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Review: Bowers & Wilkins Formation Bar, Bass and Flex – soundbar with surround

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Although the Formation multiroom system from Bowers & Wilkins has only been on the market for six months, it is already one of the better systems on the market. The British manufacturer scores particularly well in terms of sound quality and a stable network. Earlier we looked at the Bowers & Wilkins Formation Wedge a stand-alone speaker. In this review we go one step further and combine the Formation Bar, Bass and Flex into a full home cinema surround set-up.

What is Bowers & Wilkins Formation?

The Formation line-up of Bowers & Wilkins is a line-up consisting of wireless and active speakers that together form a multi-room system. You can link the speakers together in different rooms and stream music from streaming services to all or individual speakers. Formation has been developed in-house and must enable wireless streaming in high quality and without limitations in its own ecosystem; a platform to which products can be connected and can communicate with each other. Formation works with six different radios, each with their own frequencies for stable and fast connections. Synchronization is an important component for multiroom; Bowers & Wilkins has ensured that this is almost perfect with a delay of 1-2 microseconds. In addition, the technology allows 24-bit / 96 kHz hi-res audio streaming. You can read more about the wireless technology behind Formation in our background article .

The Formation line-up consists of the Formation Wedge (compact stereo speaker), the Formation Duo (a pair of stereo speakers), the Formation Bar ( soundbar), the Formation Bass (subwoofer), the Formation Audio (hub to which you can connect, for example, a record player or CD player to make it part of the Formation system) and the Formation Flex (compact speaker for smaller rooms or

In this review we look at the Formation Bar soundbar, Bass subwoofer and Flex surround speakers. These products are for sale for 1,249 euros, 1,099 euros and 449 euros (ps) respectively.

Premium design but few connections

The first thing that strikes the Formation Bar and Flex is that they have the same as the previously tested Wedge. over a honeycomb structure with a fabric grille over it. As far as we are concerned, it gives the products a premium appearance, certainly combined with the gold / copper colored elements. The subwoofer also comes with these gold / copper-colored elements and a fabric finish, but has a somewhat distinctive cylindrical shape with an invisible flat base that allows the speaker to be placed stably on the floor. As a result, the speaker is not immediately reminiscent of a subwoofer, which is often a log and square collapse. This model may be in sight and will not fall out of tune in a modern interior. This also applies to all three products. They are neatly finished and use high-quality materials.

Of the three speakers we test, the Formation Flex is the smallest. This model is 215mm long, 130mm wide and 130mm deep. So you can place this speaker almost anywhere, and even hang it on the wall with an optional bracket. The speaker stands on a rubber base, which contains connections for power and a network cable. Unfortunately, a USB port for local music is not present.

The Bar is obviously wider, with a width of 1240 mm. That makes the soundbar ideal for screens with a size of 55-inch and larger. You can place the soundbar under the TV or hang it up with the included wall bracket. The subwoofer is relatively compact with a length of 234 mm, a width of 440 mm and a depth of 240 mm, but we immediately notice that the weight of 12.1 kilograms means that we are not dealing with a step-in.

In terms of operation the Flex speakers have glowing touch buttons on the top, while the Formation Bar has four subtle buttons on the top. The subwoofer only comes with a Formation button on the front. The Bar, Flex and Bass come with an Ethernet port, and the Bar adds an optical input for audio from the television.

No HDMI

You will probably notice it; the Formation Bar only comes with an optical input and therefore no HDMI port. Although this is not a major disadvantage for audio playback (maximum 5.1), an HDMI port is still our preference. After all, with HDMI ARC you can directly send the audio from the TV to the soundbar and control the volume with the remote control of your TV, without having to connect a remote control.

Easy installation

Not only design and audio quality play an important role with Formation products. Ease of use is also at the top of the list and then we notice immediately. You switch on the speakers, download the Bowers & Wilkins Home app and you search for speakers directly. Positive; you don't have to create an account and you can get started right away. Once the speaker is found, connect it by pressing the Formation button and then it's a matter of entering the password for your WiFi network (or connecting with ethernet), adding the speaker to a room (or creating a room) and have the latest firmware update downloaded and installed. It is a user-friendly process that you can walk through within a few minutes.

