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Wireless & Bluetooth Speakers

Bowers & Wilkins channels Sonos with high-end Formation wireless system

The storied speaker-maker's new lineup works with Apple's AirPlay 2 wireless standard and starts at $900. Can it compete?

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Deep-pocketed audiophiles, rejoice. Bowers & Wilkins claims its new high-end Formation wireless system is the "new standard in whole-home audio." 

Similar to Sonos, the market leader in wireless speakers and gear, it promises to unite speakers throughout the home with the help of a proprietary mesh network. But true to its luxury hi-fi heritage, B&W aims higher -- a lot higher. Sonos starts at a reasonable $200 for the superb Sonos One, while the cheapest Formation speaker is $900.

B&W uses its new Formation app for multiroom streaming but it's also compatible with Apple's AirPlay 2 and audiophile-favorite Roon. The speakers boast unique designs unlike anything else on the market.

Launched at a recent event in New York and available now, Formation consists of five different products. 

Formation Duo ($3,999, £3,499): The flagship of the range, the Duo (pictured top) is a pair of stereo speakers that incorporate technologies from the company's 700 series, including a Continuum cone driver and a top-mounted carbon-domed tweeter. The curvaceous cabinet is constructed from a wireless-radio-friendly material similar to that used in the PM1 monitor, the company said.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Formation Bar ($1,199, £999): This is a sound bar with nine "optimized" drive units, including 2.5-inch drivers and a dedicated center channel. It offers a digital optical input, though no HDMI, and Dolby Digital decoding only. Despite its similarities to the Panorama, the company said the two designs are different.  

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Formation Bass ($999, £899): It looks like a D-cell battery, but it's really a subwoofer with opposing 6-inch drivers. It's designed to pair with any of the other Formation products, but it would seemingly work best with the subwoofer-less Bar.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Formation Wedge ($899, £899): The Wedge looks like a multifaceted egg and features a "120-degree elliptical speaker shape" and a cabinet made in the UK. It includes two Continuum drivers borrowed from the new 600 series. Think a high-end Sonos Play:5

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Formation Audio ($699, £599): If you want to connect audio components to your system, or make your existing hi-fi stream-friendly, you'll need this Sonos Connect-like box with analog in/out and digital in. Aside from the Bar, none of the other Formation speakers have physical inputs.

Bowers & Wilkins CEO Gregory Lee told CNET that voice control from Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant was in the pipeline, but was unable to confirm if the speaker would support Chromecast built-in or not. 

B&W released a spate of multimedia products 10 years ago, which included the MM-1 desktop speakers and the iconic Zeppelin, but the company has concentrated on passive loudspeakers in recent years. Then came Apple's AirPlay 2 event in 2017 when high-end B&W was surprisingly mentioned as a launch partner alongside more mainstream brands like Bose, Polk and Denon. It's taken nearly two years for B&W's first AirPlay 2 product to go on sale.

The mesh network built into the Formation line was created by EVA Automation, the company that bought B&W in 2016. The company says its Perfected Speaker Synchronization system has the lowest latency of any rival, at less than 1 millisecond. It says this contributes to better sound quality, especially in terms of stereo imaging. My tests have found that wireless latency in a stereo system can lead to a phasing effect between speakers as the audio loses sync.

Gideon Yu, co-chairman of Bowers & Wilkins said at the event, "There is so much more to come." Representatives also hinted at rear speakers to accompany the Bar. The company did rule out Atmos capability, which needs HDMI (the Bar only has optical digital in). 

Creating a new wireless multiroom standard seemingly out of thin air can be fraught with peril. In the face of competition from Sonos and Google, systems such as Qualcomm's AllPlay and LG's Music Flow have fallen by the wayside. Formation is less of a "Sonos-killer" though, as its appeal to the high-end makes it more of a Bluesound or Naim mu-so competitor. 

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