Bow­ers & Wilkins 705 S2 Loud­speaker

SoundMag - - Re­view / Bow­ers & Wilkins - by Al­lan Moul­ton

Whether it’s a fan­tas­tic $3 ball­point pen, or the multi­bil­lion-dol­lar Shang­hai Tower, great de­sign is not tied to a price tag. It might sur­prise many read­ers of The Ab­so­lute Sound to know that what gets the juices of many au­dio in­dus­try veter­ans flow­ing is not sim­ply the “ref­er­ence” gear priced be­yond the reach of most ev­ery­one, but in­stead the equip­ment at all price points that demon­strates its de­signer’s su­pe­rior tal­ents.

Ex­cep­tion­ally de­signed things are fre­quently eas­ier to rec­og­nize than to quan­tify as such. We can de­scribe them as ob­jects. We can de­scribe how they func­tion. We can de­scribe how they make us feel in use. There are mag­a­zines ded­i­cated to each. Great de­sign, how­ever, is re­served for ob­jects that tran­scend mere at­tributes. Great de­signs are ones where all the el­e­ments dis­ap­pear into a func­tion­al­ity that is artis­tic and in­spi­ra­tional.

With a well-de­signed au­dio com­po­nent, you lis­ten through it, not to it. The thing dis­ap­pears into its pur­pose.

Bow­ers & Wilkins (as of a few years back, no longer of­fi­cially B&W, so I’ll try to avoid that) is a di­ver­si­fied au­dio com­pany. It makes the 705 S2 speak­ers here in front of me, the won­der­ful au­dio sys­tem in my brother’s Volvo XC90 (love that in­te­rior!), Zep­pelins for your kitchen, head­phones for your head, speak­ers for your boat; it even brings new mu­sic to your home through its So­ci­ety of Sound. To bor­row the credit card slo­gan, it’s ev­ery­where you want to be. Strangely how­ever, even though I haven’t known an au­dio land­scape with­out Bow­ers & Wilkins

(it was founded in 1966, me in 1967), I have never owned nor sold new any of its speak­ers in my re­tail days. For some­one who has been in the in­dus­try for 20-odd years (and they have been odd), I come to an eval­u­a­tion of one of its prod­ucts about as fresh as one can. My over­all im­pres­sion is that it is a com­pany do­ing fun­da­men­tal re­search with the goal of build­ing a bet­ter mouse­trap.

The mouse­trap in front of me for this re­view is a mem­ber of the shiny, brand-new 700 Se­ries—the 705 S2. Alan Taf­fel did a very nice over­view of the launch of this se­ries in TAS Is­sue 277, re­port­ing on his visit to its fa­cil­ity near Bos­ton. I would en­cour­age you to re­visit his re­port for fur­ther in­for­ma­tion and his im­pres­sions of the 705 S2 and other 700 Se­ries mod­els. As I live within about 45 min­utes of these North Amer­i­can head­quar­ters, I also re­cently made the trek, and some of my find­ings will be sprin­kled in here.

Ef­fec­tively, the 700 Se­ries 2 loud­speak­ers take the out­go­ing and long-last­ing CM Se­ries cab­i­nets and change ev­ery­thing else. Since the in­tro­duc­tion of the iconic 801 in 1979, the 800 Se­ries has con­tin­u­ously held the po­si­tion of Bow­ers & Wilkins’ top ref­er­ence speaker line (with the ex­cep­tion of a few one-offs like the Nau­tilus). As you might imag­ine, the next-in-line 700 Se­ries 2 in­cor­po­rates many of the tech­nolo­gies de­vel­oped for the cur­rent 800 D3 (more on that in the Tech­ni­cally Speak­ing side­bars). There are three floor­stand­ing, three book­shelf/mon­i­tor, and two cen­ter-chan­nel speak­ers in the 700 Se­ries 2 lineup, rang­ing in price from $1200/pair for the small­est mon­i­tors to $4400/pair for the largest floor­standers. The 705 S2 un­der re­view is the top book­shelf/mon­i­tor—the one with the cherry (I mean tweeter) on top. It is priced at $2500/pair, with com­pan­ion FS-700 S2 stands (sand-filled by the ven­dor) at $500/pair. My 705 S2s were white speak­ers on sil­ver stands. Clean. Mod­ern. Pur­pose­ful. I en­joyed them as ob­jects. Pack­ing and in­cluded ma­te­ri­als re­minded me that this is a com­pany that has been do­ing it for some time. You know… pro­fes­sional.

