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.
Bowers & Wilkins has been dedicated to truth in sound reproduction since John Bowers founded the company. And the company's core belief remains unchanged: "that a high-fidelity loudspeaker should be to the ear what a flawless pane of glass is to the eye; allowing the clear passage of a sensory image, uncorrupted and faithful in every last nuance to the original." In fact, the Bowers & Wilkins 800 series has been the reference speaker of choice for many great recording studios and recording engineers for decades.
If you've dreamed of owning any of the British loudspeaker manufacturer's 800 series line of loudspeakers but found them to be beyond your reach, you may be in luck. Bowers & Wilkins recently introduced the new 700 series of loudspeakers as a replacement the now discontinued CM series. Sitting between the reference 800 series and the 600 series, they're much more closely related to the 800 Series than their CM predecessors, benefitting from many of the flagship's technologies adapted for a more affordable price. Over the last two months, I've had the opportunity to live with the new 702 S2 tower loudspeakers ($2250 each), the top model of the eight currently offered in the 700 series.
The lineup is rounded out with two additional tower models, three bookshelf models, and two center channel speakers. And since we are HomeTheaterReview.com, after all, B&W also sent along one of the latter--the matching HTM71 S2 center channel ($1350 each)--along with its DB4S subwoofer ($1600 each) so that I could also experience the 702 S2 within the context of a surround sound setup.
The 702 S2 speakers sport a newly designed, one-inch carbon dome tweeter (versus the diamond tweeter of the 800 series) contained in a solid-body, bullet-shaped housing milled from aluminum billet and mounted atop the speaker cabinet for decoupling purposes. Near the top of the cabinet, there is also a decoupled six-inch Continuum FST cone midrange driver (borrowed from the 800 series) flanked by three 6.5-inch Aerofoil Profile bass drivers below. The Aerofoil design, also borrowed from the 800 series, is a variable thickness cone that Bowers & Wilkins says "provides stiffness and rigidity where it's needed most for deep and dynamic bass."
I unpacked the 65-pound, 43.5-inch tall (with plinth and spikes attached) 702 S2 speakers, taking a moment to admire their classic design and gorgeous fit and finish. The speakers came to me in Bowers & Wilkins' iconic Rosenut finish. The veneer is flawless and book matched. The speakers are also available in either a gloss piano black or satin white finish.
I attached the heavy, rather plain looking black MDF plinths with the included hardware and then threaded in the generic spikes. I would expect to see a more upscale solution such as metal outrigger feet with oversized spikes for speakers of this build quality and price point. I need to mention that the plinths also add quite a bit of width and depth to the tower's footprint, measuring near 15 by 18 inches, compared to 7.9 inches wide by 13.3 inches deep for the cabinet itself. You'll want to make sure you have the floor space available to accommodate.
Alternatively, you could opt to forego the plinths if stability isn't a concern in your case. And they would be better looking minus the plinths. I placed the speakers in the usual position where speakers tend to sound best in my room. After some test tracks, they ended up just about exactly where they started out. With the speakers placed about five feet out from the front wall and about seven and a half feet apart, there was no need to insert the foam plugs that come with the rear-ported towers and center channel. But it's nice to know they are available for taming unruly bass response issues if encountered.
I placed the HTM71 center channel on a Sound Anchors stand. Both the 700 series towers and center channel have dual sets of connectors for bi-wiring or bi-amping if desired. I left the jumpers in place and connected each speaker with a single run of WireWorld speaker cable. I connected the B&W DB4S ten-inch subwoofer with a WireWorld balanced interconnect. There are two XLR inputs for balanced connections and two sets of RCA inputs for single-ended.
