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Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2 Loudspeaker

Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2 Loudspeaker

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.

 

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…


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.”

 

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.

 

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.

 

Specs & Pricing

Type: Two-way, stand-mounted loudspeaker
Driver complement: 6.5″ woofer/midrange, 1″ dome tweeter
Loading: Rear-firing port
Frequency response: 50Hz–28kHz +/–3dB (–6dB at 45Hz and 33kHz)
Sensitivity: 88dB
Impedance: 8 ohms (3.7 ohms minimum)
Dimensions: 7.8″ x 16″ x 11.9″
Weight: 20.5 lbs. each
Price: $2500/pr.

BOWERS & WILKINS
54 Concord St.
North Reading , MA 01864
USA
(978) 664-2870
bowers-wilkins.com

Equipment and Setup

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 USB either directly to the Devialet or to a Chord Electronics Qute HD when using other electronics.

By Allan Moulton

Let’s just start with a confession of sorts. I enjoyed listening to the combined talents of Roger Whittaker, Nana Mouskouri, The Irish Rovers, Zamfir, and Chuck Mangione with my family as a youth (Allan winces).

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