Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
I remember the moment I was first exposed to -- and instantly hooked on -- the experience of high-quality sound reproduction. Still in high school, I heard a pair of lowly Bowers & Wilkins bookshelf speakers, the 201s. I then bought a pair of them, with money I’d saved from my part-time job. Ever since -- some 25 years now -- I’ve been an owner and fan of B&W speakers, from those original 201s through the 202, 610, 630, 640, Matrix 805, Matrix 804, Matrix 803, Matrix 802 S3, and 803D (first generation). After the 803Ds came a divorce, immediately followed by a period of imposed fiscal restraint during which I had to sell the 803Ds and a Bryston 4BST amp, and which has (temporarily) led me to my current speakers, SVS’s Ultra Towers ($2000 USD per pair).
So when Doug Schneider offered me the opportunity to review the Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2 ($2500/pair) for SoundStage! Hi-Fi, I had to say yes. For comparisons, I used a pair of Revel Performa3 M106 minimonitors ($2000/pair), which fellow-writer Philip Beaudette has reviewed for SoundStage! Hi-Fi, as well as my own SVS Ultra Towers.
Bowers & Wilkins’ new 700 Series 2 comprises their first models to benefit from technology trickled down from the current 800 Diamond Series 3. For that series B&W had replaced their trademark Kevlar-cone midrange drivers, which they’d continuously refined for 40 years, with new midrange/midbass drivers having cones made of Continuum, a woven material proprietary to B&W whose precise composition the company prefers to keep under wraps. (Since the launch of the 700 Series 2, B&W has announced redesigned versions of their less expensive 600 models, also to incorporate Continuum drivers.)
B&W claims that the Continuum midrange driver is the result of eight years of R&D and more than 70 prototypes. The driver is claimed to operate on the same principle of controlled breakup as B&W’s Kevlar cones, but with radically improved performance that results in a more open and neutral midrange.
The second major improvement in the 700 Series 2 is a refinement to the tweeter diaphragm. What used to be an aluminum dome is now aluminum combined with a thin layer of carbon deposition, to increase stiffness. B&W claims that this raises the dome’s breakup frequency to 47kHz. B&W says that aluminum alone breaks up at around 30kHz, while the diamond tweeter used in their 800 speakers breaks up at 70kHz.
The 705 S2 is the top model of the three bookshelf speakers in the 700 Series 2, all two-way designs. It and the 706 S2 ($1800/pair) both measure 13.4”H x 7.8”W x 11.2”D, and have the same 6.5” Continuum midrange-bass driver and 1” carbon-dome tweeter. The main difference between them is that the 705 S2’s tweeter is isolated from the cabinet, housed atop it in its own pod of machined aluminum, in the distinctive “tweeter on top” arrangement used in B&W’s 800 models for decades now. The 707 S2 ($1200/pair) is a scaled-down version of the 706 S2, with a smaller cabinet and a 5” midrange-bass driver. The 700 Series 2 also includes three floorstanders, topping out with the flagship model, the 702 S2 ($4500/pair), which shares with the 705 S2 the same tweeter-on-top design.
The 705 S2 is available in finishes of Rosenut, Gloss Black, and Satin White, and weighs 20.5 pounds -- fairly hefty for its size. Its cabinet easily passed the knuckle-rap test; it felt sturdy and inert. On the rear panel are a port and two pairs of high-quality binding posts, to permit biwiring or biamping. No crossover frequencies are specified, but B&W does specify a frequency response of 50Hz-28kHz, ±3dB; a frequency range of 45Hz-33kHz, -6dB; impedance of 8 ohms nominal, 3.7 ohms minimum; a sensitivity of 88dB/2.83V/m; and harmonic distortion of less than 1%, 100Hz-22kHz, with an output level of 90dB at 1m.
