B&W Panorama Soundbar

Key Features
$2,200 www.bowerswilkins.com
• 1-in aluminum dome tweeter, (6) 3-in mid/bass drivers, (2) 31?2-in woofers • 6-channel digital amplifier (5 x 25-watt main channels, 1 x 50-watt bass) • Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby Pro Logic II decoding Dimensions • Weight 43 x 71?2 x 51?4 in; 31 lb

Often considered by audio snobs to be the underachieving stepchild of a "proper" multispeaker surround rig, the all-in-one soundbar has struggled to achieve respectability.

That's a pity, because for many regular folks living in the real world, plunking speakers all around the living room simply isn't a workable option.

Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) is one of the world's largest high-end speaker firms, and it has a well-deserved reputation for pushing the technological envelope. The company's Zeppelin iPod speaker showed a willingness to move beyond its familiar high-end audio pastures, but my ears really perked up when it announced plans to enter the soundbar arena. The result is the Panorama, a soundbar that breaks new ground with the heft of its 31-pound enclosure - and the loftiness of its $2,200 price tag, which will probably outstrip the cost of some TVs it will be paired with.

Stylish design and top-notch construction are key features with all B&W products, and the Panorama keeps this tradition going with its elegantly tapered shape and ritzy "mirror black" stainless steel finish. At around 43 inches wide, the Panorama most closely matches the dimensions of a typical 42- to 46-inch flat-panel TV, although its tapered ends allow it to blend visually with much larger screens. A supplied bracket lets you hang it on a wall either below or above the TV, while two different-size screw-in rubber feet are provided for tabletop use.

Behind its sleek exterior, the Panorama employs a total of nine drivers to deliver a 5.1-channel surround experience. B&W accurately considers the center channel to be the most important element in any surround-sound system, so a dedicated center speaker with two 3-inch cone midrange drivers flanking the Panorama's sole tweeter forms the heart of its driver lineup. Moving out from the center, there's a pair of 3½ -inch ported woofers to handle all of the Panorama's bass, followed by four additional 3-inch drivers for the front left/right and surround channels. By positioning those last four drivers out around the Panorama's curving ends, B&W intends for their sound to be directed toward the room's side walls and reflected back at the listener, resulting in a bigger, more expansive sound. Its six-channel digital amp delivers 25 watts to each of the five main channels, plus an additional 50 watts to the twin woofers. A small central panel features a display to show volume level, selected input, and surroundmode information, along with a row of four buttons to control basic functions.

The Panorama handles audio signals via its three digital and two analog inputs. Since there are no video connections, most setups will employ the TV as a switcher: You simply run an audio output from the set to one of the Panorama's inputs, and it will handle the audio for whichever source is active. (The multiple inputs also mean you can directly connect an iPod or CD player without having to power up the TV to listen to music.) The upside to B&W's method is a simple set-and-forget functionality that's a far cry from a receiver-based rig's complexity; the downside is that the B&W Panorama can't handle the newest lossless surround formats like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. (Support is provided for legacy 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS tracks, as well as a Blu-ray or DVD player's downmixed stereo PCM output, however.)

SETUP

It's hard to imagine a simpler remote control than the Panorama's diminutive, pebble-shaped, seven- button job. For basic operation, all you need to do is select the correct input and then choose between the three available surround modes. Delve a little deeper, however, and you'll discover additional menu options that let you further refine setup to improve performance. You can specify the distance from the sidewalls, compensate for off-center placement, adjust tonal balance, and even compensate for the reflectivity of your room's walls. And the Panorama's bass-management settings let you configure an optional external subwoofer, as well as tweak its bass response for shelf or on-wall mounting.

Because my system is based around a video front projector, I connected both my Blu-ray Disc player and my cable box directly to the Panorama using separate digital connections and placed it on a narrow table centered under the screen, about a foot out from the front wall. I also repositioned my room's acoustic panels to give it flat parallel walls 14-feet apart to bounce the sound off. I next experimented with adding a subwoofer, but found the Panorama's bass to be quite impressive by itself and its overall sound to be generally well balanced, without the need for additional bass enhancement.

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