Let's face it - it's tough to get an audiophile's attention with a soundbar. Actually, Bowers & Wilkins doesn't even refer to the Panorama as a soundbar, rather in their terminology it's an "Integrated A/V Sound System," aptly named as it turns out. It retails for $2,200, yes that's $2,200 American dollars... but you get what you pay for here. The Panorama weighs a stout 30 pounds and measures 42.9 inches wide by seven inches deep by five inches high. The driver array consists of two three and a half inch subwoofers, two three inch midrange drivers, four three inch surround channels and a very sweet sounding one inch metal dome tweeter. The subwoofer amp is rated at 50 Watts and the rest of the channels are rated at 25 Watts each. These built-in amps allow you the flexibility to connect your source components directly to the soundbar, no need for a receiver or amplifier.
The Panorama supports 5.1 Dolby Digital, DTS 5.1 and Dolby Pro Logic II. Sorry, Blu-ray people - no lossless audio codecs supported here, although you can certainly use the Panorama with a Blu-ray player by connecting it via an optical or coaxial cable. There are five inputs, three digital and two analog. The Panorama also includes a subwoofer output connection for those seeking a bit more low-end thump.
Bowers & Wilkins packages their gear intuitively and in the case of the Panorama, they include two optical cables, hardware for table or wall mounting and even a micro fiber cloth to restore the finish once you're done mucking it up with your grubby mitts. The finish of the Panorama, like all Bowers & Wilkins products, is top-notch: a beautiful mirrored black stainless steel, reminiscent of the liquid metal Terminator in T2. The included egg-shaped remote is simple, small and perfect for the task at hand. It's unobtrusive and not loaded with useless functionality, are you listening other manufacturers?
Bowers & Wilkins also includes two sets of table mounting feet - 25mm and 35mm. I used the taller of the two in the interest of placing the soundbar as close to the bottom of my projection screen as possible. Since I route all audio and video through my processor, I simply muted it to avoid conflict with the Panorama. For those using their television speakers, you'd simply mute the TV or turn off the TV's internal speakers. Using the included optical cables, I connected the Panorama to my Oppo DV-980H DVD player and DirecTV HD DVR. The entire setup took about ten minutes and I was up and running with no tweaks or fuss.
Right out of the gate, I was impressed with the sound quality of the Panorama. Most audiophiles seem to spend more time tweaking their systems than actually listening to them; if you're not one of these types I commend you. As such, I expected the requisite trip into the menu system to adjust bass, center channel volume... something. But alas, it sounded great right out of the box with its default settings. One of the main reasons soundbars have become so popular of late is that people are trying to avoid hassles with their home theaters. Plug it in and play is what people are looking for, no running wires around the room for surround speakers, no calibration microphones, no hiring of a custom installer, etc. In this regard, Bowers & Wilkins has truly delivered with the Panorama.
My first listening session turned out to be the finals of the World Series of Poker in 5.1 Dolby Digital. Watching Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi match wits with David Oppenheim was a treat, with highly articulate dialogue and solid surround sound action from the crowd. I actually didn't notice much (if any) drop off in center channel sound quality from my dedicated (also Bowers & Wilkins) center channel - impressive. Watching tournament poker, which is replete with heavy accents and lots of mumbling, requires a detailed speaker and the Panorama delivered.
Moving on to movies, I went with Tropic Thunder (Dreamworks) in 5.1 Dolby Digital. Unlike most comedies, this film is loaded with solid surround sound material from the various war scenes. The "Alpa Chino" hip hop commercial in the beginning of the film showed the Panorama's ability to produce solid bass, enough so that I didn't feel the need to connect my subwoofer. Throughout the film, I found the dialogue to be intelligible, even with the volume cranked to near its max. In Chapter 7, when the crew first encounters the enemy, chaos and gunfire ensues and I found the channel separation and coherence of the Panorama to be exemplary, despite the close proximity of the drivers to one another. Other, more poorly engineered soundbars I've heard tend to push all of the sound together, creating a much less engaging and somewhat muddy experience.
While I can't say that I'm a huge Rolling Stone's fan, I'm willing to sit through anything directed by Martin Scorsese, so I cued up Shine a Light (Paramount) in 5.1 Dolby Digital. While the audio quality from scene to scene varies from exemplary (the actual concert footage), to downright crap (some of the backstage footage), the Panorama handled it all with aplomb. In the second chapter, when President Clinton finishes introducing the Stones, the applause swept around my listening room, creating the illusion of having a pair of dedicated surround sound speakers. According to Bowers & Wilkins, this is accomplished through a combination of careful driver placement within the Panorama, coupled with DSP (Digital Signal Processing). The sound bounces off the walls of your room, creating a virtual surround sound effect. With other soundbars I've auditioned, I found it necessary to re-position myself in order to accentuate the surround sound effect; not so with the Bowers & Wilkins. I listened to the applause several times to try to differentiate it from using actual surround sound speakers and couldn't really tell much of a difference. In a way, this is almost preferable as you never really want to be able to "place" speakers in a good home theater. Rather, they should play coherently with one another creating more of a sound field.
