We sat down with senior product manager Andy Kerr (AK), technical product manager Luke Creek (LC) and transducer engineer George Weaver (GW) to discuss the ethos behind the Bowers & Wilkins design process and find out how the company’s R&D department in Steyning works to continually break new ground when it comes to loudspeaker technology.
Connected Lifestyle: When designing a new loudspeaker, what are the most important elements to focus on initially?
GW: It’s very much a performance-oriented thing. It’s a given that you must have a price point that you have to hit. However, we try to push the boundaries all the time; the quality of the audio is paramount.
AK: I think this is fundamental to our DNA. It’s an easy enough statement for all of us at Steyning: how do you go about replacing the last model? You make the new model better. That’s the starting point.
Clearly, we’re very much aware of what other people are doing, clearly we have respect for the capabilities of other people – but our target first and foremost is that what we bring out is going to be better than what we’ve done before.
Through the prototyping stage there are listening trials and various stages to qualify the various components – how long does this process usually take?
GW: It depends on how different each model is from the previous one. It’s very hard to put a finger on it, but a minimum of a month is needed for the qualification of a particular drive unit, let’s say. Depending on the model and the amount of iterations and changes – that’s the big hit – each individual change will need a listening trial to decide if it is better than the previous version. Because we do this over and over and over, that turns into quite a long time: three to four years on a product range or something like that.
AK: Luke and I work on the product team: we will define a requirement for a new product – this is normally driven from the top down by our management team, by the needs of the market, by input from guys in the field, what the competition is doing – and we also have our own cycle, so we know very well that when we introduce something when it’s going to be at its mid-life point – that’s when we need to start thinking about replacing it.
This could be a matter of months or it could be a matter of three to four years to replace something, depending on what we’re talking about. An example of this is the 800 series. We wrote the brief for that in October 2012 and we launched it in September 2015 – so that gives you an idea of timescale.
How do you balance commercial product lifecycles with overall research and development?
AK: There are two facets to the work that goes on at Steyning: there is ‘pure research’ and there is ‘product track’. So ‘product track’ is the stuff that we’ve been describing i.e. in three years’ time we need a new loudspeaker. That’s a product and we have a defined lifecycle for it. There isn’t a defined cycle for research work, it goes on as needs must; it takes as long as it needs to get to an outcome.
A very good example of that would be continuum, the mid-range cone. That was started in 2007 and could just about have been ready for use in the last generation of 800 series, but it wasn’t quite right. So it didn’t eventually start coming into serious contention until probably the middle of 2012 and didn’t hit the streets until September of last year. That’s getting on for seven and a half years – in fact, nearly eight years – spent in development. Clearly, that’s not on a defined three-year cycle, that’s pure research.
How do you decide which areas you need to focus on when working on a new speaker series?
AK: How a loudspeaker behaves is a fairly well known thing. There are exceptions, but the basic concept is fundamental and we understand it. What we’re talking about is advances in known science, rather than exploring completely different parameters with delivering sound.
Instead, it’s about refining. That drives research work into trying to do what somebody already knows how to do, but better. It is evaluating material properties, construction properties, behaviour of systems – analysing what you’re trying to do better. An awful lot of work that we do is looking at what we already make and examining its faults.
GW: The amount of finite element analysis that we’re doing right now is light years ahead of what we were doing before. We’re modelling everything from surround material and shape to the chassis, the cabinet, all of the different sections, while with the motor systems everything goes through FEA (finite element analysis).
AK: What that has done is cut down on prototyping in the old fashioned sense, so that rather than having to build something, evaluate it and just suck it and see – which is potentially how things were years ago – now there is a lot more knowledge gained before we get to the physical prototype stage.
GW: Everything is still checked, though: it will still go through the listening process and be checked with human ears. We’ll still make quite a few physical models, but a later stage than we’ve done before. We’ll make some assumptions and decisions first and go down a certain route. If it doesn’t work, then we’ll go back and just do it again.
