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The Festive Sound System from Bowers & Wilkins

At the end of May 2015, Bowers & Wilkins announced some extraordinary news. They would provide the sound system for a few selected festivals. Since this factory is best known for their high-endloudspeakerswhich are used by audiophiles around the world and in studios like Abbey Road, it is pretty peculiar that they would start building a sound system for festivals.

The sound at festivals is generally not at the level of hifi sound quality. In order to change this, Bowers & Wilkins started building their own PA (Public Address) system simply called ‘Sound System.’ However, few people know that B&W already made two other sound systems. In the 90s, Laurence Dickie helped to build the Innerfield Sound System, being a hobby project for several B&W engineers so you might just heard as well.

This time the Sound System wasn’t kept secret; it was presented at the Primavera and WOMAD festivals and is traveling to various other festivals. One stack ofloudspeakersfrom the Sound System consists of four subwoofers and four tops, standing 3.2 meters tall. Every subwoofer is equipped with two 15 inch Rohacell drivers, a slightly modified version of the CT800 speaker. Flowport technology is used for extended bass reproduction and each sub has an inner Matrix bracing system to make the speaker as stiff as possible. Every top speaker contains four Nautilus tweeters in a line-array configuration, a yellow FST Kevlar midrange driver and two mid/bass drivers. When all speakers are stacked they operate as a line source, making it actually a line array speaker system.

The first time this system was used four speaker stacks - each containing four subwoofers and four tops - were set up, a total of 32 speakers altogether! A B&W Sound System is capable of delivering 120 dB at distances of up to 8 meters. Amazingly, there are even more stunning numbers. The speakers were driven by MC2 Audioamplifiersproviding up to 120.000 Watts of power. But how does this 1 million dollar Sound System – it actually costs more than that – sound in real life?

Powerful and clear without being too clinical. There is unique clarity throughout the whole frequency range. The bass is tight and punchy without losing its weight. The lower frequencies can even be felt, just like the way it’s supposed to be, but unlike most common PA systems the low frequencies are very controlled with plenty of headroom. Even when cranking up the system it continues to sound natural and impressive. Festivals are now able to provide a hifi-like sounding PA system.

The regrettable thing is that the Sound System is not going to be commercially sold. Due to the technical demands of the system it is almost impossible to engineer without having a technician present. Practically speaking, the system is very inefficient in terms of power handling and is too heavy to be suspended.

Remko vd Weerd

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