Bowers & Wilkins and the limits of loudspeaker technology Avaunt takes a tour of Bowers & Wilkins’ factory and discovers half a century of innovation

When British loudspeaker company Bowers & Wilkins launched their new diamond dome tweeter – a speaker tasked specifically with high-frequency sounds – they took it to Abbey Road Studios to be auditioned. Made famous by The Beatles, who named one of their albums after the studio, Abbey Road would be one of the greatest tests for B&W’s new technology. When they played a sample track through the new speakers, however, the studio’s engineers found there was a strange rhythmic tapping that had never been heard before.

Bowers & Wilkins took the speakers back and tested them rigorously, but could find nothing wrong; they would play other tracks perfectly. At a loss as to what the sound could be, they decided to research the recording and discovered that the sound came from the pianist’s cufflinks, clinking against the keys. It had always been there, but no loudspeaker had ever been able to pick it up before.

Created by superheating and pressurising gasses, the diamond dome is formed by depositing a carbon frost over a silicon wafer and is the product of three-and-a-half years of research. It’s indicative of Bowers & Wilkins’ approach that although they already had one of the most highly regarded aluminium tweeters, praised by professional studio engineers and audiophiles alike, they continued to innovate, to push the limits of technology in the search for ever-more accurate sound.

This drive has been at the heart of Bowers & Wilkins since it was founded in 1966 in the back of a Worthing-based electronics shop run by John Bowers and Roy Wilkins. The pair met in the Royal Corps of Signals during the war and, alongside renting out television sets and radios, Bowers turned his hand to designing and selling his own loudspeakers. Though over the subsequent decades the company would move to progressively larger premises – most recently refitting their current factory to run 24 hours a day in order to keep up with demand – it is still based in Worthing. Yet it is from this unassuming suburban town, 10 miles along the coast from Brighton, that Bowers & Wilkins developed into a global operation, respected and sought-after around the world.

Bowers & Wilkins’ anechoic chamber
B&W’s anechoic chamber where they test every drive unit across all frequencies.

The science behind a speaker is relatively simple. An amplifier sends a fluctuating electronic current to an electromagnetic coil attached to a speaker cone, causing it to be attracted and repelled from a magnet fixed beneath the cone. As the cone moves in and out, it creates sound waves that then travel to our ears.

Perfecting this process, however, is no easy task. Everything – from the resonance of the speaker cabinet, to the way the air flows within the speaker and the materials used in its construction – has a profound effect on the speaker’s performance. As Senior Product Manager Andy Kerr says, “The principles are always the same: loudspeakers are loudspeakers. It’s what you make them out of and how you make them that defines how you continue to improve.”

A worker monitors Bowers & Wilkins’ robotic painting system
A worker monitors B&W’s robotic painting system. The cabinets are then dried and polished by hand.

Finessing the technology of the loudspeaker was Bowers’ aim from the start. With a keen interest in classical music, regularly going to concerts, Bowers was frustrated by the inability of existing technology to accurately reproduce the performances he attended. Setting to work in garages behind his shop, Bowers experimented by modifying other brands’ equipment, eventually coming to produce the P1: B&W’s first commercial speaker.

The success of the P1 enabled Bowers to purchase calibration equipment and expand the business. While the P1 and the models that followed quickly became popular with critics – establishing B&W at the forefront of hi-fi technology – its major innovation would come in 1974. The company pioneered the use of woven fibre cones and, after extensive research, discovered that Kevlar – which had, up until that point, been used mostly in bullet-proof vests – offered the perfect combination of acoustic properties to produce sound with greatly reduced distortion.

It was a discovery aided by, among other things, considerable investment in expensive scientific instruments, such as a laser interferometer, which allowed for a detailed analysis of the behaviour of different materials. The investment paid off; for decades to come, the iconic yellow Kevlar cones were ubiquitous in recording studios around the world.

“The principles are always the same: loudspeakers are loudspeakers. It’s what you make them out of and how you make them that defines how you continue to improve.”

