Bowers & Wilkins is 50 years old in 2016. As part of the celebrations of 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 blog we celebrate the input that Sir Kenneth Grange had on the design of Bowers & Wilkins speakers over a period of four decades.
In the early days of the Bowers & Wilkins, all loudspeakers were designed by the engineers of the various companies and the idea of making these high-performance units look like anything other than rectangular boxes was rare in the industry. But as was often the case, John Bowers saw things a little differently. He wanted to produce loudspeakers that not only sounded as good as it was possible to make them, but also looked good in people’s homes. See, for example, the DM70: a beautiful loudspeaker that came straight out of the idea of form following function.
An eye for design
When John Bowers did engage an industrial designer not just anyone was good enough for his speakers. So in 1974 after an introduction by mutual friend Lord Snowdon he employed Kenneth Grange of the famous Pentagram design consultancy – the man behind a seemingly endless series of iconic products.
Sir Kenneth Grange is perhaps the best-known British industrial designer of his generation. In a career that spanned over 60 years, he has designed icons including the Kenwood Chef, the Kodak Instamatic camera, the Imperial typewriter and numerous other objects that make everyday life simply better.
Together with John Bowers he would transform Bowers & Wilkins loudspeakers. They would take them out of the hobbyist corner and place them centre-stage in the living room; a call to arms to celebrate the sound system, rather than hide it away. It was an inspired decision and, like many of John Bowers’ innovations, continues to resonate in the company he founded 50 years ago.
The state of play
Up until the early 1970s, loudspeakers were very much of one aesthetic, and were generally designed by engineers who made them the way they made them for reasons of acoustic relevance. As Sir Kenneth himself explains: “There was a really solid tradition of how speakers looked. They were coming directly out of the way you could make them and they were boxes packed with drive units and increasingly complex electronics. But the box or cabinet was the dominating form.”
The relationship between Bowers and Grange was one of intense mutual respect, and Sir Kenneth says that John Bowers and Kenneth Wood (of Kenwood fame) were the people he respected most, as they believed in their products so much. “With marvellous good luck, I was introduced to John Bowers,” he says. “He was one of the world’s great enthusiasts; he loved music and he was absolutely barmy about quality. So I got off to a great start in the world of audio with a wonderful benefactor.”
Re-writing the rules
A great start is right, as his first project for Bowers & Wilkins was the iconic DM6. With its distinctive shape and cantilevered support, the DM6 was soon dubbed the ‘Pregnant Penguin’ and marked the beginning of a new era for the company. From then on, no speaker was to be left solely to the engineers. A partnership between them and Sir Kenneth was established, and each party challenged the other with their desire to perfect the performance of the product while making it look more distinctive, more acceptable in the home and, simply, better.
Sir Kenneth’s next project was even more influential: 1977’s DM7. By this time, Bowers & Wilkins’ engineers had discovered that the dispersion of sound around the speaker – so important in creating a believable sound ‘image’ – benefitted from reducing the baffle size as well as the driver size as frequencies went higher. This realisation led to the Tweeter-on-Top concept – an idea that, 40 years later, is still a major element of Bowers & Wilkins’ technology canon. It is found on premium products as diverse as the new 800 Series Diamond and the audio system gracing the latest generation of McLaren sports cars.
Sir Kenneth Grange was also the man responsible for the design of the original Model 801. This speaker, first introduced in 1979, took the concept of the DM7’s separate tweeter housing one stage further, with a third housing for a dedicated midrange driver. What set it apart from the competition was a combination of Grange’s classic design and the embryonic association with EMI’s Abbey Road Studios.
The 801 rapidly became their (and other studios’) default monitor for classical music recording. So successful was this design that it remained little altered through several technical upgrades, with Series 3 eventually ceasing production in 1998.
But Sir Kenneth wasn’t only about the high-end. Many of Bowers & Wilkins more affordable offerings in the 1980s were blessed by his touch, and he was also willing to experiment and go along with some unusual ideas such as the LM1 loudspeaker, which was designed to fit both in a car and also on a bookshelf. It was a challenging combination, but thanks to Sir Kenneth’s talent it still looked elegant.
The double product design of CM1/CM2 has always been one of Sir Kenneth’s favourites; one that he kept on display in his office for many years. The CM1 was a small two-way bookshelf speaker with a diminutive 5in bass/midrange driver. The clever twist that Sir Kenneth introduced was to angle the back section of the cabinet’s base, allowing the speaker to point horizontally or to tilt back. This expanded the mounting possibilities, making the product more flexible to the user.
Those wanting a more profound bass response could either buy the floor-standing CM2 or upgrade the CM1 to the larger model at a later date by buying the supporting pillar, which houses a pair of rear-facing drivers to cover the lowest frequencies. The fact that very low frequencies wrap around objects let Sir Kenneth disguise the presence of the bass drivers and give a much cleaner look at the front.
Developing 800 Series
1990 saw Sir Kenneth’s most radical design for Bowers & Wilkins: the Matrix 800. Around this time, he was interested in exploring asymmetrical forms, and this was also an experiment derived from a number of theories at the Steyning Research Establishment that suggested multiple spaced bass drivers tended to even out intrusive room resonances.
So, the tall Matrix 800 used two 12″ drivers – one in the usual position near the floor and the other almost at standing head-height. The midrange driver and tweeter were placed between the two at the optimum height for seated listeners, and had a narrower baffle around them in order to produce better sound dispersion at higher frequencies. As befits this asymmetrical shape, the product was manufactured in mirrored pairs to ensure the symmetry essential for producing a balanced stereo image. Sir Kenneth – in line with his belief that a designer should want to own and live with his designs – still has a pair of these speakers in his Devon home.
Sir Kenneth’s final project for Bowers & Wilkins was designed to celebrate our 40th anniversary, and it was a wonderful evocation of both Bowers & Wilkins’ heritage and its future. Designed in conjunction with acoustic engineer Dr John Dibb, the Signature Diamond was one of the first loudspeakers to feature a tweeter made of diamond – a radical solution that is now a part of the company’s high-end arsenal.
It was also a radically curved form, something that may not have been possible previously. As Sir Kenneth explains: “It suited me nicely to come to Bowers & Wilkins with a proposal for a shape that, acoustically, I knew would satisfy my chums in the laboratory – but was also a statement of extraordinary excellence in manufacture and was now possible to fabricate for the first time.
“The crowning glory was the tweeter. We made a real hero of it using good old-fashioned marble, which is a fantastic material in acoustic terms. Absolutely inert and wonderfully solid. It’s a pretty complicated shape, but it’s absolutely repeatable; every single one comes out perfect, so the acoustic quality is absolutely consistent between one and the next. But it’s quite distinctive – so if you have a pair of these in your home, you have two pieces of marble that are unlike any two pieces of marble anywhere else in the universe.”
This idea pretty much sums up Sir Kenneth Grange’s work with Bowers & Wilkins: products that sound absolutely fantastic because of reasoned acoustic principles, are elegantly engineered, and which deliver something quite unique and beautiful.
Ever since the engagement of Sir Kenneth Grange in the 1970s, Bowers & Wilkins has only ever worked with a very select group of talented industrial designers. The company generally spots their gifts early, and works to build lifelong relationships that have resulted in a wonderful portfolio of products – including an unprecedented number of design classics.