I am a minimalist. I love simplicity. And the older I get, the more value I put in the having less. I also love technology. And I particularly love that, because of technology, things that used to require more now require less. Fewer boxes, fewer cables, fewer remotes--less of everything. My need to be minimal and my love of technology haven’t always gone hand-in-hand, as there always seemed to be a sacrifice here or there that I had to contend with. In the early years, streaming media, while convenient, wasn’t very good. Most wireless speakers weren’t, to be frank about it, very well-built. So, a minimalist tech junky like myself was forced to endure: live with lesser components or forgo my need for simplicity and welcome back all the boxes and cables the industry could throw at me.
That was then, though, and this is 2019. This year, one of my personal favorite brands, Bowers & Wilkins, may have just created one of the best all-around wireless sound platforms for those wanting something a bit more high-end. Say hello to the Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo ($3,999.99 a pair): a powered pair of two-way bookshelf or monitor loudspeakers that you connect to your existing system via some form of wireless connection, or via Bowers & Wilkins’ own adapter, the Formation Audio (more on that in a bit).
The Formation Duo isn’t quite a powered 805 D3, nor is it a powered 705 S2. It actually sits somewhere in between, though it arguably has more in common with the 800 Series products than the more budget-conscious 700 Series. The styling cues definitely evoke the 800 Series. A Nautilus-style tweeter sits atop the main cabinet à la the 800 Series (admittedly the tweeter itself is from the 700 Series), and the fit and finish of the entire loudspeaker screams class and sophistication.
The one-inch carbon dome tweeter sits above a six-and-a-half-inch Continuum bass/midrange driver, which is good for a reported, and rather shocking, 25Hz to 33kHz frequency response. The drivers are driven by dual 125-watt amplifiers found within each Formation Duo, meaning that each loudspeaker is effectively bi-amped internally.
The Formation Duo comes in two finishes, black and white, though the base plate on both color choices remains a sort of rich graphite. The finishes themselves are decidedly matte in sheen, and the cabinets seem to be made from a sort of soft-touch composite material that I found to be rather nice indeed. The Nautilus-style tweeter is finished in gloss, however, which gives it a bit of distinctive visual flair. Each loudspeaker measures 15.5 inches tall by nearly eight inches wide and 12 inches deep, and tips the scales at a respectable 23.4 pounds.
As for connection options, there aren’t many. There is a bottom mounted Ethernet jack as well as a USB port (service only). In other words, the Formation Duo lacks any sort of “legacy” input options. Hell, it doesn’t even have a 3.5mm analog audio jack like some other powered speakers do. Nope, the Formation Duo is taking a page from the Apple playbook and just saying no to superfluous input/outputs. Wireless connection options include Bluetooth v4.1 Class 2, with support for AptX HD, AAC, and SBC; Apple AirPlay 2; Spotify Connect; and Roon, with a maximum resolution of 96kHz/24-bit.
The Formation Duo utilizes Bowers & Wilkins perfect speaker synchronization technology, allowing for the speakers themselves to achieve an imperceptible, single-microsecond in-room sync between them. This is all courtesy of a mesh network that is created between the speakers themselves, as well as other Formation branded products. It should be noted that this mesh network runs independent of your home’s WiFi, meaning you can still keep the music or party going during pesky outages.
For those not yet willing to cut the cords, you can adapt non-Formation product through the use of the Formation Audio. The Formation Audio is a standalone wireless transmitter of sorts that enables passive components to interact flawlessly with new Formation branded speakers. The Formation Audio retails for a hefty $699.99, and looks positively gorgeous as far as its industrial design is concerned, not to mention its rather small profile, measuring 8.5 inches wide by 10.4 inches deep and a hair under two inches tall. It has all the same capabilities as the speakers themselves, but adds a few legacy connection options, such as a single digital audio input (optical), analog audio input, analog audio output, and digital audio output (coaxial). The Formation Audio also has both analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters inside--though no more specifics are given on either by Bowers & Wilkins.
