The art of listening

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 look at the art of listening, and how after all the science and the research the best ears in the business have the final say on how our loudspeakers sound.

The Steyning Research Establishment is the source of all Bowers & Wilkins products, and is home to a tight team of incredibly talented engineers and scientists who are collectively responsible for the industry firsts that continue to keep Bowers & Wilkins at the forefront of audio performance.

But there is also a qualitative element in the development of audio products, and that is where the art of listening has an irreplaceable role to play.

Making a loudspeaker that measures completely flat is relatively easy. Making a loudspeaker that sounds as exceptional as the new 800 Series Diamond? A different matter altogether. At the end of the day everything comes down to the listening experience. If you can’t properly interpret the information that spews out of a computer and actually make a difference to what is heard, there’s not much point.

That’s why Bowers & Wilkins employs some of the best ‘ears’ in the business, key listeners responsible for the sound of every product the company develops, from the 800 D3, to headphones, to the audio system in the latest generation of BMWs.

Passing the baton
In the beginning this was the work of John Bowers himself, a passionate music fan who knew exactly how he wanted ‘his’ speakers to sound. John Bowers would obsessively listen and then tune the speakers – striving for perfection with each and every product.

Steve Roe

After his death, this job fell primarily to Steve Roe, who had worked closely with Bowers since the early 1970s. This seamless passing of the baton had the advantage of a consistency of approach, and that is something that remains true today with Steve Roe still making appearances at Steyning to listen, even though he has now retired, and Steve Pearce is the main ‘ears’.

“Steve Pearce became my key listening partner over time,” Steve Roe explains. “Steve was brought in as a technician, but he was very passionate about his music and we started listening together all the time, and he is the main driving force now for listening.”

Steve Pearce further explains that it was the influence of the company founder that really led him to get involved. “John Bowers would encourage you to listen; he was inclusive and would say ‘listen to this lad’. And we are still like that – if we make headway on a project and make something that sounds great we encourage everyone to come and listen to it!”

The listening room
That process now takes place in the main listening room at the Steyning Research Establishment. Things were not so consistent before it was built. In the early days there was a listening room at the old Meadow Road factory, and that was always contentious. It was not a ‘neutral’ room and there was always extraneous noise from the factory to contend with.

art-of-listening

Things are more consistent now – they have been for three decades – and the listening room is fundamentally the same one that John Bowers used in the early days of SRE. Head of Engineering Stuart Nevill explains: “This room is pivotal in the development of all our loudspeakers, and has been for the past 30 years. It’s probably not perfect, and it might be a little unusual in its behaviour compared with a normal living room, but it’s a clear window on a loudspeaker’s performance. It’s home to a number of the guys here. It’s their office, really.”

The room is a tuning tool for loudspeakers, because after three decades of use the team know its intricacies inside out; it is the ideal reference point.

Consistency and continuity are all-important. Not only is it vital that the room itself is consistent and known by the engineers and that they themselves cross reference one another, but consistency has to extend to the ancillary equipment used in the room. Source devices and amplification are changed but rarely and only after long and thorough audition. The old maxim of ‘only change one thing at a time’ holds true and it is vital that people can concentrate solely on the products being developed.

Although the main SRE room continues to be the focal point for listening, products are also taken to other sites for comparison, for no two rooms are the same and each has a significant effect on the overall sound. Engineers regularly take products home, whether they are easily portable or not, and journeys are often made to distributors’ premises.

“We do a lot of listening here in this room,” Steve Pearce explains. “It all starts here, but with products like the T7 we have them at home as well. Then there’s a lot of updates and off-site listening. Cross referencing of listening is also vitally important.”

Listening today
Listening continues to be a major part of Bowers & Wilkins’ product development, going hand-in-hand with the scientific and engineering research. And it is not simply a case of listening to ideas that have been developed on a computer; change and innovation is often led by the listening team, who then challenge the scientists to explain what it is they can hear.

Although as Steve Roe explains, it wasn’t always easy: “People often thought that we were mad with the changes we made, especially if they couldn’t understand what we were trying to say. They just thought we were crazy.

“But Martial Rousseau (Head of Research) and his team at SRE today are quite different in that respect though. He does try and find out what is going on and trusts that we know what we are doing. Then he goes away and comes up with solutions!”

You can read more about the Steyning Research Establishment here.

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