Now on to some mu­sic al­ready.

Mag­i­cal Mu­si­cal Tour

Equip­ment re­port by Al­lan Moul­ton | May 15th, 2018

• Cat­e­gories: Floor­stand­ing

• Prod­ucts: Bow­ers & Wilkins 702 S2

Bow­ers & Wilkins 705 S2 Loud­speaker

Ini­tial Im­pres­sions: Speed Dat­ing Though I’ve never ac­tu­ally speed dated, I do like to be­gin ev­ery com­po­nent or sys­tem eval­u­a­tion by au­dio speed dat­ing. This means ran­domly surf­ing through dig­i­tal files on my hard drive to get an ini­tial, in­stinc­tual an­swer to im­por­tant ques­tions such as “Do I ba­si­cally like you?” or “Are you go­ing to bite me (in a bad way…)?” or “What are your likes and dis­likes?” Of course, in au­dio speed dat­ing the ques­tions are mu­si­cal ones, and the an­swers will set the at­mos­phere for po­ten­tial, fu­ture ques­tions and maybe even fu­ture “dates.”

One of the first mu­si­cal ques­tions for the 705s was Jacque­line du Pré and Daniel Baren­boim’s 1968 record­ing of Brahms’ Two Sonatas for Cello and Piano. This record­ing of the then re­cently mar­ried cou­ple was cap­tured in Stu­dio #1 at Abbey Road, a stu­dio most fa­mous for and through The Bea­tles, and which also has had a long­stand­ing (since the late 80s) re­la­tion­ship with Bow­ers & Wilkins. This is a fan­tas­tic per­for­mance, and I am ashamed to ad­mit that I smeared its rep­u­ta­tion (or more cor­rectly, mine) by writ­ing the words “say cello to my lit­tle friends” in my note­book while lis­ten­ing. The point be­ing that I was com­fort­able. This was not the pre­sen­ta­tion of a small, thin-sound­ing book­shelf speaker pre­tend­ing to be some­one’s idea of an an­a­lytic stu­dio mon­i­tor. De­tail, yes. But also a tex­ture and di­men­sion that come from a more fully re­al­ized har­monic struc­ture. From the first notes, it was ob­vi­ous that this was a speaker built for mu­sic, not sounds.

Most loud­speak­ers shift. They rock back and forth like a ship on a sonic ocean. Per­haps they get com­pressed and ag­gres­sive dur­ing dy­namic pas­sages, or per­haps their sound can be char­ac­ter­ized dif­fer­ently for dif­fer­ent fre­quency ranges. The 705 S2s were not shift­ing. Throw­ing in some quick hits of live J.J. Cale, Tony Rice, or Yo-Yo Ma demon­strated an abil­ity to throw an ab­so­lutely locked-in stage. And these su­per-sta­ble im­ages were not cutouts. The warm at­mo­spher­ics on J.J. Cale’s “Old Man,” recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1996, were re­mark­ably free and pal­pa­ble. The 705s were gain­ing my trust be­cause they were con­sis­tent in their an­swers to these early mu­si­cal ques­tions. Top to bot­tom. One fab­ric. No Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Mak­ing a last stop on the track “Holdin’ on to Yes­ter­day” from the Alan Par­sons engi­neered, self-ti­tled 1975 al­bum by Am­brosia was a sur­prise. This is 70s rock pro­duc­tion at its best with soar­ing vo­cals and fan­tas­tic, sweep­ing or­gan to open the song up. It was so good—and I was hav­ing so much fun—that I had to lis­ten to more tracks from the al­bum. I couldn’t help it. When a sys­tem is work­ing, there is a feel­ing that you just want to soak as much of it up as you can. You can’t look/ lis­ten away. While my early com­fort with the 705 S2s was founded in their tex­tured, con­sis­tent dis­po­si­tion, here they showed an abil­ity to loosen up and let it flow. Lis­ten­ing to Am­brosia was the fi­nal speed-dat­ing ques­tion. We agreed to see each other again…

Bow­ers & Wilkins 705 S2

In­side Voices I’ll avoid be­ing mean spir­ited, but I think it’s fair to point out that I’m not pre­dis­posed to lik­ing the midrange of ev­ery Bow­ers & Wilkins I’ve heard. Some ex­am­ples of the yel­low Kevlar midrange’d Ma­trix Se­ries of yore were not my cup of tea. I’ll ad­mit to be­ing ini­tially wor­ried. Turns out the worry was un­nec­es­sary.

