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Bowers & Wilkins A7 review

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Summary

Our Score:

8

User Score:

Introduction

The Bowers and Wilkins A7 is the company’s latest flagship AirPlay speaker system that’s designed to make wireless music playback as simple, yet amazing-sounding, as possible. Sitting alongside it’s similarly styled but smaller sibling the A5, it’s a more subtle, dockless alternative to the bold styling of the iconic Zeppelin Air.

Bowers & Wilkins A7 - Design

The Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin was arguably one of the design icons of the latest decade. The simple iPod dock married form and function to create something that transcended its core purpose. And, nice though the A7 is, it doesn't come close to having the same impact. It's a black fabric covered cuboid. Ho hum.

But, that is the point - it's supposed to be a shrinking violet visually but a superstar sonically. And even so it is still a lovely looking device and Bowers and Wilkins' touch of class is clear for all to see. The black fabric covering that wraps seamlessly round the whole device is split only by a band of brushed aluminium that sits at just the right height – not half way up but two thirds of the way up. Aside from a laser etched Bowers & Wilkins logo this band is broken only by a tiny LED that indicates power and status.

Bowers & Wilkins A7 3

The sides continue the simple theme. On the left the metal band incorporates the power button while on the right it doubles as the volume control. And finishing the lot off is a beautifully brushed aluminium plate on the top.

Part of the reason for the A7’s subtle styling is that it’s intended to be placed anywhere – a tabletop, book shelf, TV cabinet – and fit in, both in terms of design and dimensions. You see, the A7 is actually much more compact than the Zeppelin range measuring 220 x 360 x 160mm, or about the size of a fairly tall loaf of bread. At 5.7Kg it’s still a reassuringly heavy device though, so will still need a fairly sturdy platform to call home.

Bowers & Wilkins A7 - Connectivity

Key to the A7’s design is that it does away with any obvious connectivity. There’s no dock, no CD tray, no headphone jack on the front. Instead there are just a handful of connections round the back – 3.5mm jack auxiliary input, USB port and Ethernet – and in-built Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi and Ethernet are there to allow connection via Apple’s AirPlay standard, which enables iPhone, iPod touch, iPad and all types of Macs (plus any PCs running iTunes) to connect to the speaker over a network.

Bowers & Wilkins A7 2

Meanwhile the USB port can be used to connect the A7 directly to a computer, turning it into a giant USB sound card/speaker. As for the auxiliary port, well that’ll let you connect any other normal audio device, from a record player to a Walkman.

Bowers & Wilkins A7 - AirPlay and Setup

Setting the A7 up is either a doddle, or fairly easy, depending on how you do it. If you’ve got an Ethernet connection then it’s simply a case of plugging the A7 in and turning it on. After a few moments the A7 should appear as an AirPlay output on your iDevices.

Bowers & Wilkins A7

Otherwise the easiest way to setup a Wi-Fi connection is with the Bowers and Wilkins AirPlay Setup app. This walks you through the setup process, which consists of turning on the speaker then connecting to the speaker’s own Wi-Fi network that it creates. Once connected you return to the app to enter the login details of your home Wi-Fi network. A reboot later and it’s connected.

Multiple A7s can be setup around the house with the app allowing you to name each one. It's then simply a case of selecting which one to connect to from the AirPlay option on your device. Alternatively, if you’re using iTunes you can stream to all A7s at once for pure party power!

Prem Desai

February 14, 2013, 7:01 am

I used to be a huge fan of B&W kit. It's a shame to see that they have become nothing more than box-shifters (good looking, I admit).

This product makes no sense. The price is simply bonkers. I have no doubt about the quality, but why would anyone with half a brain want to use airplay on such an audiophile device?

For the money, I would have expected the player to cope with more sources e.g. spotify, google music, etc all controlled either by a swish remote or an running on my mobile device.

This would take it more into the Sonos territory and Airplay out of the box would be an added bonus rather that the sole focus.

As it stands, I don't even have the faintest desire to acquire this.

This speaker aside, I used to be a huge B&W fan.

What has put me off B&W ?

A few months ago, I wanted to purchase a 7.2 speaker setup. I found out that B&W is only a British label - their goods are made in the far east (they think they control the quality but they don't really).

Also, they fix their prices so that no discounts are available - I could have sworn that this was made illegal.

To top it all up, you cannot mail order their products - you have to go into a shop to buy.

Please, get real.

I acknowledge that B&W is not unique in this aspect, but we are talking about B&W here and it cannot be encouraged.

