What is the Formation Flex?
The Flex uses a high-performance tweeter and a woven glass fibre cone mid/bass woofer. Thanks to Formation Wireless Technology, it can also create a robust mesh network that allows it to stream 24/96 high-resolution stereo as part of a wireless sound system.
The Flex includes support for Wi-Fi, Apple AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, and Roon. There’s also Bluetooth and multiroom functionality using the Bowers & Wilkins Home app, with the latter allowing you to easily set up and control the Flex, along with other Formation products.
Other features include the ability to pair two Flex speakers to create a stereo system, add the Bass for deeper low frequency extension, and even using the Flex as part of a 5.1 system with the Bar. The Flex costs £399, as at the time of writing (December 2019), so it needs to sound good if it’s going to distinguish itself in a very competitive market.
Design, Control and Connections
There’s a glossy black top, a brushed metal base and a black wrap-around fabric grille that covers a ridged diamond-shaped honeycomb frame underneath. The Flex isn’t huge, with a width and depth of 130mm and a height of 215mm, but it feels solid in your hand and weighs 2.3kg. It’s a product that’s primarily aimed at kitchens and bedrooms but, as we’ll see, it has other uses.
As part of the glossy top plate there are illuminated touch sensitive controls for play/pause and volume up/down. There’s also the Form button that is used during the set up procedure and to provide visual feedback but, aside from that, the emphasis is very much on minimalism.
The main method of control is the Bowers & Wilkins Home app (iOS and Android), which while fairly simple does provide a nicely designed user interface that takes you through initial set up. Once completed, the app provides you with basic control of the Flex and any other Formation products on the network.
The physical connections are located on the bottom and are limited to a two-pin connector for the power cable, an Ethernet port for a wired connection and a USB port for service diagnostics. There’s also a reset button down there, should you need to set the Flex up again from scratch.
The lack of any physical audio inputs means the Flex is restricted to wireless connections, thus making their quality essential. These wireless connections are composed of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1 aptX HD and Apple AirPlay 2.
Features and Specs
Bowers & Wilkins has stated that Formation is not a range of speakers, but actually a ’high-resolution, high-speed audio platform’. This means the company has invested a great deal of money in creating a technically sophisticated and robust network system that can stream audio at a resolution of up to 24-bit/96kHz.
The Formation system is designed to use both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies found in a normal wireless network. In the case of the Flex, information reaches it 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. The other benefit is that because the various Formation products are communicating via their own network, they aren’t taking up bandwidth on your home router.
The Flex supports Spotify Connect, and thanks to AirPlay 2 you can also listen to Apple Music. The inclusion of AirPlay and Bluetooth allows you to listen to other streaming services, as well as Internet Radio. Since there are no physical inputs, if you want to listen to devices such as turntables and CD players, you’ll need the Formation Audio (which will set you back £599).
This is part of the problem with the entire Formation range, too often using features you want requires an additional outlay. For example, if you want to take advantage of the 24/96 high resolution audio capabilities of this speaker you’ll need the Roon music playback software, with which the Flex is fully compatible.
That’s the good news, because Roon is awesome. The bad news is that Roon costs $119 a year plus the hardware to run it on. Bowers & Wilkins do include a three month trial as part of your Flex purchase, but after that, it's around £95 a year. While that’s less of an issue with the more expensive Formation products, it’s a hefty investment on a £399 speaker.
Most people who buy a small wireless speaker are happy to just stream music from their smartphones, and so the lack of built-in 24/96 support probably isn't a big deal. The inclusion of aptX HD at least means a decent Bluetooth connection. However, the Flex isn't cheap for a small wireless speaker, and it justifies that price because of the sound quality, which means those buying it are probably fans of Hi-Res audio. It ultimately makes you wonder just who the Flex is really aimed at?
Setup and Testing
When you first plug-in the Flex it will enter set up mode, which is signified by the Form button on top slowly pulsing amber. The Flex will appear in the app as ready to set up, and then you simply select the Flex and the process will begin.
As part of the setup process, you need to name the “Space” in which the Flex is to be used. There’s a list of default Space names like Living Room and Office, but you can 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 Flex 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 to input its password – although this is only required the first time you connect a Formation product. Once the Space selection and Wi-Fi connection are complete, your Flex will play an audio prompt to confirm successful set up, and it’s ready for use.
The Flex is also paired with a Bluetooth device using the Home app, and once again an audio prompt will tell you when pairing is complete. If there's a firmware update available, the app will tell you that as well and allow you to install it quickly and easily.
The Form button illuminates in different colours to signify different operational states: flashing white means start-up is in progress; pulsing amber means setup 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.
If you have other Formation products, there’s a myriad of different configurations. You can use the Flex with the Formation Audio, with another Flex as a stereo pair, and with the Formation Bass subwoofer (and any combination of those four products). The Flex can also be used as the surround speaker in a multichannel system based around the Formation Bar soundbar.