The above applies to an individual speaker, but if you go for a complete surround setup like us, there are some points for attention. For example, you must ensure that there are sufficient sockets. Every speaker needs power, including the two Flex speakers in the back of the room. Also make sure that you place the speakers that are to be the surround setup in the same room in the app. In addition, during the installation of the two Flex speakers you have the choice to use them in a stereo or surround setup. If you already have the soundbar, choose the surround option here. After this, things aren't going well in the app, because you then get instructions on how to set up the Flex in a stereo setup. It is shown how to place the left and right speakers, but that is a bit confusing since they are behind the listening position. This makes it unclear which speaker should be behind you on the left and right, but you can still adjust this later in the app settings.

When you have installed the soundbar you can choose to activate 'remote control learning' , with which you use the remote control of your TV to control the volume of the soundbar. This works great, but please note that this only works with infrared remotes. If it doesn't work, use the app or the physical buttons on the soundbar. Fortunately, the subwoofer is literally plug and play. Add the subwoofer to the same room as the soundbar and both products will be directly linked.

Bowers & Wilkins Home app

The Bowers & Wilkins Home app is the app that lets you use the products of Install Formation, where you create spaces, where you group speakers or spaces and where you operate active music. It is not the app where you search and start music and therefore not directly the app that you will often use. You can play music directly from your Apple device via AirPlay 2 on the speakers, you can control the speakers directly from the Spotify app, and you still have Bluetooth behind the hand. Hi-res services such as Qobuz and Tidal will be added in the future through an update, but must now be played via AirPlay 2, Bluetooth or Roon. For the Formation Bar, the optical input is still an additional input.

The advice of Bowers & Wilkins is to choose Roon to operate the speakers. Through Roon you have access to almost all streaming services, you can search and play music from your own network, you can achieve the highest audio quality (direct integration of Tidal and Qobuz, among others), create rooms and music in different (or the same) rooms with Formation play speakers. Roon, however, is software that needs to be paid for ($ 500 for a lifelong subscription, or $ 120 a year), so probably a lot more interesting if you also purchase a complete Formation system. Then the $ 500 is a little less heavy and you get the most out of your music, both in terms of sources and quality.

The Home app is a fairly austere and simple app, although not necessarily a disadvantage because it keeps the app manageable. Yet we would have liked the Home app to be the focal point for your sources (also locally) such as Sonos. That you actually call, play and control everything directly from that one app. That you now need an external (paid) app for this is a downside. In terms of multiroom, however, it works perfectly. Playing music on multiple speakers is possible with the physical Formation button on the speakers themselves (after which a speaker takes over the audio from the active speakers) or via the app.

Settings

The Bowers & Wilkins Home app itself does not contain very many setting options. For example, the Formation Bar only offers adjustments for the treble and bass. The soundbar also has settings to change the name of the TV input, link the TV remote control and extend the infrared signal when the soundbar is in front of the TV's infrared receiver. An option that we still miss is the delay adjustment for when audio and video are not synchronized. Yes, you will also find this option on most TVs, but sometimes the delay is such that that option does not offer sufficient leeway. If the soundbar also offers this option, it is more likely that you will get audio and video in sync. In the end we got the audio and the image in sync with adjustments on the TV, but on a second TV we didn't get it perfectly in sync. We can only adjust the gain for the subwoofer. There is no cross-over function, something that we would like to see as the subwoofer comes along, for example with someone with a somewhat lower voice. Finally, we can adjust the treble and bass of the Flex speakers, and we can also flip the two speakers here. If you tap one of the two speakers, you can have a sound played, so that you immediately know whether they are positioned correctly.

Looking at the surround setup, we are missing something important. After all, it is not possible to temporarily switch off or divide a part of that setup. The Flex speakers at the rear always play along, regardless of whether you listen to music or watch a movie. We miss a simple option with which the two speakers (or the subwoofer) can be switched off for a moment. And it would be great to use the Flex speakers temporarily as a stereo pair, without having to reinstall them as a stereo pair. For now, therefore, it is one complete surround system that should only be used as such.

