Bowers Wilkins PM1 Bookshelf Loudspeaker Reviewed
My audiophile journey began over 15 years ago with a pair of used Paradigm Mini Monitors and an old NAD integrated amp. Over the years my system has gone through countless changes, ranging from esoteric to absurd and yet every time I’ve hit reset one type of speaker has always served as my foundation in which to rebuild – a bookshelf loudspeaker. You see, bookshelf loudspeakers are more than just space saving alternatives to larger floorstanding speakers – they represent the essence of what a speaker is all about, for they often possess the coherence, finesse and simplicity that is missing from many of their floorstanding counterparts. Bookshelf speakers also represent the best bang for your buck among many speaker lines, offering much of the performance (minus the deep bass of course) of their larger siblings at far more advantageous prices. Over the years I’ve owned several terrific bookshelf loudspeakers beginning with Paradigm’s Mini Monitor on through to Bowers & Wilkins’ 685 and 805, and later Paradigm’s Signature S2 with my final stop being Soliloquy’s 5.0 (discontinued). It’s been several years since I last welcomed a bookshelf loudspeaker into my system and yet as I glance upon Bowers & Wilkins’ new PM1 bookshelf loudspeaker I wonder if yet another reset isn’t around the corner. They say you can never go home again but if my time spent with the PM1 is any indication, I believe you can.
• Read more bookshelf speaker reviews from Home Theater Review’s staff.
• Search for a subwoofer to pair with the MP1 in our Subwoofer Review section.
The PM1 is an exquisitely finished, compact two-way monitor that sits among Bowers & Wilkins’ product line just under their lauded 800 Series but above the CM Series. The PM1 is the first and only speaker (thus far) in its range, making it an army of one, though it doesn’t appear to need any backup, for in terms of aesthetics, it’s nearly as big of a visual statement as Bowers & Wilkins’ iconic 800 Diamond Series loudspeaker. The PM1 retails for $2,800 a pair, which isn’t hugely inexpensive but still within reason for many, though the matching stands, which I consider to be mandatory, retail for $550 bringing the total cost of ownership to $3,350. To put it into better perspective, the only other bookshelf Bowers & Wilkins offers to compete or best the PM1s reported performance is the 805 Diamond which retails for $2,500 apiece or $5,000 a pair plus stands.
The first thing that grabs you about the PM1 is its appearance, which is absolutely stunning to behold and every bit as high-end looking (and perhaps more) as anything found in the 800 Series. The PM1 is smaller than it appears in photographs, measuring in at 25 and a half inches tall by 10 and a half inches wide and nearly 12 inches deep. Each PM1 weighs a startling 20 pounds, which speaks volumes to its construction. Speaking of construction – the PM1 is built using the same materials and methods found in the 800 Series. One rap of the knuckles and it’s clear the PM1’s cabinet is about as inert as one could hope for. The PM1’s finish is first rate though limited to a real wood veneer finish that Bowers & Wilkins calls Mocha Gloss. Mocha Gloss looks like an ebony-like wood with a thick, pronounced vertical grain structure that, despite not being as whimsical or unique as, say, Bowers & Wilkins’ Tiger’s Eye maple, does share some similarities in that at first glance they appear somewhat solid; though upon closer inspection you become lost in their visual idiosyncrasies. The Mocha Gloss finish flanks either side of the PM1 itself like wooden “caps” with a soft touch, rubberlike material resting in between and around the PM1’s midrange driver and Nautilus tube loaded tweeter. With the magnetic grills in place, the PM1 looks more like the bookshelf equivalent of the 800 Diamond than the 805 Diamond. The matching stands are finished in the same Mocha Gloss and complete the PM1 beautifully in terms of aesthetics and performance – again, I consider them to be mandatory.
