, you’ll find an Ethernet port for a wired connection, along with a USB port for service diagnostics and a reset button. The Bass uses the same Formation wireless mesh network as the rest of the products in the range. Each one is able to dynamically choose the optimal path to route audio to any other product in the network. This means that when paired with the Bar, this subwoofer is able to deliver deep and perfectly timed bass.
Set-up and Operation
The Bar can only be set up using the Home app, and goes into the set up mode when you first plug it in. This is signified by the Form button on top slowly pulsing amber, and the Bar will appear in the app as ready to set up – simply select it and the process will begin.
As part of the set up process, you need to name the “Space” in which the Bar is to be used. There’s a list of default Space names like Living Room, but you can also create your own. Once that’s done you’ll be asked to touch the Form button, which will confirm the selection.
The next stage is to connect your Bar to your home Wi-Fi network (unless you plan on using an Ethernet cable). The app will ask you to confirm the correct Wi-Fi network and ask you to input its password – although this is only required the first time you connect a Formation product to your Wi-Fi network. Once the Space selection and Wi-Fi connection are complete, your Bar will play an audio prompt to confirm a successful setup, and it’s ready for use.
The Bar can be paired with a Bluetooth device using the Home app, and once again an audio prompt will tell you when pairing is complete. If there is a firmware update available, the app will also tell you that and allow you to install it quickly and easily. Finally, if your TV uses an IR remote control, the Bar can learn the basic volume commands.
The Form button illuminates in different colours to signify different operational states: flashing white means start-up is in progress; pulsing amber means set up is ready; flashing amber means a firmware update is in progress; pulsing white means an audio pull is in progress; and flashing red means a factory reset is in progress. If you get a pulsing or solid red, there’s an error and you’ll need to contact support.
The Formation platform allows you to use the Bar in conjunction with other products in the range, but from an AV perspective, the main combinations are the Bar and Bass for a 3.1-channel system, and the Bar, Bass and a pair of Flex speakers for a 5.1-channel system. Since I have all those products, I’ll start with the Bar, add the Bass and then run a full 5.1 setup with two Flex speakers.
The maximum sample rate supported is 96/24 with higher notional sample rates being down-converted via Roon. Testing was done using audio sent from the TV via the optical digital cable, as well as Bluetooth and AirPlay 2 using an iPhone X, and Roon using an iMac as a Roon Core. Test material included Dolby Digital, FLAC, ALAC, TIDAL and Spotify.
There’s no doubt that the Bar sounds superb with music, thanks to fantastic stereo separation, impressive imaging, excellent detail retrieval and an enjoyably powerful delivery. Listening to Aerosmith’s Dream On, the Bar produces a suitably epic presentation – from Joe Perry’s guitars that build throughout the song to Steven Tyler’s screeching vocals.
This impressive performance extends to watching TV programmes, where music is spread across the front of the room, dialogue is anchored to the screen, and effects are placed with precision. Whether you are watching the news, a documentary, a TV drama or Bake-Off, the Bar sounds superb. It also does a great job with sports, and the Rugby World Cup is especially impressive, with the soundbar accurately reproducing the crowds while keeping the commentators clear.
Where things aren’t as impressive is with movies, and while the Bar still sounds good, it’s limited to three channels. These days an AV enthusiast expects more from a soundbar, and finding yourself stuck with 3.0 and Dolby Digital will feel like going back a decade. Given the emphasis Bowers & Wilkins has placed on sound quality, you’d think it would at least want to support lossless multichannel audio like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.
In addition, to really get the most out of a modern soundtrack you need to add the Formation Bass to do the heavy lifting at the low-end. There’s no doubt the Bass is an excellent sub that’s capable of a deep and controlled low frequency performance that perfectly complements the Bar. The two together produce a powerful soundstage with width and depth, that really adds to the overall performance.
The Bass is tight and responsive as well, without a hint of delay between the two Formation products. The problem is that the Bass is £899, and frankly you can buy some seriously good subs for that kind of coin. You also now have a 3.1-channel setup that costs just under £1,900, which is really expensive for a system that doesn’t even support Atmos and DTS:X immersive audio. If you put on a movie like Aquaman or Godzilla: King of the Monsters you get an enjoyably big sonic experience, but in the back of your mind you know it should sound more immersive.
Thanks to the wonders of the Formation platform, along with the Bass you can also add a pair of Flex wireless speakers and create a more immersive 5.1-channel system. This sounds good, with the various Formation products all working in perfect harmony. You get plenty of width at the front, clear dialogue, beautifully rendered music, and some precisely steered effects. Watching The Matrix, the bullet-time sequences are as fun as ever. But at the end of the day, you've just spent nearly £2,700 and you're still stuck with Dolby Digital.
It makes you wonder just who the Bar is aimed at, because if you simply want great performance with music, there are much better options. This feels like what it is – a soundbar designed by a speaker manufacturer. The result is an active speaker that sounds great, but lacks almost all the features you associate with a modern soundbar.
- Sounds excellent
- Simple to set up
- Can be expanded to 5.1
- Very well made
- Attractive design
- Needs Bass for best results
- No immersive audio support
- No HDMI connections
- No remote control
- Very expensive
Bowers & Wilkins Formation Bar Soundbar Review
The Bowers & Wilkins Formation Bar looks gorgeous, is very well made and sounds fantastic for a three-channel soundbar. It delivers a big front soundstage and has plenty of amplification. There’s an excellent midrange, well-defined higher frequencies, and it sounds particularly good with music. The dedicated centre channel ensures that dialogue is clear, and there’s a reasonable amount of bass – although to really do a modern blockbuster justice, you need to add the Formation Bass subwoofer.
Unfortunately, that’s the problem with the Bar, despite costing nearly a grand, you need to spend more to get the best out of it. If you include the Bass that takes the price to nearly two thousand, and adding a pair of Formation Flex speakers as surround channels brings the cost up to almost £2,700. And even then you don’t get immersive audio support, in fact, you’re restricted to lossy Dolby Digital due to a lack of HDMI connections. Incredibly, Bowers & Wilkins doesn’t even include a remote control, which is an issue if your TV remote uses RF rather than IR commands.
The Formation Suite is built around a proprietary mesh network, which is robust, effective, easy to set up and near instantaneous. However, the Home remote app is very basic, and the majority of control is handled by other apps which fragments the experience. In addition, there’s no UPnP software, so if you want to stream music at full 24/96 high resolution you have to buy Roon for an extra £95 a year. The Formation Bar is good for what it is, but it’s too expensive and it doesn’t do enough. There are plenty of soundbars out there that do a hell of a lot more, for a hell of a lot less.
What are my alternatives?Samsung HW-Q80R
As an indication of what you can get for less money, there’s the Samsung HW-Q80R, which costs £899. This ‘bar and sub combo boasts a 5.1.2-channel speaker layout, and delivers a seriously big and powerful performance. In terms of features, you get Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, Hi-Res audio, and tuning from Harman Kardon. If that wasn’t enough, the Q80R works with Alexa for voice control, and there’s support for eARC and HDR10+.
Alternatively, you can go for the LG SL10YG, which also costs £899. This soundbar comes with a wireless subwoofer and runs a 5.1.2-channel speaker layout, with the option to add rear channels. Like the Samsung, it supports Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and high resolution audio, but this time the tuning is by Meridian. The LG doesn’t support eARC and HDR10+, but it does have Google Assistant built-in, making it a fully-functioning smart speaker.
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