Ever since 1965, Bowers & Wilkins (B+W) has specialised in assembling unique speaker systems. After the initial success of John Bowers' hand-built speakers, made in the back of his friend Roy Wilkins' electrical store, the company has gone from strength-to-strength. Today the company is recognised worldwide thanks to beautifully designed speakers projecting exceptional sound quality. Manufacturing Digital takes a look at B+W’s innovative products and the processes behind producing its stunning Nautilus speaker.
In John Bowers' own words, "If you produce a better product, they will buy it." It is this fundamental ideology which has seen the company become one of the world's most well recognised and respected loudspeaker manufacturers. A passionate classical music fan, Bowers decided to improve the quality of current loudspeakers available on the market and went about producing the company's first product, the P1. After this initial success, Bowers' continued to develop innovative speaker solutions, which resulted in a landmark product, the DM70.
The DM70's curved slimline cabinet was a speaker design first, and its 11-module, electrostatic midrange/high-frequency unit was hailed as an exceptional audio development. After this hugely successful step forward, B+W continued to progress in regards to design and technology. Ochre yellow Kevlar cones become a B+W trademark, while innovative tweeter and drive unit positioning improved sound quality further. Not long after the company's 25th birthday, Bowers and Wilkins introduced a speaker which would become a style and technology icon for the next two decades.
In 1993, B+W introduced the most significant loudspeaker it has ever produced, the Nautilus. Today the product remains a design classic and is instantly recognisable, with its breathtaking tapered pipes and spiral tube. While these features add to the speaker's aesthetic beauty, they are also key contributors to the product’s sound quality. The sleek tapering pipes are filled with absorbent wadding, which soak up wayward sound energy, therefore reducing resonances and distortion. After encountering difficulty matching the sonic purity of the tweeter, the treble and the midrange driver to the bass, B+W needed to discover an innovative solution to eliminate any sound imperfections. Experiments indicated that a curled-up horn-shape, similar to a snail's shell, was the answer to the initial problem and would also occupy a much smaller space than a standard non-tapering pipe. This is what the B+W Nautilus is all about; the combination of stunning design with superior technology.
The Nautilus speaker is not only the company’s flagship product, "but the very pinnacle of technological innovation to which all others must aspire. It is the result of a groundbreaking, five year research and development programme to achieve, as near as possible, the perfect loudspeaker," according to Bowers and Wilkins.
While designing and developing a product which gives the desired results is one thing, replicating and manufacturing it on a large scale is another. Even though this may have been seen as a fairly daunting challenge, B+W continued their pioneering thinking and found an appropriate solution. By enlisting the help of Raceprep, a specialist company in the formulation of fibre-reinforced composites, the B+W Nautilus speaker could be reproduced with the same passion and attention for detail which took place in its development phase. Due to the product's unique shape, the speaker's shell is made "almost entirely by hand, using a resin which has been identified by computer analysis as perfect for its purpose – ensuring maximum strength and durability," says B+W.
Bowers & Wilkins’ manufacturing originality doesn't stop there, as production of drive unit components is a unique combination of highly skilled hand-assembly and semi-automatic production techniques. "For example, all Bowers & Wilkins voice coils are wet wound with high temperature resin and then baked in a special oven to ensure enhanced performance and durability. ’Wet-winding’ is a time-consuming process and some manufacturers see it as uncommercial and unnecessary. At Bowers & Wilkins, we believe it to be an essential step in achieving the kind of quality and reliability for which our loudspeakers are renowned,” says the company.
From individual testing of each component to the final product assessment, each process is committed to ensuring optimal quality. Before the Nautilus speaker receives its final approval, the product is 'auditioned' to ensure every stage of production has met high quality standards. Each and every person who contributed to the manufacturing process, from assembly to testing, is recognised on the Bowers & Wilkins quality certificate. Additional documents include 'performance plots for all four drive units, showing their near-field response and their deviation in sound pressure levels from the laboratory standard'.
Although the company has now expanded into producing headphones and speaker docks for mobile devices, the Nautilus remains a design classic and a one-of-a-kind product which will be unrivalled for years to come.