Bowers & Wilkins, one of high-end's most notable brands, has arguably spurred a movement among its fellow manufacturers by being among the first to focus its efforts upon more lifestyle-oriented products. While Bowers & Wilkins will always be known for its 800 Series loudspeakers or for being the speaker of Abby Road Studios, it's the company's headphones, Air Play and other lifestyle-oriented products that seem to be garnering the most attention lately. While this may cause some of the Bowers & Wilkins faithful to groan, it has opened up the brand to scores of new listeners, both young and old. This is a good thing, as AV needs new enthusiasts to come aboard and usher in a new era within the hobby. If it has to be done via headphones and soundbars, so be it. A love of music is a love of music, no matter what the delivery system. But Bowers & Wilkins isn't churning out lifestyle products aimed at a lower demo with tighter budgets just because it's en vogue. No, the company is bringing decades of knowledge and research in ways few others can and the results more than speak for themselves. Bowers & Wilkins' headphones have been widely well-regarded among consumers and the media alike. The same is true for the company's iPod-centric speakers such as the Zeppelin, and as for the soundbar, well, it is many a manufacturer's benchmark. Whether or not you wholly agree, the fact remains that when the competition wants to see how their products compare to other real-world solutions, they often compare themselves to Bowers & Wilkins.
As familiar as I am with the Bowers & Wilkins brand, I have never before reviewed or even spent a great deal of time with the company's first soundbar, the Panorama. Unfortunately, now I never will, as the Panorama has since been replaced by the Panorama 2, reviewed here. From the outside, not much appears to be different between the outgoing Panorama and the current Panorama 2. The look is largely the same, as are its dimensions, measuring 44 inches long by five inches tall and seven-and-a-quarter inches deep. It tips the scales at a stout 31 pounds, no doubt partially aided by its smooth, curved stainless steel shell (cabinet). Even the Panorama 2's price of $2,200 is in lock step with the outgoing Panorama. The Panorama 2's outward appearance, like virtually all of Bowers & Wilkins products, is a thing of beauty. The Panorama 2 possesses the same sculptured lines as its predecessor, which you can get a feel for in pictures, though its real-life presence is far more impressive. Also, when installed, the Panorama 2 has a way of making other components around it, mainly HDTVs, feel more upscale - in my opinion of course. There is a small display window located along the top edge of the Panorama 2's fascia. It is motion-activated and touch-sensitive, granting you control over input, volume, power, etc. These controls are a notable improvement with the Panorama 2, as the Panorama featured traditional hard controls.
Around back, the small input/output plate features three HDMI inputs and one HDMI out (with Audio Return Channel). There is an auxiliary/digital audio input (3.5mm) as well as a 3.5mm jack for RS-232 service/support. The Panorama 2 also has a subwoofer output (RCA) in case you wish to add a subwoofer to augment its low-frequency performance. The previous Panorama did not have any HDMI inputs or outputs. This means version 2 is far more simple to set up and also potentially cuts down on cable clutter.
Behind the scenes, the Panorama 2 boasts Bowers & Wilkins' trademark Nautilus tube loaded tweeter technology, as well as the latest Flowport tech. The Panorama 2 utilizes digital amplification throughout, which is powered using a switch mode power supply. Sound is "filtered" through a sophisticated DSP which, along with surround sound-like performance from a single speaker (the Panorama 2), is responsible for decoding Dolby Digital, Dolby PLII, DTS and stereo soundtracks. The Panorama 2 plays host to two three-and-a-half-inch-diameter subwoofers, powered by their own 50-watt amplifier. It also houses two three-inch midrange drivers, as well as four three-inch surround sound drivers or "channels" mated to a single center-mounted one-inch metal dome tweeter. The remaining drivers, apart from the subs, utilize one of five internal 25-watt amplifiers.
As for the remote, it is basically the same as the old remote and shares more than a few similarities with remotes found accompanying other Bowers & Wilkins products, mainly the MM-1 desktop speakers, as well as the Zeppelin Air. It's shaped like a smooth river rock, only larger, and features a few key controls. While not backlit, it's easy enough to operate without having to glance at it, though figuring out which way it's pointed may require a quick look-see.
