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We listen to the Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo wireless speakers

It was only a matter of time, but now with the Formation Duo Bowers & Wilkins has made a bona fide high-end wireless speaker system.

The Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo 
Bowers & Wilkins

I'm a sucker for style, so even before I heard the Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo I was ready for something special. Duo tops its all-new Formation line, which includes the single speaker Wedge ($899, £900), Bar (sound bar) ($1,199, £1,000), Bass (subwoofer, $999, £900) and for buyers seeking expanded connectivity options, the Audio ($699, £600) wireless hub. That last one lets you connect analog sources (turntable, tuner, etc.) to the Duo and integrate the speakers with a multiroom home system. The Formation Duo retails for $3,999/£3,499 a pair.

The Duo features a 1-inch (28mm) carbon tweeter sourced from the Bowers & Wilkins 700 Series speakers, and the 6.5-inch (165mm) Continuum woofer from the higher-end 800 Series speakers. The two Duo speakers connect to each other wirelessly, and Duo has two 125-watt amplifiers, so total amplifier power for each speaker is 250 watts. It's a midsize stand mount speaker, 15.5 inches (395mm) tall, and it weighs a substantial 23.4 pounds (10.6 kg).

Duo wireless features run to the usual suspects, Bluetooth 4.2, AptX HD, Wi-Fi, AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, and it's a Roon Ready design; Duo's connectivity is limited to Network via RJ-45 Ethernet or Wi-Fi. So while you won't find USB, optical or coaxial digital inputs, or any analog connectivity on the Duo speakers, you will on the Formation Audio. Then again, the Duo is most likely to be used exclusively as wireless speakers, and those owners have no need for the Audio. One concern: Audiophiles may find the Duo's maximum 96kHz/24-bit digital audio decoding abilities not high-resolution enough. Audiophiles who would prefer 192kHz or higher resolution are out of luck. Considering the Duo's high-end aspirations, that shortfall may be a deal breaker for some buyers.

Listening to Duo

The Duo didn't conform to my expectations of what a high-end Bowers & Wilkins speaker sounds like. That's not to imply it's not up to snuff, just that the Duo is slightly more gentle, and less about extracting the last iota of detail from the sound of music than the 700 or 800 Series speakers do.

I didn't notice at first, but when I looked closer, I saw that the Duo is a sealed, acoustic suspension design! Every other Bowers & Wilkins speaker in my memory had a bass port. Maybe that's one reason why the Duo sounds different, I don't know.

The Grateful Dead's live, all-acoustic Reckoning album from 1980 broke free of the speakers' locations in the CNET listening room to produce a near holographic soundstage. The vocals and guitars were full-bodied and sweet. It's easily one of the best sounding 'Dead albums, and the Duos made that abundantly clear. 

Seventeen-year-old phenom Billie Ellish's Don't Smile At Me album puts her raw talent on display as a composer and vocalist. The sound is typical for a contemporary recording; it can be harsh and bright on many speakers, but with the Duo I had no complaints. The sound was free of edge or glare; the Duos were easy to listen to for hours at a time.


The Duos

Bowers & Wilkins

To evaluate bass prowess I popped on the Isle of Dogs film soundtrack, it's loaded with big pounding bass drums and percussion instruments. The drums weight and power sounded best at moderately loud playback levels, when I pushed the volume a lot higher the Duos strained to keep up.

Music with lots of deep bass can be a "stress test" and sure, the Duos could play loud, but I preferred their sound at more relaxed volume settings. It's a small speaker after all, so adding the Formation Bass subwoofer would be a smart move for buyers craving maximum bass impact.

What about wired speakers?

If you're OK with wired speakers, I'd recommend considering a set of Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2 speakers paired with a Peachtree Nova 150 integrated amplifier (currently $1,499) instead of the Duos. The amp's far more generous and flexible connectivity suite might be one reason, and I have a strong hunch the 705 S2/Nova pairing would sound better than the Duos, and cost the same.

That said, the Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo might be just the ticket for buyers searching for high-end sound from untethered speakers.