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17 of the best Bowers & Wilkins products of all time
Every iconic brand comes from humble beginnings. Steve Jobs’ parents’ house, Jeff Bezos’ garage and a soda fountain in Atlanta gave birth to Apple, Amazon and Coca Cola. One of the most highly respected names in the audio industry has a similarly unlikely origin. In the 1960s, John Bowers owned a radio and TV shop in Worthing, Sussex, on the south coast of England. As a sideline, he built speakers in his workshop, developing the innovative drive unit technology that would become the hallmark of his as yet unplanned business. It was an unexpected bequest from a highly satisfied customer that enabled him to found Bowers and Wilkins in 1966.
In strict sound quality terms conditions in the 1960s were very different from today. As result, B&W speakers rapidly became the equipment of choice for professional sound engineers and were famously installed at the legendary Abbey Road Studios in London. The success of the company was phenomenal, and although it was acquired by a Silicon Valley start-up in 2016, it still manufactures some of its best-loved speakers at its Sussex headquarters.
The Bowers Wilkins speaker story has been driven by two imperatives: quality and innovation. As a consequence, it has retained its world-leading position for over 50 years. In that time, we’ve seen an impressive diversity of B&W speakers so we decided to look back over 17 of the company’s crowning achievements. Why only 17? We had to stop somewhere, and some of your - and our - personal favorites, like the Formation duo, haven’t been included, but any limit on numbers is arbitrary so we settled on 17 just because of space and time!
B&W DM110Created in the 1980s, this was a cheaper pair of speakers than those for which Bowers and Wilkins became famous. Looking at it now, we’re slightly surprised by the black chipboard which was used for the cabinet because we’ve grown used to much higher quality materials since then. Nevertheless, its 50mm paper mid/bass driver and its 32mm soft dome tweeter helped to make it a really powerful speaker that managed to look stylish despite the modest price tag. The drive unit too was ahead of its time. The DM110 was also something of a breakthrough for the company in accessing the huge export market.
B&W Matrix 805VTwo of Bowers and Wilkins’ signature innovations appeared in the Matrix 805V: a 26mm metal dome tweeter situated on the top of the cabinet above a 165mm yellow Kevlar cone. This compact speaker takes its name from the honeycomb-like internal structure, designed to eliminate unwanted resonance. These features remained central to Bowers Wilkins speaker design for many years. As for the performance of the Matrix 805V, it still packs a powerful punch today.
B&W CDM1Back in 1995, these hi-fi speakers beat most of the competition in their price band, holding up extremely well at very high volume. It features the familiar 165mm bass/mid driver with a woven Kevlar cone secured in a die-cast cradle and powered by a 31mm voice coil. The 26mm alloy dome tweeter incorporates a high-power voice coil. The CDM1 has a wide frequency range from 64Hz to 20kHz, while its cabinet is both stylish and unusual. For small speakers, they deliver a big sound.
B&W Signature 30With an eye-watering price tag for the time (1998), these B&W speakers were intended for serious audiophiles but they certainly delivered. Once again, B&W used an isolated tweeter as well as a substantial Kevlar midrange driver and a bass cone made from aluminum. As befits a limited edition, they had a special visual accent in the form of silver wiring for all the internal leads, wires and coils. In tests, B&W’s engineers had concluded that the conductive properties of silver were pretty much unbeatable and the sound they produced was a joy.
B&W Nautilus 801The original Nautilus was and remains a remarkable, revolutionary piece of equipment with an absolutely stunning aesthetic design and matchless performance. It is hand-built to order and comes at a price that puts it far beyond the reach of the average enthusiast. Fortunately, B&W created the Nautilus 801 at about a quarter of the cost while preserving the crucial elements that put the Nautilus out in front of the competition. It has the same tapered tube casing to reduce the effects of diffraction on the midrange and treble drivers and it features the same type of Kevlar driver and Matrix bracing. Expensive without being bank-breaking, it’s a superb speaker.
B&W DM602 S2The original DM602 is a favorite among the senior engineering staff at Bowers and Wilkins. They are big and bold stand-mounted speakers with a cabinet measuring 20 inches high. Fitted with a substantial Kevlar mid bass driver, they represented the top of the range in 1996. Three years later came the Series 2 model which offered excellent value for money. The mid bass driver proved as dependable as ever and with a transparent and very detailed midrange the DM602 S2 reached new heights. The stylish design makes them look much more expensive than they are and the sound is huge but clean. The Series 2 is a great all-rounder doing equal justice to folk, orchestral, jazz and the heaviest, loudest rock.
B&W DM601 S3If you don’t have the luxury of a spare room to devote to your sound system, then bookshelf speakers will be a must. Many people are sceptical about the power and sound quality you can get from such modest-sized units, but Bowers and Wilkins put a decisive end to that kind of scepticism when it created the 601. The first incarnation was ground-breaking. By the time the engineers finished work on the Series 3 model, they seemed to have reinvented bookshelf speakers in the image of the most powerful stand- or floor-mounted models. It was launched in 2002 and set the ears of reviewers alight in test rooms all over the world. B&W didn’t change the fundamental winning ingredients of the 600 series, so the Kevlar-coned mid bass driver is here, along with the tapered internal tube and the alloy dome tweeter. What appear to have been modest changes and upgrades to the cabinet made a significant improvement to the sound quality, with strong, clean bass, a deep midrange and crisp treble. Bookshelf speakers no longer had to be seen as the poor relations.