GL

February 15, 2013, 11:30 am

"£700 buys a lot of Hi-Fi that will provide an infinitely better sound stage"

Can you update the review to compare its sound quality and sound stage to the Philips Fidelio SoundSphere DS9800W/10, which also has Airplay and is £70 cheaper

racey1979

February 15, 2013, 3:42 pm

How would the B&W compare to two Arcam rCubes connected together as it works out the same price wise?? Surely it can't sound as good as two of these?

Joel Stuart

April 16, 2013, 10:24 pm

The phillips does not sound as good.

GL

April 18, 2013, 2:30 pm

Even though it has wider stereo separation?

Which bits (low, mid, high frequencies) does the A7 do better, and which does the Phillips do better?

Matthew Hallworth

July 29, 2013, 6:54 pm

I debated buying this speaker for a couple of months due to the cost. Could it really be worth £700? I listened to several active speaker systems including high end brands such as Kef. I also listened to the Sonos products, the Philips Fidelio range and the Arcam rcube. After listening to all the aforementioned equipment, only one product impressed me, that was the Bowers and Wilkins A7. Well, I took the plunge. I got mine for £599 from Ebay and do not regret the purchase. In fact, I would say its the best £599 I have spent in a long time. This speaker is such a fantastic piece of kit. It sounds absolutely incredible considering its size and considering that it only plays in mono.
The reason I bought it was because I wanted a single box solution for my kitchen. With the A7, I am able to stream music from Spotify via my iphone. I have in effect got an almost infinite music library that can be accessed with complete ease.
My main system in my front room is composed of Arcam separates and Monitor Audio speakers, which are a lovely combination. However, since buying the B&W A7, I rarely listen to my separates anymore. The A7 gives me everything I need. Since owning the A7, I have never listened to so much music as I can access what ever takes my fancy from Spotify.
Now, I will agree that the A7 is not the last word in audiophile sound, but it is very, very good given that it is a small mono speaker.
The best thing about the A7 is that it sounds great what ever you feed it. MP3's streamed at 160kbs sound good. 320kbs sound great. I haven't had chance to try USB connected 24bit tracks yet, but I can only assume they will sound excellent.
Yes, £700 is a lot of money, but I am a very happy customer and believe my £599 was money well spent.
I would love to see Bowers and Wilkins develop this system into a stereo pair, now that would be an incredible piece of kit, but it would probably command a prohibitive price tag.
Anyway, if your reading this and considering a one box solution that sounds great, then go and demo as many products as you can. Sound is subjective, but i am well impressed with the A7.

Hobie

October 17, 2014, 2:57 pm

Is it worth it?
Quite definitely.

I went to buy the Naim mu-so, at £900, so in the shop I demo-d the B&W and the Sony SRS 9. I didn't wanthe B&W as it doesn't have bluetooth.

But it does genuinely blow away the competition, I was surprised when listening to it with the mu-so back to back, but bottom line, it plays its music clearer, and just markely better all round.

I wish I'd done the sound test before I wasted the whole of the week scouring the web reviews - it's not what they say, it's what you hear.

B&W - no contest.

Ted Frick

September 10, 2015, 3:34 pm

All in all, this is an amazingly good stereo output system considering its power and size. One of my criteria for listening to music for hours on end is that my ears don't get tired, i.e., I don't become annoyed by distortion or unnatural coloration of music. I have to say that the B&W A7 does very well in this respect, so I forget about the playback system, and just listen to and enjoy the music playing.

In many ways, the highs and mid-range are even better in the A7 than I get on my main component stereo system in the living room. The lower end of the A7 is not as powerful in balance with the mid and upper ranges at a given volume setting, so the A7 sounds better balanced to my ear if listening at normal levels. I would not compare the A7 to my good component system when cranked up, but mostly because there’s not a 1200 W active sub pushing the low frequencies (between 15 and 80 hz) and bi-amped mains (CDM 7NT's). Still, the A7 has the low frequencies well covered down to 40hz. There is a pretty good sound stage on the A7, but not as well-located in space since the speakers are closer together, of course, in the A7 than are the mains which are about 8 ft. apart in my component system.

The best part is the A7 DACs upconvert sources to 24-bit at 96 Khz. So it’s a lot smoother and natural sounding, particularly not the shrillness in the higher frequencies that sometimes bothers me when coming from 44.1 Khz sources. I think B&W has improved the tweeters in the A7, compared with those on my 7NT’s, and even the mid-range is outstanding on the A7, possibly even better than the Kevlar mid-ranges (for normal listening levels) on the 7NT’s, which are still excellent after 15 years of use 4-6 hours per day.

