Initial Impressions: Speed Dating
Though I’ve never actually speed dated, I do like to begin every component or system evaluation by audio speed dating. This means randomly surfing through digital files on my hard drive to get an initial, instinctual answer to important questions such as “Do I basically like you?” or “Are you going to bite me (in a bad way…)?” or “What are your likes and dislikes?” Of course, in audio speed dating the questions are musical ones, and the answers will set the atmosphere for potential, future questions and maybe even future “dates.”
One of the first musical questions for the 705s was Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim’s 1968 recording of Brahms’ Two Sonatas for Cello and Piano. This recording of the then recently married couple was captured in Studio #1 at Abbey Road, a studio most famous for and through The Beatles, and which also has had a longstanding (since the late 80s) relationship with Bowers & Wilkins. This is a fantastic performance, and I am ashamed to admit that I smeared its reputation (or more correctly, mine) by writing the words “say cello to my little friends” in my notebook while listening. The point being that I was comfortable. This was not the presentation of a small, thin-sounding bookshelf speaker pretending to be someone’s idea of an analytic studio monitor. Detail, yes. But also a texture and dimension that come from a more fully realized harmonic structure. From the first notes, it was obvious that this was a speaker built for music, not sounds.
Most loudspeakers shift. They rock back and forth like a ship on a sonic ocean. Perhaps they get compressed and aggressive during dynamic passages, or perhaps their sound can be characterized differently for different frequency ranges. The 705 S2s were not shifting. Throwing in some quick hits of live J.J. Cale, Tony Rice, or Yo-Yo Ma demonstrated an ability to throw an absolutely locked-in stage. And these super-stable images were not cutouts. The warm atmospherics on J.J. Cale’s “Old Man,” recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1996, were remarkably free and palpable. The 705s were gaining my trust because they were consistent in their answers to these early musical questions. Top to bottom. One fabric. No Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Making a last stop on the track “Holdin’ on to Yesterday” from the Alan Parsons engineered, self-titled 1975 album by Ambrosia was a surprise. This is 70s rock production at its best with soaring vocals and fantastic, sweeping organ to open the song up. It was so good—and I was having so much fun—that I had to listen to more tracks from the album. I couldn’t help it. When a system is working, there is a feeling that you just want to soak as much of it up as you can. You can’t look/listen away. While my early comfort with the 705 S2s was founded in their textured, consistent disposition, here they showed an ability to loosen up and let it flow. Listening to Ambrosia was the final speed-dating question. We agreed to see each other again…
I’ll avoid being mean spirited, but I think it’s fair to point out that I’m not predisposed to liking the midrange of every Bowers & Wilkins I’ve heard. Some examples of the yellow Kevlar midrange’d Matrix Series of yore were not my cup of tea. I’ll admit to being initially worried. Turns out the worry was unnecessary.
“Unshakeable” was the term that kept coming up. No matter the artists or their vocal stylings, my focus was fully given over to their choices, and not those of the speakers. Listening to some of my favorite vocalists on good old LP through the Acoustic Signature Wow XL/TA-700/MM3 (Acoustic Signature-modified Ortofon 2M Black)/Sutherland KC Vibe phonostage was instructive. Reprise’s awesome 2009 reissue of Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue actually gave me the chills on her frequently covered “A Case of You” (for another cool version of this, check out Prince’s lesser known album One Nite Alone). Joni Mitchell is a cinch to screw up. Her voice can easily get into the “Dylan’s harmonica” or “fingers on a chalkboard” zone, even for a Canadian like me who soaks her up. But through the 705s she sounded “pure.” I was waiting for the loudspeaker to announce itself, and it never did. And, between you and me, I’d rather listen to Joni Mitchell than “a loudspeaker.”
The best way to say it is that the artists’ voices I’ve listened to thousands of times sounded like the artists’ voices I’ve listened to thousands of times. Vinyl rips of Willie Nelson. Elly Ameling singing Schubert Lieder. Aaron Neville singing Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Johnny Hartman. Stan Rogers. Bruno Mars. Skaggs and Rice. Quirky or silky. Didn’t matter. I believe the correct term is “natural.”
And the 705 S2s don’t sound small. In my approximately 19' x 14' x 8' room (which is open to larger rooms), I was getting good measured extension into the high 30Hz region. More importantly, the only real time that I actively felt like a larger speaker was needed was when listening to Ray Barretto’s high-energy Latin album Acid [Fania]. But for this music, only something like a giant PA stack will do.
On almost every other “big” piece of music thrown at them, the 705s didn’t “tap out” (to use the now common mixed martial arts phrase). This dynamic composure was another brick in the wall of trust. It’s one area where small loudspeakers are expected to let you down and show themselves. The 705s did not.
On both the 45rpm double LP of the Academy Award and Grammy winning soundtrack for the movie Dances with Wolves [ORG], and the impressive 1959 London sessions of Solti conducting Wagner’s Das Rheingold [Decca], the little Bowers & Wilkins did not shy away. The power and scale of the percussion on “Pawnee Attack” from the Dances with Wolves score would have had anyone shaking his head, and the stage on Das Rheingold was as large and stable as I’ve heard it in my home.
The only cries for uncle were heard when I played the very well-produced 2006 album 10,000 Days from Maynard James Keenan’s progressive hard rock band Tool. Playing the consecutive tracks “10,000 Days (Wings, Pt.2)” and then “The Pot,” the poor 705s did get overwhelmed in the opening minutes. Bass guitar, giant and deep bass drum, all in the middle of a phase-aided (along the lines of Q Sound) surround-sound thunderstorm were all simultaneously too much for a two-way monitor—go figure. I got some compression and confusion, and the bottom octaves were, of course, missing. However, following the thunderstorm beginning and into “The Pot,” the 705s came back to life, and in a big way. I was banging my head, and the air guitar was the kind where you rock back and forth with your arms hanging as low as you can get them. Awesome stuff! I could have been a rock star.
I’m certain that the larger 700 S2 loudspeakers would have been more extended and dynamically capable, but even in my not-so-small acoustical space I could enjoy the 705s with larger works at reasonably loud levels. Think “outperforms expectations” on the small-big scale and you’ll be on the right track, not “rewrites laws of physics.”