How to make the world's best festival sound system

With Rainforest World Music Festival preparing to assault Borneo's ears, we meet the unique B&W system taking festival sound into the next-gen…
B&W Sound System

Festivals are better known for flower garlands, upcycled furniture and astronomically expensive lager than audiophile sound.

But as Rainforest World Music Festival 2014 kicks off another summer of alfresco gigs, it seems fair to ask – why does sound quality still appear to be lower on most festival billings than knitting tents?

After finding live sound to be too often like an aural trip to the burger van, Bowers & Wilkins has snapped and taken action – by making an enormous, four tonne hi-fi system.

It might get loud

B&W Sound System

Debuted at Primavera Sound 2014 and heading next to Womad festival (24-27 July 2014) in the UK, the one-off 'Sound System' consists of four, three-metre high stacks, which together produce a huge 30kW output – or 120 decibels from eight metres away.

Our ears had the pleasure of auditioning the system's incredible clarity and dynamic range at Primavera Sound, where it was joined by 360-degree video projections (all streamed on to create an immersive, next-gen festival experience.

Ahead of its next stop on the festival circuit, we chatted with B&W's Head of Engineering Stuart Nevill about how it was made, why it's unique and why we can't have it in our garden.

Why did you make the Sound System?

B&W Sound System

We asked ourselves why people go to gigs and festivals. Nothing beats the rush of experiencing live music, but all too often there's something missing: sound quality.

A lot of sound systems have a horn between the moving element and the air, which produces 'colourations' (the blurring of an instrument's original sound).

Don't get me wrong, horn systems are great and designed for a purpose: to be extremely loud and sensitive. But we wanted to bring hi-fi quality sound to live music, with all the realism you’d expect from a top-end speaker, but delivered at scale for the first time.

How did you go from home loudspeakers to a PA system?

B&W Sound System

We had some idea how to do it from an unofficial system we did for one of Coldcut's tours of war-torn Eastern Europe. We knew the direct radiator approach (a system with direct facing drive units formed into a 'line array') could work. So we did some calculations, and on paper it looked like we could go loud enough and get the quality.

We tested the Sound System in a massive warehouse, a development space next to our factory. Everybody heard it. It was rattling cutlery in the kitchen. There were some predictions saying it wouldn't go loud enough, or would blow up! But it really did sound like a giant hi-fi, which was very impressive.

What makes it different from other sound systems?

B&W Sound System

Unless a customer wanted quality above all else, they wouldn't go for something like our system, because it's big, heavy inefficient and takes a lot of power. But the quality speaks for itself. The best hi-fi speakers aren't lightweight things, they're heavy. You can't change the laws of physics.

So we paid the same amount of attention to the cabinet design as we do our normal hi-fi speakers, hence why each speaker stack weighs one tonne! We're definitely not saying "this is the way it should be done". But it's proving a point that if you use good ingredients you can scale it up and make something really great.

Where can we hear the Sound System next?

We'll be taking it to Womad festival (24th-27th July) next. It's going to be much more about listening there, so won't come with the 360-degree moving projections we had in Primavera's Igloo tent.

Lots of festivals, including Bestival and Glastonbury, asked us about the Sound System, but we wanted the right bill – and the DJ line-up for Primavera Sound 2014 was so good.

At Womad we'll use it to demonstrate all the things you can listen for, so it's going be more like a TEDx event. If all goes well, next year we'll hopefully look at doing two or three festivals.