Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo Review

Meet a very dynamic Duo indeed.

by Ed Selley
SRP: £3,500.00

What is the Formation Duo?

The Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo is a pair of self-contained, wireless, active speakers that act as the flagship of the Formation range of wireless products, of which, the Wedge has already been tested by us. While it is perfectly possible to argue that the Wedge is a lifestyle product, one look at the Duo should be enough to establish that this is a rather more serious proposition.

The Duo is effectively where the Formation range dovetails with the more serious offerings from Bowers & Wilkins in the form of the 700 and 800 Series. The intention is to combine a good dose of that performance with the convenience that we’ve come to expect too. For every person who wants to take the very excellent 705 and choose the system to go with it, there are plenty of others who will happily have a sizeable pair of speakers in the room but don’t really want anything else to go with them.

There’s considerable promise here then - this is a far more traditional repository for what Bowers & Wilkins knows about speakers. The Wedge offered some impressive performance in its own right, so is this the thinking listener’s alternative to the active speakers already on the market and can it trouble the Naim Unitis as a means of delivering top flight sound with lifestyle sensitivities? Let’s find out.

Specification and Design

Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo
Quite a bit of how the Duo functions is covered in my review of the Wedge so I will avoid a complete regurgitation of it here. The Formation Series is a MESH network system where the devices communicate back to the server and outside world via a 2.4GHz receiver (or wired connections) and then uses a series of 5GHz transmitters and receivers to communicate with each other. The notional benefits are two fold. First up, and something that has some practical appeal, is that this reduces the load on your existing network infrastructure, and in a modern busy household where plenty of devices are vying for your router’s attention this is a good thing.

In the specific case of the Duo though, the latency matters more than it does on the Wedge. Each Duo is a self-contained wireless entity so, even if there are no other Formation devices in your setup, the speed of the wireless comms between the two speakers is going to matter. On a more basic note, so is stability. Much as I love the KEF LSX, when I had a pair under test, the communication between left and right wasn’t bulletproof, so it has to be hoped that the Duo’s more ornate setup is able to keep the two speakers working as they should.

The speakers themselves are an intriguing blend of the familiar and the new. The drivers are a ‘greatest hits’ of the company with a 25mm carbon dome tweeter that is used in the 700 Series, sitting in its own enclosure at the top of the cabinet. It is partnered with a 165mm example of the ‘Continuum’ type cone with its distinctive silver weave and secret squirrel combination of materials. In what is the most significant departure for a two way speaker of this size and design, the cabinet is sealed. This is logical enough as it further controls the behaviour of the speaker in any given location and doesn’t leave a port possibly interfering with that.
Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo
The cabinet is also a little different to the more traditional Bowers & Wilkins fare. This is a Polypropylene base that has wood fibre rather than glass fibre added to the mix. Bowers and Wilkins says that this ensures it has better damping properties than the more conventional material. Unlike most cabinets, the Duo is constructed in two sections. These are connected together with a dampening compound that further controls the resonant behaviour of the speaker.

This is, in turn, completed with a separate module on the underside of each cabinet that holds a pair of 125 watt class D amplifiers and the wireless equipment, largely sealed off from the rest of the speaker. Each Duo has an Ethernet connection and a figure 8 mains socket (for which Bowers & Wilkins has had the good sense to supply some decently long mains leads for). What you won’t see is any form of additional connectivity. Like the Wedge, the Duo has Airplay and aptX HD Bluetooth as standard. If you want to do more ornate network audio you will need to use Roon and if you want to attach additional devices, you will need the £599 Audio which will give you an extra RCA and optical input.
There’s two ways of looking at this. As with the Wedge, Bowers & Wilkins isn’t charging you for things you don’t need and neither is the performance of their technological tour de force at risk of being undermined by a substandard app experience. At the same time, it does mean that the price of the Duos climbs from its notional £3,499 starting price with eyebrow raising speed. If you want Roon, that’s $119 a year (plus the hardware to run it). The Audio, as noted is £599 and the dedicated stands another £699. Once you add all the trimmings to a Duo setup, the price is nearer £5,000 and that, however you slice it, is rather a lot of money.
Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo
Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo

The speakers themselves go some way to redressing the balance though. The Duo is a cool piece of industrial design, not overtly showy but clearly demonstrating enough engineering and design nous to be something a little beyond the ordinary. The nature of the Formi material is that it won’t ever feel as smart as something with a deep gloss or machined metal enclosures but it is indisputably well made and should sit in most rooms with a sense of purpose, if not complete stealth. Some of the details are lovely though. The metal grilles are wonderful and the little illuminated Formation logos look very smart too. I don’t feel that the Audio is anything like as smart though. It looks OK but feels very lightweight for a product at that price.

No less importantly, set up is a breeze. The Formation app is limited but the set up process is slick and simple. In the time they’ve been on test, the review pair and the Audio has been unconditionally stable. The Duo can genuinely lay claim to being a fit and forget device and the relationship between the two speakers and their input device is something you stop thinking about after a few minutes because it just works. I’m sure somebody somewhere will manage to make it fall over but I can’t see it happening very often.
Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo
The Duo is a cool piece of industrial design, not overtly showy but clearly demonstrating enough engineering and design nous to be something a little beyond the ordinary

How was the Duo Tested?