“Un­shake­able” was the term that kept com­ing up. No mat­ter the artists or their vo­cal stylings, my fo­cus was fully given over to their choices, and not those of the speak­ers. Lis­ten­ing to some of my fa­vorite vo­cal­ists on good old LP through the Acous­tic Sig­na­ture Wow XL/TA-700/MM3 (Acous­tic Sig­na­ture-mod­i­fied Orto­fon 2M Black)/ Suther­land KC Vibe phonos­tage was in­struc­tive. Reprise’s awe­some 2009 reis­sue of Joni Mitchell’s 1971 al­bum Blue ac­tu­ally gave me the chills on her fre­quently cov­ered “A Case of You” (for an­other cool ver­sion of this, check out Prince’s lesser known al­bum One Nite Alone). Joni Mitchell is a cinch to screw up. Her voice can eas­ily get into the “Dy­lan’s har­mon­ica” or “fin­gers on a chalk­board” zone, even for a Cana­dian like me who soaks her up. But through the 705s she sounded “pure.”

I was wait­ing for the loud­speaker to an­nounce it­self, and it never did. And, be­tween you and me, I’d rather lis­ten to Joni Mitchell than “a loud­speaker.”

The best way to say it is that the artists’ voices I’ve lis­tened to thou­sands of times sounded like the artists’ voices I’ve lis­tened to thou­sands of times. Vinyl rips of Wil­lie Nel­son. Elly Amel­ing singing Schu­bert Lieder. Aaron Neville singing Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sun­shine.” Johnny Hart­man. Stan Rogers. Bruno Mars. Sk­aggs and Rice. Quirky or silky. Didn’t mat­ter.

I be­lieve the cor­rect term is “nat­u­ral.”

High Oc­tane

And the 705 S2s don’t sound small. In my ap­prox­i­mately 19’ x 14’ x 8’ room (which is open to larger rooms), I was get­ting good mea­sured ex­ten­sion into the high 30Hz re­gion. More im­por­tantly, the only real time that I ac­tively felt like a larger speaker was needed was when lis­ten­ing to Ray Bar­retto’s high-en­ergy Latin al­bum Acid [Fa­nia]. But for this mu­sic, only some­thing like a gi­ant PA stack will do.

On al­most ev­ery other “big” piece of mu­sic thrown at them, the 705s didn’t “tap out” (to use the now com­mon mixed mar­tial arts phrase). This dy­namic com­po­sure was an­other brick in the wall of trust. It’s one area where small loud­speak­ers are ex­pected to let you down and show them­selves. The 705s did not.

On both the 45rpm dou­ble LP of the Academy Award and Grammy win­ning sound­track for the movie Dances with Wolves [ORG], and the im­pres­sive 1959 Lon­don ses­sions of Solti con­duct­ing Wag­ner’s Das Rhein­gold [Decca], the lit­tle Bow­ers & Wilkins did not shy away. The power and scale of the per­cus­sion on “Pawnee At­tack” from the Dances with Wolves score would have had any­one shak­ing his head, and the stage on Das Rhein­gold was as large and sta­ble as I’ve heard it in my home.

