B&W John Bowers Silver Signature loudspeaker Page 3

So sometimes I didn't resist it; the speakers went surprisingly loud in my relatively modest-sized room before they, the amplifier, and my ears all crapped out. Don't get me wrong—the Silver Signature is still a small two-way design. It's physically impossible for it to convey the true sense of live music's scale, the feeling of unlimited dynamics possessed by cost-no-object, size-no-object designs. The Silver Signatures' soundstage may be apparently unlimited in terms of resolution, but it is still perfection in miniature. Nevertheless, the big bass blasts at the start of "The Hit" and throughout "The Assault on Ryan's House" from James Horner's soundtrack to Patriot Games (RCA 66051-2) blew me backward on my butt.

And on classical music demanding good low-bass extension, the Silver Signatures again did much of what was necessary. No, the very lowest notes of the pipe organ on my recording of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius (Stereophile Test CD 2, track 13) weren't there, but all the others could be heard underpinning the music, as could the reverberant "woomph" of the Ely Cathedral acoustic when each organ note stopped. Orchestras lacked for nothing in the lower midrange, where their power lies, perhaps even sounding slightly too rich. (Now that I don't mind.) Double-bass had excellent body to its sound, but remained clean.

I have almost nothing to say about the B&W's treble performance. Some recordings sounded too dull, but I couldn't say that the speaker lacked top-octave extension; because then I'd play a recording where the highs went onward'n'upward. The treble I heard was what was on the recording. This is one special tweeter!

I had two criticisms about the mid-treble performance, however. The first was a very slight "bite" in the presence region. I only occasionally noticed this, but J. Gordon Holt found that it got in the way of the music more often, referring to it as a slight "chalkiness" to the sound. I feel that this was partly due to the speaker allowing us to more clearly hear the sonic signatures of the components upstream. Changing from the Classé preamplifier to the Mark Levinson No.38 or the McCormack TLC-1 alleviated the problem to a large extent, for example. But there was still something there—a slight residual sibilance on voice which will make system matching a little fussy.

The second criticism is more of an observation: the Silver Signature is a "polite" speaker, too laid-back in absolute terms to suit all tastes. Some listeners felt this was a matter of dynamics, the speaker failing to respond sufficiently fast to musical transients. I don't think so, as this was minimized when said listeners sat in the sweet spot. And when so seated, listeners became aware of the Signature's excellent microdynamics: the small ebbs and flows in the music's dynamic structure stood revealed in an almost fetishistic manner, in much the way a really classy Cabernet's subtly different flavors intermingle on the tongue.

Nevertheless, this mandates careful auditioning of the Silver Signatures before you buy them. If you are extra-sensitive to this aspect of the speaker's sonic signature—as Jack English was when he visited me—then these will not be the speakers for you.

I mentioned earlier that the B&W's midrange sounded very neutral. Again, I need to add a qualification: While there was nothing audible that I would deem a "coloration," voices sometimes sounded lacking in body. This was not due to insufficient lower-midrange energy—if anything, the speakers have a good bloom in this region—but a lack of, for want of better words, harmonic richness, the kind of thing that Vandersteens do so well. This was a minor point, but the B&W seems so transparent and clean-sounding that I began to notice the slightest inconsistencies in its total performance.

This didn't bother me. I just kept putting on recording after recording, marveling at the speaker's resolution. I could hear, for example, that one voice in an operatic duet had been recorded with a different microphone from the other. Yet this wasn't achieved in a spotlit manner, like the original Martin-Logan CLS. Nothing was thrust forward at the listener (if anything, the opposite was true). Yet I could easily perceive tiny details of recorded quality. The Silver Signature would make one heck of a studio monitor!

And oh, that soundstage. With every recording I played, the area between and behind the speakers just opened up into the space of the recorded acoustic, whether it was real—Ely Cathedral on Gerontius—or artificial—the soundscapes on the Patriot Games soundtrack, or the sonic collages on Art of Noise's 1987 album In No Sense? Nonsense! (also partly recorded in Ely Cathedral). Depth was a little restricted in absolute terms, but not to the extent that it became an issue. Larry Archibald's image on the "Mapping the Soundstage" track on our Test CD 2 could still be heard to start a long way away behind the plane of the speakers, then evenly move up to and around the microphone position.

It must be noted that my enthusiasm for the B&W's performance was a result of my sitting in the sweet spot. These speakers are remarkably fussy about where the listener sits. With the speakers toed-in to the listening chair and my ears level with, or just under, the tweeter, they did things that were simply magical. Images were precisely focused; tonal quality was neutral; the presentation was remarkably transparent. When I sat to one side, however, the sound lacked immediacy and images smeared. Too high, and the speaker sounded hollow and a little nasal. Be careful when you audition these speakers in the dealer's listening room—they demand an appropriate amount of respect.

And the inside jukebox blows out just like thunder
The B&W John Bowers Silver Signature is a remarkable loudspeaker, offering easily the highest level of performance I have heard from a loudspeaker anywhere near its size in my listening room. Its virtues are great, its faults minor.

How much of its superbly transparent performance is due to its exclusive use of silver for every metal part must remain conjecture. One thing the silver does do, however, is add to its price—$8000 is a lot to pay for a pair of miniature loudspeakers. But one thing is certain: I'm buying the review pair to keep as long-term references. That's how good I felt this loudspeaker to be. If $8000 is burning a hole in your pocket, I encourage you to try these superb B&Ws for yourself.