Calibration

For our surround setup, there are two important additional options in the app. The first is “channel delays” and this option gives you the option to determine the correct distances between the speakers and the listening position. For this you need a measuring tape because you literally have to measure the distance between each speaker and the place where you are sitting. You enter these distances in the app and then the software does the rest. The second option is ‘channel levels’ that allow you to adjust the volume of each speaker for a balanced reproduction. For this you need a decibel meter or an app that can measure the volume. Measure the volume of each individual speaker from the listening position and adjust the volume in the app. Both options are of course handy and good – we definitely recommend using them – but we would also like to see a Trueplay-like function that automatically adjusts the audio reproduction to the acoustics of the room. After all, a novice user will not like to go into these advanced settings and wants it to work optimally quickly.

Sound quality

Before we assess the sound quality, first some specs. The Formation Bar has three 25mm double dome tweeters and six 65mm midrange drivers. The subwoofer comes with two 165mm drivers (20Hz to 150Hz) and the Flex is equipped with a 25mm disconnected double dome tweeter and a 100mm midrange driver. We test the speakers independently and as a complete surround set.

Formation Bar and Bass

The Formation Bar is basically a soundbar as we know it; an elongated speaker for the TV with which you mainly improve the audio reproduction of the TV audio. The average soundbar that we are testing is therefore not a high-quality speaker and usually not optimized for a premium music reproduction. Fortunately, the Formation Bar is the exception to that rule. This soundbar is certainly not only an improvement for the audio from your TV. It is a complete soundbar with which both film and music are lifted to a higher level. The audio reproduction is fairly neutral, but that is something that Bowers & Wilkins also strives for and certainly not a bad feature. For both music and film, the Bar offers an extremely balanced audio reproduction, without much coloring and with the focus on the most natural reproduction possible.

Of course it remains a soundbar and the Formation Bar therefore has the limitations of its characteristic housing, but music is nevertheless placed fairly wide and open, so that the sound image is drawn a little wider than the TV. The reproduction is lively, with subtle details, warm vocals and clear highs. Even the bass sounds come out – without a subwoofer – impressively sleek and convincing. The placement in the room is also dynamic and detailed, and above all much more open and transparent than the sound from the TV (LG oled with built-in soundbar). Instruments occupy their specific place in the room, making it a lively combination of instruments and vocals. There is even some depth in the sound, with the vocals moving towards the listening position. The balance can be heard everywhere; nothing is snowed under or over emphasized. Even when we turn up the volume further, the soundbar keeps its head cool and there is no distortion or shift in focus. It remains a balanced and clean picture. The Formation Bar makes listening to music via a soundbar, unlike various other sound bars, comfortable and therefore positions itself as a great solution for some music in between or in the background. The discerning listener will, however, still prefer a premium set of stereo speakers for music.

If we add the Formation Bass to the set-up, there will immediately be more punch in the lower regions and of course the subwoofer also go a lot deeper. If you have a small space, this speaker is not really necessary – and maybe it is even too present – but for a medium to large room, the Bass immediately proves its added value. The bass is tighter, with more power behind it so that you not only hear it but feel it. The interplay with the soundbar is almost perfect because you do not even hear that the subwoofer is there. Until you turn it off; then you still miss that finesse and extra power in the bass.

If we switch to film, then that subwoofer must certainly be there, we can no longer do without it. We took the Transformers film series once again and the subwoofer made sure that the action could be felt right down to the lower abdomen. No continuous rumbling low tones, but tight and powerful explosions of sound that add extra dynamism to a film. As a result, the soundbar itself seems to have more room for the midtones and highs, which makes the whole feel a bit quieter. Dialogues are clear and come out well, while the soundtrack is presented broadly and dynamically. Here and there we lack that bit of power in the soundtrack. It seems as if the preference is for effects and dialogues, as a result of which the music is moved a little further back and thus removes some of the dynamics. In addition, it should be said that the subwoofer sometimes wants to play too fast, something that we hear especially in talk shows as soon as someone speaks with a somewhat lower voice. This sometimes makes the subwoofer hum some annoying. Hopefully this can be adjusted in the future through a cross-over function, or you can turn the gain back a little.

