Following the announcement of a new hook-up with Volvo and involvement with the Maria Callas studio project, Bowers & Wilkins could afford a few seconds break before announcing a whole new line of loudspeakers, the Compact Monitor Series 2. And we had a chance to preview this sextet of speakers in advance of launch.
A select group of UK and European journalists were invited down to Bowers & Wilkins Visitor Centre in Worthing, West Sussex in the UK. Although on the South Coast, close to beauty spots like the South Downs and tourist traps like Brighton, Bowers & Wilkins Visitor Centre is situated in the middle of a drab mid-20th Century residential zone, some distance from the company’s 800-series factory. Despite its humble exterior and surroundings, the Visitor Centre is extremely well equipped, with two listening rooms for stereo, a dedicated room for custom install, a lecture theatre (which doubles as a full 800 series home theatre demonstration room) and a more real-world home theatre demonstration room. Add to this a central showcase for ‘meet and greet’ moments, conference rooms, the world’s greatest receptionist (she bakes a mean lemon drizzle cake for visitors, and while we British might not have the best culinary reputation on the planet, we take our cakes very seriously), it’s a mark of the size of the company that its visitor centre on its own is larger than the factories of many high-end manufacturers.
Good cakes and fancy rooms are one thing; good speakers are an entirely different proposition. The CM series began with one loudspeaker, the CM1 bookshelf in the middle of the last decade. It wasn’t intended or expected to be new anything more than a ‘tweener’ product for those wanting something different to the then current 600 and 700 series lines, but the CM1 proved surprisingly popular. The line grew, and quickly began to sideline the 700 Series models. By 2013, the range had grown to two standmounts, three floorstanders, a centre and a subwoofer.
Lessons learned from the new 600 Series (most notably the ‘Decoupled Double Dome’ tweeter) were beginning to show up the limitations of a design first minted almost a decade ago. This meant that the later models in the CM range (such as the CM10, which also sported the Decoupled Double Dome from launch) were beginning to show up limitations in the earlier designs. A complete rethink was in order.
The Decoupled Double Dome system works by floating an aluminium dome tweeter in a gel ring (the ‘decoupled’ part, isolating the tweeter from external vibration from the woofer), and supporting this dome with an additional aluminium ring (the ‘double’ part) for reinforcement and additional rigidity. This, claims Bowers & Wilkins, pushes the breakup point up to 38kHz, which is considerably better than the 30kHz or breakup of most aluminium tweeters. While 38kHz should only be a concern for pets, the point where a tweeter turns chaotic echoes down into the audio band and the further this breakup can be kept from our own audible spectrum, the better.
What looks like a cosmetic change is equally important in the performance of these new speakers. The now fixing-free aluminium cone surround hide a more rigid connection between drive unit and cabinet, increasing overall stiffness of the front baffle in the process. Bowers & Wilkins has also redesigned the crossover network going for a lower order crossover, and the new boards feature Mundorf MCap EVO caps normally seen on more exotic models.
The CM S2 range is now made up of three standmounts, three floorstanders, two centres, a dedicated stand for the standmounts, and a subwoofer. That’s one more standmount compared to the last range, and makes for a ‘good, better, best’ approach for both designs. Recently, there has been a distinct return to standmounts over floorstanders (not necessarily a technology issue; such things are often fashion-led). Prices range from £649/$1,100 per pair for the CM1 S2 to £2,999/$4,000 per pair for the CM10 S2. A concern for some careful watchers of the Bowers & Wilkins range is the previous range-topper, the CM10, was only launched last year; however, the changes between original and S2 model are more cosmetic than sonic. The subwoofer (also a relative newcomer in the previous line) essentially gets a cosmetic refresh rather than a substantial refit.
The visit to the Visitor Centre was useful, because it allowed our select band of audio writers a chance to hear all six models in quick succession, followed by a home theatre installation, and even take in some comparisons between key models in the CM S2 range and the latest 600 line. As there are developmental cues from the company’s entry level range, this proved extremely useful, as it confirms just well placed both lines are in performance terms (600 is good, CM S2 is a lot better). The loudspeakers were all played through electronics from Bowers & Wilkins stable mate brand Rotel, using Hi-Fi Racks equipment tables and Chord Company cables, which is a fair representation of the kind of equipment CM S2 loudspeakers might partner in the real world.
We heard these speakers in strict order, from the CM1 S2 to the CM10 S2, comparing the former to the 686 bookshelf speaker and the CM9 S2 with the 684. And yes, the ‘good, better, best’ rule applies well. Each model up the chain is typically better than its predecessor, and the 600 series models (though good in their own right) were no match for the CM S2 models in fairly basic areas of transparency, detail, stereo separation, and dynamic range.
Through our quick listen though, the star of the show is the new £1,499/$2,000 per pair CM6 S2 standmount. With it’s decoupled tweeter pod (which makes it a ‘decoupled decoupled double dome tweeter’; try saying that fast three times in a row after a night on the sherbets), rigid cabinet and 165mm Kevlar bass driver, it’s hard not to draw parallels with this loudspeaker and the legendary 805, in particular the old 805 Matrix loudspeaker from the 1990s. There’s more than 20 years of technological development separating these two designs and there was no provision to compare the two (or even compare the CM6 S2 with the current 805 Diamond), but the tonal separation and the clarity the tweeter pod brings, coupled to the surprisingly deep bass and excellent imaging, I expect big things from this little loudspeaker.
The busy continues. To coincide with the start of the consumer electronics show IFA in Berlin (September 5-10), Bowers & Wilkins announced it has upgraded its P5 headphones and C5 IEMs to Series 2 status. And the company is frantically refitting its 800 Series plant. It looks like the tail end of 2014 is shaping up nicely for audio’s big hitter!