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Bowers & Wilkins Formation Bar Soundbar Review
When a company at the high end of the audio market like Bowers & Wilkins decides to develop a whole-home wireless system, we can expect the home-cinema market to sit up and take a great deal of notice. Bowers & Wilkins made its name in the 1960s as a pioneer of high-quality speakers. From an electronics shop on the English south coast, John Bower created a brand that was warmly welcomed by sound industry professionals and hi-fi enthusiasts alike. Its speakers, headphones and earbuds are among the most highly valued audio accessories in the world and although they usually carry a price tag to match, if you want the best, then you have to be prepared to pay for it. The continued success of Bowers & Wilkins demonstrates that there are plenty of consumers who are more than happy to do so.
Bowers & Wilkins have always been committed to innovation and strive constantly to improve their products. The B&W Formation Bar represents the company’s dramatic entrance into the home cinema wireless market. What we’re really looking at is not one but two pieces of equipment, because there is a complementary Formation Bass sub-woofer designed to give a powerful low-frequency presence. You don’t need to buy both the bar and bass, but if you’ve got the budget, then we think you’ll be pretty thrilled with the sound quality.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Formation Bar and Bass (if you opt for both) is their weight. Bear in mind that the bar is only 48 inches long and the bass is 11 x 10 x 10.2 and yet the bar weighs 12.1 pounds and the bass 27.6 pounds. These are seriously heavy pieces of equipment, which suggests they are very well built and contain robust, solid drivers. They are also aesthetically pleasing pieces of design. Instead of the usual rectangle, the Formation Bar is cylindrical with tapered ends finished with pewter-like end caps. The Formation Bass matches the design, but its end caps are its two 6.5 inch drivers. Touch controls have been kept to a minimum to preserve the simplicity of the lines. The Bar has buttons for play/pause, volume up, volume down and connect while the Bass has just one connection button. They look particularly at home in contemporary interiors but are simple and elegant enough to suit most environments.
Setting up is easy. If you plan to put your Formation Bar on a cabinet in front of your television, you’ll need to make sure it doesn’t block the bottom of the screen, since it is a little bigger than most soundbars. Check the height of your TV stand and, if necessary, get something a little higher. Wall-mounting is an option and B&W have helpfully supplied fittings and instructions. The power cable on the Bar is about six feet long, so unless you’re happy to add an extension lead, you’ll need to keep it fairly close to the main source of power for the TV. The Formation Bass, on the other hand, can do its job well virtually anywhere in the room. Just plug its power cable into the wall, and it will communicate with the Bar through its own network. As you add modules, the network simply gets bigger.
With the equipment arranged as you want it, you’ll need to set up the software. Before you power anything on, you should download and install the Formation app, which is called Bowers & Wilkins Home and serves as your remote control (although you’ll still need your TV remote). As you’d expect, this is available for both iOS and Android operating systems. As soon as you install it on your smartphone or mobile device, the home app will recognise the Formation products and you’re ready to select the settings of your choice. You have various options, including the ability to create ‘spaces’ and populate them with several products to be used together. The Formation app will prompt you to connect the new devices to your wider wireless network or you can use the Bar’s ethernet port to make the connection. Once that’s done, you have a fully functioning remote control for your sound system to use in conjunction with your TV remote.
The next step is to establish Bluetooth connectivity. This allows you to use Apple AirPlay and streaming services such as Spotify Connect. Many soundbars are a little disappointing when you try to use them for streaming and audio formats like AAC don’t play particularly well through the Formation Bar and Bass. Fortunately, Apple AirPlay delivers CD-quality sound at 44.1kHz/16-bit.
The Bowers Wilkins Formation Bar comes with a 60-day free trial for Roon, which you can install on a PC and as an app on your smartphone. This allows you to play your own music library without the compression that you commonly experience with AirPlay and Bluetooth. We found this to be the best way to listen to music and of course, Roon also allows you to use Spotify Connect.
Inside the Formation Bar there are no fewer than nine speakers. The B&W double dome tweeter is present and correct: in fact, there are three in all, plus six woven glass fibre mid-bass drivers. The double dome tweeter is becoming a standard feature in B&W products and it works well here. There are six digital amplifiers and both DSP and Dynamic EQ. The connectivity for the Formation Bar is by digital audio optical connection which means you won’t find any HDMI connections. Neither is there any support for next generation audio formats like DTS and Dolby Atmos, although it’s enabled for Dolby Digital. With 250 watts of power and some great B&W technology it’s a formidable piece of equipment, despite these few reservations.
