Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 Desktop Speakers

The English audio company Bowers & Wilkins, commonly known as B&W, has long been valued for its high-end home and studio speakers, which are notable not only for their pure sound, but also their unique look. In late 2007, B&W ventured into the well-heeled-but-not-impossibly-priced consumer market with its $600 Zeppelin iPod speaker system ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ). A year later the company released the smaller $399 Zeppelin Mini. This year B&W introduces its first computer speaker system: the $500 MM-1.

Design, specs, and connections

The MM-1 is made up of just two desktop speakers--no subwoofer. Each unit includes a 3-inch woofer and 1-inch tube-loaded aluminum tweeter. Clearly designed with the visual aesthetics of Apple's current MacBook Pro and iMac models in mind, each speaker's cloth-covered exterior is black with a silver brushed-aluminum band running around three sides. The top of each unit is also brushed aluminum.

The right-hand unit includes a dedicated 18-Watt, Class-D amplifier for each driver--four in total--along with a power switch on the left side and a volume rocker on the right. These switches are nearly unnoticeable, as they're made to blend in with the metal band that wraps around the unit. (The switches can be ignored in favor of the included remote control, which I'll discuss shortly.) The right-hand speaker unit also includes a 1/8-inch (3mm) minijack for connecting an analog audio source such as an iPod. Above that jack is a 1/8-inch headphone jack; plugging in headphones silences the speakers.

The bottom of the right-hand speaker unit includes three connectors--Power, USB, and Speaker. The purposes of the Power and Speaker connectors are obvious--the first accommodates the included AC power adapter and the second is for connecting the left unit to the right using the left speaker's permanently attached, five-foot cable. The USB connector is for establishing a digital audio connection between the speakers and your Mac, which results in cleaner sound. (If you have both a Mac and an analog audio source connected, their signals are mixed.)

The MM-1 works its audio magic in ways beyond mere acoustics. The MM-1 has a built-in, high-quality DAC (digital-to-analog converter) that bypasses similar--and presumably inferior--circuitry on your computer. The system also includes DSP (digital signal processing) circuitry that tweaks the audio signal specifically for the speakers. Additionally, the MM-1 includes a headphone jack designed to provide better audio quality than the jack on your Mac.

The MM-1 comes with a black, oval, wireless remote control nearly identical to the one included with the company's Zeppelin. The remote includes buttons for turning the speakers on and off, muting the speakers, and adjusting the volume level. You also get Previous/Rewind, Play/Pause, and Next/Fast Forward buttons that work with supported applications, including (on the Mac) iTunes, DVD Player, and iPhoto. These playback-control buttons can be used only when the speakers are connected to your Mac via USB.

Note that, when connected to your Mac, whenever you press the remote's volume buttons, OS X's volume bezel appears on the screen and you hear the Mac's familiar audio feedback. For this reason, I recommend disabling the option, in the Sound Effects tab in System Preferences' Sound pane, to Play Feedback When Volume Is Changed. Before I turned off this option, every time I used the remote to adjust the volume of an iTunes track, my Mac played that annoying "pwoit" sound. Another interesting tidbit: When the MM-1 is connected to your Mac and an analog audio source, whenever your Mac produces an alert sound, the audio from the analog source is briefly quieted to ensure you hear that alert.

The sound

Prior to hooking up the MM-1, I used an old Monsoon MM-1000 speaker system with my Mac Pro. That system includes two flat-dipole satellite speakers and, with its 5.25-inch subwoofer driver, can pump out a lot of bass. With the MM-1000, I use JoeSoft's Hear ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) audio-enhancing utility to bring out the mids and highs, as the MM-1000 satellites aren't as bright as I like.

When I first fired up the MM-1 connected via USB, the differences between the two systems were readily apparent. The thumping quality of the Monsoon system was gone--the MM-1 produces nice, full bass, but it can't duplicate the thump of a subwoofer. If you're looking for speakers that rattle the windows, the MM-1 isn't it.

However, if you're after detailed sound in a near-field listening environment, these speakers provide it. The MM-1 is designed to be listened to up close--with the speakers a couple of feet apart and that same couple of feet away from your ears. From this distance you'll hear just about everything a recording has to offer (minus the lowest frequencies, of course), perfectly spread across the soundstage. The mids and highs are nicely evident without sounding overly manipulated.

For the sake of comparison, I launched Hear and switched on the preset that I normally use with the MM-1000. It sounded garish, with the lower-mids too loud and highs over-emphasized. I switched off Hear and was relieved to return to the MM-1's untouched sound. I switched back to the MM-1000 after a few days and, frankly, couldn't wait to return to the B&W speakers. The thump I once enjoyed now sounded unmusically tawdry.

While the MM-1 is designed for near-field listening, the speakers aren't bad from across a small room, either, though quality full-sized speakers sound better. Still, the MM-1 is plenty loud to fill that room and then some.

I also connected an iPod classic to the MM-1 via its analog input and cranked the iPod's volume. When I also cranked up the speakers, the MM-1 didn't distort, but I could clearly hear the speakers clamping down on the loudest bits. It's a sound preferable to distortion, but not one you want to live with for long. You don't hear this damping with the USB connection.

Macworld's buying advice

At $500, the MM-1 is pricey, but you're paying for far more than just a well-respected audio brand and pleasing design. These nicely balanced, detailed speakers sound great in the environment for which they were designed--atop a desk next to your laptop or computer monitor with your head within sneezing distance. And the MM-1's DAC and improved headphone output make for a better headphone experience compared to plugging directly into your Mac. If you have the money and are particular about sound--even the sound coming from your Mac--you owe it to yourself to audition the MM-1.

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