It should be noted that despite the Formation Duo and Formation Audio having touch sensitive buttons for items such as sync and volume adjustment, control over the whole Formation ecosystem is meant to be handled via the Formation App, which is available for iOS and Android free of charge.
The Formation Duo arrived on my doorstep shortly after taking delivery of Sony’s latest LED-backlit LCD display, the XBR-X950G. I bring this up because unlike the other display I had in-house, Vizio’s latest P-Series Quantum, the Sony had a few nice features that allowed me to utilize the Formation Duos to their fullest extent.
Before we get to that, though, let’s discuss the matching Formation Duo stands for a moment. While the Formation Duo can be placed on a table, shelf, or third-party stand, the matching stands from Bowers & Wilkins do go a long way in completing the Formation Duo’s look, while also hiding the one and only cable each speaker needs: a power cable. Alas, the stands themselves, while gorgeous, are not cheap, retailing for $799.99 a pair. The stands are available in your choice of black or silver, the latter of which is likely meant to be paired with the white finish Formation Duo.
After assembling the stands, and bolting (yes, bolting) each speaker to its chunky top plate, I began the Formation Duo’s setup procedure, starting with downloading the free App from the App Store. Setup is the epitome of simplicity, and is largely an automated affair, whereby you follow the onscreen prompts until you reach the end. Plugging in each speaker starts the process, after which the app identifies the speakers, asks which room they reside in, and what your WiFi network name is. No WiFi passwords are even required (at least on iOS), as it pulls them from your phone’s memory banks. With everything connected, you’re ready to start streaming via your service of choice.
The Formation Audio sets up in exactly the same way, only you get one or two additional questions depending on which inputs it senses being used. Tell it what type of product is connected to which input and boom, you’re done. It is the easiest, most straightforward setup and pairing scenario I’ve encountered to date. Period. Oh, and between the various Formation products, the handshake is rock-solid, at least in my experience.
So, what does the Sony display have to do with anything? Well, the newest Sony displays have the latest Bluetooth tech, as well as finer controls over that type of connection. I was actually able to connect the Formation Duo to the Sony X950G via Bluetooth, and fix the minor sync issues within the Sony in order to have the Duos serve as the Sony’s default speakers upon power up. This meant I had a wireless 2.0 (I could’ve added a Formation Sub for 2.1) home theater setup that consisted of four cables: three power cables and one Ethernet cable. It was the simplest home theater setup I’ve assembled to date, and spoiler alert: it didn’t suck. Sadly, when the Sony left, so did this unmatched audio capability, since the Vizio P-Series Quantum required the use of the Formation Audio, which ended up not being much of a bother, since it meant I could connect my U-Turn Orbit Plus turntable to the system as well, so that I could enjoy my record collection while going sans wires.
Before I get into streaming music, which is what I consider to be the Formation Duo’s bread and butter, let’s start with some good ol’ analog fare. Using the Formation Audio, which allowed me to connect both of my turntables (not at the same time) to the Formation Duo, I dropped the needle on a new-to-me LP, Ænima by Tool (Zoo Entertainment). Via my Audio-Technica AT-LP60XBT turntable, which has a built-in phono stage, the sound via the Formation Duo was nuanced, textural, and focused. The AT table has a tendency to be incredibly articulate, but lacking in weight, so I swapped it out for my reference table, U-Turn Audio’s Orbit Plus, which took what I considered to be an already good performance via the AT and made it great.
The first thing that jumped out at me was the Formation Duo’s bass prowess. The system suffers from none of the bloated, tubby bass a lot of stand-mounted monitors have to try and fool listeners into thinking there’s more bass than there really is. No, the Formation Duo’s bass was taut, subwoofer-esque, with real, palpable speed and dynamic impact. It was rather shocking to experience just how good the Formation Duo’s bottom-end was, for it bested every other speaker I have in-house, including the fantastic JBL L100 Classics! Both the JBL L100 and the Formation Duo cost the same (before accessories) and both have a rich brand lineage behind them, but damn if the Formation Duo didn’t just outright run away with the W on this listening test, as it slayed across the entire frequency spectrum when listening to Tool on vinyl.