The Flex radiates sound energy in all directions, so it’s best not to place it too close to a wall or in a corner. If you find the bass is too prominent, try moving it away from the wall or any corners. If you plan on using two as a stereo pair, Bowers & Wilkins suggest placing them at least a metre apart. Alternatively, if you’re using a pair as surround speakers in a Formation 5.1 system, they should be placed as close to 120 degrees from the front centre speaker as possible.
The Flex was tested as a single unit, then as a stereo pair, and finally as 2.1-channel system with the Formation Bass. As previously mentioned, the maximum sample rate supported is 24/96 with higher notional sample rates being down-converted via Roon. Testing was done using Bluetooth and AirPlay 2 with an iPhone X, and with Roon using an iMac as a Roon Core. Test material included FLAC, ALAC, TIDAL and Spotify.
I get the feeling that Bowers & Wilkins invested the majority of its time is designing the speakers themselves, and creating a robust and responsive mesh network. The app feels more like an afterthought, and the company really needs to develop a more sophisticated version that provides full control from a single interface.
That gripe aside, the Flex certainly delivers the goods in the sound quality department, with an enjoyably bold performance. The Flex sounds a lot bigger than it actually is, and there’s even a surprising amount of bass from a speaker this small. The audio is tight and precise, producing a sonic signature that’s free of any unwanted colouration.
This precision might come across as clinical, with some missing the warmth more often associated with Bowers & Wilkins speakers. However, this sense of neutrality has become a factor in all of the company’s more recent speakers and is to be welcomed by those who prefer to hear content as it was recorded.
While that’s probably less of a priority in a small wireless speaker, thankfully the Flex remembers to sound fun as well. The driving guitars and drums of Placebo’s Every Me, Every You are delivered with an exacting precision, but there’s enough grunt in the amplification to reflect the angry energy that dominates many of their songs.
The sparse beauty of the band’s peerless cover of Kate Bush’s Running Up that Hill reveals a solid midrange and some excellent higher frequencies. This is a speaker that can handle anything you throw at it, and the higher the quality the better the results. Listening to Mark Knopfler’s Privateering on FLAC via Roon reveals every guitar string and Geordie vocal.
I had a couple of Flex speakers available to me, so I paired them to create a two-channel system with excellent results. The stereo imaging is superb, and the system is perfectly synchronised. Listening to Every Breath You Take by The Police beautifully renders the sound of the double bass and the suitably breathy vocals. It's a great pairing, although it should be for nearly £800.
Finally, I added the Bass subwoofer to create a 2.1-channel system, and the results are suitably impressive. The Flex sounds quite big on its own, add a second and you have a great soundstage. Once you add the Bass, a low frequency foundation is produced that gives music even more impact. AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap sounded suitably filthy, with plenty of growling vocal, heavy guitar riffs and thundering drums. It's a cracking 2.1-channel system, but at a combined cost just shy of £1,700, you're better off looking at higher end options.
- Excellent sound quality
- Easy to setup
- Very well made
- Attractive design
- Limited connectivity
- Limited features
- Fragmented control
Bowers & Wilkins Formation Flex Wireless Speaker Review
The Bowers & Wilkins Formation Flex is a cracking little speaker that lives up to its name. This diminutive unit is attractively designed, and extremely well-made. It includes Wi-Fi, AirPlay 2 and Bluetooth wireless connections. It’s also compatible with the Roon music library, allowing it to handle 24/96 high resolution audio.
The Flex is extremely easy to set up thanks to the Bowers & Wilkins Home app, and the Formation Wireless Technology results in a mesh network that is robust, responsive and with virtually no latency. The speaker sounds excellent, with a sonic delivery that feels much bigger than its dimensions would suggest.
As the name suggests, it's also very flexible, and you can improve on this performance by adding a second Flex and even the Bass subwoofer (although this does increase the cost substantially). You can even use the Flex as a surround speaker in a 5.1-channel system along with the Bar soundbar.
There’s limited connectivity, the app is too fragmented when it comes to control, and if you want full Hi-Res you’ve got to pay for Roon, but aside from these gripes this is a well-designed and great-sounding wireless speaker that brings a touch of class to an incredibly crowded segment of the market, and is worthy of recommendation.
What are my alternatives?If you’re looking for a wireless speaker, you can’t go wrong with the Yamaha MusicCast 20. This excellent model costs half as much as the Flex, but is similar in appearance and just as well made. It also sounds excellent, and perhaps, more importantly, it’s part of Yamaha’s MusicCast multiroom system. As a result, it’s flexible, simple to set up and, thanks to a well-designed app, very easy to control.
It’s also feature packed with built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Airplay, native support for a host of music streaming services, and it can handle high resolution audio up to 24-bit/192kHz at no extra cost. In fact, you can build a very capable stereo system with a pair of MusicCast 20s, and it would still only cost as much as a single Formation Flex.
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