With regards to the PM1’s drivers, it utilizes Bowers & Wilkins’ trademark Nautilus tube loaded tweeter, though it has been redesigned a bit to allow it to sound similar to Bowers & Wilkins’ flagship diamond efforts whilst still utilizing an aluminum dome. The biggest difference found in the PM1’s Nautilus tweeter is its use of Carbon Fiber to brace the voice coil assembly, which results in a smoother, wider frequency dispersion as well as a new break-up frequency breakthrough of 40kHz. Previous Bowers & Wilkins aluminum tweeters had a break-up frequency of 30kHz but the PM1 raises the bar and gets closer to Bowers & Wilkins’ diamond tweeter in terms of its break-up frequency which is 70kHz. The PM1’s tweeter itself, apart from its Nautilus construction, is a one-inch all-aluminum affair. Aside from its tweeter the PM1 also utilizes another Bowers & Wilkins trademark technology, Kevlar, in its five-inch bass/midrange driver. The PM1 has a forward firing bass port, which helps augment the PM1’s low-end performance giving it a reported frequency response of 48Hz to 22kHz plus or minus three dB on axis. The PM1 has a surprisingly low sensitivity of 84dB though it presents a pretty easy load for your amplifier at eight Ohms (5.1 Ohms minimum). Bowers & Wilkins recommends pairing the PM1 with any amplifier or receiver rated between 30 and 100 Watts, which sounds about right though you can feed it more if you like. As for connection options, the PM1 has two sets of high-end five-way binding posts, which can accept bare, banana and spade terminated speaker cables. The PM1 does not use cheap metal bridging plates for those not wanting to bi-wire or bi-amp the PM1; instead Bowers & Wilkins supplies custom bridging cables – a feature lifted from their 800 Series.
The PM1s and their matching stands arrived on my doorstep in two compact boxes. It was only upon my first attempt at lifting them did I realize the extremes in which Bowers & Wilkins has gone to build the PM1s to such a high standard – for both boxes were heavy as hell. Bowers & Wilkins should put a warning on the PM1’s packaging for the whole lot is deceptively heavy or as my wife said, “Packed with star matter.” Unboxing the PM1s is easy enough for a single person though I don’t recommend removing them until you’ve first built the PM1’s custom stands.
The PM1’s stands come in three pieces: a two and a half inch thick base, 22-inch vertical support and a metal mounting plate. The vertical support connects to the 10 and a half by 12 inch base via four heavy-duty screws (supplied) with the small metal plate mounting to the top of the support via four more heavy-duty screws. No additional hardware or tools are required, nor is lead shot or sand, for the stands are already heavy and inert enough. Fully assembled, without the speakers, the PM1’s stands reach a height of 25 inches and are not adjustable. Building the stands took about twenty minutes, largely due to the fact that I accidentally installed one of the vertical supports backwards – oh, well. Connecting the PM1s to their stands isn’t difficult but care should be taken, for you must first line up the PM1’s mounting holes with the holes in the metal plate, which can be difficult considering you’ll be doing it while lying down and looking up at the bottom of the speaker. I asked my wife to help maneuver the PM1s into position while I screwed the mounting screws into position from below. Once the PM1s are connected to the stands the entire package is rock solid and able to withstand an out of control bulldog without tipping over.
I placed the PM1s roughly where my reference Bowers & Wilkins 800 Diamond Series loudspeakers sat, which was 27-inches off the front wall, four feet off the side walls and seven feet apart (tweeter to tweeter) with them toed in to fire directly at my primary listening position. I used my two JL Audio Fathom f110 subwoofers to augment the PM1’s low end. As for the rest of my system I used a variety of components starting with my Integra DHC 80.2 AV preamp accompanied by my Parasound 5250 v2 multi-channel amp. Later in my review period I substituted in Anthem’s new AV receiver, the MRX 700. My sources remained the same throughout my review period and consisted of a Sony universal Blu-ray player, Dish Network HD DVR, AppleTV and Cambridge Audio DAC Magic. I connected everything in my system, including the PM1s, using Transparent Link interconnects and Wave speaker cables. Depending on which configuration, separates versus receiver, the total system cost was between $8,500 and $11,500. Of course you could easily assemble a system around the PM1s for less.
I let everything play together for about a week before sitting down for any sort of critical evaluation.
I started my critical evaluation of the PM1 with Three Doors Down’s self titled album (Universal Records) and the track “She Don’t Want The World.” The opening rim shots were captivating in their effortless attack and long, airy decay giving them a haunting flavor versus one that was necessarily “live” or natural sounding, which is what the recording called for. Lead singer, Brad Arnold’s vocals appeared from one of the blackest backgrounds I’ve heard from a sub $5,000 loudspeaker and hung firmly in place dead center of the soundstage with surprising weight and scale. I say surprising because I had to remind myself that the PM1 only has a five inch bass/midrange driver, which despite peaks in excess of 95dB showed no signs of compression in my room. The drum kit, which is mixed to sound more ethereal, was just awesome and showcased the PM1’s soundstage prowess, which I have to say is arguably among the best I’ve heard, possessing stunning width and depth with amazing detail and near laser imaging throughout. Overall, with the track “She Don’t Want The World,” the PM1’s sound was smooth and seductive, which fit this particular track like a glove.
