It’s fair to suggest that the Bowers & Wilkins brand borders on the legendary. B&W loudspeakers have been around since 1966, and the company has pioneered both innovative construction materials (Kevlar cone drivers) and novel -- indeed, groundbreaking -- designs (the Nautilus). Now B&W has put its considerable technical muscle behind a mini home-theater speaker system that throws as muscular a sound as any I’ve heard lately. And here’s the catch -- it’s all done with one speaker design and a subwoofer.
The MT-60D comprises five M-1 speakers ($250 USD each) and one PV1D subwoofer ($1699), for a total system price of $2949. The M-1 houses a 1” Nautilus-inspired, tube-loaded tweeter, and a 4” woven-glass-fiber midrange driver in an enclosure that measures 9.8”H x 4.6”W x 6.4”D and weighs all of five pounds. The aluminum housing is generously curved, as is the grille -- it looks like a big taco shell stood on end. The lack of straight lines and corners of course minimizes internal and external reflections, while the rear port enables the modest drivers to reach depths one would not expect from so small a speaker. B&W offers a dedicated stand, the FS-M-1 ($150 pair), which lifts the speaker 35” above the floor. The stands are so designed that the only wire you see is the one entering the floor plate. B&W also supplies wall-mounting hardware.
Just like its bigger brothers, the M-1’s tweeter is tube-loaded. The tube is designed to capture the unwanted backwave emanating from the tweeter, so the sound you hear from the front is detailed and precise. The midrange driver features B&W’s Anti-Resonance Plug, initially built for the higher-end PM1 speaker. Made of polymer foam, the plug absorbs vagrant resonances and aids in reducing cone breakup. The result is greater clarity and detail in the midrange.
If the M-1 is set on a bookshelf or conventional stand, the speaker wire vanishes into the speaker’s base, where the leads are secured in small spring-loaded tubes. They look like binding posts, but they're not. Nor are the tubes wired directly into the speaker housing. That connection is made when the speaker housing’s single prong is slid onto the base’s upright post. As the British would say, “highly irregular” -- I was skeptical about the ultimate integrity of this connection. Like any good audio guy, I frown on connection exotica; even artifacts as pedestrian as banana plugs and spade lugs, it seems to me, just add another layer, another point where things can go wrong between wire and speaker. (Full disclosure: I’m a reviewer. I use banana plugs. Their ease of assembly and disassembly is just too convenient.) Nonetheless, B&W’s connection performed without mishap. It may be unconventional, but it works. The connection through the FS-M-1 stand is similar, except that the wire is inserted into small collars with setscrews. Again, the connection is made when the speaker's prong is inserted into the stand.
One last word about both the tubes and the collars -- they’re not very big. For my home-theater rig downstairs, I use industrial 14AWG in-wall wire for my surround speakers. It’s marvelously compact, and I can use runs as long as 35’ with no drop in fidelity. It fit the M-1’s collars snugly, with just enough room to deploy the setscrew. However, the 12AWG cable I use for my front and center-channel speakers was simply too thick for the collars. Luckily, I buy my 14AWG in-wall cable in 250’ spools, so cutting a few lengths for this application was easy. So, a word of caution: The M-1 may be a high-end product, but it won’t work with audiophile cables that could be used in a suspension bridge.
The PV1D is the sexiest subwoofer to come along in a while. Its housing is almost completely spherical -- save for a small pad on the bottom, where all the connections are made. All the wire you want or need runs through a small channel in the pad, so, as with the M-1, there are no exposed connections. The pad’s panel will accommodate either a sub feed from a preamplifier or a stereo speaker lead. It has three 3.5mm jacks: two for remote triggers with devices so equipped, and one for an RS232 connection. It also has a Molex socket for preamps that lack line-level outputs. B&W supplies a cable with a Molex jack at one end and four bare wires at the other to make the connections. In addition to the power cable, there’s a mini-USB input to connect the PV1D to an Internet-enabled computer, to make input and crossover adjustments from the listening position, as well as take advantage of firmware updates B&W may offer on its website.
The PV1D’s internal 400W amplifier drives two 8”, long-throw drivers with diaphragms made of a composite of paper, Kevlar, and aluminum. The sub has five user-defined presets: for example, movies, music, TV, mayhem, what have you. You can adjust the gain, polarity, and sensitivity (for the speaker-level inputs), as well as assign the presets to different triggers. But between you and me (lean closer), the PV1D just looks cool.
