B&W Solid Sub/Sat Speaker System Reviewed

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B&W-SolidSpeakers.gifSub-woofer/satellite systems can be a pain in the butt for reviewers because all the myriad permutations must be addressed. And, hey, does the B&W Solid Solutions system permutate. That's not B&W's fault. They're dealing with a format established years ago by pioneers like M&K who realised that the then-forthcoming home cinema revolution required more speakers than good ol' stereo, and that most audiophiles have a hard enough time sneaking two enclosures into the lounge.

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This is especially true in the UK, where the wife-as-selfish-witch reaches its zenith. (Note to militant feminist letter-writers: I am NOT a misogynist. I am referring to that readily-identifiable sub-species which prevents their cuckolded thralls from enjoying an innocent, victimless hobby. My partner, on the other hand, is a fair human being.) So the sub/sat system evolved into tiny primary speakers and a sub-woofer that you are told works anywhere...if you believe the bull about bass being 'non-directional'.

Although the of sub/sats is the Bose AM5 and the clones it inspired - main speakers around the size of a half-pint milk carton and a sub not much larger than a toaster - B&W's Solid Solutions follow more realistic practice: the S100 satellite speakers measure instead a more generous but still compact 258x207mm (HxW), with a depth of a mere 90mm. To give you a more illuminating example of their size, think of them as no larger than a Maplin catalogue.

Available in white or black with grilles in white, black, burgundy or blue, the S100 is easy to hide. Its sides slope, making it ideal for flush corner mounting while eliminating parallel sufaces within the enclosure. Designer Morten V. Warren gave them the kind of mock-organic feel which 1990s high tech likes to wear: curvy edges to soften the look, the baffle and grille having a slight bulge at the bottom, giving it a bit of a tummy. (God bless Sophie Dahl.) At the back is a bracket which slides off for fixing to the wall; the S100 then slots onto it. Additionally, the S100 can sit on a shelf, while B&W has a dedicated stand to satisfy any demand for floor-standing set-ups.

S100 is a shielded, two-way 4th order vented-box system consisting of a 25mm Ultra 12 tweeter and a 100mm doped paper woofer. Specified for amps up to 100W, the S100 enjoys an 89dB/1W sensitivity; this should work with just about any A/V receiver on the market. A couple of foam plugs are supplied to fit into the port if you use these with a sub-woofer, as in this review. And you want the sub-woofer, because the 95-20kHz frequency response means that the S100 doesn't cut it as a standalone system.

Single wiring is provided through the one unforgivable compromise, and I use the word 'unforgivable' even though the S100s sell for a mere £129.95 per pair: the bare-wire-or-skinny-pins-only press-fit terminals are some of the nastiest I've ever had to use, CE regulations be damned. If B&W then retorts, 'But, Ken, these speakers aren't aimed at real folks, not the kind who know bell wire from Monster Cable', I would then reply: there's never an excuse for crap terminals . End of rant.

Only one thing makes a satellite system with dinky monitors work, and that's the sub-woofer which adds enough bottom to turn the sound into a full-range experience. So from this point on, I am not going to apologise for the Solid Solutions being a three-box affair. (See box.) All of my listening refers to the S100s used the PB100. And while I tried all of the combinations cited below, the primary listening involved the set-up which has the sub-woofer connected to the amplifier's speaker terminals, the S100s taken off the PB100s speaker outputs. Amps included the Roksan Caspian and the NVA Personal, with the Marantz CD 63SE Mk II for source.

Why? Because this combination sells for so little that I would expect it to be used with small integrated amps, in the simplest set-ups imaginable. (This does not, however, excuse cheap speaker terminals.) Yes, you will get better sound driving the S100s off your main amplifier's speaker terminals, with the PB100 fed by its own line level signal.

The PB100 is a self-powered sub-woofer measuring a tidy 415x353x401mm (HWD). And it's shielded, so you can set a small-ish telly right on top of it. This is one dinky sub-woofer, but, you're thinking, there smaller ones out there. True, but B&W's PB100 isn't some mere toy of a sub-woofer carrying a brace of nasty 6in woofers or a lone 8in. This unit houses a serious forward-firing 10in long-throw bass driver with a pressed fibre cone, powered by a dedicated internal 70W MOSFET amplifier. The enclosure features the trademarked Flow Port System, consisting of a downward firing port with a special flare and sculpted surface to allow the air to move freely through the orifice. Indeed, to get the PB100 to make those horrible chuffy noises associated with poorly designed ports, I had to crank the PB100's volume control to the point which should be marked 'Cretin Level', and the break-up probably had more to do with the amp or the driver being abused than the port itself.

It looks as good as any cube can, all-black, with a slight curve to the grille and fat, integral pointy feet making it far more stylish than some of the plain-Jane lumps out there. All sockets and controls can be found on the back, including power on/off, volume control and the same vile terminals as on the S100 for signal out to the satellites and for signal in if you're driving the sub-woofer from your amplifier's speaker outputs. The PB100 also features a phase switch in case something somewhere in your system is inverting. As for the permutations, a bank of six phono inputs allows you to feed the sub via a spare set of outputs from a separate preamp, you can feed it directly off the analogue sub-woofer output from a multi-channel decoder (Dolby Surround, Dolby Digital, DTS, what-have-you), or from the main speaker outputs of a decoder with the PB100's line outputs sent to a separate power amplifier. Additionally, you can drive the PB100 from the speaker outputs of a multi-channel amplifier, with the S100s driven off the PB100 or the multi-channel amp itself, in case the unit has no dedicated sub-woofer output.

Before you shout 'REL! M&K! Entec!', note that the S100/PB100 is a , the latter dedicated to the former. No crossover point worries, no 'character' mis-match between bass and mid/treble. But I suppose you could use this £349.95 gem with other makes of speaker. Yet there's never been such a thing as a universal sub-woofer if you believe that the bass should be handled by the same manufacturer who supplied the mid and treble. While REL is one of the deserved success stories of British hi-fi in the 1990s, it is definitely something for audiophiles to consider rather than casual listeners who'd rather avoid set-up aggro. So, did I A/B the PB100 with a range of sub-woofers? No. I treated the Solid Solutions system . But I did get a kick when I hooked it up to my all-Apogee LCR surround sound set-up. Yes, I the bass...

Here's where philosophy overtakes purist concerns. B&W will be the first to tell you that the Solid Solutions products are 'lifestyle' rather than 'audiophile' offerings. If you want silver wiring and honeycomb enclosures and metal dome tweeters they'll sell you something right on up to Nautilus level, at the price of a new Volvo C70. No, the active word is 'Solutions', the S100/PB100 being a better-than-you'd expect answer to demand for aesthetically and dimensionally acceptable speakers in increasingly diminishing living spaces. This is truly urban/urbane gear aimed at someone who wants reasonable performance from small enclosures without sacrificing bass.

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