Bob Barrett is a versatile writer and knowledgeable hi-fi enthusiast whose work for HomeTheaterReivew.com runs the gamut from mid- to high-end home theater to audiophile components and speakers. He also specializes in high-performance and high-end headphones.
British manufacturer Bowers & Wilkins (aka B&W) is one of the world's largest and most respected loudspeaker brands.
In 2018, I had the opportunity to review the B&W 702 S2 loudspeakers. Over my extended listening experience with the 702 S2 speakers, I found they delivered a good measure of the performance of the 800 series at a fraction of the price. So, when our publisher contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in reviewing B&W's new 702 Signature model, I jumped at the chance.
For those unfamiliar, the moniker "Signature" has come to symbolize something quite special at B&W. The company has only introduced Signature versions of its products a handful of times over its 55-year history. B&W's goals with any of their Signature editions have been to push the boundaries of technology and aesthetics. Having been impressed with the 702 S2 model, I was intrigued to hear (and see) what improvements were implemented with the 702 Signature.
I ended up waiting several months before receiving the 702 Signature review samples. The other reviewers wanted to hold onto their samples longer than usual (imagine that), and B&W was deep in acquisition talks with Sound United at the time. Sound United owns brands such as Polk, Denon, Marantz, Definitive Technology, and Classé. It has now added B&W to its stable of brands.
But I suppose all good things come to those who wait. B&W shipped my review samples after first performing thorough quality assurance testing on a pair returned from another reviewer. Attention to detail seems to be a part of the Bowers & Wilkins DNA.
I carefully unpacked the B&W 702 Signature speakers from the cardboard boxes, taking extra care not to damage the bullet-shaped, aluminum tweeter housing mounted atop the cabinets. The tweeter housing is protected during shipment with a molded polystyrene wedge fitted underneath. The speakers also come wrapped in synthetic fabric bags to protect the finish.
The box with the speakers includes a matte black plinth with mounting hardware, a magnetic black fabric acoustic grill, spikes for carpeted floors, rubber-tipped footers for hard surface floors, a two-piece foam plug to partially or completely block the rear speaker port, and an operator's manual.
Leaving the speakers in their bags, I laid them on their sides and installed the spikes directly to the speaker bottoms. I placed the speakers in the same locations as my reference speakers and then removed the fabric bags.
I was surprised B&W didn't include a pair of cloth gloves in the box to avoid putting fingerprints on the exquisite high gloss finish during movement. So I grabbed a pair I had on hand for making final placement adjustments.
The plinths are intended to enhance stability on carpeted floors, but my experience has shown that's not an issue with the low pile carpet in my listening room. Besides, I just don't care for the look of the plinths. In my opinion, they are not up to the standard of the overall 702 Signature aesthetics. I would have preferred B&W include polished stainless steel outriggers with spikes rather than the plain-looking matte black plinths.
I also didn't need to use the foam plugs in the rear ports because the final speaker position in my listening room allowed plenty of space between the rear of the speaker cabinets and the back wall (about 4.5 feet). So, bass enhancement wasn't an issue.
Once positioned, I connected the speakers to my Classé amplifier with WireWorld Silver Eclipse speaker cables. Other gear in the chain included a Mac Mini music server, Bricasti M3 DAC, and a Classé preamplifier (for volume control only).
I won't rehash all the details that remain the same as the 702 S2 model. Instead, I'll focus mainly on what has changed. If you're interested in the additional information, you can find the review of the 702 S2 floorstander here.
The 702 Signature sports several aesthetic upgrades compared to the 702 S2 floorstander. First and foremost, the cabinet is finished in what B&W refers to as Datuk Gloss. B&W partnered with Italian manufacturer ALPI to obtain sustainably sourced Datuk Ebony wood veneer for this project.
ALPI has been in business for over 100 years and supplied wood products to numerous luxury boat, automotive, and furniture manufacturers. It harvests poplar, basswood, or ayous from its own tree farms and strips and recomposes the wood into logs that yield a wide variety of textures and patterns, but without the flaws of traditional wood. With this complex, labor-intensive, but environmentally preferred process, ALPI can simulate many rare, exotic woods from more common varieties.
Subsequently, the veneer planks of these speakers have a distinct and beautiful grain. This grain results in each pair of speakers having a unique pattern. You can only buy them in matched pairs. The veneer is applied to all cabinet surfaces resulting in a seamless look. Nine coats of finish, including primer, base coat, and lacquer, are applied and individually hand-rubbed to obtain the deep lustrous finish.
As a longtime woodworker, I was in awe of the Datuk Gloss finish when I first unboxed the speakers. I can really appreciate the amount of work that goes into producing such an exquisite finish. It also helped me understand the significant cost difference between the 702 Signature and the 702 S2 speakers. I mean, the Rosenut finish on the 702 S2 model I previously reviewed was terrific, but the Datuk Gloss finish is next level.
