We Ask 10 Questions For High-End
During Enjoy the Music.com's very special 25th Anniversary we're asking various high-end audio manufacturers to answer the same ten questions. Their answers may surprise you! This month we're featuring Andy Kerr, Director of Product Marketing & Communications at Bowers & Wilkins. The story of Bowers & Wilkins starts with one man: John Bowers. Even some 30 years after his death, his passion and drive still pulse through the lifeblood of the company he founded. Bowers' dream of producing the perfect loudspeaker has driven the company from its humble beginnings behind an electronics shop in Worthing to becoming a global leader in audio.
In 2019 Bowers & Wilkins' Formation was revealed to the world, marking the latest evolution of cable-free listening, first
realized by the company's Zeppelin Air in 2011.
Q. What is your first memory of falling in love with music?
A. I fell hard when I was very young. Growing up, there was always music playing in my house. My mother tells stories of me dancing around in front of the TV as a toddler in front of a UK music show (Top of the Pops, since you ask).
Move on a couple of years and I was sharing my pocket money with Vince, my best friend, so that we could buy singles. The first record I bought was The Eton Rifles, by The Jam: the first album was London Calling by The Clash. Good foundations, I think you'll agree.
From there, my passion turned into a full-on obsession. As a teenager I would do any job I could find, from working on building sites to stacking shelves in supermarkets, so that I could earn money to buy either records or more audio gear. And of course, as soon I was old enough, I moved from just listening to music at home to going to gigs. Given the kind of music I was into at the time (punk, New Wave, indie rock, hardcore), some of those gigs were pretty intense experiences! It was a good way of growing up fast!
Q. How did you first get introduced to high-fidelity audio gear?
A. Age 12. Sadly for her, a family member passed away. She left me an inheritance: not a massive one, but a decent sum all the same. I already had a lot of records by that time, so naturally, I chose to spend it on my first hi-fi. Obviously my family had a fair bit of input into my choices of gear (to make sure I didn't get ripped off) but I pretty much knew what I wanted anyway. Back in those days, hi-fi systems tended to be biased towards the purist concept of 'source first' (ie buy the best record player you could). I went down the same road and bought a Linn LP12.
It was partnered with a Rotel amplifier and Mission speakers, and I loved it. At the time, 'music centre' all-in-one audio systems were the fashion: they came with tonnes of flashing lights and features that no-one really understood and of course, the graphic equalizer was at the height of its popularity. By contrast, my Rotel had a power button, a volume knob, and about five source selectors. That was it. Literally, 'a straight wire with gain'. Perfection!
Q. What is your favorite piece of vintage hi-fi, and why?
A. Bowers & Wilkins 801D. It might not be the most accurate speaker we've ever made. It might not be the prettiest speaker we've ever made. But it's very definitely – no arguments – the most fun speaker we've made. There is nothing I can think of in our portfolio (or anyone else's) that so perfectly combines audiophile, a no-holds-barred resolution with simply monstrous, rock 'n' roll attitude. As well as being able to reveal all the detail from a recording, 801Ds can play insanely loud. There are three 801Ds in the control room at Abbey Road Studio Two to this day, which is a small room, and the engineers there just won't give them up. I can understand why.
Q. When did you decide to start a high-end audio company?
A. I didn't – John Bowers did that. But this was always the company I wanted to work for. He was a very driven individual, very passionate. He loved music, too. I think I fit in well here.
Q. What, and when, was your company's first product?
A. The P1, from 1966. It was relatively simple, especially aesthetically, but very advanced internally. It paved the way for the rapid expansion of the company between 1966 and 1970. However, I'd strongly argue that the first 'wholly' Bowers & Wilkins product, and the one that truly paved the way for the brand that we would become, was the DM70. It was beautiful, innovative, and wonderful to listen to.
Q. What challenges did you face during those early years?
A. John was driven, a perfectionist. He lived for making a better speaker. He used to spend a huge amount of money on B&K measurement gear and was an enthusiastic advocate of laser interferometry. I think his key frustration was that no matter how much he spent and how much effort he and his team put into it, the measurement equipment of the day lacked the accuracy and level of resolution he needed to help him move faster. Ultimately, it was that quest to know more that inspired the foundation of the Steyning Research Establishment (SRE), the so-called University of Sound.
Q. How have your products evolved over the years?
A. We've learned more. Our drive unit designs are far more advanced now than before: we also know a lot more about acoustic forms. But probably the biggest advance in the past 10 years is our increased ability to use Finite Element Analysis (FEA) to accurately simulate and predict mechanical behavior before we even make anything. Back in the mid-2000s, we could only really optimize a relatively small number of components (such as the Diamond dome) because of computational limitations.
Today, we use a powerful combination of very accurate measurement and advanced COMSOL Multiphysics simulation. That allowed us to simulate pretty much every component in the most recent 800 Series Diamond. And the more we can simulate, the more we can improve. So in summary: the more we know, the better we can be.
Q. What is your company's most popular product(s)?
A. In passive speakers, our 600 Series range, now in its 25th year. Affordable, great-sounding speakers that help to bring our sound to a wider audience. In other regards, our headphones – we've loved the challenge of adapting what we know to personal audio and we think we do a pretty good job these days!
Q. What is your next planned product offering and its' features?
A. That's not something I am prepared to share, sorry!
Q. What advancements do you speculate high-end audio will offer ten years from now?
A. I think the listening room remains the great unconquered frontier in premium audio. We need to find a way to ensure that no matter your home's acoustic constraints, you can get a great sound.