Bowers & Wilkins
Hailing from the cold and grey lands of Sussex, England, Bowers and Wilkins has spent the last 60 years evolving. Once a high-end only brand with reference monitors and diamond tipped lens assemblies, B&W now also incorporating a consumer arm into their business, and doing it well.
In addition to being the guys who fit out Abbey Road Studios and Skywalker Ranch, they're also throwing absurdly priced speakers into Maseratis and Jaguars, and even had a shot at a (now defunct) record label.
For my needs, I'll be looking mainly at their portable solutions, including headphones and earbuds, Airplay enabled standalones, and something for the TV. As much as I'd like a pair of Nautilus speakers, at a cool $100k, they're a want rather than a need.
I love B&W's design aesthetic - for the most part it's a lot of jet blacks, accentuated with brushed steel. The shapes and forms are functional, but at times also very beautiful. I adore the Zeppelin Air, and the slight craziness that was involved in conceptualising it - I imagine a lead designer in a board room table showing a sketch, and the wide-eyes that followed. I'm so glad they had the guts to go through with it. The P5s and its successor headphones continue to adopt this refined colour scheme, never deviating too far from it. I feel that all of B&W's line perfectly encapsulate British understatement: "Yes, we are rather good, but no, mustn't brag. Tea?"
One downside of B&W is that there are no dedicated stores, which means support is harder to come by, and you will need to deal with Convoy Pty Ltd within Australia for spare parts or repairs.
The B&W ecosystem is staggeringly large, and of the three brands, has the most products to fill each area I'm interested in. The only missing product is a portable speaker - that is to say, something with a integrated battery solution. While I find this surprising given the landscape, I'd put money on you being able to purchase one by the end of the year.
Our second contender is Massachusetts-based Bose. At the more affordable end of the spectrum, Bose has been a mainstream brand for over 20 years. With the introduction of the iPod, Bose reinvented a lot of what it does to incorporate the 30-pin connector, and soon became the 'go to' for speaker docks.
Bose's trump card is Noise Cancellation. Just about every avionics headset has their name on it - even NASA uses them. No one else even comes close to the utter silence they can generate. That aside, they also produce a range of the essentially the same products, simply sans active noise cancelling.
Personally I've owned a selection of their computer speakers and home theatre equipment for some years, so I'm certainly no stranger when it comes to their range. Bose releases are fairly consistent, and with each major revision of an iOS product there's typically an accompanying system, albeit at a longer drag time than most would like. They've also finally stepped into the realm of Airplay, and produced a line that looks like a worthy Sonos competitor.
Bose is probably the least inspiring in terms of aesthetic. Utilitarian to the point of 'blockiness' there's nothing here that excites like B&W or B&O. That may not bother some, but the over abundance of painted silver plastic can become tiresome. The range is large, and covers every area of the experiment.
There's a lot of ways to purchase their products, and you'll find them from department stores to car dealerships and airports. It's the high-end mainstream. Bose also has a retail presence, both with stand alone stores in major shopping centres, or store-within-a-store concepts. Support then is fairly easy to come by, but repairs are only conducted within Sydney.
Bang & Olufsen
Being as far North as Struer, Denmark must do funny things to the mind. Holed up for 9 months of the year due to cold and dark has led Bang & Olufsen to create some of the most retro-futuristic designs in the audio world. It's a polarising brand, and there often isn't a middle ground when discussing and critiquing their work.
For the last 70 years, B&O was an exclusively high-end only brand. Russian oil baron sort of stuff. But sometime in 2008, Wall Street got caught out selling toxic loans, and our global economy sort of shit the bed. The direct result for B&O was mass layoffs, and the realisation that a $2k CD player, while beautiful, wouldn't keep the lights on.
In 2011 Bang & Olufsen launched a sub brand, B&O Play, aimed at iPhone, iPad and digital music users. The result was a new range of gear that goes in your ears, on your table, and doesn't require a black Amex to own. While still not a 'cheap' option, they're a great deal more attainable than their predecessors. In my reviews, most of the items from B&O will be from the Play brand, with (hopefully) a couple of exceptions.
Design wise, B&O are peerless. They're ostentatious, meticulous, and for some, outrageously ugly. There are few brands that have anything quite like the A9 or the Beolab 18. Every product makes you look twice, and there's a good sense of purpose behind each plane, angle and ridge.
B&O have flagship stores in almost every major city in Australia, and are also sold through Apple Stores, so support and road testing is at least possible. Not as well stocked as Bose, but a good deal easier than B&W.
I'm using a standard playlist to sample music on each system I try. The playlist covers most major genres, and attempts to sample music that will test the responsiveness, accuracy and separation of the different components.
The tracks are:
- Blue In Green - Miles Davis
- Limit To Your Love - James Blake
- Hyperballad - Björk
- Sans Cosm - Sparta
- Primavera - Ludovico Einaudi
- A song for our Fathers - Explosions in the Sky
- Pursuit - Gesaffelstein
- This Is The Last Time - The National
- All Along The Watchtower - Bob Dylan
- Gabriel - Lamb
If you're a Spotify user, you can get the playlist here.
Let the testing begin.