Other aesthetic differences from the 702 S2 model include a bright silver versus black finish tweeter grille, a brushed silver versus matte black finish on the Continuum midrange driver's trim ring, and a polished silver plaque located just above the rear flowport - engraved with the model and company name. While I didn't prefer the grills on or off with the 702 S2, it was a no-contest with the 702 Signature. I just had to leave the grills off. The Datuk Gloss finish combined with the driver array's bright metal trim is too gorgeous to cover up.
From a technology standpoint, the 702 Signature speakers utilize the same triple braced and rear-ported cabinet, carbon aluminum tweeter in a separate milled aluminum bullet-shaped housing on top of the cabinet, a ContinuumTM FST cone midrange driver, and three AerofoilTM Profile bass drivers that were in the 702 S2 model. You may be wondering why B&W didn't change the cabinet or drivers. Well, the cabinet is already heavily braced, making it essentially inert. B&W also didn't change the drivers because they felt the drivers were still cutting edge technology. As a point of reference, B&W's R&D team spent over eight years developing the Continuum midrange driver material and used it in the 800 series speakers as well.
For this model, they focused instead on improving the crossover design and components. While the crossovers in the 702 S2 model are already quite good, in the 702 Signature, the heatsinks are larger, signal paths shorter, bypass capacitors upgraded to Mundorf units that are specially treated, and the LF capacitor on the bass section of the crossover is also upgraded. Essentially, the crossovers are now at or very near the level of the 800 series crossovers.
Seeing another reviewer had broken in the B&W 702 Signatures, and I was already familiar with the sonic characteristics of the non-signature 702 S2, I didn't waste much time getting down to business.
I used the Roon app on an iPad to control music from streaming services Qobuz and Tidal and my Synology NAS.
Melody Gardot - "If You Love Me"
Throughout the evaluation period, I listened to many genres of music. I streamed several jazz recordings, including Melody Gardot's track "If You Love Me" from her Sunset In The Blue album (Decca) on Qobuz (24 bits / 96 kHz).
I chose this jazz track for a couple of reasons. First, to see how well the 702 Signatures reproduced the vocal from an artist very familiar to me. Second, there is an inherent dichotomy to this well-recorded track in that it transitions back and forth between an intimate and expansive soundstage, exposing a speaker's capability in both settings with a single track.
The 702 Signatures did an amazing job of throwing a wide soundstage simulating a concert hall during the track's opening by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The sounds of the various string instruments seemed to float in the air from wall to wall. When the track transitioned to the breathy intimacy of Gardot's vocal backed only by a guitar and drum brushes, there was the illusion of listening to her in a small club. Every little detail in Melody's voice came across so naturally and lifelike, never sounding analytical or the least bit harsh in any way.
The lush orchestrations drifted in and out seamlessly to support the track's romanticism without drawing undue attention to the changes in soundstage width.
Overall, the 702 Signatures provided a refined, cohesive presentation across the audio band with plenty of micro details and a believable soundstage provided by the stable positioning of both Melody's vocal and individual instruments. All of the lushness of the vocal came through the Signatures effortlessly. I found the midrange on the 702 Signatures to be sublime.
London Grammar - "Lord It's a Feeling"
Next, I listened to "Lord It's a Feeling" from London Grammar's album Californian Soil (Ministry of Sound Recordings) streamed on Tidal (24 bits / 88.2 kHz MQA).
This track starts simply enough with lead vocalist Hannah Reid backed by only strings, but builds into a complex layering of strings, vocals, synthesized drums, and other effects all coming together to support the lyrics' message.
The 702 Signatures were formidable at teasing out this track's individual instruments, vocals, and effects in a large, believable soundstage. I could pinpoint each component in its own location within what was a broad and deep soundstage, while at the same time blending the individual pieces into a dramatic, cohesive whole. There was no discernable midbass boost.
I found the 702 Signatures to be both highly resolving and refined at the same time - probably due to the crossover improvements employed in the Signature model by B&W. The result was even more elicited emotion than I've experienced from this track through many other speakers. And after all, isn't that what music played through great loudspeakers should do? Make us feel?
Since this is HomeTheaterReview.com, after all, I switched to movies to see how the 702 Signatures handled a dynamic soundtrack both as a standalone stereo pair and blended into a surround sound setup.
For surround sound comparison, I blended the 702 Signatures with my setup of Aerial Acoustics center and surround speakers, and two JL Audio Fathom subwoofers, by running the Audyssey MultEQ XT32 DSP algorithm from a Marantz PrePro. Once I was satisfied with the settings, I played several film clips via an Oppo UDP-205 Blu-ray player, first with the 702 Signatures on their own and then with the other speakers brought into the mix.
The Dark Knight Rises - "The Battle of Gotham Begins"
In stereo mode, the scene "The Battle of Gotham Begins" from the movie The Dark Knight Rises (Warner Bros. Entertainment) demonstrated the 702 Signature's ability to go beyond simply reproducing all of the dialogue intelligibly. It brought out all the gravelly grittiness of Bane's voice through his mask as well as the whispering baritone of Batman's voice.