The science behind a speaker is relatively simple. An amplifier sends a fluctuating electronic current to an electromagnetic coil attached to a speaker cone, causing it to be attracted and repelled from a magnet fixed beneath the cone. As the cone moves in and out, it creates sound waves that then travel to our ears.

Perfecting this process, however, is no easy task. Everything – from the resonance of the speaker cabinet, to the way the air flows within the speaker and the materials used in its construction – has a profound effect on the speaker’s performance. As Senior Product Manager Andy Kerr says, “The principles are always the same: loudspeakers are loudspeakers. It’s what you make them out of and how you make them that defines how you continue to improve.”

Finessing the technology of the loudspeaker was Bowers’ aim from the start. With a keen interest in classical music, regularly going to concerts, Bowers was frustrated by the inability of existing technology to accurately reproduce the performances he attended. Setting to work in garages behind his shop, Bowers experimented by modifying other brands’ equipment, eventually coming to produce the P1: B&W’s first commercial speaker.

The success of the P1 enabled Bowers to purchase calibration equipment and expand the business. While the P1 and the models that followed quickly became popular with critics – establishing B&W at the forefront of hi-fi technology – its major innovation would come in 1974. The company pioneered the use of woven fibre cones and, after extensive research, discovered that Kevlar – which had, up until that point, been used mostly in bullet-proof vests – offered the perfect combination of acoustic properties to produce sound with greatly reduced distortion.

It was a discovery aided by, among other things, considerable investment in expensive scientific instruments, such as a laser interferometer, which allowed for a detailed analysis of the behaviour of different materials. The investment paid off; for decades to come, the iconic yellow Kevlar cones were ubiquitous in recording studios around the world.

In 1981, Bowers established a separate research centre in nearby Steyning – quickly dubbed the University of Sound – to continue their groundbreaking research. The centre equipped B&W’s specialist acoustic and electronic engineers with a wealth of modelling, testing and design tools. Bowers, however, passed away in 1987, and would never see the fruit of Steyning’s research: a loudspeaker that eliminated almost all cabinet distortion. Launched in 1993 after five years in the lab, the Nautilus was the result of the most extensive research and development programme in the company’s history. Breaking with the traditional straight sides and rectangular shape of almost all loudspeakers up until that point, the Nautilus’ distinctive spiral body and horns worked to remove any unwanted sound caused by the cabinet of the speaker, leaving only the pure, crisp, accurate music – just as Bowers had wanted.

The Nautilus would have a considerable effect on Bowers & Wilkins, and all loudspeakers the company have produced since echo – albeit in a modest way – its distinctive curves and tapering horns. Today they use the same technology and expertise across their wider family of speakers, from smaller hi-fi loudspeakers to bespoke cinema installations, as well as in-car systems, which they launched in 2007. And though their high-end loudspeakers remain at the core of everything they do, B&W have also recently transitioned to reflect the way that people enjoy music today – launching their iconic Zeppelin iPod speaker in 2007; their first range of headphones in 2010 and, in 2014, their first portable Bluetooth speaker.

Bowers and Wilkins' speaker cones awaiting assembly
Speaker cones awaiting assembly. Although B&W employs sophisticated scientific equipment to analyse and perfect the technology in their loudspeakers, the science behind a speaker is relatively simple.

This year, as they celebrate their 50th anniversary, Bowers & Wilkins are launching the P9 – headphones engineered by the same team behind the 800 Series D3 loudspeaker, their latest flagship model which saw 868 changes from the previous D2. Both have received consistently high reviews, recommending them as some of the best audio equipment on the market today.

Have B&W, having developed technology like the diamond dome, which only distorts at frequencies higher than the human ear can hear, now reached the limits of innovation? Kerr thinks not. “It’s much less trial and error now. We have computer simulation packages and laser measurement, and we’re only ever going to continue to improve. I’m sure we’ll look at what we’ve done now in five years’ time and see mistakes, that’s just the nature of the business. There will always be a better loudspeaker.”


This is an excerpt from issue 4 of Avaunt, on newsstands from 31st October. Subscribe to Avaunt here

Words: George Upton

Photography: David Ryle

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