Another thing that struck me with respect to the Formation Duo’s performance was its focus. This speaker, unlike previous Bowers & Wilkins loudspeakers I’ve known and loved, is an absolute scalpel but not in an etched or analytical way; It simply possesses more natural focus and delineation throughout than most any other loudspeaker--powered or not--that I’ve heard to date. In many ways, the Formation Duo’s sound is similar to that of a high-efficiency loudspeaker, in that sound comes off as being more effortless and immediate compared to more traditional speakers. But, unlike a lot of high-efficiency designs, the Formation Duo doesn’t become harsh at the extremes, instead maintaining a sense of composure throughout, regardless of the SPL you’re trying to achieve. The soundstage is another area where the Formation Duo shines, as its natural dispersion is class-leading. Truthfully, for me, the Formation Duo redefines what is possible in terms of soundstage width and the focus found within, though I’ve admittedly heard deeper.
Satisfied that if I were to adopt a wireless platform in the Formation Duo, I wouldn’t have to abandon my beloved records, I switched gears to streaming music, and… holy shit, y’all. Tidal is my streaming music service of choice, and I pay for their top-tier service in order to have access to as many Master recordings as possible. Tidal’s Master recordings max out the Formation Duo’s streaming capabilities (96kHz/24bit) and man, what a demonstrable difference high-res digital makes. As pleased as I was with the Formation Duo’s “analog” performance, you could’ve knocked me over with a fart by how much better the system sounded when listening to high-res music.
Beginning with “I Feel It Coming” by The Weeknd and Daft Punk, the Formation Duo proved to be an absolute 10 in my book. No two ways about it. It was so transformative that it grabbed my fiancé’s attention from clear across the house. “What did you do?” she exclaimed. She didn’t wait for my response, before immediately offering this endorsement: “These are the best so far!” I cannot say I disagree, because even without the benefit of a sub, the beats put forth by Daft Punk, which are typically cabinet wreckers, were rendered so brilliantly that nary a naughty resonance could be heard. It was the tautest bass I’ve ever heard from a sealed cabinet loudspeaker, and it was oh so satisfying.
The scale to the Formation Duo’s performance was also rather shocking, as the system presented me with a stage that was more than boundary defying. Moreover, the speakers themselves were completely invisible to my mind’s eye, even when staring right at them. While the performance was epic, it was not just a wall of sound, but rather a well-defined tapestry that was articulate and nuanced side-to-side and front-to-back.
High frequencies were crystalline, smooth, and airy and remained in check regardless of how hard I drove the speakers. The delicacy to the Formation Duo’s high frequency performance reminded me of Bowers & Wilkins’ 800 Series products, only the Duo lacks the 800 Series’ diamond tweeter. Frankly, though, this tweeter (borrowed from the 700 Series), may just be better than the far costlier and more revered diamond tweeters. The bass/mid-range driver found within the Formation Duo, though, is a carry-over from the 800 Series.
Vocals, albeit autotuned ones, had true dimensionality and an in-room presence that few speakers at any price can match. The center focus was among the most solid I’ve experienced, but more than that, it was as if everything that was unfolding was happening with little to no effort. Forgive me, but it was as if the performers simply appeared in the room. No big fanfare, no warm up, no ritual; I hit play and one of the best musical experiences I’ve had in a long time simply occurred right in front of me.
Moving on, I cued up R.E.M.’s “Find the River,” which was available to me through Tidal in their Master quality. Michael Stipe may not be Adele with respect to having the most pleasing vocals, but they are unique and somewhat difficult to get to sound right. Via the Formation Duo, Stipe’s vocals came off as wholly natural and true to life, both in timbre as well as scale. It was like being seated at the console itself during the mixing session: Stipe was out front, with every nuance and inflection the microphone could pick up being presented back to me. It gave me chills. Towards the end, the natural crescendo in Stipe’s performance nearly brought me to tears, as I just sat and enjoyed anew a song I’ve listened to for most of my adult life.
