The Formation Bar supports Apple AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Bluetooth (aptX HD, v4.1 Class 2, AAC, and SBC), Dolby Digital (via the TOSLink optical connection), and it’s Roon Ready. Even better is support for 24-bit/96kHz high-resolution sources, which is still very rare in the wireless streaming market. The B&W Home app makes things very easy to control and allows the user to set up lots of zones and other ways of controlling multiple Formation products. The nine drivers in the Formation Bar can kick out some serious sound and the Formation Bass adds impressively deep bass to the mix. However, some unexpected design choices really limit the Bar’s capabilities when it comes to film soundtracks.
Bowers and Wilkins Formation Bar and Bass
- Unique styling
- Excellent wireless/streaming support
- Support for 24-bit/96kHz files via Roon
- A very compact form factor for Formation Bass
- Great bass performance from Bar and Bass
- B&W Home app is very user-friendly
You know soundbars are big when traditional high-end audiophile companies start offering them. Case in point, the Bowers and Wilkins Formation Bar and Formation Bass module reviewed here. While B&W could have taken the easy route and crafted a basic soundbar with any number of their excellent drivers packed into it, they chose to go a little more high-end. The $1,199.99 three-channel Formation Bar and matching $999.99 Formation Bass module are beautifully designed and constructed and offer some very flexible connectivity options. While the Formation products are certainly wonderful to look at, do they have the performance chops to back up their premium pricing? Let’s find out.
3x 1” double-dome tweeters, 6x 2.6” cone bass/midrange
2x 6.5” long-throw
Bar – 40Hz-28kHz (Left, Right, Center), Bass – 20-150Hz
Bar – 6x 40W, Bass – 250W
1x Digital Optical, 1x USB (service only), 1x RJ45 Ethernet
Bass, Treble, Subwoofer Gain
Formats Supported via Optical In:
Bluetooth (v4.1 Class 2 aptX HD, AAC, SBC), Apple AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Roon Ready, Wi-Fi networking
Bowers and Wilkins Home, Roon
Bar: 48.8W x 4.3H x 4.2D”
Bass: 11W x 10H x 10.2D”
Formation Bar: $1,200
Formation Bass: $1,000
b&w, bowers and wilkins, formation, bar, bass, soundbar, soundbar, subwoofer
The Formation Bar and Bass arrived at my home in well-designed packaging that protects the products and allows for easy removal. The first thing I noticed was the relative weights of the Bar and Bass modules. They are pretty heavy considering their dimensions, hinting at good build quality and solid drivers. The next thing that struck me is the very cool modern aesthetic. Instead of a boring, rectangular soundbar, the Formation is a more of a cylindrical design, tapered at each end. The end caps are a neat pewter-like metal and the entire cylindrical surface is faceted. The Formation Bass is similar in design, but instead of metal trim, the two 6.5” drivers serve as the end caps. There is only a single button on the Formation Bass (Formation Connect) and four on the top/back side of the Formation Bar (Play/Pause, Volume Up, Volume Down, and Formation Connect). Both products look fantastic in my opinion and will fit well into a variety of decors, particularly more modern ones.
Setting up the Formation Bar and Bass was one of the most painless experiences I’ve ever had with an A/V product. From opening the boxes to playing my first music through the system took me less than eight minutes. I set the Formation Bar atop my family room TV cabinet, right in front of the stand for my trusty 50” Fujitsu plasma TV. The Formation Bar is a bit taller than many other soundbars on the market, so keep that in mind if your TV has a very low stand. Otherwise you could end up blocking the bottom portion of your screen. Fortunately, I didn’t run into this issue as my Fujitsu’s stand puts the screen about 5.5” from the top of the cabinet surface. You can also wall-mount the Bar with the included bracket and instruction templates. The Formation Bar sits on a narrow center “stand” which isn’t very stable. A pet or small child can easily spin it or knock it over if they hit either end of the bar. A wider stand would go a long way towards improving this. I ran the power cable from the back of the Formation bar into an available receptacle and connected an optical digital cable from my cable box to the TOSLink input so I could test some Dolby Digital soundtracks. One other note, the power cord on the Formation Bar is only about six feet long. I would like to see a longer cord included in the future. The Formation Bass went into the opposite corner of my family room and was plugged in with the included power cable. Its compact dimensions should make it pretty easy to place in just about any location you wish. Once plugged in, the Formation modules set up and communicate through their own mesh network. The more modules you add, the larger the mesh network becomes.
With physical setup done (in about three minutes tops), I moved on to the software. The Formation app, Bowers & Wilkins Home, is available for both iOS and Android and should be installed before you power on your Formation products for the first time. I had installed the app on my iPhone 8 earlier and the software immediately recognized the two Formation products. The app allows you to group devices together as well as to set up “spaces” that can house multiple Formation products. I set up a “Family Room” space for the Bar and Bass modules. Following the app’s prompts, I joined the devices to my wireless network. You can also use the RJ-45 Ethernet jack on the back of the Bar to connect it to your network if you prefer. Once the network connection is established, you can set up Bluetooth connectivity. I paired the Bar to my iPhone and then checked to see if AirPlay recognized the Formation products. It did, so setup was a complete success. Best of all, I think it took about five minutes to do all of this. This was flat out the easiest setup I’ve yet done on a connected device, and everything worked right off the bat. Bowers and Wilkins also include a free 60-day trial to Roon in the package, so I went and set that up too, installing the Roon Core program on the Windows 10 PC that houses my multi-terabyte music collection and the Roon app on my iPhone 8. With support for 96kHz/24-bit files (via Roon only) a key feature of the Formation Line, I was anxious to try this out.
