As part of the celebrations for these five decades in the world of high-performance audio, we are running a series of blogs that investigate our history, our people, our technologies and our products. In this post we look at the Steyning Research Establishment, where ALL our new technologies and products are developed and possibly the greatest legacy of our founder John Bowers
Nestled in the beautiful South Downs is the Steyning Research Establishment (SRE). This relatively compact facility is bursting at the seams with the brightest and best engineers and scientists in the world of audio. It is where every Bowers & Wilkins product and each new technology is conceived, developed and realised. It is where Nautilus and Zeppelin were first imagined and where eight years of development went into the new 800 Series Diamond.
Behind each of these products is a series of technological developments that have seen Bowers & Wilkins lead acoustic innovation for decades. SRE is where we developed Matrix, Diamond Dome tweeters and the new Continuum cone. These innovations and industry ﬁrsts haven’t just changed the way Bowers & Wilkins makes products – they have changed the way a whole industry makes them.
How it started
SRE is quite possibly the single most important legacy of our founder John Bowers. He took it upon himself to separate the stresses and compromises inherent in the business of manufacturing and sales from the discipline of learning, measuring, inventing and developing loudspeakers.
Bowers strongly believed that to truly innovate in design and continue to push the performance of an increasing number of products, research and development needed to be separated from the more rigid confines of sales and production. Steve Roe, who was originally employed by John Bowers and worked for Bowers & Wilkins for over four decades explains where the inspiration for a dedicated R&D centre came from: “We had a great relationship with the BBC and as a result, John got an invitation to Kingswood Warren, which between 1948 and 2010 was the BBC’s Research and Development department. John was impressed that they had a separate R&D facility, and he decided that was what he wanted from then on in. So he started looking for something.”
The perfect facility became available not long afterwards, when the famous tone-arm manufacturer SME decided it wanted to sell one of its manufacturing facilities. So in 1981, John Bowers moved his entire research department lock, stock and barrel to the small village of Steyning. Removing the constraints quickly fostered a sense of freedom that allowed for the kind of pioneering research that allowed the company to develop increasingly advanced products and which still typifies Bowers & Wilkins to this day.
Ahead of the curve
But SRE is more than just a building. Much more important are the people who work there, many of whom have decades of experience and can be counted as the very best in their ﬁelds. Several of the engineers, acousticians, designers and draughtsmen worked with John Bowers himself – and they carry on his passion; his desire to push the limits of their understanding.
These people are the best in their fields, and have been encouraged by the company over the last four decades to push themselves, the general understanding of acoustics and new tools and technologies they have had access to and worked with.
Former Research Director Dr Peter Fryer who worked with John Bowers from the 1980s and is still involved with Bowers & Wilkins today explains: “John Bowers was always very keen to have the very best measuring equipment. We all had BBC Micros in those days. The PC was never as good as the BBC Micro. We were able to do with the BBC Micro things that are only possible on a PC now. Because we wrote in machine code everything was 20 times faster.”
The team at SRE also pushed on into new fields, and used alternative techniques to create better and better products. “We tried to do our own things,” Fryer says. “Which is why we got involved with Finite Element Analysis (FEA) even though in the early days there was not much connection between its output and reality – but now it is really paying dividends with Martial (Rousseau) and his team leading the way.”
The patented Double Dome tweeter used on the CM Series is a direct result of the use of FEA which revealed that it was not the middle of the tweeter that was distorting and causing break-up, it was the edge. And that the edge was therefore where it needed to be strengthened. This was not the suspected answer to the problem. As Dr Fryer says, “FEA has achieved many non-intuitive results, and is the ONLY way to optimise things now.”
The Steyning Research Establishment is now involved in a wider variety of products than ever before. From in-car systems for the likes of BMW and Maserati to our growing range of headphones and wireless speakers, an expanding collection of custom installation speakers on top of the traditional core Hi-Fi speaker work that they have always worked with.
This variety has in no way diminished the quality, as the new award winning 800 Series Diamond can attest. This range was eight-years in the development, and used every tool available to the Steyning team. The results are breath-taking, and the development process is the subject of another blog here.
Now new challenges are on the horizon, and as the world changes so do the products that Bowers & Wilkins produces. The connected home is the next big challenge, and how to make products that fit perfectly into your life sound as good as every other Bowers & Wilkins product. But if the history of the Steyning Research Establishment is anything to go by, we have the team in place to achieve it.