This week we?re testing the Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 2 soundbar, a model equipped with an integrated subwoofer, HDMI ARC, virtual surround sound, six amplifiers and nine drivers. The Panorama 2 supports both Dolby and DTS audio formats. Exceptional British home cinema sound for less than 1000?, is this even possible?
A soundbar capable of competing with an entire speaker system, who hasn’t dreamed of this at some point? For years, hi-fi specialists have been trying to put together the pieces of this challenging puzzle. There a few reasons why it?s such a hard nut to crack. First, the compact format of the soundbar?wide, certainly, but neither very tall nor particularly deep?means only small drivers may be used. Meanwhile, due to their limited emissive surface, small drivers are not likely to offer natural-sounding bass and are only rarely capable of offering a solid soundstage. What?s more, creating a believable surround effect means sound must also appear to come from behind the listener. In short, it?s really complicated.
This hasn’t discouraged B&W from attempting to solve the soundbar puzzle. To achieve its goal, the British brand relies on technologies it has developed, most notably the Nautilus speaker design for its tweeters and its Flow Port bass-reflex ports. Once everything was in place, B&W launched the Panorama 2 soundbar at 1999?.
B&W Panorama 2: the drivers
The B&W Panorama 2 soundbar includes:
? Two 3? low-medium drivers -> center channel
? One 1? tweeter with aluminum dome -> center channel
? Two 3.5? bass drivers -> all LFE channels
? Two 3? medium drivers -> left and right channels
? Two 3? medium drivers -> left and right surround channels
The group of drivers responsible for reproducing the center channel (2 + tweeter) is flanked by the two bass drivers. The latter differ in that they feature treated paper cones, which are more suitable for bass frequency reproduction. The drivers are loaded in the soundbar?s large volume of air, which is created by two bass-reflex ports. This technique makes it possible to enhance the bass delivery within a narrow frequency range. In the B&W Panorama 2 soundbar?s case, the frequency of 35 Hz is reproduced with 6 dB of attenuation compared with all of the other frequencies (upper bass register, mids, highs).
On paper, B&W promises very deep bass, and this is quite unusual for a soundbar.
The left and right channels are reproduced by the two 3? wideband drivers, which are installed alongside the surround drivers at either end of the soundbar and positioned in such a way so as to project sound far to the left and right of the listener. The 3? diameter and fiberglass cones of these wideband drivers make them identical to the center channel’s drivers. As such, there is no tweeter for the left and right channels, which is not at all a problem since drivers of this size are intrinsically designed to handle high frequencies (above 12 kHz without difficulty). Moreover, given the limited placement options for these surround drivers?beyond the axis of the listener?s position’the addition of tweeters would serve no purpose: high frequencies would be inaudible.
The majority of the drivers are powered by a digital amplifier providing 25 Watts RMS, while the two bass drivers benefit from a single amplifier providing 50 Watts RMS. Why just one? Simply because lows are coded in mono (music, films, TV series, etc.) and a stereo configuration is thus unnecessary.
B&W Panorama 2: surround sound without rear speakers, how is this possible?
To give the listener the impression that sound is coming from either side as well as from behind, B&W has oriented the 4 drivers in specific directions. This alone, however, is not sufficient. The sound is strongly equalized in the medium and upper medium register, and the electric signal’s phase is modified. In this way, the listener has the impression that sound is coming from the right and left.
B&W Panorama 2: connectivity
The B&W Panorama 2 soundbar is equipped with three HDMI 1.4 inputs compatible with 1080p resolution, along with one HDMI 1.4 output (1080p once again) ensuring support for CEC control and the television’s ARC. As such, certain sources may be connected directly to the B&W Panorama 2 soundbar (1080p source or below), while 4K Ultra HD sources may be directly connected to a 4K TV. The HDMI ARC connection guarantees lossless transmission for the soundtracks of 4K sources.
Two additional inputs are available, one in analog stereo format and the other in stereo optical/multichannel format. Since the mini-jack connector is shared, it is only possible to use one input or the other. B&W provides a mini-Toslink-to-Toslink adapter for the digital connection. A pre-out output for a subwoofer, featuring an active low-pass filter (12 to 150 Hz), is also available.
