Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Review: Bowers & Wilkins T7 - premium sound at a premium price?

Just when I wanted to calm down a little bit after all those reviews and comparisons I had done lately the British well known premium company B&W unexpectedly announced their first portable Bluetooth speaker, the T7. Of course the specs and given data was looking pretty promising and with 349$/€ the T7 was priced above the current competition like the Bose Soundlink III, the Infinity One, or even the Beats Pill XL, which all cost around 299$ (the Infinity One just got a price drop down to 249$, which makes it even more competitive now price went up again) thus putting the T7 on top of all the rest.
I became quite curious to try out this speaker and hear if a serious company like Bowers & Wilkins managed something really outstanding. Meanwhile I got the T7 and put it through some tests and measurements, so let's have a look if the T7 was really worth the long wait to finally get a portable speaker that stands out of the crowd.

The speaker comes inside a nice small box. With exception of the speaker and the power adaptor (15V 2A) together with some additional international plugs, there are no other accessories included. Not really generous for a product costing considerably more than all the competition, as they could have included some carrying bag, or at least some simple cleaning cloth to keep the treasure clean.
Designwise the B&W T7 definitely tries to set itself apart with some yet unseen design-element: "the Micro Matrix".

B&W states quite proudly that this structure is vital for the good performance of this speaker because it provides rigidity and reduces unwanted vibrations while keeping weight to the minimum. To me this rather seems like some simple marketing blah. It just looks like wasted space surrounding the actual speaker-box. The size of the speaker could be certainly kept down if the whole honeycomb structure was just left away. The real speaker element is a closed box inside that sticks out of another empty box contaning the Micro Matrix, and I don't see any purpose for it. I think they just wanted to make it look funky, as it shines in a funky way when put against a light source, for me it rather resembles some design element taken out of a 70s Scifi movie, it might even have something baroque to it with a bit fantasy. To cut it short, the design is not my thing, and although build quality is top notch, it doesn't look too sturdy for real portable use. The speaker has sharp edges all over, the transparent plastic surrounding the Micro Matrix is shiny and prone to scratches, the metal grille at the front and back is exposed, and if the speaker falls over, the grille will be the first part to get scratched. The only clever choice was to use rubber for some small part of the speaker. Indeed there was much fuss about the rubber element and how important that was either for keeping vibration down. In reality most speakers with passive radiators apply some kind of rubber to the bottom to avoid any rattling etc. So I am not quite sure why B&W's rubber should be exceptional compared to other rubbers.

Enough ranting, let's talk about the user interface and the features of the T7. All buttons are hidden below the above mentioned "special" rubber. They are not really well visible as they are just slightly elevated symbols with the same black color as the entire rest of the rubber, as this rubber is so special and unique, it comes only in black, therefore no other color-options are available for the speaker, just pure elegant black.
On the right side of the speaker is the main power button. When I unpacked the speaker it didn't want to turn on by any means. I had to attach it to mains first, to get it come to life. There seems to be a similar protective circuit inside like on many similar Bose-speakers which deactivates the internal battery after a particular time of non-usage. As soon as I attached it to mains the speaker woke up and everything lit up. I was welcomed by some cheesy harp-melody playing. Another short melody will be played when the speaker has successfully connected through Bluetooth.

Usually you have to keep the power button pressed for about 2 seconds to turn the speaker on, at the same time the battery indicator above will light up to indicate how much charge is left. The T7 has 5 dedicated LEDs symbolizing the charging level. When the speaker is attached to mains and charging, they will light up one after the other, until all are LEDs are lit to symbolize a full charge. Charging seemed pretty quick, but the speaker had some residual charge as the charing procedure already started with the 4th LED flashing.

When in battery mode the LEDs will go out after some seconds, but you can always press the power button shortly to check how much charge is left. To turn the speaker off completely you have to hold the power button again for about 2 seconds. On top you find the volume-buttons, the Bluetooth-button and the track-control button. This acts for starting and stopping music when pressed once, double press will take you to the next track, tripple press skips backwards.
Volume control is mirrored between streaming device and speaker (at least on iOS devices). The T7 has 32 dedicated volume steps, and they are fine enough at lower settings to allow a sensitive volume control without too rough jumps.