Having been disappointed in the sound of Bluetooth-based streaming during my recent reviews of some other soundbar systems, I really wanted to see if the aptX HD and Bluetooth 4.1 made a difference in sound quality. Sadly, my iPhone 7 doesn’t support aptX HD (nor do most iPhones or iPads), so I was stuck with AAC, which did sound a bit better than what I have heard from other Bluetooth-enabled speakers, but it still sounds very hollow and lifeless to me. Apple AirPlay was a much better experience, with lossless files sounding much more like real music. If you care about sound quality, stick with AirPlay over Bluetooth as it at least gives you CD-quality (44.1kHz/16-bit) sound. I did notice that skipping tracks via AirPlay resulted in a fairly loud tick/pop noise every time I changed tracks but not if I let albums/playlists move to the next track on their own. I think this has something to do with the buffering it does every time it loads a new file. Still not completely happy with how things sounded, I fired up Roon Core on my PC and the corresponding app on my iPhone. Playing back some high-resolution samples showed me that Roon was the way to go with the Formations. Without the compression of Bluetooth or AirPlay, music really started fleshing itself out and I could hear what the Formation Bar and Bass were truly capable of. All of my musical listening notes are thus based on playback via Roon.
As a real litmus test for the Formations, I started off the serious listening with one of my best sounding digital albums, Carmen Gomes Sings the Blues (Sound Liaison, 352kHz DXD version). I listened to the first few tracks, gradually tweaking the EQ on the Formation Bar and adjusting the Formation Bass’ gain control to get a proper match between the Bar and Bass module.
The Bar seemed a bit bright to me out of the box, but two drops of the treble control via the B&W Home app seemed to tame the brightness. Dropping the treble also seemed to improve the midrange, most likely as the sound was closer to a flat response now. I also added a touch of additional gain to the Formation Bass to bring its level on par with the Bar. Sadly, the B&W Home app lacks any actual indicator on the slider controls for any of these settings, so I believe I only moved the treble control down two notches and the gain control up one or two. This should be an easy software fix, so I hope B&W updates their control app with a numerical or hash mark designator. I also made sure all DSP options were disabled in Roon.
With the system finally balanced out and tweaked to my liking, I skipped to Gomes’ rendition of “One For My Baby” and brought the volume up a bit. The stand-up bass that kicks off the track sounded very clean and accurate through the Formation Bass and the guitar notes sounded very good, with appropriate attack and tone. Gomes’ voice was clear and had solid weight to it. While the midrange was not as quite full as it is with the Paradigm Studio 20 V3 speakers in my family room, it was very good for a soundbar. With most of the other soundbars I’ve listened to, you can instantly tell that they are physically small. Not the Formation Bar though, it did a very good job of imitating a larger cabinet. Imaging was also good for a soundbar, but not great overall. The soundstage seemed slightly compressed, with this normally spacious recording sounding like it was now in an even smaller venue. Still, I was able to locate where on the soundstage individual instruments were, just not with the pinpoint accuracy that this recording affords on better two-channel systems. Gomes’ voice seemed to emanate directly from the center of the soundbar, not from the left and right channels. Putting my ears up to the speaker, I noticed that the center channel was active on 2-channel playback and seemed to carry the bulk of the vocal presentation, with the left and right channels almost echoing Gomes’ voice. Clearly there is some form of DSP/matrixing being applied to stereo sources. I couldn’t find a setting anywhere in the B&W Home app to change this. Add another software enhancement request to my list for a pure two-channel playback mode. The active center channel could explain the less accurate imaging and sound staging. Listening for a little longer, I was very pleased with the quality of the lower midrange and bass coming from the Formation Bass. The Bass blended beautifully with the Formation Bar and really disappeared into the mix once I got the Gain level set right. The natural bass notes were really easy to distinguish and had a nice kick to them.
To test the dynamic capabilities of the Formation system, I switched over to a 24/96 copy of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances (Reference Recordings, 24-bit/96kHz FLAC). “Lento Assai” displays some incredible dynamic range right from the start, with the string section simply exploding out of silence multiple times during the first two minutes of the track.
The Formation pair did a great job at projecting the raw force of these moments. While the massed strings didn’t quite have the fullness that I’m used to from with my full-size speakers, the Formations came closer than any other soundbar I’ve heard. There was a good sense of air to the harp and chimes that come in later in the track, without any harshness or excessive bite to the treble. The Formation Bass continued to impress me with this track as well. The kettle drum hits were exceptionally crisp and powerful, without any excessive slop or sluggishness. The Formation Bass is really quite the marvel given its size. Even in my large 21x15x10-foot family room, it filled the space with accurate musical bass. I had the volume up to about 90% with this track and didn’t hear any congestion or extra brightness creeping into the sound.