Tonal accuracy of voices was delivered effortlessly by the 702 Signatures too, which I attributed to a combination of the decoupled Continuum™ midrange driver technology and the improved crossover design. Time and again, the midrange of this speaker proved to be one of its strongest attributes, always seeming to reproduce accurate, lifelike vocals no matter what content I queued up.
As a stereo pair, the 702 Signatures provided a satisfying level of bass impact from both the soundtrack's timpani and the scene's explosion when Catwoman fired a torpedo to open a blocked tunnel. The 702 Signatures also created a wide soundstage with the brass instruments of the large orchestral soundtrack and the hundreds of voices during the fight scene. It literally extended from wall to wall across the room - drawing me closer to the action on the screen.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised at the 702 Signature's ability to deliver more of the emotion and impact of the scene than I anticipated. However, I'm not saying that the 702 Signatures on their own were as good as a full surround setup. As expected, only when I switched to the full surround setup did I achieve that familiar feel-it-in-your-chest kind of impact from this and other action movie scenes' special effects. And, of course, the soundstage became more three-dimensional, filling the entire listening space.
No speaker of the 702 Signature's size is truly a full-range speaker. It's not physically possible. Only adding a quality, well-calibrated subwoofer or two can achieve the lowest frequencies from movies and music. But for those who can only use a stereo pair of loudspeakers due to limited space or other reasons, the 702 Signature delivers more emotion and bass impact from movies than most speakers its size. I heard decent bass energy from the 702 Signatures down into the mid-thirty hertz range, so they should be able to deliver the lowest notes of ninety-eight percent of music accurately. Unless you're heavily into pipe organ or dubstep, these speakers are more than capable.
It's hard to find many faults with the B&W 702 Signature floorstander. I really only have two quibbles. As previously mentioned, I don't think the plinths are up to the aesthetics of the Signature speakers themselves. They are also quite large. I would rather see stainless steel outriggers and spikes replace the matte black MDF plinths that are included. Secondly, there is no matching Signature edition center speaker available. For those interested in incorporating the improved Signature edition floorstanders as part of a surround sound system and concerned about timbre matching, you could use the B&W HTM71 S2 center speaker. While the Datuk gloss finish is not available, the center in black gloss could blend well from a décor perspective depending on placement.
If you insist on having a matching finish on all speakers, you'll need to look at competitor options, such as those mentioned below.
There are quite a few floorstander speakers currently available in the $6,000 - $7,000 price range, so it’s a competitive space to play. Speakers that come to mind include the new Focal Aria K2 936 ($5,990 per pair) and the Monitor Audio Gold 300 ($7,000 per pair).
The slightly taller Focal speaker is also a limited-edition model with a 1-inch inverted magnesium-aluminum dome tweeter, one 6.5-inch midrange driver, three 6.5-inch bass drivers, two front-facing ports, and one downward-facing port. The K2’s bass and midbass cone material is aramid instead of the flax that Focal uses in the rest of the Aria line. The cabinet sides are finished in ash gray (borrowed from their Utopia III Evo line) and Focal’s signature leather-lined front baffle. While aesthetically pleasing, in my opinion, the Focal K2s don’t quite measure up to the exquisite Datuk gloss finish of the B&W Signature. How they measure up sonically is something that you’ll have to decide for yourself through a proper audition.
The Monitor Audio Gold 300 floorstander is approximately the same dimensions and weight as the 702 Signatures, except its cabinet is a bit wider to accommodate the larger two 8-inch bass drivers versus the three 6.5-inch bass drivers found in the 702 Signatures. There is a matching Gold series center, surround, and subwoofer speaker available, too, if you intend to have a surround sound setup that matches the two mains cosmetically. While I haven’t heard the new Gold 300 floorstander model, I did review its predecessor and was quite impressed with its performance.
In my opinion, the B&W 702 Signature comes very close in performance to B&W’s discontinued reference line 804 D3 model ($10,000) at just a bit over half the price (you might be able to get a decent discount on remaining stock if you act quickly). The biggest difference between the two is the 804 D3 has the diamond-coated aluminum tweeter versus the less expensive carbon-coated aluminum tweeter of the 702 Signature. Time will tell whether the performance gap will widen with the release of the new (and pricier) B&W 804 D4 model ($12,500 per pair).
I was already impressed with the performance of the B&W 702 S2 model when I first reviewed it. Now, the B&W 702 Signature edition takes that performance up to near 800 series levels. The addition of the gorgeous Datuk Gloss finish and other accompanying aesthetic improvements could easily cause someone to mistake it for a speaker costing two or even three times as much as it does.
The blending of the already highly resolving carbon dome tweeter, decoupled ContinuumTM cone midrange accuracy, and fast Aerofoil™ cone bass drivers has been improved further in the 702 Signature model with the upgraded crossover network.
The B&W 702 Signature speaker should definitely be on the shortlist of anyone who equally values performance and aesthetic design. The B&W 702 Signature is a beautiful speaker in more than one way.