Bluetooth pairing seems a bit basic though. The speaker always tries to connect to the latest paired device but doesn't automatically want to connect to other already paried devices. When 2 different devices have gone through the pairing procedure the T7 can be paired with those simultaneously so that you can switch streaming from one to the other without any additional pairing needed. But after power-on the speaker will still only connect to one of those devices, even when both are present at the same time. You have to force a manual connection from the other device every time.
Basically that's all on features. There is no NFC, no charing of external devices, no speakerphone. But at least there is a hidden "Reboot" at the back in case the speaker might hang once or behave unexpectedly.

Because there is not that much else to say about the T7 anymore, let's directly jump over to the sonic qualities,... or better the lack of.
I must confess I was never a big admirer of B&W speakers. I cannot say much about their professional gear and their classic speakers like "Nautilus" etc. But all their digital consumer stuff sounded average to me. The Zeppelin, the Zepplin Micro etc, none of them really impressed me much and I wondered why so much fuss was being done about them. When the T7 was announced I had really big expectations and was eagerly reading every single press release and hands-on. But none of the "reviews" so far mentioned the sound with any words. I mean what kind of review is this, that doesn't deal with the most important fact, the sound quality of a speaker?

The T7's acoustic core consists of 2 full range drivers and 2 opposing passive radiators driven by a 28W amplifier, a pretty basic setup nowadays and nothing really special as so many current speakers have the same or a similar speaker array, thus most of them suffer from the same basic problems especially in regard of strong directional treble dispersion, loudness issues, intermodulation distortion etc. Either B&W has applied some magic to overcome these things, or they just talk big, because the T7 doesn't seem to improve on any of the existing aspects, so let me tell you that the T7 is the most unimpressive and overpriced speaker I have heard so far. I had tried dozens of different portable speakers during the last years. There has been much progress on the market when looking back now, but Bowers & Wilkins seem to have overseen all the competition that is available. It is just copying other speakers without adding any noticeable improvement.
The T7 might have been a pretty nice speaker if it had been announced 4 years ago, but today there are so many cheaper and better sounding alternatives, that it is really embarassing to see a company with such a big and important name couldn't come up with something more serious. There is lots of raving about the qualities of the T7 with its "highly advanced audio technology" on its dedicated website with statements like "we’ve used every technological trick we know to make sure that T7 packs an amazing sonic punch for such a little speaker". In reality the T7 sounds below average compared to what is available now.

A Creative Soundblaster Roar is exactly the same size costs less than half of the T7's price and sounds at least as good if not even better, but packing more features without all the Micro Matrix nonsense. Although I was not impressed much with the Roar either, I prefer it much more over the T7, even if both cost the same, I would probably still choose the Roar over the T7. A more extreme example is the JBL Charge 2, which rather resembles a kid's toy than a serious speaker. But putting both T7 and JBL Charge 2 side by side, the T7 starts sounding more like a kitchen radio than a 350€ premium product. The Charge 2 is not only smaller, lighter, but has the ability to recharge other devices, has speakerphone and a really balanced but punchy sound at the same time which simply blows the T7 out of the water, let's just forget about all those distortion-issues for a while.