Unboxing and installing the Panorama 2 atop my shallow console that rests below my 70-inch Vizio E-Series HDTV was a breeze. I went with a table mount installation versus an on-wall one because, well, I review a lot of soundbars and if each one was wall-mounted, my wall would resemble Swiss cheese at this point. However, it should be noted that the Panorama 2 does come with the necessary hardware to accommodate a wall-mounted installation out of the box, at no extra charge. I flipped the Panorama 2 over and attached the four included rubber feet that help raise it up a good inch or so off of whatever surface it's resting upon. With the feet attached, I routed all of my attached devices through the Panorama 2's three HDMI inputs, which included a Sony BDP-S580 Blu-ray player, Dish Network Hopper DVR and Vizio Co-Star GoogleTV device. My Dish Network DVR ran into the Co-Star and then the Co-Star into the Panorama 2, as that is how GoogleTV works, so technically I had an HDMI connection left open for, say, a gaming console or other source component if need be. From there, I simply ran a single HDMI cable from the Panorama 2's HDMI out to one of my Vizio's side-mounted HDMI inputs and was in business. All of the cables were from Monoprice, though they varied in length from one to three meters.
With the Panorama 2 acting more or less like an AV receiveran AV receiver, it meant I never had to switch inputs on my display. Also, because the Panorama 2 has an auto sensing circuit, it also meant I never really had to switch inputs on the Panorama 2 either, so long as I powered down one device and powered up another - pretty cool. Because the Panorama 2 has an HDMI out, it also means that its control and/or setup procedures are now handled via an onscreen GUI, which is rare among soundbars. It's not that the GUI is flashy or even particularly sexy, but it gets the job done and showcases the Panorama 2's ultimate flexibility. As with an AV receiver, you have to tell the Panorama 2 what it's working with, beginning with your distance from it and the makeup of your room, as well as whether or not it is wall- or table-mounted, as all of these factors play a huge role in how the Panorama 2 will ultimately sound. From there, you can mess around with tone controls (treble and bass) and, if you choose to run an outboard sub, even levels. Be prepared to experiment with these various setup features, including side-wall makeup, as each does change the sound a bit here and there. Also, don't think that because you're choosing to table- or wall-mount your Panorama 2 that you should automatically use the requisite setting to reflect such an installation. For whatever reason, even though I mounted the Panorama 2 atop a table, I found selecting its wall-mount option resulted in better sound, at least, in my room.
I'm not trying to suggest that the Panorama 2 doesn't sound good out of the box or that it needs a lot of help and/or tuning. It's just that, with any loudspeaker, experimentation is only going to help extract the most out of your investment, which is worth doing at $2,200.
Once I had everything set and sounding good in my room, I didn't really mess around too much with break-in and simply dove right into my listening sessions.
Read about the performance of the B&W Panorama 2 on Page 2.
I began my evaluation of the Panorama 2 with some two-channel music by way of Ed Sheeran's "The A Team" off his album + (Atlantic). I ended up listening to two-channel music in Dolby PLII rather than straight stereo, as I found this imparted a greater sense of space to the music, à la a pair of dedicated stereo speakers. It's not that the Panorama 2 in stereo sounded bad - it didn't - it's just there is only so much "space" one can expect from a speaker with drivers that, at a maximum, sit less than 44 inches apart. With a bit of help from the internal DSP, the PLII mode sounded closer to the stereo ideal, in my room and in my opinion, than straight stereo. The resulting sound was spacious with a strong, okay, rock-solid center image. Since the Panorama 2 does offer PLII, I was somewhat expecting to see some of the PLII's adjustment options, like center width and others, but alas, none were present.
When listening in PLII, the sound, apart from being more spacious, was smooth, rich and a touch seductive, which was appropriate for this track. Bowers & Wilkins' trademark tonality is present and accounted for with the Panorama 2. Vocals sounded good, full-bodied with solid scale and presence for a soundbar. The midrange on the whole was natural-sounding, provided I didn't over-drive the speaker. Push it too hard and I could hear a hint of coloration from the rear-mounted ports, resulting in a slight "chestiness," but only if I pressed my luck, and even then, the resulting effect was slight. Highs were smooth and grain-free, though they didn't have quite the same sparkle and/or ultimate extension as some of Bowers & Wilkins' other tweeters. Still, for a soundbar, the performance was what I considered to be class-leading. Most soundbars' high-frequency performances can seem a bit two-dimensional, which was not the case with the Panorama 2.
