The £57,000 loudspeaker inspired by a garden snail

The £57,000 loudspeaker inspired by a garden snail

Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.
— Frank Lloyd Wright

A sleepy coastal town in Southern England might not seem like a hotbed for innovation, but it’s the place of birth of one of the world’s most revolutionary loudspeaker designs.

At the end of WW2, a returning soldier, John Bowers, co-founded an electrical goods shop in Worthing, West Sussex, with a wartime colleague from the Royal Corps of Signals.

The shop did well from day one, but its enterprising owner had grander ambitions.

Bowers was passionate about audio and convinced he could improve existing loudspeaker designs.

In 1966, he began building speakers to his specifications in the workshop at the back of the store. 

The new products were popular, and, following a gift of £10,000 from a satisfied customer, Bowers decided to set up a new company (Bowers & Wilkins Loudspeakers Limited) to produce more of them.

From the beginning, the company invested heavily in research and development to find the perfect sound.

The P1 model was the first speaker to launch, and its success allowed the company to invest in new calibration equipment.

In the 1970s, B&W introduced new technology and materials and launched the DM801 speaker, which became the worldwide industry standard for recording studios.

The company’s most significant breakthrough, however, came in 1983 with the arrival of a young designer named Laurence Dickie.

Dickie enjoyed tinkering with speakers from a young age, inspired by his father’s love of audio.

He became obsessed with achieving the ‘holy grail’ of speaker design - reproducing an utterly transparent sound as if you were hearing the music being played live.

This is inherently difficult to produce because vibrations within the speaker enclosures ‘distort’ the sound waves, ‘corrupting’ the sound before it reaches the human ear.

The young engineer had an inkling that the natural world held the answer to reaching this end goal.

Bowers took a liking to Dickie’s ambition, so he handed him a research project into ‘perfect dipoles’ that he had been working on.

In 1990, as the company was approaching its 25th anniversary, the then CEO (Bowers had sadly passed away a couple of years previously) asked Dickie if there was a way he could commercialise the work he had been doing into furthering Bowers’ ideas.

After hundreds of prototypes and experimentation with countless materials, the missing piece of the puzzle was, somewhat surprisingly, found in the humble garden snail and the shape of its shell.

The circular design turned out to be particularly effective at controlling the sound waves as they left the speaker’s driver units (the magnetic elements that move to create sounds).

To this, Dickie designed some tapered ‘antennae-like’ transmission lines at the rear of the speaker to carry and vibrations away from the speaker unit.

The combination of these two design features minimised the resonances and reflections created within the speaker housing, and the result was an unparalleled clarity of sound.

By 1991, a wooden prototype was up and running, and two years later, the final product went on sale.

Amusingly, the finished design was originally named ‘Brian’ after the snail in the children’s TV show The Magic Roundabout.

Ultimately, the name ‘Nautilus’ was chosen as the speaker’s shape mimics that of the beautiful marine mollusc with which it shares its name.

After over a quarter of a century, these B&W speakers still define high-end audio sound and remain hand-built to order at the factory at a cost of £57,000!

In 2016, Bowers & Wilkins was sold to a Silicon Valley start-up for an undisclosed sum, ensuring John Bower’s quest for achieving the perfect sound lives on.

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