However, with no correction for room acoustics, placement of the A7 becomes more critical. Keeping it at ear level and not cranking it up too much, makes it, in my opinion, an excellent listening device in a smaller space. When it is cranked up, the mids and highs are more dominant, compared with the low range. But that may be affected by placement and room acoustics, more so than by design of the A7.

I am somewhat of an audiophile, having been a former musician, and I like music to sound like it should without distortion. I have a very critical ear in this respect, but not tons of money to throw at music playback systems over the past 30 years. I have had very good experiences with B&W products, including CDM 7NT speakers (about 15 years old) and an active B&W sub (for about 10 years). These products are well-engineered to last, and have held up well for me. That is why I chose the A7, expecting it to be of similar quality and durability.

The A7 will be used in other rooms in the house to hear music without cranking the main component system to window rattling volume in the living room in order to hear the music, for example, in a bedroom at the end of the house. The A7 is relatively portable and can be placed anywhere in my house where there is an electrical outlet nearby--even outside on the covered screen porch, without blasting folks in the living room with the main system.

All in all, I am very pleased with the quality the A7 and its reliability for streaming over Airplay.

Issues with interference in Airplay wi-fi streaming: None for me but ...

Some unhappy reviewers have reported that A7 Airplay playback over wi-fi is unreliable. Of course, if the wi-fi signal is disrupted or does not have enough bandwidth, streaming problems can occur, but which are NOT caused by the receiving device (e.g., the A7). The potential causes of streaming problems are complex, some of which are caused by RF interference by devices in the vicinity which are not compliant with wi-fi standards. So I would not jump to conclusions that the A7 airplay is the source of the problem in a particular wi-fi LAN without definitive proof of no RF interference and with real-time bandwidth throughput measures. For example, see 20 myths about wi-fi interference: http://www.cisco.com/c/en/us/p... . The fact that many reviewers report no problems with Airplay streaming to the A7, while a few do, suggests that the cause of the problem may lie elsewhere (although B&W has done firmware updates since the introduction of the A7, so getting their latest firmware update should be done as a precaution).

Even experts can be baffled due to many devices in the vicinity which can cause RF interference with wi-fi signals, many of which do NOT abide by 802.11 standards, and many of which over we have no control (such as nearby microwave towers, or many other wi-fi networks close by, Bluetooth devices, cordless phone systems, flaky transformers for fluorescent lights, microwave ovens, and the list goes on). For example, my son has had unsolved issues with Apple TV streaming of music (especially HD music sources) where he lives, whereas I have not. He does not have an A7--but does have the latest ATV (3rd gen), so this is a wi-fi streaming issue, not an A7 issue. He lives in a surburban neighborhood, whereas I live in a more rural area. Furthermore, having more wi-fi access points in one's own LAN can actually decrease significantly wi-fi transmission rates, if the AP's are too close and signals are strong, and the slower rates cannot keep up with the real-time streaming demands which causes disruption in audio playback over wi-fi. See above link.

There are yet even other possibilities, as evidenced by how Netflix advises its users who are experiencing streaming issues: https://help.netflix.com/en/no... . While Internet bandwidth available can be a contributor in the case of Netflix streaming, problems often exist in the local area network (LAN) unrelated to Internet bandwidth. One other issue that folks often do not realize is that as the number of devices on the same wi-fi LAN increases, they are SHARING that bandwidth in the same LAN (e.g., 80 mbps bandwidth and 10 wi-fi devices on the same network, means that 80/10 or 8 mbps would be the max. throughput for any given device, if all are demanding data at once). I have worked with computer technologies for over 5 decades, and in my experience technical issues can be very complex and difficult to debug when there a lots of devices that need to work together seamlessly in real time. It's easy to jump to the wrong conclusions, and end up spending a lot of time on a wild goose chase.

