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Review: Bowers & Wilkins A7

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If the legendary British loudspeaker guru John Bowers were around to hear the music I’m pumping through his company’s latest creation, he would probably be none too pleased. The Bowers & Wilkins brand, after all, evokes a certain level of class and refinement—in both construction and sound reproduction—which seems best suited to only the most polite audiophile recordings. And yet, since unboxing the B&W A7 wireless music system, I’ve subjected it to a nigh-endless stream of hard rock, hip hop, and house music. Because I could.

Perhaps a bit of explanation is in order on that point. The A7 certainly isn’t Bowers & Wilkin’s first small, digitally oriented speaker system. The company nearly single-handedly invented the audiophile iPod dock with its original Zeppelin, and even ventured into computer speaker territory a few years back with the MM-1. Although the A7 shares much of its functionality and intended purpose with the former (with the notable exception of the fact that AirPlay wireless connectivity has completely replaced the physical dock included even with the updated, AirPlay-equipped Zeppelin Air), aesthetically, it shares much of its DNA with the latter. Instead of the oblong, appropriately dirigible-like form of the Zeppelin, the A7 mimics the sleek, metal-capped monolithic look and minimalist controls of the little MM-1.

Of course, the A7’s scales things up a bit with a much larger cabinet—roughly 9 x 14 x 6.5 inches—and its pair of three-inch mid drivers and one-inch tweeters are augmented by a six-inch woofer with a rear-firing port. And you can blame the latter for most of my bass-heavy musical choices while auditioning the unit. But before I dropped the beats, I really had one song in particular I’ve been dying to try out on the A7 since it was first announced. The Black Crowe’s “Descending,” from Amorica, isn’t just one of my all-time favorite rock tunes; it’s also the song that, for me, pushed the B&W MM-1 to its limits. The song begins with a solo piano introduction that the little computer speaker delivered with incredible transparency, depth, and richness, but right around the 28-second mark, drums and Dobro kick in—and I do mean kick in—and the mix of volume, punch, and dynamics were simply more than the MM-1 could handle at any appreciable volume.

I sped through the A7’s AirPlay setup process (which involves downloading an app for your iOS device or computer that holds your hand through the very simple process) in anticipation of getting to that moment—the moment where the MM-1 just fell apart—and very nearly held my breath as the unit delivered the opening piano riff with a haunting ethereality that frankly worried me a little. Despite the fact that the A7 is louder, its fidelity with the passage was a near perfect match for the MM-1. So much so that I started to develop doubts as to whether a speaker this delicate could really deliver the oomph the song deserves. But I literally got literal goose bumps when the crescendo came, and the A7 positively pounded out the transition. The drums were impressively impactful, the bass deep and rich, and the overall soundscape was nuanced and detailed, but with power and authority. In the parlance of our times, it rocked.

Granted, the A7 boasts the same sort of digital signal processing (DSP) as the MM-1, which is designed to shape the sound at different volumes to deliver the optimal sound experience without pushing the drivers to dangerous levels. And indeed, when I cranked up “Descending” to SPLs no sane person would enjoy, the bass did roll off and the overall sound thinned way out. But dialed back down to more reasonable volumes, I found myself shocked by just how room-filling this little speaker is. Its sound output takes it out of the performance realm of most iPhone/iPod docks, and into the territory of larger sound consoles.

In fact, for all its upscale styling and lofty pedigree, the A7 is one heck of a party speaker. The setup app allows you to individually name each A7 in your house, if you have more than one, and you can easily direct AirPlay streams to each individual unit, or as many as you want at the same time. AirPlay communicates just as effectively with iTunes on your computer as it does the library on your iDevice, which adds another source to the mix, and there is also an auxiliary sound input, a hard-wired network connection if you don’t want to go the Wi-Fi route, and even a USB B-Type connector for direct input from your computer.

Of course, the price of all of those connections is portability, so you’ll probably want to opt for Wi-Fi. Even without a physical connection, you can still use the A7’s remote to skip and pause tracks from your iTunes library, as long as you have the program set to allow control from remote speakers. Truthfully, though, as attractive as the remote is, I set it aside after about five minutes of testing, preferring to control my tunes directly via my iPhone.

Oddly, for such a new device, the A7 only features 802.11g Wi-Fi, not the newer 802.11n standard, which offers faster speeds and a more robust connection. I’m not sure if that’s the cause for the delay I occasional experienced when trying to listen to the audio from YouTube videos, but it’s curious, either way.

For the most part, though, that wasn’t an issue. With virtually any style of music, the A7 excels, from more acoustical fair like Andrew Bird and Abigail Washburn (both of which really highlighted the aural sweetness of the A7’s tweeters) to bottom heavy party cuts like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop”.

Just how deep is the A7 capable of playing? Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique is actually the perfect test for that, because the loping bass lines or “3-Minute Rule” are rendered with perfect aplomb, whereas the deepest depths of “Hey Ladies” prove ever-so-slightly low for the sub to effectively reproduce. The unit’s DSP does shape the sound in such a way that you probably won’t notice unless you’re a huge fan of the song, and given that it’s a track I use to stress-test 12-inch, 700-watt standalone subwoofers, it’s impressive that the 100-watt A7 can even come close.

The phase-shifted guitar rift at the beginning of “Hey Ladies” also demonstrates another admirable trait of the speaker: despite the fact that it’s only 14 inches wide, you’d expect the soundstage to be effectively monophonic, but there’s a surprisingly nice amount of stereo separation here, even from several feet away.

I don’t want to paint a picture of the A7 as merely a fun party speaker with oodles of bass, though. There’s no denying that this is a high-fidelity listening system, and although file formats are rather limited by the entirely Apple ecosystem, the few lossless files I have in my iTunes collection sounded revelatory through the A7. The speaker picks apart the dense layers of my AIFF rip of “Misterioso,” a Coryell, Bailey & White cut from Chesky Records’ Ultimate Demonstration Disc Vol 2, revealing all of the beautifully recorded ambience and detail. A similar rip of the greatest pop song in the history of ever— “Domino,” from Van Morrison’s His Band and the Street Choir—absolutely sparkles, and although the jingle-jangle guitar in the left channel and the Guaraldi-esque piano riff in the right may not exhibit the same spatial separation as they would in a proper hi-fi two-channel speaker setup, they still remain tonally distinct, which is way more than I can say for most wireless speaker systems of this size.

Speaking of other AirPlay capable docks, there are quite a few of them that you can buy for quite a few dollars less than the A7’s $799.99 retail price. Even B&W’s similarly equipped Zeppelin Air is a good $200 cheaper, and it adds a physical iOS dock (of the older 30-pin variety—sorry, iPhone 5 users). Which isn’t to say that the A7 isn’t worth the asking price. It’s just that, in addition to the superior audio quality and outright rockability, you’re definitely paying a premium for the simplicity of operation and the super sophisticated styling of the A7. It’s a luxury device, no doubt; but who couldn’t use a little more simply luxury in their lives?

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