The surround sound performance of the Panorama is directly tied to the source material. In other words, how the movie was recorded will determine the surround action you hear. In some films, the sound engineers simply don't push much audio to the rear channels, while in others (Shine a Light is a good example) there is ample information being sent to the rears. In those cases, you'll get a nice sense of surround sound from the Panorama; just don't expect it on every movie. Each room will play a bit differently as well, although Bowers & Wilkins has mitigated this by allowing you to choose three different settings (Hard, Soft or Medium) depending on the types of walls you have.
Chapter 12 features The Stones with Buddy Guy, playing a very cool rendition of the Muddy Water's song "Champagne and Reefer." The Panorama had no problems with the high notes of Buddy's masterful guitar play and his voice was richly rendered. The Panorama's excellent channel separation was evident again throughout this track and especially during the little jam session with Mick on harmonica and Buddy on guitar.
Moving to two-channel music, I decided to spin Jack Johnson's latest release To the Sea (Brushfire Records). Track nine "The Upsetter" was a treat on the Panorama, with ample bass and Jack's voice well rendered through the center channel. This is a fun, bouncy track and I found it to be very engaging on the Panorama. I had expected a bit of a drop off, going from well-recorded multi-channel audio to a two-channel CD, but this wasn't the case. The Panorama conveys a convincing soundstage, regardless of the source material. Again, coherence and detail reigned supreme and I ended up listening to the entire album. Great speakers make you want to re-visit your music collection and the Panorama was no exception.
Satisfied with what I'd heard in the two-channel realm, I decided to go back to multi-channel music and fired up the DVD-Audio version of The Crystal Method's Legion of Boom (DTS Entertainment). This is a well recorded torture test for audio gear and a great way to gauge a speaker's low-end mettle, as well as dynamic range. On the first track "Starting Over," I was impressed with the palpable and fairly taut bass response, especially coming from such small drivers. The track has a nice build, adding layer upon layer of chaotic instrumentation as it progresses. The sound from the Panorama was room-filling, creating a stirring soundstage with impressive imaging. It's a bit deceptive, staring at one speaker unit in front of you, but hearing sound being reproduced all around you. It's also an impressive feat of audio engineering from Bowers & Wilkins.
Competition and Comparison
If the phrase du jour is "There's an app for that," I think it can be applied here as well. Regardless of your budget, or the specific home theater application you seek, there's a soundbar for that. A comparable player in the soundbar realm and one similar in price to the Panorama is the Yamaha YSP-4000. Another respectable and more affordable soundbar manufacturer is Aperion Audio, which offers their SLIMstage30 packaged with or without a subwoofer. For a more detailed look at all of the soundbar reviews featured on our site, click here.
At this price point, I would like to see one more optical input. Once I had used the two optical inputs for my DVR and DVD player, that left my Xbox 360 out in the cold, as the only option for 5.1 Dolby Digital on the older version of the Xbox is optical. That said, the problem can be solved by connecting one of your other components using a coaxial digital cable. In order to access the inputs, you need to remove the rear cover, which is easy enough. Where I ran into a bit of trouble was trying to replace the cover once the cables and power cord were connected. This is solved by simple trial and error in terms of routing the cables, or the terrifying act of actually reading the manual.
Another minor gripe came with adjusting the volume level, which could stand to be a bit more precise. It would have been nice for Bowers & Wilkins to allow volume adjustments in half increments.
Reviewing a piece of gear that is this well designed and engineered is a blast. I kept trying to decide whether I preferred listening to music or movies with the Panorama, finally coming to the conclusion that it's equally adept at playing both. Let's face it, $2,200 is rich for most people's blood, especially when talking about soundbars, which can be had all day long for less than half that price. But you won't get the sort of detail, dynamic range and uncanny surround sound the Panorama provides. One of the things you're paying for with all Bowers & Wilkins products is trickle-down technology, which means you get a taste of their top of the line engineering in their more affordable products. The end result of a manufacturer using this technology is that you end up with a trustworthy name. Those manufacturers who avoid using trickle-down technology tend to have wide-ranging product offerings, running the gamut from amazing to utter crap. In each case that I've been exposed to Bowers & Wilkins gear, be it their iPod speakers, their flagship speakers or their new headphones, I've been impressed with the sound quality. The Panorama is no exception.
There are a lot of uneducated and, more importantly, inexperienced groups of buyers convincing themselves that a home theater in a box is good enough, or that the speakers built into their TV sound just fine. They're not and they don't. Products like this exist for a reason; it's to give you a better sense of what was recorded in the studio. If you're a music and/or film buff and you're using the speakers in your TV, you're cutting the experience in half. You don't necessarily need to drop $2,000 for a soundbar, but for those who want the best, the Panorama is your huckleberry. Is the performance of the Panorama twice that of $1,000 soundbars? You bet.