The biggest problem of the T7 is the directional sound coloration that becomes pretty nasty and makes the speaker sound just ugly if not listened exactly on axis. Let's assume the T7 might have the intention to be a very flat and neutral sounding speaker, even if it was, it nevertheless sounds boring with a tendency to sound honky and harsh. If we consider the Sonos Play:1 also being a flat and neutral speaker, both are worlds apart regarding sound. While the Play:1 sounds serious and ambitious, the T7 sounds... like a kitchen radio.
Stereo separation is nearly non-existent except if you put your nose against the front grille, but from 1 meter distance you can hardly hear any left/right difference anymore even with the strongest effects like those from Pink Floyd's "Money".
Bass is claimed to reach below 60Hz on the T7, and while in reality you can even hear "something" at 40Hz when feeding it with some sine-tones, you won't notice any deeper bass extension when music is being played, it just sounds anemic. The T7 might even have a slightly deeper bass extension than the Soundblaster Roar, a thing I was always complaining about, but the Roar compensates for this with an overall more friendly and pleasant tuning. You have to listen really close to hear some advantage in lows from the T7. But bass is the lesser problem, as there are definitely enough purists who will always prefer less bass, or maybe they call it "tight bass" or whatever, when the other rest of the frequency spectrum is perfect, but in case of the T7 it isn't. The character of the drivers is to blame here, as those seem to have an extremely narrow sound dispersion, which is not uncommon for fullrange drivers. If you put the speaker directly in front of you and start moving the head slightly to the left and right, you will already notice how either the left or the right driver starts dominating, you seem to be leaving and entering the sound cone of the other driver. Move further to the side and the sound becomes dull and unpleasant because strange humps in the mids start appearing, while treble is getting recessed at the same time. Listened from a less than optimal position results in a sound that reminds me of a bad encoded MP3 file, or... a kitchen radio. In my opinion a no-go for a portable speaker, which you will hardly have the chance to always aim directly at you. The T7 needs an elevated positioning, a fact that finally made me distance myself from all Bose speakers, as they equally suffered from an overly directional sound with treble that quickly started sounding muffled when you were not listening exactly from within the sweet spot. But at least Bose speakers were otherwise able to raise some fun, the overly boosted bass of the Soundlink Mini which is even reaching deeper than that of the T7 is quite unique for a speaker less than half the size of the T7. I wonder if Bose used some better Micro Matrix to achieve that performance, or maybe it is because they simply didn't use it at all?
I am not so sure if the Micro Matrix doesn't even have a negative effect on the performance of the T7, because I noticed some stronger resonance with the cabinet at particular frequencies when playing some sine-tones,... so much for the "Micro Matrix"! I might try again to check the exact frequencies if I am bored.
One advantage the T7 might have over many other similar speaker is overall loudness. It is a pretty darn loud speaker, although when looking or listening close in reality it has 2 different maximum volumes: the first one that is still listenable and the other one which is just too much and will hurt your ears. The T7 can play very loud on its maximum setting, but it dials away any already recessed bass and starts sounding extremely unpleasant with mids dominating and eating all the rest of the spectrum. Apart from the completely missing bass, there is not much dynamic compression noticeable and distortion is pretty well under control too, but outdoors I would certainly be embarassed to turn it up to the maximum and have all others hear how it sounds. A TDK A33, which could already be had below 100$ sounds as loud, but manages to retain much more of its bass punch, and doesn't change its frequency spectrum to sound like a buzzer at higher volumes. If the entire volume-range with 32 steps is taken into account, I would say that the T7 is still listenable at step 20 or maybe 22, but the whole third above that is just useless, I doubt anyone would like to listen to the speaker when it sounds like that. I even think a Pasce Minirig would sound better than the T7 nearly reaching the same volume.
If this is the so called "premium" sound, I think I rather stick to "consumer" sound, or the "low-grade" sound of my JBL Charge 2. The JBL Charge 2 might not play as loud, but it still sounds good at maximum volume.
I currently don't have the Infinity One at hand, which would probably be a better match for the B&W T7 despite being 100$ cheaper, but even the smaller and 200$ cheaper JBL Charge 2 manages to easily outperform the T7, that's why I prepared a video showing the sonic differences between both. The JBL Charge 2 definitely loses in overall loudness, but even at maximum the track is still recognizable as such, while on the T7 it sounds as if it was being processed through a chopper.

