The Making Of: Bowers & Wilkins Speakers
Founded in 1966 by John Bowers, Bowers & Wilkins is a loudspeaker company headquartered in the United Kingdom. John Bowers dreamt of developing speakers that would make him believe he was there, live in the studio or concert hall with the musicians, when he listened to them. And to this day, Mr. Bowers vision is what drives everything the company does.
When it comes to what defines a Bowers & Wilkins speaker, the answer is simply that there are no compromises (within price point) in any speaker category. There are three key components B&W tries to accomplish with every product they design, “Sonic accuracy, reliability, and style,” said Scott Rundle, Director of Marketing for Bowers & Wilkins. What it really comes down to is creating the best possible sound, “Everything we do is for the improvement of acoustic performance.” he said.
Around twenty years ago, a man named Lawrence Dickey came up with the design for what is now known as the Nautilus, the flagship B&W speaker. Drawing inspiration from a garden snail’s shell, three years of painstaking research, and several designs later, the Nautilus was a reality. The unique design and state of the art internal components means even after all these years of being unchanged, it still sells very well against speakers in the $100,000+ range (the Nautilus is $60,000 per pair).
“Unlike most companies we don’t produce new product lines every couple of years just to freshen the product up. There has to be a reason for updating a series of speakers, and it usually stems from new discoveries in materials or manufacturing processes, etc.” said Mr. Rundle.
The company is best known for their premiere speakers, such as the Nautilus and 800 Series Diamond. However, B&W has also recently entered into other consumer markets such as headphones and computer speakers, but even those products which cost significantly less than their other products receive the utmost attention to the detail. “We start with a clean slate on each new project. We try not to assume anything, especially when looking at a new category for us such as headphones. Bowers & Wilkins wants to be the best product in each category that we enter, therefore it behooves us to open our minds to new concepts and materials.” Mr. Rundle told me.
I own a pair of B&W P5 headphones and can honestly say they are the best headphones I’ve ever used. And it’s abundantly clear that B&W was just as serious about creating a $300 pair of headphones as it was when designing a $60,000 pair of speakers. The ear pads for the P5 headphones are made with New Zealand sheep leather so using them for longer periods of time is be more enjoyable. How did they even think of that?
“The design team did test many different materials before settling on the New Zealand leather for its quality and softness. Even the number and placement of the holes in the ear pads went through many evaluations before they settled on the final design.” said Mr. Rundle.
The B&W 800 Series Diamond speaker features diamond tweeters in every speaker. According to Dr. Gary Geaves, Director of Research at Bowers & Wilkins, “By using diamonds, we were able to create a tweeter that breaks up at 70kHz, compared with a value of 30kHz with the standard aluminum domes, what this means is that when you compare the response with the diamond tweeter with the perfect hypothetical rigid tweeter, the responses are very similar below 20kHz, so we think there is a dramatic improvement in performance.” This makes the speaker sound more effortless, more detailed, and provides a much more realistic soundstage.
Bowers & Wilkins pays just as much attention to 800 Diamond Series cabinet as it does with its hand picked internal components. The cabinet is designed by meticulous craftsmen who match real wood veneer by hand, mold the teardrop form of the midrange head enclosure, spray the cabinet with seven coats of lacquer, and then polish it by hand.
But it doesn’t stop there, the attention to detail extends to the manufacturing of the speakers as well. Every part of the speaker is tested prior to being put into the speaker and then every completed speaker is tested rigorously before leaving the factory. In fact, speakers are tested throughout the day in 30 minute intervals because physical conditions such as the humidity and temperature can change. By doing regular testing, B&W can ensure that when the customer receives the speaker, it will sound just as it’s intended to.
This attention to detail and obsession to provide the best sounding speakers possible has led to the success of Bowers & Wilkins. Their speakers are used by recording engineers, film makers, and audiophiles around the world. One recording engineer, Peter Cobbin, who works at the famous Abbey Road Studios said that, “The Bowers & Wilkins 801 speaker, is the only speaker that I have found that enables me to accurately listen to how the original recording has been recorded.”
I think John Bowers would be proud to see how the company is staying true to his vision.
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