To set up the subwoofer, I first needed to download the Bowers & Wilkins subwoofer app, because there are no manual controls on the sub itself. Once I plugged in the sub and opened the app, the sub was detected and calibration was automatically performed. It couldn't have been a simpler process; not having to plug in a microphone (the app uses your phone's mic) and move it to multiple locations (you perform the calibration from the main listening position only) was really convenient. There are a variety of Room EQ modes that you can select from the app to optimize the sound for different program material, or you can create your own custom EQ to your taste, or leave it disengaged if you prefer. I hope more companies take notice of what B&W has done here and follow suit. All subwoofers should be this easy to setup and control.
I used a Classé CP-800 preamp for two-channel listening and a Marantz AV8001 preamp processor for surround sound. I partnered the two preamps with a Classé CA-5300 five-channel amp. I ran the Audyssey MultEQ XT32 software onboard the Marantz to calibrate the speakers for surround sound and added a pair of Aerial Acoustics 5B monitors to the mix for surround duty. Streaming sources included the French service QoBuz for high resolution music streaming (soon to be available in the U.S.) and a Roku Ultra media player for video content. For spinning any and all shiny silver discs, I used an Oppo UDP-205 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player.
I followed the included B&W manual's suggestion of 15 hours of break-in to allow the drivers to reach their optimum performance before I began any critical listening.
To start the evaluation, I streamed Jorja Smith's "Don't Watch Me Cry" from her Lost & Found album (FAMM) from QoBuz (24 bits / 44.1 kHz in Stereo). I chose this track because it contains two elements that must be reproduced properly if a speaker is going to attract my interest. Namely, female vocals and the piano, the only two elements at play here.
I didn't choose this track because it's an excellent quality recording, but rather because it's just average in that regard. Through a speaker with a laid-back presentation, the vocal on this track can sound a bit flat, masking some of the natural coarseness and soulful emotion inherent in Jorja's voice. However, when played through a speaker that is highly resolving in the middle and upper ranges, the aching, occasionally straining, raw emotion of her voice comes through clearly, even on this mellow ballad.
Through the 702 S2 towers, every nuance of emotion was teased out of her textured vocal, presenting it with a clarity and sparkle, all within a palpable acoustic space. That bit of sparkle could be interpreted by some as a slight edge or brightness to her upper register, but I think it just made the tune sound closer to a live performance in an intimate setting than a recording in a studio. The piano sounded so natural, with the fast attack and sustained decay of notes painting a picture in my mind of the acoustic space. Did it sound live? Not quite, but closer than I would have expected for an average recording.
Next, I listened to several tracks to test bass response. Streaming an old favorite, Pete Belasco's "Deeper" from his album of the same name (Intersound) starts off with a deep bass line that continues throughout. The B&W's bass drivers kept the bass coherent rather than rumbling or becoming muddy sounding as I've heard on speakers not up to the challenge. But what was a real sit-up-and-take-notice moment for me on this track was how extended and detailed the highs were through the carbon dome tweeter. This newly designed tweeter highlighted additional information in the upper frequencies that I hadn't noticed on this track before, even though I've listened to it dozens of times. Cool! There's something special about this carbon tweeter that enables it to reveal details that traditional designs can't.
Now back to the bass. I heard comparable bass performance when listening to the Beastie Boys' tune "Brass Monkey" and Massive Attack's track "Unfinished Symphony" too. Adding the DB4S sub (single ten-inch driver with a frequency range of 10 Hz to 350 Hz at -3 dB) to the mix on these three tracks served to further pressurize the room and smooth out in-room response a touch, but any additional bass impact was only minor. Hey, ninety eight percent of music doesn't reach below 40 Hz anyway. Where I did notice an appreciable improvement with the sub in play was on the very dynamic second movement of Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, op. 78 "Organ Symphony" performed by the Kansas City Symphony (Reference Recordings). While the 702 S2s were satisfying on their own, the pipe organ dipped well below 40 Hz and its visceral impact was better heard (and felt) with the sub engaged.
