I caught my first glimpse of the Bowers and Wilkins Panorama at CES back in January. Representing the company's first foray into the ever growing soundbar market, the Panorama looked every inch as stylishly designed and beautifully built as the award winning Zeppelin iPod dock. Unfortunately, that was pretty much all I could ascertain at CES, because although I saw the Panorama, I wasn't able to hear it.
That changed yesterday though, when Bowers and Wilkins invited me down to its HQ in Worthing for the UK launch of the Panorama. The samples that I saw yesterday didn't appear to have changed since I first saw the Panorama at CES, which is no bad thing. This really is a beautiful bit of kit, that should complement any good high definition TV. The steel casing isn't polished like on the Zeppelin, instead it's coated in titanium with a dark, brushed finish.
The Panorama is about a metre long and was designed to complement 37in TVs and above. I'd imagine that 42in is just about the perfect size for a soundbar, since once you start hitting 50in and above, you're more likely to invest in a full surround system. That said, I don't think that the Panorama would look out of place underneath a 50in set.
B&W has squeezed no less than nine drive units into the Panorama, along with six class D amplifiers providing a total power output of 175W. The centre channel has received particular attention - in fact five of the nine drivers are incorporated in the centre speaker in the form of two bass woofers, two midrange drivers and an aluminium dome tweeter.
But it's not all about the speakers, B&W has put some serious effort into the DSP technology inside the Panorama, which is what enables it to create such a wide sweet spot and ensure that everyone in the room gets a share of the surround sound goodness.
How good the surround effect is will depend, to some extent, on the shape of your room. This is because, like most soundbars, the Panorama uses reflection techniques to bounce sound off the walls in order to create the rear channels. Now, I've listened to many soundbars that use this method for virtual surround and I've never been totally convinced by the effect. I was therefore keen to hear what B&W had managed to bring to the table.
I should point out that the demo environment for the Panorama was pretty much perfect - a symmetrically shaped room with a sofa in the centre, and walls all around to ensure that the audio reflections were balanced. Even taking this into account though, I couldn't help but be impressed with the Panorama. Rear channel effects were eerily present, despite the fact that I knew there were no speakers there. The work on the centre channel has paid off too, with dialogue never lost under a barrage of effects or musical score. Equally as impressive was the level of low frequency effects, despite the lack of a dedicated subwoofer.
B&W was keen to point out that the Panorama could also turn its hand to music, although I'd have thought that anyone who's considering a Panorama probably has a Zeppelin already. That said, the wide soundstage lends itself well to music - it's still no substitute for dedicated two channel stereo setup, but then it isn't really designed to be.
Of course I'll reserve judgement on the Panorama until I've got my paws on a review sample and tested it in a variety of environments. B&W told me that the surround will still be effective even if the user has their TV in a corner, which could make it very attractive for anyone who isn't allowed to build their living room around their TV.
UK pricing has been set at £1,500, which is by no means cheap, but then neither was the Zeppelin and that walked away with our Product of the Year award for 2008.
Link: Bowers & Wilkins