I don’t know how else to say it really, but in all my years of reviewing loudspeakers I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been rendered speechless by what a loudspeaker has proven capable of. Wilson Audio’s MAXX, Tekton Design’s Pendragon, MartinLogan CLS IIz, Bang & Olufsen’s Beolab 90 and now the Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo: these are the loudspeakers that over the course of 20 years have stopped me dead in my tracks when hearing them for the first time.
And the goodness surrounding the Formation Duo’s performance doesn’t just stop at high-res streaming music; their sound is equally enjoyable with “lesser” recordings too. They can be as forgiving as they are revealing, for less-than-stellar recordings remain enjoyable and non-offensive, whilst still retaining all the hallmark traits I’ve outlined above. I even loved watching movies through the Formation Duo, what with their subterranean bass capabilities and wider-than-thou dispersion. At no point did their performance leave me wanting more. With the Sony X950G serving as display and source, the combination of it and the Formation Duo proved so simple yet effective that when I had to tear it down and send it all back, my fiancé protested. And protested a lot. If reviewing dozens of products a year wasn’t part of my job, the Formation Duo, hell the whole Formation platform, would most likely become my new personal reference for the long haul.
It is no secret that I am a fan of the Formation Duo. I think the speaker is simply incredible in every respect, and while I may not want to fault anything about the system, there is one or two areas where I think Bowers & Wilkins could’ve sewn up any and all criticism completely.
Let’s start with the lack of an analog input. If the Formation Duo had even a 3.5mm style analog input on each speaker I think even the staunchest naysayer would have to shut their mouths. But, the inclusion of even a lowly input such as that would’ve potentially rendered a device such as the Formation Audio less relevant. So I can understand why they did it, but damn, they were so close.
Another minor annoyance has to do with the startup/wake up time, which is a bit much, especially when using the Formation Audio. While I know this is totally a first world problem, the Formation Audio can take up to 30 or more seconds to wake up and start transmitting to the Formation Duo speakers.
Also, while the Formation ecosystem may not rely on your own home’s network to remain functioning, that doesn’t save it from the occasional drop out with respect to some connections--specifically Bluetooth. During my month-long audition of the Formation Duo and Formation Audio, when connected to the Sony display via Bluetooth I endured three drop outs. Sound would suddenly stop transmitting to the speakers, and revert back to the display. That’s three drop outs in the span of one month, give or take. This was easily remedied simply by re-selecting the Formation Duo speakers from the Sony’s Bluetooth devices menu, but nevertheless it did happen. When using the Formation Audio connected to the Vizio P-Series Quantum, I noted only one drop out for a total of four in one month.
Lastly, and this is an issue with the Formation Audio specifically, when using an optical connection, neither the app nor my display seemed able to adjust the volume of the speakers themselves. I don’t know if this is a glitch or my user error (I don’t think the error was with me), but alas the volume despite all my troubleshooting seemed fixed (for me) when using an optical connection. This issue is only related to the Formation Audio device and is not reflective of the Formation Duo’s performance.
Real quick note on the app itself: While setup and such proved easy enough that even a caveman could do it, the level of overall control the App provides with respect to adjustments/customization is rather poor. This is obviously a system aimed at the set-it-and-forget-it crowd, though, and thankfully the Formation Duo sounds great doing just that.
Competition and Comparisons
Let’s dispense with the obvious: The Formation Duo is a premium product through and through and one that looks and sounds the part. But, if you want to go cord cutting on a budget, there are other alternatives that offer much of the same features as the Formation Duo. For starters there is Google’s own Google Home Max speaker, which at $249 direct is noticeably cheaper than the Formation Duo--though admittedly you will need to purchase two Home Max speakers to get a stereo setup, so the total cost of ownership is closer to $500 plus stands and whatnot. Still, this is a smart speaker with its own proprietary ecosystem in Google Home Assistant and Chromecast, which is known for its robustness and reliability. It also can connect via Bluetooth and interface with most music Apps on the market. That, and it has an AUX jack for analog components.