The only cries for un­cle were heard when I played the very well-pro­duced 2006 al­bum 10,000 Days from May­nard James Keenan’s pro­gres­sive hard

rock band Tool. Play­ing the con­sec­u­tive tracks “10,000 Days (Wings, Pt.2)” and then “The Pot,” the poor 705s did get over­whelmed in the open­ing min­utes. Bass gui­tar, gi­ant and deep bass drum, all in the mid­dle of a phase-aided (along the lines of Q Sound) sur­round-sound thun­der­storm were all si­mul­ta­ne­ously too much for a two-way mon­i­tor—go fig­ure. I got some com­pres­sion and con­fu­sion, and the bot­tom oc­taves were, of course, miss­ing. How­ever, fol­low­ing the thun­der­storm be­gin­ning and into “The Pot,” the 705s came back to life, and in a big way. I was bang­ing my head, and the air gui­tar was the kind where you rock back and forth with your arms hang­ing as low as you can get them. Awe­some stuff! I could have been a rock star.

I’m cer­tain that the larger 700 S2 loud­speak­ers would have been more ex­tended and dy­nam­i­cally ca­pa­ble, but even in my not-so-small acous­ti­cal space I could en­joy the 705s with larger works at rea­son­ably loud lev­els. Think “out­per­forms ex­pec­ta­tions” on the small-big scale and you’ll be on the right track, not “rewrites laws of physics.”

Es­sen­tial

Es­sen­tial mu­sic is mu­sic that must sound good on any sys­tem you lis­ten to be­cause it’s im­por­tant in one way or an­other. It may have lit­tle to do with record­ing qual­ity, but when lis­ten­ing to es­sen­tial mu­sic the sys­tem needs to get the hell out of the way. If it doesn’t, you need to move quickly on. Af­ter all, if a sys­tem isn’t en­gag­ing with the mu­sic you care most about, does any­thing else re­ally mat­ter?

One of these es­sen­tial pieces of mu­sic for me is John Prine singing Steve Good­man’s “My

Old Man” from Trib­ute to Steve Good­man [Red Pa­ja­mas Records]. This is off a two-LP set recorded live in Chicago’s Arie Crown The­ater in 1985. Steve Good­man is best known as the writer of “City of New Or­leans” (made fa­mous by Arlo Guthrie), and some big names show up for a very heart­felt trib­ute. The afore­men­tioned Arlo Guthrie, John Prine, Richie Havens, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Bon­nie Raitt, Brian Bromberg, and many oth­ers are there in per­for­mances that are oc­ca­sion­ally lack­ing in pol­ish (doesn’t sound like there was a great deal of re­hearsal) but are al­ways in the best spirit of re­mem­brance.

John Prine’s in­tro­duc­tion, and then per­for­mance of “My Old Man” gets me most ev­ery time. I’m not com­pletely sure why. This song is about the loss of Steve Good­man’s fa­ther, but John Prine also de­liv­ers the song with the dou­ble power of the re­cent loss of his friend and fre­quent road com­pan­ion, Steve Good­man. My fa­ther is liv­ing, and I’m now the fa­ther of two young sons. The raw hon­esty of John Prine’s de­liv­ery that car­ries this dou­ble sense of loss is, for me, over­whelm­ing. The lyrics are sim­ple, al­most child­like. But they cut to the core of loss and griev­ing. Through the 705 S2s? Well, they weren’t fake tears welling up.

How would one an­a­lyze this? Re­call­ing the open­ing of this re­view, there are tech­ni­cal at­tributes of the thing. There are tech­ni­cal at­tributes of the sound the thing pro­duces. We make ef­forts to elu­ci­date as­pects of both. And the ex­pe­ri­ence of the thing in use it­self? As a lis­tener, which do we en­counter first and most im­por­tantly? All I know is that some com­po­nents pos­sess the ca­pa­bil­ity to al­low the es­sen­tial to shine through, and many do not. I’d sug­gest you own the ones that do.

Con­clu­sion (Or, “Oh yeah? That’s what you think!”) I’m sure ev­ery­one in the hobby has at one time asked him­self and oth­ers what kind of sys­tem he’d own if he won the lot­tery or had un­lim­ited funds. I’m well past the point of be­liev­ing that any one sys­tem can do it all, and so for me, I’d have to have at least three sys­tems (money’s no ob­ject re­mem­ber). One would prob­a­bly be some kind of pla­nar, per­haps a Quad-based sys­tem. An­other would be a big set of horns with lots of glow­ing bot­tles to drive them. The “an­chor” sys­tem would be built around a big set of dy­namic speak­ers. The pla­nar and horn sys­tems of­fer an al­most spe­cial­ized set of strengths and per­spec­tives, while the dy­namic speak­ers serve as the “all-rounders.”

