In the dim, distant, sepia-tinted days of 2006, there were iPods. There was iTunes. And there was the B&W Zeppelin, the coolest, sexiest, best-sounding and priciest iPod dock around.
Back in 2006, £500 was a huge amount of money to pay for an iPod dock - but B&W sold Zeppelins as quickly as it could build them.
By 2011 or so, Zeppelin became Zeppelin Air - which in turn became one of the best wireless speakers on the market. And since then, the wireless speaker market has expanded in all directions at once - yet B&W (or Bowers & Wilkins, as it now prefers) gave up its position at the head of the pack.
Well, now it’s back - with what looks like a concerted effort to regain its preeminence. Bowers & WIlkins’ new ‘Formation’ range of wireless speakers, soundbars and subwoofers, looks (on paper, at least) just the thing to put it back on the top table. And it’s the Formation Wedge speaker that seems to be the product that’s going to lead the charge.
Design and build: U Got The Look
Umm. This is a tricky one. I mean, I’m not going to pretend I’m any kind of authority on interior decor, or what’s fashionable in the world of colours and fabrics. So just because I don’t like the design of the Formation Wedge, that doesn’t mean you won’t.
The B&W describes an angle of 120 degrees across its rear panel, which makes it look - to me, at least - like one of those 3D Christmas tree foldy paper decorations that’s been partially opened.
The ribbed pattern of the speaker grille that’s visible through the fabric covering it only adds to that impression. But there are compelling reasons why the Formation Wedge is so, well, wedge-shaped. Mostly it’s because it allows the speakers - there are five drivers in all - to not only be helpfully spaced, but also to have them fire at angles rather than dead-ahead like the majority of wireless speakers do.
This arrangement is intended to offer as wide and focused a soundstage as is possible from a single enclosure. And while the design is probably, erm, divisive, there’s absolutely no arguing with the build quality on show here. That elliptical rear panel is of a single piece, and it looks even more impressive in the wood finish of a black Wedge (my review sample has the white rear panel and silver/grey grille fabric, which only adds to my design-based consternation).
It looks natural, and effortless - a sure sign it’s monstrously difficult and expensive to achieve.
Features: Less is (sometimes) more
Bowers & Wilkins has taken it back to the bone here. There’s no messing about with auxiliary inputs - this is a wireless speaker for wireless sources.
In terms of sockets, there are but three: one for a figure-of-eight mains lead, one USB-C for servicing, and an Ethernet input for those who value absolute signal stability over a completely wireless existence. That’s your lot.
You can get audio into the Wedge in a number of different ways. There’s Bluetooth, of course - and here it’s of the optimal aptX HD variety. Or there’s Spotify Connect. Apple AirPlay 2 is an option as well and, because the Wedge is Roon ready, networked audio files are available too.
Once on board the Wedge, digital files are dealt with by a 24bit/96kHz DAC and then have 240 watts of Class D power put up them.
The Bowers & Wilkins’ five-driver array consists of a pair of 25mm double dome aluminium tweeters (decoupled from the main Wedge chassis and lifted from the not-inexpensive B&W 600 series) that receive 40 watts each, two 90mm FST midrange drivers enjoying the same amount of power, and a centrally positioned 150mm woofer that’s driven by 80 watts. (This test is of a single device of course - but it’s worth mentioning the lengths B&W has gone to in order to make its Formation range as enticing a multiroom proposition as possible.
Once set up, Formation products sit on their own discrete mesh network, rather than on your wider wi-fi network. This, along with the frankly startling number of wi-fi radio antennae on board products like Wedge, mean B&W is able to claim a synchronisation time between Formation devices of under one microsecond - so music can follow you around your home absolutely seamlessly.)
Interface: Touching from a distance
Just like connectivity, interaction with the Wedge is a minimal affair. There’s a brief control app, which is useful for initial set-up and for trimming bass and treble EQs; there’s a panel on the top of the unit - it wakes via proximity sensor, and features ‘play/pause’ and ‘volume up/down’ touch-sensitive controls.
Other than that, you’ll use the interface of the service on your phone, or tablet, or laptop you’re using to stream music to the B&W.
Performance: Deep and wide and tall
If you were hoping the sound of the Wedge might match its looks - slightly oddball, a little bit wilful - then you’re out of luck. The sound the Bowers & Wilkins makes is purposeful, rigorous and businesslike in a way that’s completely at odds with its appearance.
The Wedge is unconcerned about the source or, to a lesser extent, the quality of the digital audio you push into it. At various times during this test I played a Tidal Masters (or MQA) file of Talk Talk’s Life’s What You Make It via Bluetooth, listened to Lewis Capaldi’s Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent via Spotify Connect, and enjoyed Bjork’s mildly bonkers It’s Not Up to You as a 24bit/48kHz file streamed from the local network - and in every circumstance the B&W remained controlled, authoritative and engaging.
For such a relatively compact speaker, it offers a remarkably wide spread of sound - the care taken with the positioning of the drivers has paid off handsomely. There’s still a point-source, of course - an impression of where the sound originates - but it’s distributed so skilfully (and so forcefully) you could easily rely on Wedge to fill even a biggish room with sound.
Just a little fiddling with the in-app EQs results in a sound that’s substantial and confident at the bottom of the frequency range, open and detailed through the midrange, and tidily attacking at the top end.
Integration between each driver, and consequently throughout the frequency range, is smooth and sounds natural. Nothing is overlooked, nothing is given undue prominence. The Wedge handles rhythms and tempos with real confidence - it has the ability to generate momentum without forcing things, and it is as happily laid-back, or sweatily urgent, as the music demands.
Timing is good, inasmuch as there’s unity to a performance and an idea of the interaction between musicians that not too many wireless speakers (at any price) are capable of.
There’s reasonable energy to the sound too, even if the Wedge isn’t the last word in excitement - it’s a little too judicious and grown-up to let its hair all the way down. It’s during moments of real musical abandon that this little shortcoming, along with a slight shortage of outright dynamism, becomes apparent. But it’s hardly a fatal flaw, more of a character trait.
Bowers & Wilkins Formation Wedge Verdict
Nothing’s perfect, and that goes for the Formation Wedge just as much as any other product - I think it looks a bit weird, and it might seem expensive at first acquaintance.
However, it’s a brilliantly accomplished illustration of just what a wireless speaker can be capable of.