Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2 Loudspeaker

Magical Musical Tour

Equipment report
Bowers & Wilkins 702 S2
Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2 Loudspeaker

Guilty Pleasure
Simply put, Guilty Pleasure music is music you love, but would be embarrassed to admit to others that you did. All of us have this music in our “home alone” playlist. I’ll start my confession with one guilty pleasure to illustrate a key attribute of the 705s (and many religions)—forgiveness.

My guilty pleasure confession for today is Styx. There are a lot of people in our industry who hate Styx, and I get that the theatric nature of prog-rock can feel as though something (or someone) has been neutered. But, I like it. For this review, I maxed out the guilty part of pleasure and put on a vinyl rip of “Come Sail Away” from the Mobile Fidelity reissue of Styx’s 1977 album The Grand Illusion. I’m only going to relay that I was singing along and noticed that I was making hand gestures which could only be described as equally “theatric” (you know, palms out and hands slightly away from the body). Hey, I just report the facts and, remember, guilty pleasure music listening is embarrassing by definition. You all do it too.

The point is that the 705s won’t stomp on your fun when you want to have it, provided that the recording isn’t a complete train wreck. I did try some awful recordings of Billy Squier (OK, another guilty pleasure leaked out), and those, unfortunately, were basically unlistenable. Throw some badly pressed, thin and compressed vinyl at them, and that’s what you get.

Although reasonably forgiving, the 705s can’t do the “silk purse out of a sow’s ear” thing. In my opinion, they strike the correct balance between transparency and forgiveness. Your worst recordings won’t be salvaged, and your average recordings won’t be destroyed.

The Absolute Sound
Real instruments in real space. In audio too, space really is the ultimate frontier. It’s the difference-maker between feeling like the musicians are in your room, or feeling that you’re transported beyond your room to some other time and place. The system becomes a kind of portal into another acoustical space—your room is gone. This rarely happens because everything must be right, from the recording to the equipment and how it’s set up, and finally to how your room is arranged. Really good systems can pull off the disappearing act and have the musicians in your room, but only a very few systems I’ve ever heard can both disappear and transport you to another time and place.

I bring this element of time and space travel forward here, because when it comes to some of the classical and jazz recordings that afford us this possibility, it’s important to realize that judging against this standard is unforgiving (and potentially unfair). On the other hand, I hope that it provides some useful context. Remember that the 705 S2 is a $2500/pair loudspeaker. What does one give up when judged on an absolute scale?

I’ll cut to the chase and confirm that, although the 705 S2 is wonderful, there is still justification for some excellent loudspeakers that have 4,5, or even 6 zeros in their prices. That justification is resolution. The 705s are balanced, uncolored, remarkably precise and self-effacing, but if your reference for a small monitor is something like a Magico Q1, you will be aware that through the 705 there are technological barriers at play. That’s a long-winded (sorry—bad habit of mine) way of saying that you can only see so far into the space of a great recording. There were times when I felt like I was on the border between the original, recorded acoustic and my own (which is a remarkable accomplishment for a $2500/pair loudspeaker), but I was never allowed the privilege of fully busting through.

Philips’ 1987 LP of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski conducting his own Cello Concerto (and yes, I know it’s one of Philips’ “Digital Classics”) is one of the very few recordings that reminds me of a live mic feed. The music is certainly modern (variable time signatures and improvised mass soloists), but you really can get the feeling of peering into the open of the performers’ stage. The 705s did what they always do and kept me engaged. They gave me most of what that recording has to offer, and they didn’t lose their composure when the “authorities” (brass section) came blazing in. What they couldn’t do (and what very few speakers at any price can do) was fully transport me into the tension on that stage. But this is challenging stuff, and it’s only when stretched to the outer limits of expectations without price barriers that you run up against a resolution barrier. There is no Diamond tweeter, or Matrix bracing in the cabinet, or Neodymium motor systems, as in the 800 Series. Instead of feeling the lightness and resolution of the empty space between instruments, you get with the 705 S2 a kind of warm connective tissue. While this can serve to enhance listening to music like Ambrosia, under the microscope of real instruments in real space it keeps the 705s (understandably) at least one step away from that overused term “reference.”

That we must reach so far to get to the limits of these monitors is a huge credit to the design choices of Bowers & Wilkins’ engineering team. This is a product about balance, coherence, and self-effacement. It’s not some two-way monitor with a ribbon tweeter that all everyone talks about is its treble extension, sweetness, or detail retrieval. With the 705s, there is no obvious tilting of the tonal landscape to project a hyped or fake sense of detail.

A reminder as well that the review system was using a circa $900 moving-magnet cartridge (Acoustic Signature MM3) digging info out for a $2500 pair of loudspeakers. The “converters” in the system (first mechanical to electrical and then electrical to mechanical) sell for under $3500 total. Not once in listening to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet [RCA] did I think, “Boy, this is a great ‘budget’ system.” The truth is, I was much too busy enjoying the performance. Great designs disappear into their purpose.