Moving on to the track "The City," the first thing I noted was the bass, which was shocking in its scale and impact. Was it subwoofer low? Not exactly, but in my room, I would be hesitant to employ a subwoofer, for what was present was wholly satisfying, if not completely musical. As a side note, the bass benefits the most from placement and experimentation in regard to the Panorama 2's settings in order for it to sound its best. Another thing I noted about the Panorama 2's bass performance was its speed and agility, not to mention its inner detail. These are all surprising traits, given the physical makeup of the Panorama 2, as most soundbars deal in broad strokes, whereas the Panorama 2 was surprisingly nuanced in this respect. Again, the midrange and high frequencies proved composed, resolute and grain-free.
Moving on, I cued up Rihanna's Rated R (Def Jam) and the track "S&M." As with any good stereo setup, source material plays a huge role in the overall sound, perceived or otherwise, of a loudspeaker, and it couldn't be truer with the Panorama 2. Whether you believe "S&M" to be a well-recorded track or not, it sounded positively brilliant via the Panorama 2. The sound was large and room-filling, easily breaking free of the speaker and at times the room's physical boundaries, again, in PLII mode. Bass was palpable and its detail, drive and extension were heart-pounding without sounding bloated or, worse, artificial. Rihanna's vocals were spot on, placed dead center of the soundstage (yes, there was a real soundstage) and possessing solid weight, scale and surprising amounts of inflection throughout. The tone of Rihanna's vocals were largely neutral in my tests, though at extreme volumes, I could get them to flatten or become ever so slightly lean - but I am talking extremes here. High frequencies were smooth and grain-free and their extension, especially beyond the speaker's baffle, was impressive throughout the track. Dynamics were awesome, as was the Panorama 2's ability to simply stir the soul.
Moving on to movies, which are arguably the Panorama 2's primary focus, I cued up the disaster epic The Day After Tomorrow (20th Century Fox) on Blu-ray. Granted, the Panorama 2 does not feature Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio decoding. That didn't stop it from sounding, well, epic when it came time for some multi-channel source material, albeit from a soundbar with no rear speakers. The opening scene, which is a long tracking shot over the ice caps of Antarctica, was brilliant in its sonic portrayal. Not only did the Panorama 2 get the orchestral moments right, it impressed me even more with the subtle, ambient environmental cues like the snow blowing across the surface of the ice. In fact, the Panorama 2's entire recreation of the film's atmosphere was stunning, as the surrounding ambience was rendered in a near 360-degree fashion, something I can safely say a few discrete loudspeaker setups haven't even managed. When the ice shelf begins to crack and eventually give way, the resulting dynamic cracks and following bass were startling, rendered with such conviction and force it actually caused me to jump in my seat. Guess I didn't realize how loud I had the volume set. The Panorama 2's entire frequency response was put forth in a seamless manner, resulting in an effortless wall of sound that was very cinematic. Vocals, despite the chaos, remained intelligible and natural in their tone, though during complex passages, like the Antarctic shelf break, they did give up just a hint of weight, but not to the degree of other lesser soundbars.
I ended my evaluation of the Panorama 2 with another film on Blu-ray, this time by way of Fast Five (Universal Pictures). The climactic chase sequence via the Panorama 2 was, as in The Day After Tomorrow, grand in its scale and dynamic impact. In spite of my efforts to get the Panorama 2 to fold under pressure, it remained poised and controlled, in a good way. From the throaty revs of the mighty V8 engines to exploding glass, the Panorama 2 rendered it all brilliantly and without hesitation. The bass was articulate and nuanced and, while it may have lacked sheer brute force, I was never left wanting. Again, dialog was clear and focused. During scenes where dialog was the predominant track (which wasn't often in Fast Five), the Panorama 2 sounded more or less like a quality, near full-range center-channel speaker. However, unlike having to rely only on a center-channel speaker, the Panorama 2 managed to also sound like a solid pair of monitor left and right mains, a pair of surrounds and a small subwoofer when the going got a little rough, which for Fast Five meant 90 percent of the movie. I was impressed as the Panorama 2 once again mustered a true cinematic surround performance, albeit on a slightly smaller scale.
