Brian Kahn is the longest tenured writer on staff at HomeTheaterReview.com. His specialties include everything from speakers to whole-home audio systems to high-end audiophile and home theater gear, as well as room acoustics. By day, Brian is a partner at a West Los Angeles law firm.
The "trickle down" effect can apply to many things, with mixed results. In connection with economics, many would say that there is no trickle-down effect. When it comes to technology, though, it's impossible to deny the benefits. As higher-end technologies trickle down to lower-priced products, the masses benefit. Why is trickle-down technology important to a review of Bowers & Wilkins' new midrange CM10 speaker? Because the CM10's relatively traditional exterior belies the technological advances within.
Just about every person interested in high-performance audio knows of Bowers &Wilkins' famed 800 Series speakers, with their distinctive pod-mounted midrange and tweeters. The 800 Series is a staple in recording studios all over the world, including Abbey Road, Skywalker Sound, and Sony Music Studios. The 800 Series speakers benefitted from technology that trickled down from the very limited-production Nautilus speakers. The Nautilus technology is used in the Bowers & Wilkins line in the way of tapered tubes behind the individual drivers, which control the back waves of those individual drivers to create the "perfect dipole." This technology, along with other technology from the 800 Series, has now found its way into Bowers & Wilkins' less expensive CM line. The largest speaker in the CM line is the floor-standing, three-way, five-driver CM10. At $4,000 per pair, the CM10 is not inexpensive but, assuming it can deliver much of the performance of an 800 Series floor-standing speaker (which starts at approximately twice the price), it's a great value.
In addition to the Nautilus tubes, the CM10 benefits from a separate tweeter housing mounted on top of the main cabinet. This feature comes from the 800 Series speakers, and the isolation is said to provide great benefits in imaging. The tweeter also benefits from the double-dome design utilized in the PM1 speaker, in which a second dome with the center cut out forms a strengthening ring that helps keep the voice coil from deforming at higher frequencies and raises the breakup frequency from 30 kHz to 38 kHz. Another piece of trickle-down technology is the decoupled FST (fixed suspension transducer) midrange. The FST driver technology has been in use by other speakers throughout the B&W lineup, but the CM10 is the first speaker outside of the 800 Series to also utilize a decoupled FST driver. A rod mounted at the back of the cabinet works to decouple the driver from the cabinet, thereby reducing cabinet coloration in the critical midrange area.
So, a bunch of great technologies are utilized in this speaker. Does that make for a good speaker? Technology must not be utilized simply for sake of making something high-tech. The selection and application of technology must be carefully chosen to provide not just a benefit to any one particular aspect of the speaker, but to also create a well-integrated system. This is particularly important in multi-driver speaker systems in order to preserve a cohesive sonic presentation throughout the frequency range.
A little bit more about the CM10 itself: it is 42.8 inches tall (the last three inches are the tweeter assembly), 7.9 inches wide and 14.3 inches deep. The width and depth measurements do not include the plinth at the bottom, which provides stability to the relatively narrow cabinet. In addition to the one-inch double-dome tweeter that sits atop the cabinet, the cabinet houses a six-inch Kevlar FST midrange and two 6.5-inch Kevlar/paper cone woofers. Placing the tweeter outside the cabinet provides more interior volume for the woofers, which are said to have a -6dB point of 28 Hz. The cabinets are relatively simple, straight-edged rectangles, available in Black Gloss or Satin White finish or a real wood veneer made out of Rosenut or Wenge. All but the Satin White come with black grilles, which are magnetically attached to the main cabinet body. The tweeter grilles are steel mesh and need a special tool (included) to remove them in order to prevent damage from mischievous hands. The rear of the cabinet has a molded plastic flowport (complete with golf-ball-like dimples) and two sets of binding posts that allow for bi-wiring.
At 74 pounds apiece, the CM10 is manageable for one person to set up, but an extra set of hands will make things easier. The box contains pictograms showing how to remove the speakers and install their plinths. The packaging cleverly provides safe support for the speakers in the upside-down position needed to install the plinth bases. The plinths do not come attached, but it only took a couple of minutes per speaker to get the bases attached. The hardest part was turning the speakers over.
I first placed the CM10s in my living room and let them break in for a few weeks powered by a McIntosh integrated amplifier. I found the bass to be very limited at first, and this was the area that transformed the most during the break-in period. I then moved the speakers into my main listening room, where they were driven by an older Krell stereo amplifier. A new Krell Phantom III preamplifier routed the sources, which included a PSAudio PerfectWave DAC MkII and an Oppo BDP-95.
The speakers were placed approximately four feet from the front wall. Originally. I tried them approximately seven feet apart so that I could A/B them with my 800 Diamonds, but I then moved them slightly farther apart. The speakers ended up just under eight feet apart and toed-in very slightly. I tried both Transparent Ultra MM2 and Kimber Select cables. With these particular speakers, I had a slight preference for the Kimber, as it provided a slightly sweeter top end.
Continue on to Page 2 for the Performance, the Competition and Comparison, the Downside, and the Conclusion . . .
Before spending any quality time listening to the CM10s, I let them play in a secondary system for over a month to break in. Even though I was waiting to move the speakers to my main listening room before I did any critical listening, I did sit down with them from time to time, as I was extremely curious to hear how the CM Series sounded. Years ago, I had the opportunity to review a couple pairs of CM speakers, and I could immediately tell that the CM10 was a major leap forward.
