A signature lends validity and authority. A signature speaks of authenticity. Appending a signature makes it official – “If you like it, you shoulda put a signature on it”, as the song so nearly goes.
Bowers & Wilkins has been occasionally launching ‘Signature’ versions of very select parts of its loudspeaker model ranges since 1991’s ‘Silver Signature’ standmounter. That model set the template: ‘Signature’ editions would be fully optimised, no-expense-spared versions of established models, with particular attention paid to crossover design and signal pathway. They would also come in for some extra consideration where finish is concerned – and in the case of the original ‘Silver Signature’, the result was a ruinously expensive, staggeringly capable and profoundly odd-looking loudspeaker.
Since then, the very few Signature editions Bowers & Wilkins has launched have followed the same template. Most recently, the company used its 40th anniversary celebrations in 2006 to launch the Signature Diamond floorstander – a speaker that defined a new Signature benchmark in expense, capability and unhappy aesthetics.
The thick end of fifteen years is long enough to have a proper think about things, even for a company as measured as Bowers & Wilkins. So three years after the launch of the 700 S2 series, two of the most popular models in the range – the 702 floorstander and this 705 standmounter – have been singled out for the ‘Signature’ treatment.
For the most part, the 705 Signature is very similar indeed to the 705 S2 loudspeaker it, well, not so much ‘replaces’ as ‘makes seem a bit humdrum’. At a glance you’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart – unless you’re an aficionado of sustainable real-wood veneers, anyhow.
The 705 Signature is a reasonably compact two-way standmounter with a rear-venting bass reflex port. It’s designed in line with Bowers & Wilkins’ long-standing conviction that taking the tweeter out of the main cabinet of the speaker and mounting it, in its own housing, on top of the cabinet both improves audio imaging and offers a fairly dramatic design flourish.
I find it discourages cats from sitting on top of the speaker too, but that may conceivably be a minority consideration.
The tweeter that sits in a shade over a kilo of machined aluminium (the ‘solid body tweeter housing’) is a 25mm version of B&W’s notably complex ‘Carbon Dome’ type. It comprises two sections: the front portion is a 30µm aluminium dome, stiffened by a vanishingly brief coating of carbon, and the second is a 300µm carbon ring (profiled to match the main dome) that’s bonded to the structure’s inner face. The result is a low-mass tweeter that nevertheless resists distortion manfully – the first break-up point is (according to Bowers & Wilkins) a giddy 47kHz, way beyond the top end of the audible audio band.
In addition, the design allows the mass of the tweeter body to be used as a heatsink for the dome. It also means the tweeter can slightly overhang the main cabinet, to assist with time-alignment.
With an admirable lack of floweriness, Bowers & Wilkins calls this arrangement ‘tweeter-on-top’. The way the hawk-eyed distinguish between this tweeter-on-top and that of a ‘regular’ 705 S2 is the bright, silver-finished tweeter grille.
Below there, in the main body of the cabinet, there’s the same 165mm mid/bass driver as found in the 705 S2. With slightly more floweriness, Bowers & Wilkins calls the woven composite material it’s made from ‘Continuum’. Its design assumes optimised, controlled flexibility is the most important characteristic in a driver like this, and consequently this cone exhibits martially controlled break-up mode behaviour. ‘Transparency’ and ‘detail’ are high on the list of nominal positives this arrangement delivers. The tweeter-on-top layout also allows the mid/bass driver to sit higher up in the cabinet than it otherwise would, which should (in theory, at least) allow it to generate more energy.
Again, there’s a small aesthetic flourish to hint at the owner’s extra outlay. The driver here is surrounded by a trim ring every bit as bright as the tweeter grille it sits beneath. Further aesthetic niceties extend to a small, shiny plate fixed to the back of each speaker. It’s right at the bottom at the rear of the cabinet, below the biwire speaker cable binding posts, and it reads ‘705 Signature Bowers & Wilkins’.
The biggest visual difference between the 705 S2 and these Signature versions, though, is in the finish of the cabinet itself. The 705 Signature is available only in a darkly lustrous finish Bowers & Wilkins calls Datuk Gloss. It’s a real-wood veneer, sourced from a sustainable supply from Alpi in Italy. Applying nine coats of finish, including primer, base and lacquer, creates a reflective finish deep enough to see your face in. Bowers & Wilkins suggests no two pairs of 705 Signatures will share the same grain pattern.
These changes over the appearance of the 705 S2 may be worthwhile, but they hardly justify the significant price premium the 705 Signature commands. But the changes of greatest consequence are all invisible.
Bowers & Wilkins has doubled the number of bypass capacitors over the 705 S2 – there are now eight, rather than four. And they’re upgraded too, having been treated by German component savant Mundorf (although what constitutes ‘treated’ in this instance is an impregnable secret). Heatsinking, too, has come under the microscope – it’s twice as large as that incorporated into the 705 S2.
Upgraded crossover design, reworked signal path, optimised tuning… it’s been the Signature Mission Statement since 1991, and the 705 Signature follows the template closely. But is it enough to justify a price hike of £850 over the 705 S2? Even with all those extra glossy/shiny bits?
