Sometimes an excellent operating system can be made even better
Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 PC speakers
Bowers & Wilkins' MM-1 PC speakers deliver great audio
- Wonderful audio, compact
- Expensive for PC speakers
For a company that also sells audiophile grade music online, we were ready to question the Bowers & Wilkins MM-1's limitation to 16-bit resolution digital audio. As it happens, this speaker system makes something of a silk purse out of CD-quality music. It's bouncy, infectiously rhythmic given half the chance, and incredibly wideband sounding. Design and construction are first-class, a stylish wrapper over the most supremely musical desktop PC speakers we've heard to date. Speakers this small have absolutely no right to sound so damn good.
Price$ 699.00 (AUD)
The Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 is a stereo speaker system for the desktop, offering a taste of audiophile sound from the British loudspeaker specialist
In specialist audio circles, B&W loudspeakers need little introduction. Bowers & Wilkins has been making hi-fi speakers for music enthusiasts since the 1960s, and more recently is renowned as a supplier of reference monitors to prestigious recording and mastering studios, in particular Abbey Road.
Two years ago the balloon went up for cheap ‘n’ cheerful iPod docks with the arrival of Zeppelin, a one-piece speaker designed by B&W for Apple’s portable player. Shaped like a high-tech rugby ball, it staked out new ground for a kind of high-end audio for iPods, wrapped in an iconic piece of industrial design.
Now B&W has MM-1, a two-piece stereo speaker aimed more squarely at the desktop PC market.
The Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 speakers may look unassuming in their cloth-noir guise, but these modestly sized blocks – just 17cm high – are packed with advanced drivers and electronics that put the vast majority of desktop speakers to shame.
In the best tradition of hi-fi speakers, the Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 is a stereo system with no added sub-bass boxes that need blending in sonically or hiding away visually, each box featuring two speaker drivers.
A 75mm mid-bass driver handles the lower end of the audio range, while a 25mm tweeter carries the high notes. Not just any regular tweeter, mind – B&W majors on using an acoustic technology it dubs Nautilus tapered tube, which ensures the sensitive high-frequency diaphragm is not coloured by unwanted air pressure acting on its rear surface.
To maximise the available amplifier power and provide the cleanest signal to the speaker drive units, the Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 uses digital signal processing (DSP) to shape the sound for the system, along with active crossovers to split the sound into two frequency ranges. This accurately channels sounds into the respective low and high-frequency drive units.
Construction quality of the Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 is exemplary, with no visible joins or fasteners around the little cabinets. Most of the Bowers & Wilkins MM-1's essential but unsightly wiring can also be tucked away; the tied cable connecting the speakers, along with power lead and USB cable all chase discretely under the right-hand speaker.
Also on the right speaker, incorporated into the metal trim, are volume + and – controls, and a power standby switch. A small pebble-shaped remote handset mirrors these controls, as well as adding a mute button and track play/pause and skip buttons. Used with the USB input, these let you navigate around iTunes’ playback functions.
As well as an analogue input at the back, another 3.5mm mini-jack socket provides a headphone output.
The Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 speakers’ micro-monolith looks belie the sheer size and the colour of sound they relay into the room. There’s no real sub-bass of course but some clever acoustic engineering means they sound thoroughly profound and awesomely wideband in range.
Our first test was to differentiate between USB digital and regular analogue inputs. Unusually, where similar desktop speakers we’ve tried tend to ultimately favour the analogue input for all-round musical enjoyment, we preferred the Bowers & Wilkins MM-1’s USB connection.
This gave the most extended and cleanest treble without losing a lively but well-integrated midrange. The USB option also showed the most weighty bass effects, all the while keeping music flowing naturally, rather than with a mechanical affectation.
Low-level detail such as decaying room reverberation was a little more audible than usual. Take the live recording of Mravinsky’s Shostakovich 8th Symphony, for instance, and you may hear some more of the Festival Hall’s acoustic than is strictly accurate.
It’s not quite enough to be distracting but an interesting possible side effect of a very clear and extended treble or perhaps the signal processing.
The Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 can play loud, uncommonly loud in fact, and to prevent you from inadvertently overdriving either the speakers into fuzz, or the amps into clipping, there is a definite built-in volume ceiling. It’s far higher than speakers this size ought to be though, so rarely noticed.
We heard such limiting when sudden bass transients kicked in, as with the random bass drum about two minutes into Pink Floyd’s ‘One of These Days’.
An important challenge that B&W has overcome is the integration of midrange to treble sounds. Consequently there’s little sense of a two-way speaker at work – more like a single very wide-ranging drive unit.
We found that voices and acoustic instruments really benefited from this integration, keeping a solo violin lyrical. Vocalists meanwhile could be heard supremely clearly, with no recessive masking of their voices even in a busy modern music mix.
Best of all was the Bowers & Wilkins MM-1’s articulate and rolling bass reproduction. Bass lines had slam and weight yet you could always pick out the pitch, in marked contrast to ‘big’ sounding speakers that major on one-note thuds.
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