The Bow­ers & Wilkins 705 S2s are all-rounders. If they had a med­i­cal de­gree they’d be a great fam­ily doc­tor, not a gas­troen­terol­o­gist or plas­tic sur­geon. The mu­sic men­tioned in this re­view is a sam­pling of the se­lec­tions I lis­tened to through them, and I al­ways looked for­ward to fir­ing the sys­tem up and fol­low­ing that day’s mu­si­cal muse. The 705s never slapped my hands and said, “No, we won’t hang with you if you want to play that.”

The 705 S2 is a prod­uct that few com­pa­nies would have the abil­ity and re­sources to match. It’s also a won­der­ful case where a com­pany’s claims for tech­ni­cal ad­vances line up with lis­ten­ing im­pres­sions. Res­o­nances are well con­trolled, and the speak­ers present a nat­u­ral, ex­tremely pre­cise, and en­gag­ing sound­field. The sound is vividly present with­out edge or an­noy­ance. Over­all, the 705 S2s are both co­her­ent and self-ef­fac­ing.

I can’t speak for what each reader looks/lis­tens for when he chooses a sys­tem or a new com­po­nent. My needs are sim­ple: I want to en­joy mu­sic in the com­fort of my home. Well, dur­ing this re­view I tapped and stomped my feet. I air-gui­tared like a real rock star (bet­ter, if I’m hon­est). I had tears well up con­sid­er­ing fa­ther­hood, friend­ship, and loss. I closed my eyes to bathe in the best of the BSO. I head­banged. I had fun. Those are facts

(not fake news).

I’d say that these are the re­sponses to a great de­sign. If your de­sign en­ables me to do all that, then you can be sure I’ll make a strong rec­om­men­da­tion. Which I do.

The sys­tem used for this re­view was quite sim­ple, and I’ll make the point at the outset that the equip­ment has to live around my fam­ily and me, not we around it.

The speak­ers were placed in the po­si­tions I use for my Magico V2s, and the only tweak that was per­formed was the use of the outer ring foam port plug. These foam plugs have a re­mov­able “core,” and I used them with their cores re­moved. Used in this way, the port ceased to be a dis­tract­ing ele­ment. Later, sim­ple mea­sure­ments showed that this use of the foam plugs sig­nif­i­cantly smoothed (in my room!) the high-30Hz to 60Hz re­gion.

The elec­tron­ics were pri­mar­ily ei­ther the De­vialet 200 in­te­grated am­pli­fier, or the (never avail­able for sale in the U.S.) Eclipse TD-A502 in­te­grated am­pli­fier us­ing a trans­former. I briefly tried the Ro­tel RA-1572 in­te­grated am­pli­fier, but felt as though its per­for­mance was not up to the high stan­dards of the 705 S2s. I used the lit­tle TD-A502 (a prod­uct from the mid-to-late 2000s) be­cause it’s fun-sound­ing, sold for less than 900 pounds ster­ling, and is only 30 watts per chan­nel. Its 30 watts were enough in my cir­cum­stance with the 705s. Ex­plo­sive midrange is the strength of this am­pli­fier. Plus, its top-mounted LEDs light around the large vol­ume con­trol to project what looks like a lo­tus flower on your ceil­ing.

The ana­log source was the Acous­tic Sig­na­ture Wow XL, with its com­pan­ion TA-700 ’arm and

MM3 mov­ing-mag­net car­tridge (mod­i­fied Orto­fon 2M Black). This was set up for me by Fidelis AV, Acous­tic Sig­na­ture’s dis­trib­u­tor in New Hamp­shire. The phonos­tage was the Suther­land KC vibe ($895). All this ana­log front end did is re­li­ably and beau­ti­fully play back my records. What a plea­sure.

The dig­i­tal front end is built around a C.A.P.S. La­goon server with Red Wine out­board bat­tery power sup­ply. I have never owned a CD player or trans­port. I run JRiver play­back soft­ware and the com­puter is op­er­ated head­less via Splash­top on my iPad. Mu­sic is stored on a Synol­ogy DS1512+. Com­puter runs WyWires Plat­inum

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