The Duos were placed on their own stands and powered via an IsoTek Evo3 Aquarius Mains Conditioner with an Innuos Zenith MkIII acting as a Roon Core. The Audio was also connected to the IsoTek and had an LG 55B7 OLED connected to the optical connection and a Michell Gyrodec running via a Cyrus Phono Signature phono stage connected to the analogue input. Test material has included FLAC, AIFF, ALAC, DSD, TIDAL, Qobuz, on demand and broadcast TV and a smattering of vinyl.

Sound Quality

Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo
The Duo operates to the same ‘rules’ at the Wedge inasmuch that the maximum sample rate supported is 24/96 with higher notional sample rates being downconverted via Roon. Now, if you have a library of mahoosive DSD files, it does mean that this might not be the product for you but back in the sort of market area where the Duo is pitched, this is quite sufficient. In the name of reviewing, I’ve accrued a variety of files in some wild and wacky formats but of the music I choose to listen to, only one album has a higher native sample rate than the Duo can handle.

This gives the Bowers & Wilkins a solid footing from which to win people over and it does a fine job of doing so. Perhaps the most immediately notable thing is that the sealed cabinet has no effect on the Duo’s ability to deliver truly sensational bass. Revisting Orbital’s Snivilisation, the manner in which the Duo powers through Sad But True is seriously impressive. It is possible to add the Formation Sub to a pair of Duos but unless you’ve got a truly vast room, I honestly can’t see you needing it. The claim of 25Hz is probably something that can only truly be achieved with some roll off but it hasn’t been plucked from someone’s imagination.

The upper registers are no less capable. Since the move to the Continuum cone has taken place, two notionally quite incompatible things have happened to the presentation of the company’s products. The slight but noticeable colouration that the Kevlar imparted has gone resulting in a more accurate sound but at the same time, the presentation has become more fun. Listening to R.E.M’s Radio Free Europe on the Duos is a wonderfully intense and emotive experience. The raw mastering of the track isn’t affected but it’s never a distraction.
Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo
There is also a truly impressive soundstage being created too. With a fractional degree of toe in to them, the Duos give a wonderfully expansive and believable image between (and beyond) the speakers. Just as with the 705 S2, the handover between the two very different drivers is utterly seamless and something that should never even enter the thoughts of someone simply choosing to listen to them for fun rather than critical purposes. In fact, in so many ways, the Duo is quite effusive about the technology in it. You can’t really sense the DSP at work and even some of the standard fingerprints of active speakers aren’t as apparent here. You sit down and you are treated to an unashamedly significant chunk of the higher end Bowers & Wilkins listening experience. Furthermore, it’s one of that is achieved with remarkably little fuss.

This lack of overall hassle also applies to the Audio. Listening to my turntable via the Audio should be something to raise the hackles of some purists. To function, the analogue signal is being converted to digital so it can be turned back to analogue when it hits the Duos. The cold, hard reality of doing this is… pretty minimal really. The turntable retains its character, there’s no unwanted noise and everything works exactly how you’d expect. The same goes for watching TV via the optical input. I have no means of calculating latency with the equipment here but to a MkI human eyeball, it has been consistently perfect across everything I have watched. The same hefty bass extension and excellent soundstaging means that this is a great partner for TV viewing should you be minded to do so.
Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo
With a fractional degree of toe in to them, the Duos give a wonderfully expansive and believable image between (and beyond) the speakers.

Verdict

8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

Pros

  • Phenomenal sound quality
  • Very well made
  • Simple to setup and use

Cons

  • Expensive once options are added
  • Formi cabinet material not hugely attractive
  • Some rivals run it close for less money

Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo Review

You will note that the sound quality section of the Duo has pretty much nothing negative to say about them. Even more than the Wedge, the Duo is a truly outstanding piece of equipment. If you want a single box (ish - the stands and Audio would come in others) to turn up and deliver a truly significant taste of high end audio, this might well be the best option there is. The Duo is a rare example of fit and forget delivering the sort of performance that is usually the preserve of more complex systems.

There’s a ‘but’ coming though - there always is. Many would-be customers for the Duo are going to make a beeline for the slightly less capable (but still brilliant) KEF LS50 Wireless at nearly half the price. Still others will accept that having an all in one system with a pair of passive speakers will not be significantly more complex to live with and go for that. Here, that near five grand price of the Duo leaves it vulnerable to some of the competition. This is an indisputably brilliant piece of kit but you are invited to pay for the privilege and, for me at least, I think that price is a little on the high side. I can’t materially fault the Duo though and for many people, it will be all the system they ever need. For this reason, the Formation Flagship comes enthusiastically Recommended.

Recommended

Scores

Build Quality

.
.
8

Connectivity

.
.
8

Sound Quality

.
9

Ease of Use

.
9

Features

.
.
8

Value for Money

.
.
.
7

Verdict

.
.
8
8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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