Paula Cole's "Tiger" from the album This Fire (Warner Brothers) has a few traits that make it a good test track. The track's dynamic, deep and detailed bass notes can be a very trying experience for many speakers. My casual listening already revealed that the CM10's mids and highs were a significant step up from the already good prior-generation CM speakers. The bass notes were reproduced with more punch and depth than anticipated. I was impressed. Many speakers have difficulty handling this piece at reasonably loud volumes, but the CM10s showed no signs of compression. In comparison to my reference B&W 800 Diamond Series speakers, the CM10s could not reach quite as low and were less detailed. Listening to the CM10s alone, I would not know that there was more detail to be had, but the 800 Diamonds were able to provide more definition in this range. Having heard this track numerous times, I immediately noticed how natural Paula Cole's voice sounded and the accurate sense of space. The ability of the speakers to portray a solid, three-dimensional soundstage was much closer to the 800 Diamonds than the prior generations of CMs.
The CM10's bass-reproduction capabilities remained consistent throughout a variety of tracks. I listened to synthesized bass on Nicki Minaj's "Superbass" from her Pink Friday album (Cash Money) and Skrillex's "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" from the album with the same name (Big Beat/Warner). With these pieces and other synthesized music, the CM10s provided a tactile bass experience with a smooth roll-off that still provided some information from the lowest notes, even if they were not reproduced with the same force as those an octave or so up. The speed of the attack on the synthesized bass notes was an area where I was able to discern some slowness on the part of the CM10. I have a pair of Acoustic Zen Crescendos, which are large stand-mounted speakers that are also in the same price range, that reproduced the bass with more detail but, as I recall, not with the same amount of power as the CM10s. With the CM10s, you get a lot of extension, but give up on the some of the detail that can be found in larger and more expensive speakers.
I never found myself wanting for a subwoofer. However, since I had the B&W DB1 handy, I tried it out and was able to get that last bit of bass extension. I suspect that using a preamplifier's bass management to cross over between the 40- and 50Hz range would provide a strong combination of speed, power and extension.
Before we leave the subject of bass performance altogether, I also listened to the John Rutter Requiem disc (Reference Recordings). The track "Gaelic Blessing" is a piece that I find comforting to listen to; it is also good for putting speakers through their paces. The pipe organ elicited much of the qualities discussed above, which didn't surprise me. What was beyond my expectations was the CM10's ability to throw a huge soundstage, full of detail, while also disappearing. The positions of the members of the choir and instruments were easy to ascertain and went well beyond the bounds of my listening space. The improved midrange driver and tweeter no doubt play a big role in this capability.
At CES this year, I was able to pick up the Mobile Fidelity CD of Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms (Mobile Fidelity / Warner), and I have listened to it quite a few times on a few speaker systems. The famous opening of the "Money for Nothing" track was reproduced with a large and seamless wall of sound through the CM10s. When the instruments first appear, each is well-placed, and then the guitar riff explodes into the track. The CM10s' reproduction of the guitar was particularly well done; it was dynamic and well-balanced, providing the bite one would expect with an electric guitar, but never coming close to going over the line into becoming harsh. The characteristics of Mark Knopfler's and Sting's voices were readily apparent, and each sounded three-dimensional. The weight of the drums seemed just right, and they had plenty of detail, even when the drumming picked up in pace. The entire album just sounded right on the CM10s, and I found myself listening to it the entire way through.
The CM10 needs powerful and stable amplification in order for it to come anywhere close to reaching its potential. When breaking the speaker in, I tried a few smaller amplifiers and integrated amplifiers, and the speakers needed a good deal of power and control to come alive. I would suspect that the impedance of the speakers drops below two ohms at places.
A possibly related trait surfaces in the CM10's bass reproduction. The low-frequency extension is good, with usable bass below 40 Hz, but the definition and speed of the lower bass falls behind the performance of the upper frequencies. The bass power is quite good for this size speaker, and the detail is above average - still, the detail and sense of natural ease present in the midrange and highs does not make it down to the last couple of octaves.
Competition and Comparison
The under-$5,000 floor-standing speaker market has become very competitive over the past few years. Unfortunately, I have not been able to listen to any others among the current crop of speakers in this range in my own system, but I have heard a few at other venues. Some of the speakers that caught my attention of being worthy performers are the Revel Performa 3 F208 ($5,000), which I was able to hear briefly at trade shows; I always made notes that this is a speaker I would like to listen to some more. The newly introduced Focal Aria 900 ($4,999) is a similarly-sized and priced floor-standing speaker that we hope to review in the near future. Two less-expensive speakers, the
Paradigm Studio 100 ($3,598) and the GoldenEar Triton Two ($3,000), also compete well in this price range. The GoldenEar differs notably in its design, with powered woofers and a Heil-type tweeter.
The CM10 sounds big. The overall sound character may be described as one with extended clear highs, a natural warm midrange, and full bass. The technology that has trickled down from the more expensive Bowers & Wilkins lines has made the CM10 a very strong performer. The decoupled FST midrange and top-mounted double-dome tweeter combine to provide a natural and detailed presentation with solid imaging.
I would be crazy to say that the CM10, even with the new technology, can match the 800 Diamond Series. The all-out application of technology in the 800 Diamond Series is still a step ahead. The midrange of the 800 and 805 Diamond Series is even more nuanced, open, and detailed. The Diamond tweeters likewise pull away from the aluminum-dome tweeters. Still, the Bowers & Wilkins CM10 is a great-performing speaker that offers a lot more performance from the 800 Series speakers than its price would suggest.