Bowers & Wilkins: Why iPhone beats CD

4th May 2011 | 15:00

Bowers & Wilkins: Why iPhone beats CD

Plus, new lightweight B&W speaker next month

Bowers and Wilkins - Why iPhone beats CD

One evergreen corner of Britain's consumer tech industry that continues to thrive is high-end hi-fi manufacturing and design, with the sector's success a result of its on-going tight focus on sound engineering and audio quality, over and above gadgetry and convenience.

It's a proven strategy that continues to pay dividends for leading UK brands such as Glasgow-based Linn, Salisbury's Naim Audio, Cambridge's Arcam and Bowers and Wilkins down in Worthing.

All of the above, and many other successful UK hi-fi companies, endure and succeed for one very clear and obvious reason. They continue to deliver new products and technologies that allow audiophiles across the world to enjoy recorded music – whether at home or on the go – in exactly the way the artists intended it to be heard when they first crafted it in the studio.

The increasing relevance of sound quality

Discussing the latest developments in the digital music industry - with Apple clearly readying its own media streaming service and Google recently rumoured to be looking to partner with Spotify - Daniel Haikin, brand director for longstanding British loudspeaker company Bowers & Wilkins recently informed TechRadar:

"We're pleased sound quality is increasingly relevant in this space and more and more people are talking about it. Right now, it's possible to digitally stream out of an iPhone or across a network and get better sound than was possible from CD players. Clearly, the business models haven't kept up with the technological advances and there's a lot of work to be done there still."

Bowers and wilkins - unashamedly high end

The B&W exec thinks that British hi-fi is in such rude health purely because quality hi-fi still represents "really solid value for money and needn't be that expensive ultimately. If you take our least expensive speaker (686, £299) or the Zeppelin Air (£500) both offer really exceptional performance and will continue to do so for ten to twenty years into the future.

"Indeed, speakers generally sound better as they get older! If you view that in enjoyment terms spread over even half that period, it's probably the best bang for the buck purchase that most people will make. Assuming they like music."

Bowers and Wilkins: From WWII to the Zeppelin Air

Bowers and Wilkins- From WWII to the Zeppelin Air

Over the last few years, B&W has made its mark on the ever-growing iPod and iPhone-dock market with its popular Zeppelin iPod speaker system, first released back in 2007. The latest version, the Zeppelin Air, is the company's first speaker to include Apple's new wireless streaming AirPlay tech.

As with many post-WWII British hi-fi and audio tech start-ups from around the mid-20th century, there is a genuinely interesting backstory to this British technology success. Haikin goes on to explain how John Bowers and his lifelong friend Ray Wilkins, both of whom had served in World War II together, first started an electrical shop in Worthing in West Sussex where Bowers, a skilled engineer, became interested in audio reproduction, at around the same time of the birth of stereo recording.

Bowers and wilkins' zeppelin - popular

"In a workshop at the rear of his shop, he began hand-making loudspeakers for clients who shared his interest in reproduction and wanted better quality than was commercially available at that time – which was the dawn of the audio industry.

"One of these customers was called Miss Knight and when she died she left Bowers the equivalent of £250,000 with the express instruction that he should use the money to make a business of his interest. That investment bought a factory and B&W Electronics was born in 1966."

It's a lovely story, for sure. The kind of heart-warming tale Hollywood thrives on. And, thankfully, Bowers made more than good on Miss Knight's initial investment, pumping all of the company's earnings back into research and development. The Tinseltown story arc seems almost complete.

Barmy about quality

It's a lovely story, for sure. The kind of heart-warming tale Hollywood thrives on. And, thankfully, Bowers made more than good on Miss Knight's initial investment, pumping all of the company's earnings back into research and development.

The Tinseltown story arc seems almost complete. But what sort of chap was John Bowers?

Bowers and wilkins - historic

Haikin tells TechRadar that British product designer Kenneth Grange (of Pentragram fame, and an industrial designer for B&W for 20 years) said of Bowers: "I've never met anyone more barmy about quality".

An insight into why the company's distinguished history in acoustic research is still seen to be major part of how and why the brand has continued to thrive.

"In the early 80s, Bowers decided that he wanted to build a truly world-class research facility, shielded from the day-to-day work of running the business, so he could focus on bigger ideas," Haikin explains.

"So he bought SME's old factory and called it the Steyning Research Establishment. All of B&W's higher level acoustic research and product development takes place within this building which houses 30 full time engineers and the reference Bowers & Wilkins listening room, where every product is signed off by the listening team."

Bowers and Wilkins- The value of experience

The value of experience

Much of B&W's manufacturing is still in the UK – based down in Worthing – so how are the key technologies manufactured and integrated?

"B&W is unusual in that it makes the whole loudspeaker itself: all the drive units, the cabinet, and the assembly," Haikin explains. "Moreover, a lot of the technology and methodology of how we make things is very specific and fiddly, having evolved over many, many years of manufacturing.

"For example, if you take a Kevlar cone, although these are now off-the-shelf items so you see them in many products, the way B&W produces them is totally unique and relies on years of experience in defining the material's exact weave and weft, and the applied damping properties.

Bowers and wilkins, unusual

"So part of our production line is a totally hand driven process where this is conducted and each cone has to be individually weighed," he adds. "We make about 600,000 a year! Other parts, like our Matrix bracing, rely heavily on CNC machining and are precise in a different way altogether."

2011 and the "new media stuff"

In 2011, the focus has shifted towards what B&W reps refer to as "new media stuff" and products such as the latest Zeppelin Air, MM1 and P5 headphones, as well as the latest high-end 800 series of speakers.

"We moved into personal audio products in 2007 as it seemed highly natural for us to expand our acoustic expertise into these areas," explains Haikin.

"Ultimately – as Zeppelin and P5 have proven – there are many consumers who are concerned about how things sound outside of the traditional stereo market. This sits very comfortably in our business as the personal audio products have dramatically improved our brand and category awareness, which then assists the traditional part of our business too."

Another aspect of this move into personal and digital audio over the last few years has been B&W's development of the Society of Sound, a download service that has been "created to bring exceptional sounding recordings to customers so each recording is only available in the highest quality such as Apple Lossless or 24 bit studio quality."

Right now, Society of Sound is more added-value marketing than a money-making scheme for B&W, in that anyone purchasing a B&W product can enrol and get the archive of albums for free or, even if you are not buying new hi-fi hardware, you can still join up for £33.95 a year.

The future for B&W

Finally, what of the future?

The B&W marketing director remains understandably circumspect when it comes revealing too many details about his company's plans for later in 2011 and beyond, other than telling TechRadar:

"We're launching a new speaker on June 6 which I think is the freshest thing we've made for years. It's really small and quite expensive but sounds incredibly good.

Bowers and wilkins - the future...

"We'll continue to push at both the higher-end speciality and mass market segments with more interesting, better sounding products. We're not interested in, and don't need, rapid growth so can do things at our own pace and in our own way which, generally speaking, keeps things vital and interesting.

"Which is what got us here in first place."

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