When comparing both B&W T7 and the Creative Soundblaster Roar, the differences are harder to discern, you really have to listen closely to distinguish one from the other, but the harsher mids-response of the T7 which makes it sound a bit resonant during some parts, or kitchen-radio-like how I would call it, reveals which is which. At maximum volume the T7 might still be a tad louder than the Roar, but nevertheless the Roar sounds more convincing with more bass-punch, and a rounder sound overall. There is only some slightly pumping noticeable from the Roar at top volume, making the treble seem to fade in and out during some parts of that track, this is where the TDK A33 might jump in, as it can play louder than the Roar and without any pumping-effects, thus easily outperforming the T7 too, unfortunately I didn't have a TDK A33 at hand for a direct comparison:

I also made a quick and dirty binaural test-recording of both the B&W T7 and the JBL Charge 2 the same day I got it. You probably have already seen my first binaural recording experiments I wrote about here. This wasn't meant to be published (I mean look at the mess inside my cellar), but I don't want to hold it back, as I am not sure when I will have time to prepare better recordings. If you were wearing headphones, you should be hearing more or less what I heard:

Now let's have a look at some frequency response measurements. As I don't have any anechoic chamber at home, we have to deal with the in-room response here which is what you would hear, when listening to this speaker in this particular room from 50cm. But as all my measurements are done in the same room with exactly the same setup, they are still directly comparable, you just have to take into account that they are not siginifcant on an absolute base, but in relation to another speaker the reponse differences should become obvious.
First let's have a look at the entire volume range of the T7 with measurements for every second step:

I think it is obvious that on axis the T7 measures realtively flat, but it is also visible that bass starts rolling off below 100Hz already with some extension down to 40Hz which in reality is hardly noticeable at all. At levels close to maximum there is a mid-boost visible between 300Hz and 1kHz, which makes the speaker sound that harsh as most bass is already dialed back below 170Hz at the same time.
To have a comparison I chose the JBL Charge 2 as direct competitor, a smaller and much cheaper speaker with unneccessarily even more features than the T7. These are the responses for the T7 at a medium volume level taken from different horizontal angles. You can see the measurements on axis (0°) and from 10°, 20° and 30° here:

The same for the JBL Charge 2:

If we average these reponses for both speakers, we get the following curves which should give you a rough idea about the actual sound. The JBL Charge has better extension in both treble and bass, despite the fact that the T7 might reach even lower, they both meet at 60Hz with more than -15dB fall-off thus anything below that will be hardly hearable in reality:

I think  it is already pretty obvious if I like the T7 or not, therefore I would like to spare myself a final conclusion, but I will try one nevertheless.
The T7 per se is not a "bad" sounding speaker, it is just that it isn't a particularly good sounding one either and doesn't stick out in any way of the overcrowded mass of similar speakers, that are either smaller, cheaper or both. The high possible loudness might have been one advantage over all the others, but the T7 is not quite usable at its maximum setting, because it just sounds ugly when cranked with the sound fallen apart completely, although still nearly distortion-free as the only plus factor.
Maybe I wouldn't complain if Bowers & Wilkins tried to join in between the competition with a reasonable price, instead they went for the "premium"-tag without being able to deliver any premium sound nor premium product. Some might definitely like the baroque design, but as a portable speaker neither choice of materials nor choice of forms make it suitable for outdoor use on the go. If I wanted to use this speaker at home only, I would go for something much better sounding, as the T7 cannot substitute any serious hifi system not to mention the lack of any stereo separation. I think I could name at least 5 or 6 better and cheaper alternatives to the B&W T7, but as sound is always a matter of taste too, I let all others make their own decision.
Funnily 2 days after the announcement of the T7, also Bang & Olufsen announced their first portable Bluetooth speaker, just as if they wanted to answer: hey folks, now have a look at our vision of a portable Bluetooth speaker. Let's se if B&O managed, so stay tuned for a comparison of both soon.

+ looks might appeal to some
+ nice build quality
+ AptX support
+ dedicated battery level indicator
+ track control directly through the speaker
+ mirrored volume control with iOS devices

- pretty average sound
- very directional treble dispersion with strong coloration off-axis
- not very powerful bass with roll off already below 100Hz
- maximum volume setting not usable due to harsh and unpleasant sound without any bass
- wasted space around the actual driver-unit making the speaker unnecessarily bulky
- cheesy status and confirmation melodies
- not really portable without any additional protection
- extremely overpriced 
- no additional features (speakerphone,  charging of external devices...)