Hands-On Review: B&W MM-1 Multimedia Speakers

Manufacturer's Site

Computer speakers have been the red-headed stepchild of the audio world for many years.  Size and cost limitations have prevented the vast majority of them from delivering anything resembling a genuinely musical experience, and some audiophiles even wonder if it's worth trying. Most music that originates from a desktop is already in the form of data-reduced MP3 files or worse that would blush if they could when played through a real (ie: revealing) audio system.



Of course today, the computer is a more popular listening source than a CD collection, and Net-based services like Pandora and Spotify have replaced yakking radio DJs in most people's homes. The listening landscape has changed for everyone, and desktop audio is now a hot category. Enter Bowers & Wilkins, better known to audiophiles and studio engineers everywhere as B&W. The company's MM-1 multimedia speakers stand out in this exploding category the way a supermodel stands out at a community bake sale.

Description

The B&W MM-1 are 'active' speakers, (the amplification and the digital signal processing are built in) designed to mate with a PC, Mac or a TV. You can also plug a smartphone or other portable player directly into the speakers, but the best performance comes from the USB connection. This differentiates the MM-1 from the majority of computer speakers in that it's working with the original digital data from your audio content, rather than the already-converted-to-analog output that your computer's sound card provides (usually from the headphone jack).



The quality of the digital signal processing (DSP) is critically important to the final sound, and most sound cards built into computers are cheap (as are computers themselves). The MM-1 takes this job away from your computer and does the digital processing itself.

Given B&W's history and stature with studio sound at its highest levels (it's what they listen through at Abbey Road), and its access to top-end DSP engineering, it's a safe bet that some serious thinking went into the electronics of these speakers.

For example, the listening sweet spot has been digitally tuned to project just where you'd expect to be seated from a computer, a few feet away. In studio talk, the MM-1s are "near-field" monitors.

This is not to say that they can't fill a room. There are 72 watts of digital amplification powering a pair of 3-inch bass/midrange drivers, and 1-inch tweeters that employ B&W's "Nautilus" technology; a clever bit of tube-shaped acoustic design that's also used in the company's top end speakers costing tens of thousands of dollars. They were more than able to fill my room, as we'll see.

The MM-1s are quite compact; a little over six and a half inches high and about four inches wide and deep. They're also modern and elegant looking without being ostentatious; more Bang & Olufsen than Logitech. A headphone jack lets you listen privately and there's a commensurately sleek oval-shaped remote control. A pair of these will set you back $499, significantly more than most computer speakers, but again, these are no ordinary computer speakers.

The Setup

In one respect, I've never been a desktop audio fan. I have a nice audio system in my living room/home theater and that's where I listen to movies and music when I'm listening for pleasure.

I generally associate the sound of my computer with a glitchy Skype call or a loud web commercial that I can't avoid before watching a news clip. A growing percentage of people enjoy music and movies primarily through their computer or even their TV and like it just fine. I'm just not one of them.

On the other hand, I'm a serious desktop audio user through a lot of professional applications that I use as a hobbyist musician and engineer, like Logic Pro, Native Instruments and my favorite audio editing tool, Peak Studio. The near-field speakers I use are studio monitors, the 75-watt NHT M-00. Sure, they fit on a desktop (barely), and over the years they've been good enough to record and mix everything from classical pianists to electro-punk bands.

But they're heavy, bulky and ugly, require a separate box for volume control and soup to nuts, cost almost 50% more than the MM-1s.

Thus, the MM-1s entered a complex environment on my desktop, with low expectations one hand and high on the other. Most of the time, I'm not ashamed to say, the tinny built-in sound from my iMac is more than fine for me. The rest of the time I'm critically listening through pro monitors and an outboard audio interface that I use for connecting both microphones and musicians, and recommend highly for the price, the Lexicon Alpha.

The MM-1's connection via USB is meant to be plug and play, and for most users, it will be. Your computer recognizes them as an audio output device and according to B&W they will usually become the default output automatically. You may have to manually select them in your computer's sound preferences; I had to.

In terms of placement, B&W suggests forming a roughly equal triangle between where you'll be listening from and the two speakers. As is always critical in speaker placement you want to get proper time alignment between the left and right speaker, which means that both speakers should be the same distance from your ears. A few moments of placement fussing always pays major dividends no matter which speakers you use; you can radically improve the coherency of any stereo image by moving them even fractions of an inch, much like focusing a lens.

The Listening

I started off my MM-1 experience by listening to music that I wouldn't ordinarily listen to at my computer, the kind of stuff I like to sit back and pay attention to, rather than have running in the background. I listened to both .m4a and mp3 files as well as CD-quality .aif files and even some 24-bit tracks. In my opinion, it's almost unfair to judge a sound system using only compressed digital music; even higher bit-rate files are audibly inferior to CD quality, and as audio snobs like me are fond of saying, garbage in, garbage out. Of course most of the rest of the worldcheerfully disagrees, as B&W and everyone else knows.

The first thing you notice about the MM-1s is the presence of the bass, which is remarkable given the speaker's small size and the fact that there's no subwoofer. This is real bass that's actually in time with the rest of the music, deep enough to feel as well as hear. I found that moving the speakers slightly closer or further from the back wall gave me a lot of control over how much bass was right.

Many listeners will argue with B&W's choice to omit the subwoofer, but I applaud it. On a practical level, who wants another box under your desk to kick around? From a sonic perspective, it's just plain unreasonable to expect a unified soundfield when two speakers are near your ears and another is next to your feet. Most computer speakers need a subwoofer to produce any bass at all. These little guys punched well above their weight in this department.

The imaging from the MM-1's was also eye opening. As previously mentioned, they're designed to be heard from just a few feet away and from that perspective they really did provide a very convincing stereo image that stayed stable even when I leaned back in my chair, as even the busiest desktop listeners will do from time to time.

What was more remarkable was how coherent and room filling they were even when I wasn't in front of the computer. Typically speaking, the computer is not a parlor device; it usually lives in a smaller room like a home office or bedroom. My own room is about 15 x 20 feet and the MM-1s had no trouble achieving neighbor-annoying sound levels while retaining their essential clarity.

Conclusions

I have to admit that the B&W MM-1s really opened my eyes as to what's now possible in desktop audio, thanks to technologies like tiny digital amplifiers and digital signal processing.  Most of the systems that have dominated that market (and my consciousness) for years have been nothing I'd ever want to listen to for very long. With the MM-1s, I found myself actually looking forward to hearing music at my desk.

Of course not everyone will use these for listening to their computer.  You can also connect a TV or cable box and have a perfect little setup that takes up minimal space (and no subwoofer!).   You could also simply plug in your phone or your iPod, though you won't get the benefit of the internal digital signal processing that way.

The MM-1s are not your father's computer speakers.  They're intelligent, compact, attractive to look at and have impressive and accurate sound that venerable B&W is proud to put their name on.  At $499 they're not cheap but also not inaccessible, and frankly, you'd be hard pressed to figure out a combination of amplifier and speakers that would sound as good as these for the money, even if you were willing to give up all the extra space that would take up. 

It isn't often that a product changes my mind about an entire category, but the B&W MM-1 speakers have done that for me vis a vis desktop audio.  Now that I've heard what's achievable here, the workspace might get a little more fun.

Manufacturer's Site