I should warn you in advance that this is going to be something of a bipolar speaker review, which isn’t to say that the speakers in question — Bowers & Wilkins’ MM-1 computer speakers — sport a bi-pole design. No, I speak of the review itself, which is liable to read like evaluations of two completely different speakers, stitched together by gimp-pawed platypus with only rudimentary word processing skills. Because never before have I met a product that engendered in me such strong vacillations of love and letdown, of sheer delight and disappointment.
Let’s start with the good, though, because there really is so very much to love about the MM-1s. It should go without saying that they’re gorgeous in a way that mere images simply can’t convey, which is no surprise given that they’re made by B&W. They’re boast the mix of elegance, refinement, boldness, and classy utilitarianism you’d expect from the manufacturer’s first foray into the world of computer speakers.
What you might not expect is that they don’t connect to your desktop or laptop in the conventional way. The MM-1s feature their own internal DAC (digital-to-analog converter), which is driven by a simple USB connection, and although it’s a design choice that arguably leads to a few of the speakers’ shortcomings, it’s also responsible for their unparalleled virtues, as well.
With the right music, the MM-1s exude the sort of fidelity you would expect from a world class audiophile listening system in a larger room — assuming you’re sitting close enough to them, that is. They’re designed for near-field listening, three feet maximum, and as long as you’re sitting in that sweet spot with your eyes closed, you’d be hard-pressed to guess that these little beauties measure a mere 17 centimeters tall. The sound is full, rich, with startling depth and detail.
The opening guitar notes of Adele’s “Daydreamer” ring through with a clarity and precision that’s downright startling, and when the sultry British songbird’s delicious retro-pop vocals cut through the mix, they do so with a buttery midrange and sparkling highs that can be utterly goosebump-inducing.
Likewise, I defy you to listen to the opening of ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me” with your jaw closed. The soundstage is truly staggering, with Agnetha and Frida’s vocals seeming impossibly wide at first, until Björn and Benny join in with their take-a-chance-take-a-chance-take-a-chicka-chance chant and not only pull the mix to the extremes that would make Stretch Armstrong strain, but also add a healthy bottom end that eliminates all lingering longing for the subwoofer that the MM-1s don’t ship with.
I could go on all day about the little threads of music I’ve found myself falling in love with in a new way via the MM-1s: the plucked guitar of Andrew Bird’s “Masterfade” have never sounded so lifelike through PC speakers; give me a couple of minutes with the Average White Band’s “Pick Up the Pieces” — the plucky rhythms, loping bass, and gritty horns mingling and intertwining in the air in delicate but funky dance, each instrument distinct in a way I’ve rarely heard before — and it’s all I can do to stay seated in the MM-1s’ sweet spot.
As with B&W’s P5 Mobile Headphone, which I reviewed last month and absolutely adored, the MM-1s really reveal the differences between lossy and lossless compression. Unlike the P5s, though, the MM-1s don’t perform so wonderfully with all genres of music. The fact of the matter is that although they sound like hot-buttered sex with the right selection of tunes, they can’t handle a lot of volume, and when the music gets both dense and percussive at the same time, they choke.
The Black Crowes’ “Descending” is a perfect example: The introductory piano lines are revelatory: dynamic, luscious, and airy in a way that no $500 speaker has any right to sound, much less a PC speaker. As soon as the crescendo hits, though, and the drums and Dobro join in, the mix becomes a bit of a blivet: compressed, choppy, bloated, messy.
And although the MM-1s handle the funky phase-shift at the beginning of the Beastie Boys’ “Hey Ladies” with aplomb, here their lack of a subwoofer becomes unbearable.
I’m also undecided as to whether or not computer system sounds are grating through the MM-1s because the speakers reveal their low-fi origins, or because their internal DAC is designed for music and music alone. I lean toward the latter, given the way the various bleeps and blips clip and distort, but either way, you’re better off muting everything but iTunes and a few of your better-sounding video games, if so inclined.
All that said, if music is your only concern, and assuming your musical tastes tend to lean toward the less raucous, the B&W MM-1 is a sumptuous-sounding computer speaker with crystal clear highs, midrange you’ll just want to wallow in, and a bottom end that’s sufficient for most all but the most butt-thumping of tunes. While they may not be the most versatile computer speakers I’ve ever heard, at their best, there’s little else in their class.
Bowers & Wilkins