Bowers & Wilkins MM-1

If the header for this post means absolutely nothing to you, then read no further. But a few people might be interested in my impressions of these classy desktop speakers. Are they worth the not inconsiderable expense?

A bit of background first. I recently re-organized my very small study at home and bought a new iMac. And I’ve found myself listening to music a lot through the surprisingly-not-too-awful speakers on the computer. (I should say that, for someone with something like a thousand classical music CDs, I’ve put up with some really crap music playing systems, and the one I had in my study before rearranging stuff was pretty hopeless: even listening through the iMac’s speakers was about as good.) And I really liked a lot having the music coming from in front of me as I worked at the computer, rather than from shelves to my side. So I started investigating the options for improving things with desktop speakers actually designed for “near field” listening. The reviews for the B&W MM-1 are extremely good, with the price point being the only clear negative for many reviewers. I asked in the Apple Store, and — this is worth knowing, as it was a surprise to me — their “14 day open box returns” policy applies to everything they sell apart from software, including non-Apple kit. I knew from my experience of buying a 27″ iMac and then trading down to a 21.5″ that it really is a no fuss policy, and so it really is a no risk option to take home a pair of these speakers and try them out.

One or two reviews had  mentioned their performance on classical music at relatively low volume being particularly good: this recommendation certainly ticked the boxes for me, because that conforms exactly to my study listening habits.

But of course ‘classical’ could mean anything from Bruckner symphonies to early Venetian lute music (well, both are “classical” in the all-embracing sense that seems to be used in hi-fi reviews); and my tastes are nearer the latter — which is pretty exposing stuff. How do the speakers fare in practice on the kind of music I listen to? Here’s some reactions. The warm positives (just a selection of examples):

  • Brendel playing Schubert impromptus (his later, digital recording): amazing, revelatory sound (whether playing the CD or imported into iTunes with AAC at 192Kb).
  • Perahia playing the Goldberg Variations: similarly excellent.
  • Felicity Lott singing Schubert (the old IMP CD): again, revelatory.
  • Mullova playing Bach partitas — jaw-droppingly good quality sound.
  • Lindsays playing Haydn Op.54, no.1 (which I happen to be listening to as I write this): extemely real, natural sound. Difficult to fault.
  • Haydn, Symphony 35, AMA conducted Hogwood. Again quite excellent.

Sort-of-negatives:

  • I happen to have 128KB MP3s of the Alban Berg Quartet playing Beethoven: these didn’t sound at all good. Not the speakers’ fault of course, but they do expose less-than-high-quality digital sources.
  • I wouldn’t normally sit at the computer listening to opera, but I did try the speakers on some opera CDs. With the speakers only a couple of feet from your head, the opera seems to be taking place in an odd location and felt uncomfortable (you can in real life sit very up-close and personal to chamber music and even small classical orchestras, as you might do e.g. in the Sheffield Crucible Studio’s ‘music in the round’; but you want opera coming from further away! Oddly I preferred listening on headphones, where there is no definite location. I got the same effect with Solti’s recording of Schubert’s Great C major — but again not what I’ll be listening to at my desk.

So my summary verdict: if you want decent reproduction of chamber music, piano, song — small intimate music — then these small speakers made for intimate up-close listening seem pretty wonderful: as I suppose they should be for the price. They do certainly seem to live up to reviews like this one. As, as I said, I’m no hi-fi buff, and it wouldn’t have taken a great deal to beat what I was using before hands down and cheer me up: so your mileage could vary. However, I’m very happy with them. They certainly won’t be going back to the Apple Store …

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3 Responses to Bowers & Wilkins MM-1

  1. Paolo says:

    Just noticed your unusual blog entry… as a very long time hi-fi lover, and currently owner of a pair of B&W 803D as my main speakers, at the outset I’d trust B&W even in this completely new field. Well, for fundamental physical reasons, I would consider at least improving the bass range with a subwoofer, and, *please*, stop using those horrible overcompressed MP3s! At least use 320KB (I would say only with iPODs and headphones, on a train, while traveling: it happens to me) or, better, high quality FLACs. By now, there is ample scientific evidence that the difference is perfectly audible even via an otherwise cheap reproduction chain, definitely with, say, 100 € worth of headphones. Also, today modern computer systems and data communication networks can deal very well with high quality streams: personally I have tens of 24bit / 96 KHz uncompressed FLACs even for “pop” music, normally sold by enlightened labels (eg, Warp). Just browse any recent Stereophile or The Absolute Sound issue if you are not convinced by my word. Respect your ears.

  2. Fredrik says:

    You finally got me to pull the trigger on these speakers!
    I’m very happy with the sound quality; working at the computer is more fun. They’re not cheap, but for me it made sense to spend the money, since so much of my listening takes place at the computer. I am a bit concerned about the build quality, however. The first pair I got didn’t work at all, and the second pair had a remote that didn’t work. But the people at the store were of course perfectly nice about this.

    • Peter Smith says:

      I read quite a few reviews of B&W speakers before I bought and build quality wasn’t an issue. So I do hope that was just very bad luck, because for speakers this price you’d expect better! Still very happy here with sound quality.

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