To find out, the 705 Signatures spent some of their time on top of the bespoke FS-700 S2 speaker stands Bowers & Wilkins developed specifically for the purpose. In truth they’re not the most elegant – the big bottom plate makes them look altogether too much like pendulums – but they can be mass-loaded, they have some very welcome cable management, and the fact the 705 Signatures can be bolted to the top-plate doesn’t do any harm either. The rest of the time, they were supported by Atacama’s Moseco 6 stands.
Impetus was supplied by Naim’s NAP100 power amplifier, and sources (Clearaudio Concept turntable with Leema Elements phono stage, Roon via MacBook Air, and Samsung UBD-M9500 disc transport) were routed through the similarly diminutive UnitiQute 2. Cables amounted to QED Performance optical cable from the Samsung, the turntable’s hard-wired RCAs to the phono stage with QED Performance 40i linking the phono stage to the pre-amp, and Chord Company RumourX speaker cable. The 705 Signature’s brass strips linking the bi-wire crossover network were in place throughout.
King Creosote & Jon Hopkins’ Bats in the Attic [Domino] is an elegantly understated and spacious recording, and it gives the 705 Signatures ample opportunity to demonstrate quite a lot of what they’re made of. The wide-open spaces of the recording are given proper significance, and the elongated decay of the piano notes is described in full – between these two elements alone, the B&Ws display impressive focus without any of the narrowing of the soundstage that can sometimes accompany it. The purity of Kenny Anderson’s voice is expressed just as fully as its regionality, and the 705 Signatures detail the subtle halo of bounce-back reverb around its edges just enough for it to add another shade to the recording. When Lisa Lindley-Jones’ backing vocal joins in, it’s at a respectful distance but with sufficient low-level dynamism to bolster the song, adding understated weight and momentum. The Bowers & Wilkins’ seem to understand the sonic intentions of the recording almost instinctively, and their carefully neutral tonal balance suits it perfectly.
The more forthright appeal of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange [Def Jam] sounds, if anything, even more the 705 Signatures’ cup of tea. The album’s ample low-frequency information, whether it’s keyboard-derived analogue grime’n’squelch or thumb-popping bass guitar, is deep and textured, and loaded with detail. The 705 S2 speakers which form the basis of the Signatures have no trouble generating a sense of momentum or excitement – but this more expensive iteration sounds a little more in control, and slightly less in thrall to the notion of enjoyment. As a consequence the 705 Signatures have all the drive and attack Channel Orange demands, but also the straight-edged authority to keep the abandon in check. And just as with the King Creosote & Jon Hopkins recording, the B&Ws’ powers of midrange communication allow all the dexterity and subtlety of Ocean’s delivery full expression.
In fact, ‘expression’ might be the most impressive of the 705 Signatures’ more intangible qualities. Leonard Bernstein’s wrangling of the Columbia Symphony Orchestra through Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue [Deutsche Grammophon] allows the Bowers & Wilkins’ sweet treble response and midrange eloquence to shine, it allows the deftly articulate low frequencies to communicate in torrents. But most of allow it allows the speakers to organise an awful lot of disparate, competing information into a coherent and convincing whole – there’s a very persuasive sense of unity to the 705 Signatures’ presentation of this recording that’s preferable to the 705 S2s’ rather hectic ‘everything louder than everything else’ alternative.
Gershwin’s unerringly evocative melodies are revealed as precise, but not remotely clinical, by these speakers. The interaction between sections of the orchestra, the conductor’s insistence on leading them through the piece at an idiosyncratic tempo, the sheer dynamism of the arrangement, is made absolutely explicit by the 705 Signatures – but there’s nothing detached or analytical about the way they go about it. They revel in music for its own sake – but the internal upgrades over the 705 S2s seem to have made them a bit more judicious and quite a lot less zealous as well as, ultimately, more musical.
It’s the dialling down of the aggression and assertiveness in favour of a more even and neutral tonal balance that’s the most obvious, and most welcome, upgrade Bowers & Wilkins has made to the 705 S2s with this Signature edition. They also seem a wee bit more agnostic about sources (and the quality thereof) than the S2s, too. Oh, they’re not about to sprinkle sugar on a 320kbps Spotify stream of Anna Meredith’s Moonmoons [Moshi Moshi] any more than they’ll put some lipstick on a 128kbps file of Madeleine Peyroux’s pass through Dance Me to the End of Love [Rounder] via an iRadio-derived listen to FIP. But neither do they hold either recording up to ridicule. Instead they make the best of it, extract what detail and harmonic dynamism is there to be extracted and then lay it out in an engaging, confident and lyrical manner.
Long sentence alert: Reasonably compact stand-mounting speakers that are forgiving of their room position, available with bespoke stands to which they bolt securely, which combine transparency and neutrality of sound with energy and excitement of presentation, and are elegantly finished and have a degree of individuality in the way the look, are in short supply. But not in the latest Bowers & Wilkins catalogue. So it’s safe to say, then, that whoever signed off on the 705 Signatures can be pleased with and proud of the results.
Type: two-way, two-driver stand-mount monitor with rear-ported bass reflex vent
Driver complement: 25mm carbon dome tweeter; 165mm Continuum mid/bass driver
Frequency response: 50Hz–28kHz
Crossover frequency: 3kHz
Impedance: 8 Ohms nominal
(3.7 Ohms minimum)
Dimensions (H×W×D): 407 × 200 × 285mm
Finishes: Datuk Gloss
Bowers & Wilkins
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