B&W Loudspeakers DM303, LCR3, ASW500
Badly named and generally underrated, bookshelf loudspeakers are possibly the most misunderstood of all speakers. First of all, they don't sound their best when placed on shelves; stands are usually recommended. Second, even though they haven't got the bottom-octave authority of powered towers, their smaller enclosures cause fewer acoustic problems, making them a perfect vehicle for vocals and the midrange frequencies in which most music resides. They lend themselves to wall-mounting almost as well as the smallest satellites, with the added benefit of genuine midbass response. The best bookshelf models—B&W's DM302, JBL's N24, NHT's SuperOne, Paradigm's Titan, KEF's Coda 7, Polk's RT-105, and PSB's Alpha Mini—deliver versatile stereo and surround sound for music or movies at an affordable price. So, it's good news that B&W has a new—um—bookshelf offering, the DM303.
For this review, the DM303 was like an actor changing costumes. It performed every role in the system. Two other actors, the LCR3 speaker ($220) and the ASW500 subwoofer ($450), walked on stage from time to time. I wanted to explore the differences between two center-channel treatments: first with a clone of the other satellites, then with a horizontal center speaker. (The DM303's $150-per-speaker price makes this a practical possibility.) I also wanted to hear the system in both 5.0 and 5.1 modes, with and without the 10-inch 70-watt sub.
Like the five-year-old DM302, the DM303 is a two-way back-vented design with a 6-inch woofer, 1-inch tweeter, nominal impedance of 8 ohms, and power handling of 25 to 100 watts. The DM302 was one of the first speakers to use an irregular molded-plastic enclosure to reduce internal resonance. The DM303's aluminum-alloy tweeter and woven-fiberglass woofer, however, are more advanced than the DM302's plastic and paper drivers. The DM303 also benefits from technology that was originally used in the ultrahigh-end Nautilus Series. Among the trickle-down features is a tapered tube that absorbs sound-polluting radiation from the rear of the tweeter. The rear vent (B&W calls it a flow port) is flared and dimpled to reduce air-flow turbulence. This is not your father's bookshelf speaker, OK?
The LCR3 includes a matched tweeter flanked by two 4.5-inch woofers. Although I requested only one sample for use as the center channel, five LCR3s would make a formidable surround system. As for the ASW500 sub, its 70-watt power spec comes from a continuous test tone rather than a peak reading. The peak measurement might be two or three times higher. Federal Trade Commission rules allow manufacturers to spec sub amps any way they want, but B&W chooses to provide an honest and conservative spec.
The B&Ws took up residence in a system that includes an Audio Design Associates MPA-6 surround amp, a McIntosh MX132 preamp/processor, a Pioneer DV-37 DVD player, and a Marantz DR6050 two-drawer CD recorder that I prize for the sweet musicality of its digital-to-analog conversion. For analog demos, I used a Rega Planar 25 turntable, a Shure V15VxMR cartridge, and an NAD PP-1 phono preamp. Speaker cables were Monster's THX brand. The various analog and digital interconnects came from MIT (preamp/amp, DVD/preamp) and XLO (CD/preamp).
I'm one of those tricky reviewers who starts out in stereo mode because it's the least forgiving. I didn't use the sub during my first listening session, and I didn't need to. Two DM303s worked wonders on the myriad voices and sonic spaces that my three test CDRs presented. As I expected, the metal tweeters got plenty of zing out of the shallow-body acoustic guitars played by Robert Fripp and his students. The title track of Bill Morrissey's Inside is one of my favorite snares, and Morrissey's voice didn't make the 6-inch woofers sound tubby. Crowd noise on a live Bob Marley track bounced around the room almost like virtual surround. My $1 sidewalk LP of a John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman album was a sumptuous treat. In general, the lush variety of midrange subtleties (a traditional B&W strength) was continually fascinating and stirring.
Next, I ran through several takes with the opening scene from my surround reference DVD: Dances with Wolves. With five DM303s, the DTS soundtrack's surround soundfield was the tightest I've ever heard in my testing studio (aka my living room and home office). Trumpets rang with a full set of high-frequency overtones, strings were correctly proportionate, dialogue was natural, and (even without the sub) rifle shots had a modicum of punch and a long decay. Take two, in Dolby Pro Logic, had a good feel but lost some inner detail, especially in the orchestral instruments.