Unboxing was a straightforward affair, as you’d expect with bookshelf speakers. B&W protects the 705 S2s with ample hard foam, and an insert of soft foam molded to the shape of the tweeter pod. With the exception of a piece of molded plastic to accommodate the port and binding posts screwed to the rear, the tolerances are so tight that the entire cabinet appears as a single piece of solid MDF, with no visible mitered joints or screws. In short, the cabinet’s fit and finish were of very high quality, but not perfect. There were minor blemishes in my review samples’ Gloss Black finish where the foam inserts protecting the tweeter pod had touched the cabinet in shipping -- what looked like smudges under the clear finish were visible in the right light and at the right angle. I suspect that the speakers were packaged for shipment before the paint had completely cured. Perhaps one can demand perfection from B&W only when one’s wallet opens a little wider for the 800 speakers, which are made in the UK rather than China, as the 700 S2 models are. Then again, maybe I just got unlucky with these units. But overall, I feel confident in stating that the 705 S2s look the part of high-end loudspeakers. I thought they were beautiful.
Once I’d assembled the matching stands from B&W ($500/pair) and filled their columns with sand, I bolted the 705 S2s securely to them and connected the speakers to my McIntosh Laboratory MC302 power amp, fed via balanced XLR cables by a McIntosh C47 preamp-DAC. Sources included a Rotel RCD-991 CD player and a Bluesound Node streamer, both connected via TosLink to the C47’s digital section, based on an ESS Technology Sabre DAC.
My listening space is a fairly small room (about 15’L x 12’W) in the basement of our home, sound-isolated and acoustically treated. I’ve been relegated to roughly this size of listening room for as long as I’ve been an audio enthusiast, in three different houses -- the first was my bedroom in my parents’ basement. In this space, I’ve found the optimal positions for speakers to be along the long wall, with the speakers and my listening chair describing a 9’ equilateral triangle, the back of my recliner just a few inches from the back wall, and the backs of the 705 S2s’ cabinets about 20” from the front wall -- far enough away that, per B&W, I didn’t have to use the optional port plugs. My high-backed listening chair is covered in leather, which can reflect high-frequency soundwaves. To mitigate this effect, I drape a soft blanket over the back of the chair. At first I used a thick blanket folded in two, but ultimately decided that this attenuated the top end to a degree that dulled the sound. After a bit of experimentation, I settled on a single layer of a thinner blanket. Audiophiles are a bit loony.
Because years of tweaking speaker positions in my small listening rooms had already led me to the altar of a 9’ equilateral triangle with my listening chair, the only variable left to play with was degree of toe-in. With the B&W 705 S2s this took some time, but eventually I determined that about 18° of toe-in yielded the most pleasing mix of center-image focus and soundstage width. To provide a frame of reference: toeing in the B&Ws 30° would have had their tweeter axes crossing at the listening position.
The first thing I noticed when listening to the 705 S2s was just how much bass these relatively small loudspeakers could produce. It was quite jarring. Although they wouldn’t satisfy those who want liver-massage levels of bass, and may well be unable to fill large spaces, in my room I experienced tight, ample, satisfying bass, extending down to below 40Hz. Using my miniDSP UMIK-1 calibrated measurement microphone, I measured the 705 S2s’ in-room -3dB point (relative to 1kHz) at 33Hz. The bass I heard at the beginning of the unplugged version of “Hotel California,” from the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over (CD, Geffen GESSD 24725), was tight, well controlled, and filled my room. To a degree that belied their size, the little 705 S2s managed to make me feel the bass in this track.
But it was in the midrange that the 705 S2 really proved its mettle. When they reproduced well-recorded voices, the B&Ws seemed to disappear from my room. There was an organic texture to the midrange that was palpable, as if I could reach out and touch the sound image, with gobs of detail and no hint that the sound was emanating from a pair of little cabinets, and at loud volumes there was composure. For example, in “Bad Timing,” from Blue Rodeo’s Five Days in July (CD, Warner Music Canada 93846), Jim Cuddy’s voice is mixed just right of center, and to the right of and just behind Cuddy is the voice of backing singer Greg Keelor. Every inflection in Keelor’s voice came through with impressive detail, devoid of cabinet colorations and floating clearly just above the speakers -- it produced an illusion of Keelor singing in my room. The detail was stunning, his voice occupying its own space, floating just to the left of and 1.5’ above the right-channel speaker -- this was spooky-good reproduction. The downside of such impressive upper-register detail was that the 705 S2s tended to sound a bit sibilant on this recording, especially when turned up loud -- something I’ll come back to in my comparison of them to Revel’s Performa3 M106 minimonitors.