Does it sound as good as the Formation Duo? No, not by a longshot, but it’s not half bad. More like maybe 75 percent as good.
Of course, Apple’s own HomePod is another option. Priced similarly to the Home Max, the HomePod sounds fantastic, but like the Formation Duo it lacks any and all connectivity not dictated by Apple. Still, a pair won’t set you back four grand, and, if you ask me, the HomePod is a stylish speaker indeed.
Other competitors have to include the likes of Kanto and their YU line of powered loudspeakers (reviewed here), which offer you a bevy of connection options including a built-in phono stage (which is nice). I love the YU6s and use them personally in my office setup, but Formation Duo killers they are not.
Klipsch’s The Sixes are another option, as are SVS’s new Wireless Prime Loudspeakers. Of course, you could always look to one of the OGs of modern wireless loudspeakers, Bang & Olufsen, and their WiSA enabled Beolab 50, 18, or 17 models. These are likely going to come the closest to the Formation Duo overall, but only the Beolab 17 is close in terms of price. The Beolab 18 and 50 are in a whole other league price-wise.
The real question, though, is how the Formation Duo stacks up against the reigning king of wireless distributed audio systems, Sonos. Or should I say, how does Sonos compare to the Formation Duo? In truth the Sonos Play: 5, which I consider to be Sonos’ best monitor loudspeaker competitor, is more in line with
the HomeMax or a HomePod than it is the Formation Duo. Granted, Sonos has built one hell of a community, customer base, and ecosystem in their own right, and it will be hard for anyone, even Bowers & Wilkins, to come close to the same percentage of market share. But, outside of the fact that both are marketed to a consumer down for some wireless tunes, I do not think the two products are comparable.
At a penny under $4,000 a pair plus $799.99 for the stands and nearly $700.00 for the adaptor, aka Formation Audio, a base two-channel Formation setup really does cost more in the neighborhood of $5,500 all-in. This is a lot of money. Or is it? When you take into consideration the fact that an amp of comparable performance will run you at least $1,000, a preamp with built-in DACs and streaming capability adds another $800 to $1,000 minimum, say $200 for all the cables (no audiophile snake-oil here), plus the cost of a passive pair of Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2 at $2,500 a pair, suddenly the Formation Duo doesn’t seem so expensive by comparison. When you consider the Formation Duo sounds more in line with Bowers & Wilkins’ higher end offerings in the 800 Series, specifically the 805 D3 at $6,000.00 a pair, the asking price now seems like a relative bargain--even with the stands and Formation Audio thrown in for good measure.
All of this is probably moot, though. I don’t believe in my heart of hearts that the Formation Duo is aimed at converting the non-converted. No, it’s aimed (likely) at a new breed of audiophile, one that market research and sales figures show, year after year, emerging. This person doesn’t want all the trappings of the old, but they do want the performance. And deliver the latter the Formation Duo does. It is among the finest powered loudspeakers I have ever heard, and I’m not going to mince words: I think it is one of the best loudspeakers Bowers & Wilkins has ever made. If given the choice between a new pair of Formation Duo speakers, or my old, beloved 800 Series Diamonds… can I see the Formation Duo in white again? I’m serious, nothing against the 800 Series Diamonds, but I’ve now sampled the sweet nectar of the future, and while the Formation Duo may not be absolutely perfect in every respect, it’s perfect enough for me.
• Visit the Bowers & Wilkins website for more product information.
• Bowers & Wilkins Formation Wedge Wireless Speaker Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Bowers & Wilkins Announces the Formation Suite, a New Wireless Ecosystem at HomeTheaterReview.com.