In 1979, the audio company Bowers & Wilkins released the 801, a loudspeaker that ushered in the modern age of high-end audio. In 1988, the improved 801, which brought together many of B&W’s innovative patents — from cabinet construction to cone material to tweeter placement — found its way into Abbey Roads Studios, the most famous recording studio in the world, where it has remained as the studio’s reference speaker. Then, in 1993, after five years of R&D, the company released the Nautilus, which is still their flagship product and one of the most iconic speakers on the market today. And just last month, the company made their second consecutive appearance at the Primavera Sound in Barcelona for the debut of the second iteration of their newest innovation, and one they’ve avoided for the past 50 years: festival-sized PA loudspeakers.
The custom-built PA loudspeakers, called simply the Sound System, are part of the company’s effort to tap into the experience of live music. “We began by asking one question: What if we took of our high-end acoustic technology and scaled it up in size?” says Danny Haikin, brand director at B&W. “From that idea evolved Sound System, created with one founding principle in mind: to bring studio-quality sound to the festival environment.”
At the end of May in Barcelona, DJs blasted house music on the four towers comprising the Sound System, arranged in a square under a white, domed pavilion. From the ground up, each tower — which weighs in at close to 9,000 pounds, rises to over 10 feet and would cost over $1.5 million to buy — starts with a stack of four subwoofers, each containing two 15-inch drive units using B&W’s Rohacell cones. Then come the four main units, which contain two mid/bass units, an FST Kevlar midrange driver and four Nautilus tube-loaded high-frequency drivers arranged in a line array. The internal Matrix bracing system and Flowport technology, which help conquer the dynamic compression needed for huge festivals and let the speakers sing without destroying themselves, make good on the sheer dynamic range and drive that the system is capable of.
The result is deep bass and screaming treble, with nuance: the range and clarity that audiophiles have come to expect from the company, but with enough raw power to produce 120dB at 25 feet. That’s roughly the loudness of a jet engine. “Very often people make things louder and louder and louder,” said the German DJ Dixon after his set at Primavera. “A good sound is not [just] loud, but everything is there and when you leave the club you are not bleeding at the ears.”
Towers Per System: 4
Bass Drivers: 8 per tower
Lower-Midrange Drivers: 8 per tower
Midrange Drivers: 4 per tower
Tweeters: 16 per tower
Power: 135,000 watts
Max Volume: 120dB at 25 feet
Tower Height: 10 feet
Tower Weight: 9,000 pounds
Total Cost: $1.5 million +
The most difficult aspect of construction, according to Haikin, was tuning the speakers, a process which takes up to six months for a new home speaker set. But for the Sound System, which pulls 135,000 watts off MC2 amplifiers, the team “needed a field rather than a normal listening room” to test the system, along with recreating a festival experience for “live optimization to deal with effect of 1,000 bodies on the sound balance,” says Haikin.
There is only one Sound System, and B&W has no plans for replication. The next stop this summer for the Sound System is at WOMAD in the UK in late July, and then at Øyafestivalen in Norway in mid August. Haikin said the system can travel anywhere in the world; consider our ears perked up as to whether it comes stateside in the near future.