How do you ensure that – across your product range from headphones to the 800 series models – you meet the quality standards that Bowers & Wilkins aspires for?
AK: It’s two-fold. I think the first thing is that everything works on as cascade-down – you go out as far as you can to make the best product you can, then you have a benchmark and can understand carefully and correctly how everything comes in below that. Clearly, what we can also do when we’ve developed the most radical technologies is to look for ways to value engineer them and incorporate them into a more affordable model. So that’s the first thing. The other thing is that we’re all picky b______s. The exact same thing that you saw in the factory as somebody was circling a 0.5mm mark in a product, is the same over at Steyning. The standards are very very high and they’re partially imposed from above, but it is also just us: it’s what we want to do.
GW: It’s the same team: you haven’t got one group off working in a different place on headphones, for example. Everything we create goes through Steyning, so every single model has the same group of people conducting listening trials all the way through.
AK: As a generic phrase, good enough isn’t good enough. We don’t believe in that; instead, it’s a case of ‘how good can we make it?’ and people will, with a degree of obsessive-compulsive behaviour, push themselves to try and get as much as they possibly can out of the product. You could argue that it’s easier with a more expensive loudspeaker as you have more scope for clever things, more scope for complex materials. You could argue that it’s actually more challenging with something like a 600 where you’ve actually got fewer moves you can make.
LC: When you have a tight budget and you have to produce the best sounding loudspeaker, that’s the biggest challenge. When you’ve got a more open budget and you’re tasked with going off and making the best thing you possibly can, relatively that’s an easier project. Where you draw the line, that’s the problem. I mean, loudspeakers are compromises in their very nature – when it’s the cheaper end of the market then defining that line becomes the hard bit because you almost fight against yourself.
AK: I’d argue that it’s the role of Luke and I to define that line. With all due respect to our engineering team – as much as we love them – if you allow them unfettered scope to do things, they’d carry on doing things because they always want to make things better. You keep working at it until, eventually, at some point or another, you have to be dragged screaming from the room. That’s the sort of nature of it.
GW: Someone has to tell us when to stop; I agree with that.
AK: The compromise is this: if you want to make absolutely positively the best loudspeaker in the world, one option is to use insane esoteric components, make the whole thing out of ‘unobtanium’ and charge €2 million for it.
LC: Your cabinets will be the size of a small room and you won’t be able to sell it, but it won’t be compromised. In actual fact, your compromise will be that you’re not going to sell any. I don’t mean that there are compromises in the actual loudspeaker and the things we’ve done with it, it’s just the whole idea about creating something that shifts air and does all this kind of stuff; there are compromises to be made and it if up to us as product managers to define where we take the engineering resources and say, alright, we’re going to stop here because, if we go further on, we won’t be able to sell it or it will be too expensive.
AK: An aluminium turbine head is a wonderful thing; that individual part cost is probably more than the complete part cost of an entire 600 series loudspeaker. So we can’t use it, despite the fact that it’s a wonderful thing. Once you know those parameters, the more clarity the engineers can have, the happier they will be.
The 800 series represented a substantial step forwards in terms of technological advancement – how did you achieve this while keeping to the pre-defined product cycle?
AK: The 800 series development process uses the most finite element analysis to date. In the 2005 era, working on the last range, probably only three or four key components within the loudspeaker were optimised. In this one, pretty much every single thing has been optimised because of the opportunity to do so.
Fundamentally that comes down to the process being faster and computers becoming much more powerful – compare your 2014 vintage computer to your 2005 vintage computer and there’s your answer. As a result, we know more and understand more about the behaviour of components and systems – and that’s only going to become something that we can translate onto other things.
All of that work is not only optimising the transducers, but also the cabinets and the behaviour of the cabinets – because we understand more about them we’ve been able to do a much better job of making them get out of the way acoustically. The challenge is then how to translate that into something affordable.