*Bowers and Wilkins Panorama £1500
1st Jul 2009 | 10:00
Bowers and Wilkins' Panorama soundbar is a real thoroughbred
The Bowers and Wilkins Panorama is hugely expensive for a soundbar, so our hopes are understandably high. As per its rivals, B&W's debut soundbar doesn't feature a built-in DVD player, but does come with integral audio decoding and six amplifiers that muster a combined power output of 175W.
The build quality of this heavy unit is phenomenal, boasting a sturdy cabinet. It's also a classy-looking model, with a mirror black stainless steel top section that curves alluringly around to the back, while the front panel is one long display panel that shows information in large red digits, while down each side lights indicate the various sound modes and selected audio formats.
On the back is a comparatively decent selection of connections, but at this price it's surprising not to find any HDMI ports, as there are plenty of people who will want to hook up their Blu-ray players, but they'll have to make do with the digital audio outputs.
This will be disappointing news to anyone hoping to hear Dolby True HD or DTS HD Master Audio soundtracks, but the Panorama's ability to decode Dolby Digital and DTS is not to be sniffed at, given that some of its rivals don't boast any decoding at all.
The speakers inside the Panorama use technology derived from B&W's 800 series. The drivers and metal dome tweeter emit sound beams that bounce off the walls towards the listening position in order to replicate the effect of a real 5.1 sound system.
You can wall-mount the unit using the supplied bracket or have it perched freestanding on the feet.
Setup is a slightly fiddly process as there's no onscreen display, but there is a decent range of tweaks including bass and treble adjustments, gain and delay settings and three different presets.
It's all controlled with a very attractive remote, which looks like a little silver and black egg. The minimal array of buttons is arranged into a cross formation, allowing for intuitive control of the core functions.
The Panorama offers some of the most majestic audio we've ever heard from a soundbar; in fact it gives most traditional speaker systems a run for their money.
What really makes our jaws drop is the bass capabilities. Bottom-end effects are delivered with the sort of thunderous power you'd expect from a dedicated sub, but not the sort of wild, boomy bass that some soundbars offer. It's deep and solid, yet nimble enough to cope with the rhythmic rigours of music material.
The Panorama is a polished performer across the rest of the frequency range too, particularly the high ones.
It teases out lots of delicate detail and subtle background ambience, while loud top-end effects, such as clashing swords or shattering glass, are clean and controlled, but never harsh.
Dialogue handling is equally impressive, making speech sound clear and convincing.
But the B&W falls down on its surround sound performance, which presents a wide enough sound image across the front, but you don't get the sense that rear effects are reaching the back of the room. This doesn't make for a particularly enveloping experience when watching large scale action scenes.
In every other area the Panorama is a magnificent performer, and we only wish the connections and audio decoding were more cutting-edge at this price.
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