Next up was Steely Dan's "Hey Nineteen" from the Gaucho album (Geffen Records), streamed again from QoBuz (24 bits / 96kHz in Stereo) to test the soundstaging ability of the 702 S2. The soundstage presented before me was impressive, extending well beyond the width of the speakers. It resembled a surround sound mix more than a stereo one, with the electric guitars sounding as though they were coming directly from the side walls. Instruments had a razor-sharp focus in their placement, with gobs of air around them. This track sounded more like a live performance than a recording, and had me hitting the replay button several times it was so much fun to listen to through the B&Ws.
A similar experience was had listening to Diana Krall's "The Look of Love" from her Live in Paris album. The recording provided the perspective of being center stage in the first few rows. This B&W speaker is so revealing that it certainly rewards you when you're listening to a pristine recording. But this ability can be a double-edged sword. The speaker can also expose substandard recordings. For example, if you're listening to a compressed pop track that's on the bright side, that's what you'll get. I know because I played (and suffered through) a few such tracks. The resolving nature of the 702 S2 simply delivers the unvarnished truth.
Switching to surround sound, I popped Rob Thomas's Something to Be Tour: Live at Red Rocks Blu-ray disc into the Oppo player. Listening to his hit "Ever The Same" in DTS Master Audio 5.1, the timbre of Rob's vocal had that expected rich warm tone, but I also noticed a slight edge or emphasis to "S" sounds. While it could be the combination of close miking and a live performance, I didn't hear that same emphasis when listening through my Monitor Audio speakers. The bass guitar and drums had a natural weight to them, providing a solid foundation to the track. Cymbals had a "you are there" shimmer to them, as did applause and crowd noise. The B&W towers, center, and sub all blended seamlessly to bring a plausible sense of the Red Rocks Amphitheatre space into the room. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Comparison and Competition
The $4,000 to $5,000 price range for speakers has plenty of competition. This seems to be the target price aimed at serious music enthusiasts who have good paying jobs, the normal bills to pay, and aren't trust fund babies or members of the one percenters club. A couple of notable competitors recently introduced are RBH Sound's Signature Reference SV-6500R tower ($4,395 / pair) and Sonus faber's Sonetto III tower ($4,164 / pair). The RBH speaker is more imposing in stature, with one additional midrange driver, while the new Sonus faber Sonetto III (review coming soon) is a bit more petite, with one less bass driver than the Bowers & Wilkins 702 S2. All three are terrific speakers, but all three have their own characteristic sound too. I would place the 702 S2 as the most resolving, the Sonus faber a bit more polite, and the RBH Sound speaker in between the other two.
I found a lot more to like than dislike with the Bowers & Wilkins 702 S2 speaker, but no speaker is perfect. One thing to keep in mind as a potential buyer of the 702 S2 is that it is a very resolving speaker, especially in the upper and upper-mid frequency ranges. After all, it was designed to deliver studio reference sound. That means it can be unforgiving, which is either a positive or negative depending on listener preferences. One other minor point is that the plinth is rather large and plain looking. I didn't find it up to the aesthetic quality of the rest of the speaker and it takes up a lot of extra floorspace.
The highly resolving carbon dome tweeter of the Bowers & Wilkins 702 S2 reveals additional details in music and movies that few other speakers at its price point can. Indeed, it delivers most of what its big brother the B&W 804 D3 can, and at half the price. Listeners of well-recorded classical, jazz, and rock music will be rewarded by the 702 S2. Those who listen to mostly modern pop music may find that the truth can hurt on occasion. Vocals sound more lifelike through its decoupled Continuum cone midrange driver. The B&W also delivers a healthy dose of fast, accurate bass extension without overdoing it.
If you're looking for a speaker in this price range and are the type of listener that won't be satisfied until you've heard all that a recording has to offer, then the Bowers & Wilkins 702 S2 should be on your very short list of speakers to audition. It truly delivers the unvarnished truth in music.
• Visit the Bowers & Wilkins website for more product information.
• Check out our Floorstanding Speaker Reviews category page to read similar reviews.
• Bowers & Wilkins Introduces New Affordable 600 Series Speakers at HomeTheaterReview.com.