So, to the most important question: how is the sound quality? Frankly, it sounds great. As we understand it, the engineers behind the B&W 800 series of speakers are responsible for the B&W formation bar, so it’s clearly a project that has prioritised audio performance over everything else. Of course, the source material makes a big difference so if you’re playing a movie that has a poor-quality soundtrack, there’s only so much the B&W audio technology can do to raise it up. Play back something of really high quality and the B&W Formation Bar comes into its own.
In fact, the combination of bass and bar sounds particularly good when you use it for playing music. The audio is clear, powerful, crisp and detailed, with huge depth in the bass register. A well recorded and mixed concert movie would suit it perfectly. When you play audio on its own, you’ll find you need to make a few adjustments to get a decent balance between the bar and bass, while the treble may need dropping a notch or two. The Formation app doesn’t actually show you the extent of the adjustments you’ve made, but the true test is in the listening, not what a slider tells you.
We found that the Formation Bar plays to the very different strengths of both orchestral symphonies and chamber music. Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmonic’s Deutsche Grammophon recordings of Debussy’s La Mer and Prelude a l’Apres Midi D’un Faune really shows its capacity for delicate, refined reproduction. At the other end of the scale is Furtwangler and the Philharmonia Orchestra’s lavish version of Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’.
As for popular music, it has the power and the deep bass to do justice to the loudest, heaviest rock. Turn the volume up full on a Husker Du album and you won’t hear any distortion, and the beautiful crispness of Bob Mould’s guitar has never sounded better. Bob’s vocals are often buried in the mix, but the Formation Bar makes every syllable hit home. It also does a great job on one of the most famous, powerful snare drum openings of all time: Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’.
Put on some Dub Reggae from Lee Perry or Augustus Pablo and feel the full effect of the deep bass as well as the incredible spaciousness of the mix. Even the old bluesmen of the 30s and 40s come startlingly to life. One of the great production achievements of the 1970s, John Martyn’s ‘One World’ produced by Chris Blackwell, is an excellent test of the Formation’s versatility and delicacy. Play the title track and you’ll be amazed by the depth and clarity.
Let’s not forget the movies. As we’ve said, some low-budget movies with a muddy soundtrack won’t benefit from the Formation’s sophistication but real quality will be considerably enhanced. The film director David Lynch declared that ‘films are 50 per cent visual and 50 per cent sound. Sometimes sound even overplays the visual.’ His own ‘Eraserhead’ is testament to that notion, but there are plenty of films we’d recommend you to try out, like ‘House of Flying Daggers’, the opening scene of ‘Baby Driver’, the ominous main title sequence of Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ and pretty much the whole of ‘Blade Runner’. Another movie where the non-musical soundtrack is absolutely central to the plot is Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’ where unravelling the mystery of the covert recordings is as puzzling for the viewer as for the Gene Hackman character, and the Formation Bar really lets you join in.
Specifications at a Glance
Bar Drivers: there are three 1-inch double dome tweeters and six 2.6-inch cone bass/midrange drivers
Bass Drivers: two 6.5-inch long-throw drivers
Frequency response of the Bar is 40Hz-28kHz (left, Right, Center)
Frequency response of the Bass is 20-150Hz
Amplification of the Bar is six times 40 watts
Amplification of the Bass is 250 watts
Inputs: one digital optical, one USB and one RJ45 Ethernet
Tone controls: Bass, Treble, Subwoofer Gain
Formats supported via Optical Input: Dolby Digital
Optional ethernet port
Wireless streaming compatibility: Bluetooth (v4.1 Class 2 aptX HD, AAC, SBC), Apple AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Roon Ready, Wi-Fi networking
App control by Bowers & Wilkins Home app, Roon
Bar dimensions in inches: 48.5W x 4.3H x 4.2D
Bass dimensions in inches: 11W x 10H x 10.2D
Bar weight: 12.1 pounds
Bass weight: 27.6 pounds
Manufacturer’s warranty: two years.
So what’s the verdict on the Bowers Wilkins Formation Bar and Bass? The bar sounds great, provided that the source material is up to standard, and while it delivers movie soundtracks with remarkable clarity and definition, it sounds particularly good when playing audio only. The deep bass performance of the subwoofer is equally impressive although the lack of HDMI connections is slightly disappointing. As pieces of design, both items are striking, contemporary, unusual and much more aesthetically interesting than the average sound bar. It is capable of pumping out at very high volume with little or no distortion or loss of clarity. You get a very flexible multi-room functionality with B&W’s own perfected mesh wireless network ensuring virtually instant synchronisation of all your devices in every room.
In summary, the Formation Bar and Bass together constitute an excellent wireless sound system. It’s perfectly OK to use the bar on its own, but the bass really does give you the whole deal. Yes, it's pricy, but if you’re a serious fan of movies and music, we think you’ll be blown away by it.