The good news (for me at least) is that I have had NO issues with Airplay over wi-fi. I did do the A7 firmware update during the setup process, using the app supplied by B&W. In fact, I have found the Airplay to be robust in my home network. Even when I recently rebooted my main router, Airplay continued without disruption over wi-fi because, I assume, that my wi-fi bridge router (Airport Express) in the network was on during this episode. I have had no problems with choppy playback or disconnections via Airplay over wi-fi. The only minor thing I've observed so far, is that when the A7 is in sleep mode, and I start playing music via Airplay to the A7, it takes it about 5 seconds to wake up and reconnect to the wi-fi network, and while this occurs the playback system (via Apple TV with iTunes running) doesn't start until the A7 has waked up. So I don't miss the beginning of the first song, which is a good thing--just have to wait a little bit for it to start. Once the A7 is awake, then playback via Airplay starts right away. It goes to sleep after about 30 minutes of no source input is playing, as I recall.

A note to those who are concerned about A7 sound quality over Airplay and wi-fi:

At least one reviewer claimed the music over Airplay from his iPhone sounded very poor, when compared to the same music played from a CD when the A7 was connected via USB to the A7. There can be an audible difference in sound quality on playback through the A7, depending on the original quality of the audio source and lossy compression. For example, there is a difference in how an original CD sounds (which is sampled in 44.1 Khz/16-bit stereo format), compared to lossy compressed sound such as mp3, especially when sampled at lower bit rates. I cannot stand to listen to mp3 music at any sampling rate, because it frankly sounds crappy on a good system (as if I have cotton stuffed in my ears). With iTunes, when you import from a CD, you have some choices. Also, the quality of an audio file you purchase may be in a lossy format (such as AAC from the iTunes store, or mp3).

I have my preferences set in iTunes to always import from CD in the Apple Lossless Encoder format. Yes, the resulting sound files are larger than lossy formats, but I prefer quality over the sheer number of files that can be stored on a device. I would rather listen to 500 lossless songs rather than 5000 lossy ones on my smartphone. And while my music collection in lossless format is nearly 300 gigabytes, I store it on a big hard drive connected to my computer at home, and then am selective as to what I transfer to the smartphone or tablet which has limited storage.

Now there are limitations in the Airplay specs, but those limitations are NOT worse than CD quality, as I understand (44.1 Khz/16-bit). The actual device through which you do the Airplay does impose limitations--e.g., the current Apple TV (3rd generation) will limit audio quality to 48 Khz sampling rate. But that is marginally higher than CD quality, not less, and the upcoming ATV 4 may permit higher sampling rates. So the quality of the source file from which sound is produced is the key. When the A7 up-samples the audio source file to 96Khz/24-bit, it cannot significantly improve an audio source which is in a lossy format to begin with.

This is analogous to the issue of watching a standard definition video source on a Hi-Def TV. It can never look as sharp as a HD or UHD video source, because there is less information in SD video source which is a lower resolution signal. Any up-conversion to a higher resolution will have to interpolate to fill in the missing info. Same thing occurs with lower res audio signals when up-converted to a higher resolution. I only wish that CDs used a higher res format, such as SACD or DSD. It clearly can be done, which is often the case in DVD's with Dolby sound and especially on BluRay DVD's. There are arguments about resolutions of sound, and whether the human ear can detect any differences at resolutions higher than CD quality (44.1 Khz/16-bit), but the physics suggest that CD quality could be improved to 48 Khz/20-bit resolution with a noticeable difference; however the physics suggests that higher resolutions won't matter and could actually degrade quality of sound over good playback systems depending on the DACs be used in receivers. Whatever the case, I can easily hear differences in sound quality of mp3, CD, and SACD formats when played over a GOOD stereo system, especially when adjustments for room acoustics have been made (e.g., via Audyssey Platinum). Night and day to my ears.

If CD quality audio over Airplay is not good enough, then certainly you can use the AUX input and use an optical cable for S/PDIF, which does support higher bit-depth (20- or 24-bit), and the bit-rate will be determined by the device transmitting the digital signals. I believe that 96Khz rates might be the practical ceiling. The A7 is spec'd to handle up to 96Khz/24-bit audio. In my experience, HD quality audio files (higher than CD quality) can sound a little better on a good stereo system, BUT what makes a bigger difference is the quality of the original recording and how it has been edited by audio engineers prior to release in a given format such as CD. Some early analog recordings can sound extremely good when remastered in modern digital formats (HD audio, SACD, even CD), because the masters were technically of very high quality to begin with, and great care was used in microphone placement and mic quality was top-notch. Also what can make a noticeable difference is how the DACs convert the digital signal to analogue prior to amplification. Not all DACs are equal. I find the DACs in the A7 to sound just fine to my ear, particularly on very good quality recordings, as long as the digital files are not in a lossy format such as mp3 or AAC.

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