Surround (Bar, Bass and Flex)

Finally, we add the two Flex speakers to the setup for the true surround experience, and that is immediately noticeable. At first a bit too intense so we had to adjust the volume of these speakers a bit down. It takes a while to play, but once that balance is found, the two Flex speakers provide a sleek and convincing surround experience. Surround effects do not require an advanced, expensive speaker, but the Flex speakers show that they can do more than most simple surround speakers. Also in the back of the room a lively display with a large range is realized, whereby effects move smoothly from left to right, and from front to back. The speakers play seamlessly with the soundbar, ensure convincing depth in the reproduction and reproduce effects with subtle details. Make sure you place the surround speakers (approximately) at ear height or hang for the most optimal reproduction. Finally, we throw the volume far open and we notice that this actually only produces positive results. None of the speakers are out of tune, the interplay remains seamless and the complete set draws you even further in the film. The surround playback therefore appeals to us absolutely, although it still holds that we sometimes find the soundtrack a bit too far back. Incidentally, the surround speakers also play along with music, and that is something that we would like to turn off with a simple slider. It is a matter of taste, but we like to keep the music stereo.

Formation Flex (stereo)

We have also set the Formation Flex speakers as a stereo pair and fired our favorite music onto this . What immediately strikes me is that these compact speakers sound impressive despite their size. As surround speakers we had nothing to complain about, but it must be said that they are also very nice to listen to as a stereo card. Think especially of the kitchen, the bedroom or another somewhat smaller space. The Flex is a full speaker with sufficient range and volume to put music open, wide and with sufficient detail. Vocals are warm and sparkling, the placement in the room is tight, there is still quite a bit low in it and there is always a neat balance. Even with a bit more volume, the playback remains controlled and pleasant to listen to.

Pricey with a focus on performance

The 5.1-channel arrangement with the Formation Bar, Bass and Flex comes with a price from over 3,000 euros not to be called cheap and honesty area to say that you can purchase a nice surround system for less money. For about 2,000 euros you have for example the same system from Sonos, one of the most important competitors. The Formation system from Bowers & Wilkins, however, excels in terms of sound quality, premium design and also an advanced mesh network in which the speakers play seamlessly together. Design is a matter of taste, and of course the Sonos system also works great. In addition, it must be said that Sonos is doing better in terms of software. However, audio reproduction is the part on which Bowers & Wilkins mainly focuses and with which consumers must be persuaded. You have to dig deeper for it, but in our view, the Formation setup performs at a higher level, both with music and with film.

Conclusion

Bowers & Wilkins has the Formation Bar, Bass and Flex a stylish, premium solution for those who want a surround experience without hassle and without cables. The film experience is lifted to a higher level, with powerful, deep lows and a seamless surround playback, while the music playback makes many other soundbar pale. You can't compare it to a stereo set-up, but the soundbar definitely lets you enjoy your favorite music. Both the Bar and the Flex provide a neutral, open view with a good balance. Even as a stereo pair, the Flex offers a great solution to fill smaller spaces with a lively and rich sound. Nevertheless, there are still some areas for improvement. In terms of hardware, the Formation speakers offer everything you need, although we prefer HDMI ARC instead of optically, but the improvement points are mainly in the software. For example, setting the Flex speakers as surround speakers is a bit confusing, we would like to see an option for image and audio synchronization, we miss a cross-far function for the subwoofer and expect an option that makes specific speakers in a room temporarily switched off or used as a stereo pair. Finally, we would like to see the Home app in the future as the central place for all your sources and to operate the multi-room system, so that Roon is an extra option for true enthusiasts. According to Bowers & Wilkins, we are working hard on most points and we can expect rapid updates to expand the possibilities and solve problems.

All in all, we are positive about the Bowers & Wilkins Formation Bar, Bass and Flex. If you are looking for a 'wireless', flexible and expandable surround system that can be connected to speakers throughout the house and is located in the upper regions of this market segment in terms of performance, then the Formation system is definitely worth considering. [19659046] Cons

  • Not cheap (certainly not as a complete surround system)
  • No HDMI (ARC)
  • No possibility to temporarily exclude speakers
  • Roon required for playing local music and central hub

Advantages

  • Premium design with neat finish
  • Very good audio performance
  • Bar offers enough low even without Bass
  • Impressive surround experience
  • Flex can also be used as a stereo pair
  • Easy to use

Homecinema Magazine
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9.0 10 Martijn Chel product

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