Read more about the performance of the B&W PM1 loudspeaker on Page 2.
Wanting to make sure that the PM1 wasn’t a one trick pony, I cued up La Roux’s “Bulletproof” off the album La Roux (Cherrytree Records). For those of you who may not know this track, “Bulletproof” is an upbeat dance/pop number that through lesser speakers can sound flat, though when played back properly has copious dimension that borders on three dimensional – aka surround. Right off the bat the PM1’s captured “Bulletproof’s” upbeat rhythm without editorializing despite my initially wanting to label it (the PM1) as being a little laid back in nature. Every nuanced detail from the synthesizers to the electronic drum kit was captured and played back with fervor and played off of one another in the PM1’s vast soundstage. Elly Jackson’s, aka La Roux, vocals were more pronounced and forward sounding compared to Arnold’s though they retained the same level of dimension and weight. Jackson’s self-harmony was more apparent through the PM1s versus other budget speakers I had on hand during my demo. The PM1’s high frequency performance was spot on and sparkled with tremendous air that, with this track, rivaled that of my 800 Diamonds. Despite the entire performance being more “aggressive” compared to my earlier demo with Three Doors Down, there was nothing aggressive or fatiguing about the PM1’s sound leading me to listen longer and at higher levels than I’m sure even Bowers & Wilkins would recommend. Keep in mind I was using a subwoofer to augment the PM1’s bottom end, which it needs, for unless you’re using the PM1 in a small room or in a near field setup, the bass isn’t what I’d classify as earth shattering. Though it should be noted that what bass the PM1 does have is very nuanced and taut – just don’t expect it to “kick” you.
Wanting to see how the PM1 did with a lesser recording, I fired up my AppleTV and cued up “California,” an unreleased demo from the pop duo Savage Garden, which has subsequently been given life, albeit a low res one, on iTunes. Despite being a demo, complete with a few rough edges, there’s a lot to like about “California” not to mention it’s a great test of how revealing a loudspeaker can be. Well, the PM1 passed the test by managing to showcase the various differences in the recording quality without making the track itself unbearable in the process. Through lesser speakers Darren Hayes’ vocals, on this track, can sound sharp but through the PM1s they were clearly different from his other studio recordings but never fatiguing. Hayes’ harmony and back-up vocals were rendered brilliantly and with more clarity and presence than any other affordable loudspeaker I had on hand – again, coming within a stone’s throw of my reference 800 Diamonds. High frequencies simply sparkled and possessed excellent texture and dimension, giving them an almost palpable quality. To say that Bowers & Wilkins’ scored on the PM1’s redesigned Nautilus tweeter would be an understatement. The PM1’s soundstage was once again phenomenal, possessing both width and depth that easily exceeded the boundaries of my room. And like “Bulletproof,” the PM1s with “California” proved to be upbeat and rhythmical despite their natural tendency to be smooth and refined.
Overall I’d classify the PM1’s musical performance to be one of harmony and balance. While the PM1’s “voice” may be a touch laid back and polite it’s able to put its natural tendencies aside when necessary and become raucous though never fatiguing – evident in my demo of One Republic’s “Secrets” from the album Waking Up (Interscope Records). At its limit (peaks around 100 – 105dB) you can get the PM1 to compress, though I was unable to get it to tap out. But in all honesty the PM1 isn’t a loudspeaker that should be driven in excess of a 105dB for that’s not its purpose. If you want a more dynamic, room filling speaker, then look elsewhere in Bowers & Wilkins’ arsenal for the PM1 is all about the finer things. The PM1’s performance is one of finesse, texture and nuance, not pomp and circumstance. Can it rock? Sure, but don’t think that because I keep comparing it to my 800 Diamonds you can mate it to a $500 subwoofer and have an 800-Diamond-killer on the cheap. There’s a reason Bowers & Wilkins’ 800 Series exists and costs what it does. I’m impressed by just how much high-end performance Bowers & Wilkins was able to pack into the PM1.
