A Definitive Listening Experience
From finding runaway success with their Zeppelin iPod speaker through to the current vinyl revival, Bowers & Wilkins are looking to create a definitive listening experience for the 21st century
Article by Andrew Steel
Unless you carry a keen interest in the technological quarter of hi-fi electronics and speakers, chances are that you won’t have heard of Bowers & Wilkins. It is likely however that you will have been exposed to their work; the Worthing-based company have been turning out prime quality audio equipment for over half a century, in some form or another. Their Zeppelin iPod loudspeaker system is internationally recognised by Apple as one of the best complimentary products for home entertainment purposes – and if you drive a Jaguar or Maserati built in the last ten years, it will most likely be fitted with B&W systems. They just don’t make top-of-the-line audio technology; they live, breath and understand it. We sat down with the company’s brand director, Danny Haikin, to talk about how their contributions to the industry, the shift in musical consumption from analogue to digital and what the future holds for the company.
You’ve been with Bowers and Wilkins since 1999 – can you give us a little bit of background on the business?
Yeah, of course. B&W was founded in 1966 by a chap named John Bowers with a focus on new product development for the electronics industry, with a latter-day emphasis on audio. For about 20 years, we’ve been run by a chap called Joe Atkin – but we were recently acquired by a Valley-based company from California called EVA Automation. They’ve helped to advance the business further, definitely; they have extremely exciting high-end wi-fi technology that we are able to build into products. We’re certainly defining the 2.0 life of Bowers & Wilkins these days.
Your most successful product is the Zeppelin, your iPod speaker system. How did that come to be in the B&W workshops?
We were looking at our business around 2003 and 2004, and it became pretty obvious that hi-fi in its traditional format was a mature industry and that it wasn’t going to grow any further. So we started looking at areas where we could grow and stumbled into what was a very young market for iPod speaker systems. We didn’t think there was anything fantastic about it, so we came up with the Zeppelin. We just took the acoustic ideas and knowledge of loudspeakers we had and squashed it into a single, streamlined device that was aesthetically pleasing. Retailers were perplexed by it; there was nothing else like it on the market. But it was an overnight hit and a huge runaway success on the high streets.
A lot of your recent audio work has been with clients in the car industry – Jaguar, McLaren, Maserati. What are the challenges of fitting sound to a vehicle, particularly as music formats have transitioned from analogue to digital?
The transition itself is very good for entertainment systems within cars. Generally speaking, the good thing about cars is that if you want to design an audio system, they’re basically similar within. The challenges you face are that they have a lot of reflective surfaces and four different listening positions corresponding to the seats, none of which are the traditional sweet spots for an audio experience. You have to use a whole bunch of digital tricks and processing to achieve the optimum result – and you can do a remarkably harmonious job with it. Car audio technology has really come on in leaps and bounds over the last decade.
How does it compare to creating speaker systems for, say, a home?
In a sense, it’s actually easier. If you’re designing something for a house, you have to acknowledge that very few rooms will be the same. Part of our process is taking an aggregated view of the average kind of room, and then trying to factor in the capacity to make digital corrections with our products. If you design a speaker in a Victorian living room, complete with large curtains and bookshelves, the finished system is going to sound very different when placed in an open-plan Manhattan loft. As I said before, there’s a uniformity to car structure that you just won’t have in a home.
In terms of musical consumption, how much of a role do you feel technology has had in driving it forward over the past 25 years? And what do you think about the vinyl revival in regards to these advancements too?
In previous decades, there was a coherence to music and technology; take HMV, that was a record retailer and hardware company originally. Things were created that were clearly thought through from a shared perspective. I think nowadays, technology is seen as a threat by the music industry – with downloads, streaming and the like. There’s a precedent there, I guess, with radio, and latterly cassette. But I feel the vinyl revival is a reaction to the monumental paradigm shift into digital consumption; when that reached a zenith with Apple and iTunes, and onto the Spotify era, it became rather anonymous. Vinyl offers an analogue romance you just don’t get with computer files; it’s something personal that to a music connoisseur, represents tangible passion as opposed to being locked on a hard drive somewhere in the world.
One more question then, pretty much, what is the future of Bowers & Wilkins?
Well, I think our challenge is really to grow our brand and culture. We’re making a great line of personal entertainment systems, like headphones, that we’re getting a great reception on. We’ve got to build on those opportunities. I think our great challenge, in terms of home audio, is to create a definitive listening experience for the 21st century. We’ve come a long way from the caveman origins of hi-fi – our aim now is to create intelligent products that deliver the highest quality without all the paraphernalia you used to need alongside. For us, that is a really exciting step into the future, and one that we’re absolutely loving.