There is a lot to like about the Panorama 2, but there are a few drawbacks, too. For starters, as gorgeous as the Panorama 2's industrial design is - and it is gorgeous - it is next to impossible to keep clean and looking new. It's not that it goes ugly early, but for whatever reason, removing smudges, fingerprints and/or even dust from its stainless steel casework is something of a two-stage affair. First, you have to hit it with a dusting cloth (or Swiffer), then go back over it with a fine, non-streaking cleaner. I ended up using a touch of HDTV screen cleaner sprayed directly onto a microfiber cloth (DON'T spray directly onto the Panorama 2 itself) and achieved satisfactory results, though it's a bit of a process.
Next, the remote, while stylish and very easy to use, is a bit weird, in that it is difficult to discern (blindly) which way is up. Also, because the buttons are so small, you sometimes have to use the tip of your fingernail in order to press down upon them in a way the Panorama 2 likes. Lastly, the battery cover on the back of the remote is garbage and is prone to falling out of place, which is something I've noted on all Bowers & Wilkins products that use this same remote design.
No Bluetooth or Air Play? That was a bit of a shocker to me, as I would've expected the Panorama 2 to have one or the other, given Bowers & Wilkins' recent love affair with wireless connectivity. I'm not sure why at least one of these options isn't included, especially at this price point and I consider the omission a gross oversight.
Competition and Comparisons
While the Panorama 2 may be the luxury king among soundbars, it has rightfully earned that reputation and not just because it costs (arguably) the most. Few soundbars feature HDMI connectivity and few offer the type of robust, dare I say true, audiophile sound the Panorama 2 provides. However, there are a few challengers to the Panorama 2's throne, with more in the works. A direct competitor would be Yamaha's YSP-5100 Digital Sound Projector at just a hair under $2,000; the Definitive Technology SoloCinema XTR is also worth noting, likewise at just under $2,000. While the Definitive Technology soundbar does bring an outboard subwoofer to the party, it also packs true DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD decoding to the mix. Admittedly, it's not finished to the same standard as the Panorama 2, as its construction is a decidedly plastic-fantastic affair.
On the less expensive side of the spectrum, and minus HDMI connectivity, there is Outlaw Audio's OSB-1 Powered Soundbar with H-PAS ($799), as well as MartinLogan's Motion Vista Soundbar ($1,499.95). On the super-inexpensive side of the spectrum, your options include JBL's new Cinema SB200 ($299.95) as well as Vizio's M-Series offerings ($229.99). All of the aforementioned options are quality performers in their own rights. Whether or not they're better than the Panorama 2 or represent a better value is up to you and your budget to decide. Suffice to say the Panorama 2 doesn't exist in a vacuum, whether based on price or performance.
For more on these soundbars, as well as others like them, please visit Home Theater Review's Soundbar Review page.
$2,200 is a lot of money in any capacity, especially in regard to soundbars, which routinely retail for $200 to $500 rather than two grand. That said, there are few that possess the refinement, grace and gravitas that the Panorama 2 brings to the table. Is that added panache worth a little over two grand? That is up to you to decide. What I can say is this: having demoed a great many soundbars over the past 12 months, the Panorama 2 ranks among the top in which I have encountered.
Is it perfect? No, but I have yet to encounter a soundbar that is, as the very nature of the market segment is one of compromise. Still, the Panorama 2 is a well-versed, composed and extraordinarily high-end-sounding piece that also looks the part. If you're a fan of Bowers & Wilkins already, then you will most likely gravitate towards its smooth, supple tone, though don't think for a second the Panorama 2 is an old man's lounge speaker, for it can erupt and become positively volcanic if need be. While careful experimentation is required to find the Panorama 2's "happy place," once arrived at, your efforts will be rewarded handsomely. While I still maintain that it should have some form of wireless connectivity and perhaps a slightly better remote, overall the Panorama 2 is a thing of beauty both inside and out and a worthy high-end companion to any large HDTV.