As I always try to push every component I review, I moved on to some Metallica. “One” from a 24/48 FLAC recording of a live 2017 show in New Jersey (that I also happened to attend) sounded really good. The Formations handled the excessive level I played this back at without issue and didn’t show any signs of stress.
The pyrotechnic explosions during the intro of the song sounded great and the introductory clean guitar notes rang full and true. When the song kicks into high gear mid-track and all hell breaks loose, some serious head-banging commenced in the Stripko house.
I’ll get this out of the way right up front, I’m very confused by the lack of HDMI inputs on the Formation products. With just a single TOSLink connection on the back of the Formation bar, movie watching is limited to 5.1-channel Dolby Digital soundtracks from either a disc player or from the optical output on your TV or cable box. Without HDMI inputs, there is also no way to playback any lossless formats, like Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio, to say nothing of Atmos or DTS:X. Considering how good the Formation Bar and Bass sounded with lossless music via Roon, this seems like such a waste to me. Then there is the lack of dedicated surround speakers. Considering how the Formation products use a mesh network to connect with each other, adding dedicated surround speakers sounds like it would be relatively easy. I really hope that B&W adds at least a single HDMI port in a future product update.
Since I couldn’t feed audio to the Formation duo via HDMI, I was forced to rely upon a TOSLink (optical digital) connection from my cable box to the Toslink input on the Formation bar. My cable box outputs Dolby Digital 5.1 for most premium channel high def feeds so I used some movies I had stored on my DVR for testing. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is one of the few re-makes in recent years that might actually be better than the original. The film sounded very good through the Formation Bar and Bass.
As I expected from the Formation’s music performance, the sound was neutral and clean, without any brightness or excessive congestion. The Formation Bass continued to show its chops as well with the “Jumanji drums” and bass effects from the action scenes kicking pretty hard throughout the film. I was also very impressed with the sound made when the characters regenerate after dying. Through the Formation Bar, this electronic ping had a ton of body and air, which made it ring out through my room. The ping seemed to emanate from above the and below the Formation Bar as well. Dialogue sounded very good, though I couldn’t find a way to adjust the center channel volume if needed for a particular soundtrack. Perhaps that could be added to the B&W Home app as well. While the movie sounded very good overall, surround effects were the one weak spot. I really didn’t get any sense of envelopment. If there was some virtual surround DSP going on, I couldn’t hear it.
“Wreck-It Ralph” is currently in the rotation for my six-year-old, so we gave that a play one afternoon. Shortly into the movie, Ralph goes to bed for the night on his pile of bricks. The clinking sound when Ralph drops a single brick onto his pile was perfectly reproduced. I’ve done some brickwork and this sound brought back some memories. Further into the movie, Ralph ventures into the “Hero’s Duty” video game in an attempt to win a medal. The chaos and carnage as soldiers wade into battle sounded great, with nice directional effects up front from the Formation Bar and solid bass from the Formation Bass. The weapons fire sounded particularly good. As I heard in “Jumanji” though, there was little in the way of obvious surround effects.
The remainder of the movie was fun, with lots of great-sounding retro video game effects sprinkled throughout. My son loved the scene where Vanellope learns how to drive her new candy car, and was up dancing around the room. I’ll admit that Rihanna’s “Shut Up and Drive” that scores the scene sounded pretty good, but I was only dancing along because my son asked me to. Because that’s what Dads do. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it…
B&W’S FORMATION BAR AND BASS deliver great sound and easy setup but at $2200 for the system, they should also include support for the latest movie audio formats.
- Beautiful modern design with solid build quality
- Incredibly simple setup and operation
- Excellent treble clarity without excessive brightness
- Surprisingly deep bass from the Formation Bar
- Excellent performance from the Formation Bass
- Good imaging and sound-staging for a soundbar
- Can play very loud
- Fuller-bodied midrange
- HDMI (or HDMI-ARC) inputs
- Decoding for movie audio formats beyond Dolby Digital
- Support for physical surround channels
- Defeatable center channel for two-channel stereo playback
- Support for Google Chromecast and MQA
- Longer power cord for the Formation Bar
The Formation Bar and Formation Bass are a bit of a conundrum for me. On one hand, they offer excellent overall performance with music sources as well as wonderful styling and construction quality. Setup and ease-of-use are also second-to-none. Integration with Roon and support for 96kHz/24-bit files is a huge bonus as well. However, while movie soundtracks sound very good, the limitations of the Formation system become apparent. The lack of an HDMI-ARC port and no support for any lossless movie audio codecs is frankly inexcusable in 2019. Given the relatively high price of these components, it would also be nice to see an option for dedicated surround channels. Bottom line, this a great sounding system that has been hampered by some odd marketing/product development decisions. These shortcomings can easily be fixed in future models, but for now, I would say that the Formation Bar and Bass are best suited to folks who mostly listen to stereo music sources and absolutely must have a soundbar-format speaker that can be mounted above or below their TV.