The 705 S2s continued their “disappearing” act when I played the cover of Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine” on Colin James’s National Steel (CD, Warner Music Canada 19634). This recording is phenomenal, and played through the B&Ws, James’s voice was laid bare, with not even the thinnest veil between him and me -- again, it was as if he were in the room. Every inhalation, exhalation, and raspy inflection was easily audible in a distinctly and appropriately sized image to left of center stage (intended in the mix), and again, just above the speaker plane. Both acoustic guitars sounded equally realistic, each occupying its own space, at the center and at the right of the soundstage. The guitar plucks, though loud, never sounded harsh, and had lovely sparkle and decay.
To judge the 705 S2’s prowess in the upper registers, I played “Hells Bells,” from AC/DC’s classic hard-rock album Back in Black (CD, Atlantic A2 16018). The cymbal crashes were rendered with exquisite detail and clarity, with tremendous senses of width, extension, dispersion, and decay; their sound seemed to extend well above and beyond the B&Ws’ outer edges. The upper register of Brian Johnson’s distinct voice was also conveyed with uncanny presence, floating unconstrained precisely in the middle and above the speaker plane.
I then played “Give Me One Reason,” from Tracy Chapman’s New Beginning (CD, Elektra 61850-2), which I regularly use to test the imaging abilities of speakers. It begins with plucked guitar to the left of center stage, then Chapman’s voice dead center, then the drums and bass, with subtle cymbal work just to the right and behind the first guitar. A second guitar then enters to the far right of Chapman’s voice, followed by the occasional interjections of two backing singers, the first appearing behind and to the right of Chapman, the second behind and to the left. The 705 S2s nailed this test, creating an image for each instrument and voice, clearly delineating each from the rest, each with the appropriate weight and presence. Once again, there was no hint that these sounds were coming from drivers in boxes -- the 705 S2s simply “disappeared,” leaving the music floating in my room.
B&W vs. SVS
The larger, five-driver, three-way SVS Ultra Towers completely outclassed the B&W 705 S2s in the bass. If there’s one thing the SVS can deliver, with its much bigger cabinet and two 8” woofers, it’s bass. For its modest price of $2000/pair, the Ultra Tower is tough to beat in this department, delivering big bowlsful of tight, room-filling bass down to 20Hz in my room.
That said, bass wasn’t my main concern with this comparison, as I’m considering adding a high-quality powered subwoofer to my system -- I was more interested in comparing the B&W’s and SVS’s midrange and treble performance. Here, too, there was no competition, but it went the other way. Despite a respectable showing by the Ultra Towers, the B&Ws projected a detailed, organic, reach-out-and-touch-it midrange that the SVSes couldn’t approach. My wife’s comment on the two speakers’ reproductions of voices, as in “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” from The Very Best of Crowded House (CD, Capitol CDP 8 38250 2), perfectly encapsulated the difference: “the SVSes sound good, but the B&Ws don’t sound like speakers at all -- they just ‘disappear’.”
For those who want big, deep bass and high volumes, a pair of SVS Ultra Towers is tough to beat for the price. But if your focus is more on midrange detail, treble extension, and pinpoint imaging -- or if you’re considering buying a subwoofer -- the 705 S2 might better suit your needs.
B&W vs. Revel
The Revel Performa3 M106 offers a midrange-woofer and tweeter of the same sizes as those in the B&W 705 S2, in a cabinet of similar size, for $500/pair less. Both speakers are very good. I used several songs to compare them, swapping pairs of speakers in and out for each track -- a bit tedious, but thankfully they were only minimonitors. The first step was to measure the SPL at the listening position with a 1kHz test tone. The Revels were 0.5dB more sensitive. For each comparison, I matched the levels using the volume control of my McIntosh C47, which is handily incremented in steps of 0.5dB.