I found little sonic fault with the PM1 aside from the fact that it requires a subwoofer for true, full-range performance, though those of you with smaller rooms or listening near field may not require one.
I suppose the PM1 isn’t the easiest loudspeaker to drive in that it does seem to need a bit of power to achieve its full potential. While Anthem’s MRX 700 was able to make the PM1s sing it took the Parasound 5250 v2 to get them to dance – at least at higher volume levels. My recommendation would be to pair the PM1 to a capable integrated or mid-level separates system with solid power on tap. Despite the PM1’s abilities as a home theater speaker I’m not certain I’d pair it with an AV receiver unless my room was on the smaller side or my tastes and movies leaned more towards comedies and/or dramas.
Also, despite the PM1’s bookshelf or monitor status they still require the same floor space as some compact floorstanding loudspeakers once you take into consideration the required stands. While they may have the same physical footprint of a small floorstanding loudspeaker they don’t have the same visual one.
The PM1’s finish is first rate and among the best you’ll find at its asking price, though it does seem to attract a fair amount of dust and given that it’s a dark wood finish, even the slightest particulate is visible from several feet. Finger and dog nose prints are other things to be weary of if you’re at all O.C.D. about your loudspeaker’s appearance.
Lastly, the PM1’s Nautilus tweeter is either the coolest thing you’ve ever seen or the strangest thing you’ve ever seen – I happen to really like it. That being said, the uninitiated will often insist on trying to grab it like a microphone. I know this may sound like a strange downside but I can only imagine how many Nautilus tweeters have been damaged by curious hands because of its unique shape and exposed position atop some of Bowers & Wilkins’ more iconic loudspeakers.
Competition and Comparison
There are a number of bookshelf loudspeakers in the $2,000-$4,000 range that compete favorably with the PM1 in terms of looks and performance. The bookshelf speaker that immediately comes to my mind is Paradigm’s Signature S2 bookshelf speaker. At roughly $2,000 a pair the S2 is slightly more affordable than the PM1 though its sound is decidedly more forward, not bad, just different. Like the PM1, the S2 requires stands in order to sound their best, which adds to their cost as well.
Another bookshelf to consider would be Revel’s Performa M22 at $2,200 a pair as well as Dynaudio’s Contour 1.4 bookshelf speaker at $3,300 a pair. The Dynaudio is the most closely matched to the PM1 in terms of looks and performance, though like the PM1 the Contour 1.4’s retail price does not include stands.
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Bowers & Wilkins’ all-new PM1 bookshelf loudspeaker is a wonderfully stylish aural achievement that manages to provide a lion’s share of high-end sound at a more real world price. Granted $2,800 a pair is still a lot of money but when you consider that the PM1 more than holds its own (in small to medium sized rooms) against the more expensive Bowers & Wilkins 805 bookshelf loudspeaker at $5,000 a pair, its value becomes even more apparent. Furthermore the PM1 is a better looking loudspeaker in my opinion and its compact size makes it easier to integrate into a wider variety of spaces.
What makes the PM1 truly special is its ability to play back seemingly any genre of music – be it old-school jazz or today’s modern pop – without judgment. Like my reference 800 Series Diamonds, the PM1 has the ability to get out of its own way and let the music simply shine in a manner that is simply captivating, if not a little seductive – especially throughout the midrange. The breadth of the PM1’s soundstage is staggering and the details, texture and air contained within are phenomenal considering the PM1’s price and size. While the PM1 may be a compact bookshelf loudspeaker, its sound is anything but. Mate it to a subwoofer (or two) and its aural footprint becomes that much bigger and its performance that much stronger.
Once again, because of a bookshelf loudspeaker, I’ve been reminded as to why I enjoy being an audiophile so much. Like many awesome bookshelf speakers before it, the PM1’s singular focus on the listeners’ ability to simply enjoy the music makes it easy to somewhat overlook, despite its gorgeous appearance. This is not to say that the PM1 is forgettable – it’s not, it’s just that the PM1 made me want to listen to music versus analyze my system and think of ways to make it better. Would I recommend the PM1 to someone looking for a good bookshelf speaker with a budget of $2,000 – $4,000? No, I’d recommend the PM1 to anyone looking for a good speaker period.
• Read more bookshelf speaker reviews from Home Theater Review’s staff.
• Search for a subwoofer to pair with the MP1 in our Subwoofer Review section.