B&W XT Series Speaker System and PV1 Subwoofer
Bowers & Wilkins offers an impressive range of speakers in nearly every size and price category, but they're best known for models that demonstrate the company's continuing pursuit of the state of the art. Just last year, the diamond-tweeter-equipped Nautilus 800 Series speakers made a big splash in audiophile magazines all over the world. Those one-plus ultra models all come with breathtaking MSRPs, but you'll find traces of the 800 Series' inspired engineering throughout B&W's new, considerably more affordable XT Series designs. The XT4 tower's gleaming extruded-aluminum cabinetry is fresh, but the déjà-vu curves, yellow Kevlar midrange driver, and bulging topside tweeter pod leave no doubt—it's a B&W.
The XT speakers are all gorgeous, but it all really comes together in the XT4 tower. It's one of the most stunning things to come out of England since Jaguar's original XK-E. The speakers all feature a newly designed 5-inch woven Kevlar bass/midrange driver and a 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter. B&W's tweeter-mounted-on-top designs not only look cool, but the gambit changes the nature of cabinet reflections and diffraction effects and influences the speakers' imaging. The XT4 tower speaker adds two 5-inch paper/Kevlar woofers that were specifically designed to produce room-shaking bass in a slender cabinet. Each XT is fitted with a single set of high-quality binding posts. Close inspection of the speakers will reveal that B&W's obsession for quality never lets up.
The XTC isn't strictly a center-channel speaker. In a vertical orientation, it'll serve nicely as a main or as a surround speaker when you wall-mount it with the included cast-metal bracket. The XT2 bookshelf monitor also comes with brackets, or you can set it on B&W's optional FS-XT floor stand. This reminds me, the XT4 tower's less-than-secure vertical stability might be a concern for owners with small children or large dogs. The 44.8-inch-tall, 49-pound speaker's weight distribution is bottom heavy, but, thanks to the tower's dainty, 6-inch-wide footprint, it wouldn't take much of a bump to accidentally tip the statuesque B&W over.
The PV1 subwoofer owes its spherical shape to sound design principles. Yes, that sounds like pure marketing hype, but, when I placed my hand on the PV1, I felt absolutely no vibration—proving that the energy was incredibly well controlled. This way, you don't get the rocking motions that transmit bass energy into the floor, which always rattles my downstairs neighbors' nerves. I've never heard anything quite like it.
The sub's twin 8-inch concave woofers are pretty special, as well. Their lightweight but rigid construction incorporates a mica cone, expanded polystyrene filler, and an aluminum skin. The PV1's all-aluminum cabinet serves as a heat sink for the 500-watt all-digital ICEpower amplifier. The sub definitely looks snazzy next to the XT speakers.
The PV1's jack bay is mounted on a recessed panel on the sub's bottom, facing straight down, so your interconnect cable has to make a sharp, 90-degree bend as it exits the sub's base. If your cable isn't limber enough to accommodate the PV1's stealthy connectivity suite, RadioShack's Right Angle Adapter (part number 274-306) will probably remedy the problem.
I don't want to give the impression that the XT Series speakers are finicky about setup. They're not, but careful setup tweaking definitely benefitted them. Over the first few days, I fine-tuned the sound, winding up with the XT4 towers 6 feet apart instead of the usual 8. But, even with the narrow placement, they projected a wide soundstage. I was also surprised to discover that the XT4s sounded best resting on the rubber feet on my wood floor instead of the supplied spiked feet. Straight out of the box, the XTC center speaker's tonal balance was a little too full and rich for my tastes, so I inserted one of the two provided foam plugs into the speaker's ports to smooth the midbass balance. That did the trick. I also experimented with my Sunfire Theater Grand III surround processor's bass management and crossover before I settled on 80 hertz. So, the nice thing is, if you're willing to invest a little time, you can maximize the speakers' performance in the only room that matters—yours.
A long, long time ago, I was a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. The Boss' mid-1970s shows more than lived up to the hype, but his later-period studio recordings left me cold. Over the years, Bruce and I have grown apart, and even his latest "comeback" CDs didn't light my fire. But, in the midst of writing this review, the nice folks at Sony sent over a two-CD set of Springsteen's triumphant live Hammersmith Odeon shows recorded in London in 1975. Yikes! That's the Boss as I remembered him. The B&Ws cut loose with "Born to Run" and a jazzed-up "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City." Bruce sounded like he was having the time of his life, and Clarence Clemons' wailing sax raised the hairs on the back of my neck. The E Street Band was super tight, and Springsteen was at the top of his game.
The XT4's upper bass/lower midrange sounded a tad recessed, which effectively pushes the imaging back a few feet, emphasizing depth. That opens up the sound on DVDs. But, listening in stereo to CDs, I could have used a touch more warmth. Treble detail was sweet and unforced.
The very first DVD I played, Walk the Line, fully connected with the XTs' talents. Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash testified to the XTC center speaker's gravitas. His big ol' baritone voice wasn't even a little bit reined in by the skinny center speaker, and the live concert performances rocked plenty hard. I listened to the XT system both with and without the sub, mostly because I was trying to assess where the XT4's bass rolled off and the PV1's heroic support kicked in. The speakers/sub blend was remarkably seamless.
Still, the XT system's dynamic oomph was scaled back relative to what I'd get from brawnier B&Ws like the 700 Series models. So, sure: Size still matters. That said, the desert-battle pandemonium on the Jarhead DVD exercised the PV1 subwoofer to the max. OK, the baby-ball sub can't deliver the wallop of a big-box bruiser, but its wickedly potent deep-bass definition was spectacularly displayed with every artillery blast. There was no boom or mud down there, thank you very much. There were times when I stared at the B&Ws in disbelief—how could such a stylish system belt out that much sound?
So, it's no wonder that B&W's loyal customers currently include Abbey Road Studios in London, where the Beatles recorded all of their studio albums. I've also spotted B&Ws in some of New York City's top mastering houses. The engineers need accurate sound. Some brands of studio speakers never sound right to my ears; they can be hyperdetailed and play loud enough to crack wall plaster. But the genius of B&W's appeal extends to engineers and audiophiles. B&W must be doing something right.
Touch the spherical sub, and you won't feel any bad vibes
The gleaming aluminum cabinets look really expensive