The biggest difference was in the treble. Through the Revels, the cymbal crashes in “Hells Bells” sounded recessed and timid; through the B&Ws, they sounded more forward, free, and alive. With the Revels the treble also had less presence and extension. These differences weren’t subtle.
Differences in the midrange, as I focused on voices, were less obvious. The lead vocal in Blue Rodeo’s “Bad Timing” had slightly more presence through the M106es, but wasn’t as smooth as through the 705 S2s. In this track, there are a couple of moments when Jim Cuddy, perhaps leaning in too close to the mike, belts out a lyric that gives the sound an edge or glare that makes me wince, no matter what speakers I hear it through. I’m not sure why this occurs (it may be exacerbated by the size of my room), but what I am sure about is that the Revels made me wince quite a bit more than the B&Ws did. The Revels did, however, manage to score a point against the B&Ws. This and other recordings I played sounded a bit sibilant through the B&Ws, but the Revels had this aspect of the sound completely under control, with no sibilance to speak of.
The M106’s midrange had a bit more body with Colin James’s cover of “These Arms of Mine,” but the B&W’s midrange had more detail in James’s upper vocal register. The realism of the plucked acoustic guitar was slightly greater with the B&Ws, the guitar sounding smoother while providing more sparkle, presence, and structure. I also give the nod to the B&Ws with women’s voices -- with the Revels, the extra body I’d heard in James’s voice came across as a small degree of chestiness in Tracy Chapman’s voice in “Give Me One Reason,” reminding me that the sound was indeed coming from speaker cabinets. But the B&Ws “disappeared” again, reproducing Chapman’s voice with no hint of congestion, chestiness, or nasality. All I heard was a beautiful female voice, floating freely between the speakers. All in all, unless the singer was recorded in a way that emphasizes sibilants, I give the edge to the B&W in the midrange. But with sibilant-sounding recordings, give me the Revels -- listening to excessive sibilance can be grating.
I found both speakers very impressive in the bass for such small designs, but there was no question that the B&Ws served up a bit more low-end output than the Revels. This may have been due to the B&W’s bigger cabinet, but it was obvious from the opening bass notes of “Hotel California” -- they were fuller and deeper through the B&Ws. On the other hand, I felt that the Revels’ bass was a smidge tighter, but the two speakers were extremely close in this regard.
The Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2 retails for $500 more per pair than the speakers I compared them to, but I believe it’s worth it. In my relatively small room, the 705 S2s provided very clean, tight, powerful bass for their size; an exceptionally detailed and extended top end; and a rich, textured midrange devoid of cabinet colorations. This small speaker played big, got out of the way of the music, and let it flow freely into the room. To date, I haven’t owned speakers that have performed the coveted “disappearing” act quite so convincingly as did the 705 S2s.
The 705 S2’s main drawback was that it sometimes accentuated sibilance, as you’ll likely hear when playing recordings that themselves tend toward sibilance. To mitigate this problem, those considering buying these speakers should carefully consider their room size, room treatments, and ancillary gear.
For me, however, the 705 S2’s strengths made this single weakness seem minor. In fact, I can claim that B&W’s new Continuum driver, as implemented in the 705 S2, is largely responsible for luring me back into the fold of proud B&W owners: I’ve bought a pair of 705 S2s. And now that I’ve reinserted the miniDSP Dirac Live room-correction processor in the digital signal chain and recalibrated my system, I can say with confidence that the strengths ascribed above to the 705 S2 are, if anything, more evident, and the shortcomings eliminated. Now it’s time to look at buying a high-quality subwoofer to augment their sound. Overall, the Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2 is easy to recommend.
. . . Diego Estan
Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2 Loudspeakers
Price: $2500 USD per pair; stands, $500/pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
B&W Group, Ltd.
Dale Road, Worthing
West Sussex 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