Some assembly required. The M-1s come with the speaker unit and stands packed separately. You have to gently pry the rubber seal from the bottom of the base, make the cable connection, then insert speaker and post into the base. It’s not a complex operation, but you’ll need a small flathead screwdriver to secure the wire in the collar. All other screws have Allen heads, for which B&W supplies the wrench. One M-1 serves as the center-channel speaker. In this case, you unscrew the post from the back of the speaker and turn it sideways. This operation is also not very complex, but this was one time I wished I had another set of arms and hands to keep everything steady.
I placed the front-channel speakers on FS-M-1 stands to either side of the entertainment center, 6’ apart and 11’ from my listening position. The center-channel speaker was perched atop the entertainment center. The surrounds were placed on conventional 29” stands on either side of our sectional, each 5’ from the listening position. The sub was situated within view along the front wall. Usually, I tuck subs behind an overstuffed leather chair, but this one looks so cool it seemed a shame to hide it away.
No one’s ever accused me of being a cinematic culture vulture, and I’ve gotten away with it. Until the MT-60D was in the family room, I’d never seen James Cameron’s Avatar, and it was expressly for this system that I popped for it on Blu-ray. I’ve read that Cameron spent several years writing the script, and several more making the film. The first part of that I don’t get; the second part I do. The story is Pocahontas meets Dances With Wolves tossed onto another planet in the 22nd century -- not so much lame as stale. The film, however, is a CGI tour de force, a lush, dazzling triumph of visual and aural imagination -- and precisely the gauntlet you want to throw down before a slick system like the B&W MT-60D. I could go on about how Cameron invented a fully realized alien environment, eschewing the easily rendered sands of Tatooine for the verdant Pandora; but what we’re interested in is how the MT-60D handled Avatar’s sound.
Like most action epics, Avatar best shows off a surround system’s ability to convey mayhem on a, well, epic scale. We don’t have long to wait. In his first foray into Pandora’s jungles (chapter 8), Jake stares down a thrashing hammerhead titanothere, only to be pursued by a hungry, relentless thanator. The all-out chase reverberated among the front and surround channels with deadly accuracy -- gratefully, less deadly for Jake. Not all sound placement in this film is quite so havoc-ridden. A sylvan stroll with Neytiri (chapter 13) is punctuated by insects buzzing from flower to flower, and they neatly traversed the soundscape across the front channels and around to the surrounds. However, some scenes are not quite so logically arrayed. In chapter 22, the RDA fires incendiary missiles into the Home Tree. The impacts exploded through the surrounds, although visually the action was entirely in front of me, not to the side or behind me. The B&W system kept everything tidily placed and cohesive.
In other scenes, the surround effects are sublime. In chapter 23, burning debris from the incendiary attack falls softly around a stunned Jake -- I was there with him as ash drifted softly earthward like a fall of hot, gray snow. In this scene, as with all the others, the MT-60D’s rendering of the soundtrack blended seamlessly with my viewing experience. As the action ramped up, so did the soundtrack and the MT-60D’s performance. The RDA’s attack on the Tree of Souls commences with a massive liftoff of their airborne armada: neatly imagined, almost plausible VTOLs (chapter 30). Whirring helicopter rotors rise and whoosh across visual and aural space, again engaging the full surround-sound array. The MT-60D sounded crisp and detailed.
James Horner’s score alternates between Na’vi tribal singing, which for the most part is rendered in the front channels, and the orchestral accompaniment, which, as in so many soundtracks these days, is relegated largely to the surrounds. This apparently purposeful separation again underscores the notion that surround speakers no longer do only the light lifting: a little ambience here, a gimmicky sound effect there. Avatar’s soundtrack requires surround speakers with sufficiently full frequency response to handle everything from high treble to a healthy dose of midbass. The M-1s filled that order with headroom to spare.
Speaking of music, B&W’s website boasts that their reengineering of the M-1 is such that “performance is now full range. In fact, the improvement is such that a single pair of M-1s could happily take on the role of your dedicated stereo speakers.” Such a claim deserves a challenge, yes? I spun a few tried-and-true test discs, some newer releases, and Radio Paradise’s Roku channel. Treble artifacts -- such as the percussion bridge of “Mr. Chow,” from Acoustic Alchemy’s Red Dust and Spanish Lace (CD, MCA MCAD-5816); or the tinkling xylophone in “The Man I Used to Be,” from Jellyfish’s Bellybutton (CD, Charisma 2-91400) -- soared with astonishing clarity, a testament to the dead-on accuracy and smooth dispersion characteristics of the M-1’s tweeter. Similarly, with both recordings, out-of-phase information spread widely, well beyond the speaker boundaries.