B&W PV1This dynamic subwoofer won a whole cabinet’s worth of awards when it appeared in 2004. It has an ingenious circular design with a beautiful silver finish and it set a new standard for subwoofers with a remarkably full, clean bass delivery. It features two 20cm drivers powered by a 500-watt Class-D intensifier and has virtually zero reverberation. The engineers at B&W surpassed themselves once again with the powerful, profound performance of the PV1, the ideal subwoofer accessory.
B&W 805SBy 2007, Bowers & Wilkins’ core technology made the company the envy of the industry. Having hit upon what still appear to be optimum performance components, they wisely decided not to mess around with them. So, all present and correct are the pod-mounted metal dome tweeter, the braced cabinet, and the Kevlar cone. The build is excellent, solidly made but chic and elegant. At their price level, they set the standard for stand-mounted speakers, creating a multi-colored, rich, deep and spacious sonic picture.
B&W MM1The MM1 was an intriguing and very successful attempt at turning PC audio into genuine hi-fi. Small but expensive, they were designed to plug into desktop computers and take over from the pretty dire built-in speakers of practically all PCs. At just over 6.5 inches tall, they never looked as if you’d get much more than a pretty average sound out of them, but of course, Bowers & Wilkins should never be underestimated. Plug them in and play, as reviewers did with some trepidation in their test rooms, and you’d be amazed at the sound quality, definition, space and sheer power they achieve. The MM1 set another of B&W’s many benchmarks.
B&W P7It’s impossible to ignore the B&W range of headphones, both over-ear and earbuds. The company’s first efforts - the P3 and P5 - did a respectable job without being particularly special, but when they came up with the P7, they’d found the perfect recipe. The sleek design and easy portability gave them aesthetic appeal and convenience. They’re comfortable to wear, do a fine job of noise cancellation and, most importantly of all, deliver an impactful, immersive and intricate sound. Their slightly larger than average size made it possible for the engineers to incorporate a driver suspension similar to that of a conventional speaker. Not surprisingly, they won industry awards for Best Headphones. They’re not cheap, but if you’re looking at the Bowers & Wilkins level of quality, you’ll be expecting that.
B&W MT-50Sub/sat speakers - particularly good for outdoor spaces - may have had their day in the sun but when they were still in demand, B&W’s MT-50 speakers gave a detailed and dynamic performance and were best in class for several years. The technology B&W deployed in the MT-50s led the way for B&W’s excellent home theater systems like the MT-30 and MT-60 as well as influencing its flagship soundbar the Formation duo.
B&W 800 DiamondIn 2013 B&W unleashed yet another winning product with the 800 series Diamond speaker. True, they were priced at about the same level as a modest family car, but why drive when you can enjoy music through speakers that sound this good? They are massive units, standing over 46 inches tall, and although size isn’t always a measure of quality, in this case, the two go hand in hand. In fact, until something truly unexpected comes along, we’d have to say the 800 series Diamond is a candidate for best speaker ever.
B&W 685 S2The 600 series is an extremely impressive part of the B&W portfolio. It may not have the scene-stealing personality of the 700 or 800 series, but its compact speakers outperform most full-sized ones from the competition. The 685 S2 bookshelf speakers were launched in 2015 and featured the usual Kevlar mid bass cone, yet to be replaced by the Continuum cone that has since become a standard feature. The tweeter was made more rigid and the design enabled it to be decoupled from the cabinet. The sound quality is powerful and very detailed, with plenty of space and definition plus a deep, rich bass register.
B&W 805 D3The B&W top-end 800 series Diamond range may be beyond the financial reach of most of us, but for anyone with the money to match their desire for the very best sound, the 805 D3 is a marvel. For the first time in years, the changes B&W implemented were on a major scale. This was at the time when their engineers had perfected the new Continuum cone to replace the Kevlar version which had been in service for many years. It also incorporates a completely redesigned diamond dome tweeter. It goes without saying that the sound power and definition is incredible. Yes, the price tag is big, but the success of the 805 D3 led to the inclusion of its new technology in Bowers Wilkins speakers of all levels.
There you have it. More than 50 years after John Bowers took the plunge and entered the world of high-end hi-fi, the legacy of his company grows larger and more impressive with every year that passes. The sheer variety of the B&W range is conclusive proof, if any were needed, that you don’t have to settle for just any old pair of speakers. If you love music and value quality, then you owe yourself the special luxury of B&W stand-mounts, floor-mounts or a wireless speaker, or even headphones or earbuds. Just consider the significance of the endorsement of B&W by Abbey Road Studios, not only the place where The Beatles recorded 190 of their 210 songs but also the birthplace of masterpieces by Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Radiohead, Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, and hundreds more. If B&W speakers are good enough for them…
You’ll find links on our site to many of the products featured here, along with terms conditions and other small-print stuff to help you make the right purchase. If you’re a B&W aficionado, you know how special they are. If you’re a newcomer, jump on in, the sonic water’s lovely.