B&W Panorama 2: settings
The HDMI output enables the display of the OSD menu, which may be pulled up with the included IR remote control. This menu allows the user to adjust the soundbar?s settings, including low/high tone settings (from -6 to +6 dB), the amount of gain applied to the analog input, the bass frequency restitution mode (depending on whether the soundbar is mounted on a wall or placed on a piece of furniture), and AV synchronization. Note: the B&W Panorama 2 soundbar?s auto-on mode must be activated in order for the HDMI CEC controller (auto-on/auto-off synchronized with the TV) to function. The same applies to the ARC.
The soundbar?s display is fitted with a motion detector: a simple wave of a hand in front of the soundbar will power it on. The touch control buttons allow the user to select the source, turn the volume up or down and switch from stereo mode to Dolby Pro Logic 2 mode.
B&W Panorama 2: test conditions
We listened to the B&W Panorama 2 with an LG OLED 65B6V TV connected to a Panasonic DMP-UB900 Ultra HD Blu-ray player. Important note: we had to deactivate the True Color mode for our TV?s HDMI ARC input in order to be able to use the B&W Panorama 2 soundbar in this mode. This is intended, as it allows the television to activate the soundbar automatically. Next, we made some adjustments to the soundbar?s settings: viewing distance and wall distance, for example, although we left the tonal balance as is. We watched several film excerpts: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Batman v Superman, and Mad Max Fury Road, in addition to two concerts: Muse Live at Rome Olympic Stadium and David Bowie A Reality Tour.
B&W Panorama 2: listening impressions
The Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 2 soundbar?s performance ranges from very good to excellent. The first point we verified is the performance of the integrated subwoofer, as this is often the Achilles? heel of soundbars. However, with two 3.5? drivers loaded in 25 L of air, the manufacturer clearly had a well-designed strategy. The volume of lows, without any equalization, is quite impressive. The balance is excellent, and no emphasis is placed on any particular register: lows are nuanced and tight while boasting a truly wide dynamic range. We?d like ?real’ subwoofers to follow this example. Still, it?s clearly not with two 7.5? drivers that the listener?s chest will shake or eardrums thump, but the lows are so well articulated that we can’t find anything to criticize.
The channel separation is very clear. A particularly present central ?block? is not overly directive and doesn’t become oppressive at high volume or jeopardize the depth of the soundstage. The tweeter, with its Nautilus design (tube to dampen the back wave), is energetic and smooth, and highs are always accurately placed. The tweeter is certainly this soundbar?s centerpiece. We never noticed any defects (too much clarity, wheezy vocals, metallic tone, etc.). No trace of coloration is detectable in dialogues. Voices are reproduced with conviction and sufficient depth and power when required. The lower mids benefit from a wealth of detail.
The surround channels are enveloping, although at times there is too much presence due to the way certain film soundtracks are mixed. This is most noticeable when dialogues are exclusively mixed on the FL and FR channels (and not on the center channel), since this means that only the side drivers?which are not directed toward the listener?are used. As David Bowie?s Reality Tour concert is mixed in this way, the performer?s voice lacks depth. However, this is a rare occurrence, or at least one that only occurs with certain concerts and never with movies or TV shows.
B&W Panorama 2: conclusions
What we liked: the realistic and nuanced reproduction of voices, the spectacularly smooth highs, the robust and sufficiently powerful lows, the convincing soundstage.
What we would have liked: a stereo downmix from 5.1 channels and a level setting for each channel.
The B&W Panorama 2 soundbar is a hi-fi speaker disguised as a soundbar. Thanks most of all to its Nautilus tweeter, it outcompetes most soundbars and, to be honest, many speakers. Between a pair of B&W bookshelf speakers powered by a small amplifier and the B&W Panorama 2 soundbar, it?s by far the latter which offers the most convincing home cinema experience without ever asking the listener to settle for less timbres or less musicality. The B&W Panorama 2 is a good fit for any living room measuring up to 50 m2 (165 m2) and may even find a home in rooms larger than this size. For listening rooms in which bass frequency reproduction presents a challenge, the B&W ASW610 and B&W PV1D subwoofers are worth considering.