The M-1s nailed critical midrange tests, such as Andy Sturmer’s voice in “The Man I Used to Be,” or Marti Jones’s in the title track of Any Kind of Lie (CD, RCA 2040-2-R) -- they were rich with emotive expression. In fact, Jason Falkner’s guitars on Bellybutton and Willie Gillon’s winsome clarinet solo in “Any Kind of Lie” were crystalline, the kind of midrange clarity other speakers only dream of. That said, the depth of the stereo image was only fair, despite handsome height and width. Even with newer recordings, like Elbow’s The Seldom Seen Kid (CD, Polydor B0011063-02) and the Republic Tigers’ Keep Color (CD, Chop Shop/Atlantic 477884-2), the midrange clarity and high-treble performance were exceptional. Still, the overall presentation lacked the kind of depth I get from my Big Rig: Onkyo C7030 CD player, AVA Omega III EC preamp, Sunfire power amp, and Legacy Classic speakers.
Radio Paradise’s Roku channel streams MP3s at 128kbps. I found the sound quality through the M-1s to be terrific, with the same outstanding performance in the treble and midrange. I compared the RP stream of Elbow’s “Mirrorball” (The Seldom Seen Kid) with the CD. Since most, if not all, smaller home-theater speakers are primarily engineered to play back compressed sound sources, they should do justice to well-fashioned MP3s. In this respect the M-1s rendered “Mirror Ball” with considerable accuracy. However, the CD version had more depth and resonance, a contrast that immediately stood out through the B&Ws. I was impressed that the subtle sonic differences between the MP3 and CD were immediately noticeable. This underscored the M-1’s strengths with full-range material, but that’s not to say it could pass as a standalone full-range speaker. Everything I played, whether movies or music, required the PV1D subwoofer to give shape and depth to the lowest-frequency components of the recordings.
Which leads me to a final note about that sexy sub. At first I felt a mild disconnect between the demands of the Avatar soundtrack and the PV1D’s response. It wasn’t wimpy -- far from it -- but it was occasionally muddy, failing to respond with the precision I expect from a good home-theater sub. Well, that’s why B&W lets you toy with the PV1D’s parameters: use the tools they provide. Connect the sub to a PC and fiddle with the gain and crossover until you get the sound that best suits your material in your room. When I’d raised the crossover point and backed off the gain, the PV1D’s attack and clarity were what I’d expected. Music playback offers the same options -- another reason B&W gives you five presets to program. You can have one for movies, another for music, and so on.
Cameron’s Avatar and B&W’s MT-60D system are in one way analogous: Each is a 21st-century update of a tried-and-true framework. Avatar is only a partial success: the characters are out of central casting; the dialogue cut and pasted from a dozen similar B movies; and character development is swept behind the CGI green screen. In spite of all this, Cameron has created a culture and mythos for the Na’vi that is highly derivative but bursts with texture and imagination. You go back to Avatar not for the wooden plot or cigar-store-Indian acting, but for its breathlessly beautiful and nuanced world.
Bowers & Wilkins’ MT-60D, however, is an unqualified success. B&W has squeezed terrific sound out of a 1” tweeter and a 4” midrange-woofer. Any speaker can do movies. It takes a special speaker, designed and engineered to tackle more than just today’s highly complex cinematic soundtracks, to deliver a standalone musical performance. I don’t think the M-1 will actually replace anyone’s primary stereo speakers, particularly of the large, floorstanding variety. However, if all you have is one system, and a limited amount of space that you must keep relatively uncluttered, the MT-60D could very well be the system for you. Its cinematic performance is exceptional, and its musical performance is likely unchallenged for a system of its size.
. . . Kevin East
- Receiver -- Onkyo TX-NR808
- Sources -- Oppo BD-83 Blu-Ray player, Roku digital video player
- Display device -- Dell W4200HD plasma display
Bowers & Wilkins MT-60D Home-Theater Speaker System
System price: $2949 USD.
Warranty: parts and labor: five years, M-1; two years, PV1D.
B&W Group, Ltd.
Dale Road, Worthing
West Sussex, England BN11 2BH
Phone: +44 (0) 1903-221-800
B&W Group North America
54 Concord Street
North Reading, MA 01864
Phone: (978) 664-2870
Fax: (978) 664-4109