27 December, 2010

Overview and Review: B and W, CM1

Overview: B&W
Review: B&W CM1

B&W is still one of the world's largest (and best) speaker companies, with a legion of fans, but even their fans seem sometimes to prefer the brand for the wrong reasons.

B&W is a dichotomy. While their flagships, in particular the legendary Matrix 801 in all its incarnations, have long been references in all the important recording studios, their "trickle-down" products and particularly lower-end commercial lines have had variable voicing, leading to their preference by budget fans who regard them as "rock-and-roll" speaker but also criticism as "colored products". This hardly does the company justice.

Let's begin with the CM1, a current product. Let me also preface that I have not had first-hand experience with B&W's popular (and populist) older 6, 7 and CDM series products. Those I have listened to many times in other people's homes, usually partnered with more humble electronics. Even then, I thought they sounded decent but not my cup of tea in terms of details and balance (preferring something like Proac and Spendor in those days) . Given the excellence of the CM1, I would be rather curious about their current 6 series, slightly cheaper than the CM series, and differently voiced.

My sample was provided through the generosity of a friend. I have long had fascination, and preference, for first-order crossovers. The CM1 is an example, with minimalist crossover to the tweeter, which has a hidden cooling tube (a la Nautilus). The resultant sound amply confirms that simplicity can frequently be the best. For gears used, read my sidebar (HK equipment).

Used with good equipment, the CM1 shone from the start. The sound is fast and well controlled, whether with ss or tube gears. Most importantly, there is a sophistication to the seamless sound, and smoothness, even as the detail retrieval is class-beating. That is what I associate with simple crossovers (which MANDATE well-matched drivers). For more description, read the Soundstage review, as well as Robert Harley's praise in TAS. I take exception though to one of RH's comment, about the CM1's limited dynamic prowess. This has not been true in my experience; partnered with the superb EAR912 preamp, the CM1 even rendered big symphonic works with aplomb in my 250+ ft LR. It does lack deep bass, something my over-achieving Usher X-708 possesses, though what it had was amply satisfying; perhaps that is what pop-oriented listeners shall find wanting. For the classical listener though, at this price range the CM1 is a no-brainer.

The Matrix series
M805 (excellent Stereophile review) - This was my first encounter with the Matrix series. My pair came with dedicated Sound Anchors stands (much better than current B&W stands). The sound was wide open, with a phenomenal soundstage. At that time I was using only tube gears. One thing that bothered me about the 805 then was its lack of ultimate bass control. I put it aside, then decided to sell it. On the day of sale, before the buyer came, I casually hooked it up to a Cyrus I integrated amp. I was astonished to find out that on the whole the sound was better than my considerably more expensive all-tube setups. And the Cyrus even sailed through a Mahler symphony with aplomb. From this point on, I knew B&W works as well with ss amps as with tubes. It never hurts to try!

M804 - These are wonderful and easy to drive. Tonally they are probably closer to the M801 by sharing the same tweeter and midrange driver.

M801 (wonderful Stereophile review)- I have heard several pairs before. Long before I was an "audiophile", I was smitten by a pair of these in a large NYC loft. What authoritative bass! The M801s have an undeserved reputation of being difficult to drive, which is emphatically not true. I acquired several years ago a pair of Mk II, and they responded beautifully to good medium-powered tube amps, such as the vintage Marantz 8 or a modern ARC Classic amp or Audio Prism Debut, provided of course you use a preamp of good control (no vintage preamp needs to apply). Make no mistake, I use ss amps too; my Krell KSA100 and Bryston 4B (old version) do a splendid job when partnered with a tube preamp of good quality.

The 801's bass is definitely authoritative; listening to these makes it hard to go back to any woofer less than 15" in size (except Spendor SP-100). The depth the woofer plumbs is simply astonishing; if you think JBL with its midbass prominence is it, think again. The midrange is no slouch too, with beautiful presence and directness. The tweeter casts a large soundstage.

These remain for me a reference in dynamic speakers
(so does the Spendor SP100). Most in HK have been gobbled up by the China market, so good luck on finding a good pair.

The M802 and M803 on the other hand seem neither here nor there to me. I have heard many 802s and few of them impressed me.

The Nautilus series
The ultimate should be the original Nautilus, which I have never heard. Judging by the same designer's more recent wonderful Vivid Giya speakers, they must be worthwhile.

However, it is a rare occasion that I am impressed by a Nautilus product, let alone being moved. Yes, they have a clean sound, but not too involving. Like much power conditioning, in achieving a blacker background a good degree of presence has also been sacrificed.

Many of the poor sounding N801s and N802s I have heard were driven by expensive but under-achieving modern MLs and Krells, bad choices IMHO. These need a good tube preamp and perhaps powerful tube amp. On the other hand, the N805 frequently sounded reasonably good. One of the best I have heard in this series was the N804, which I heard with an all-tube setup. Even then, I prefer the Matrix series.

As for the more recent Diamond incarnations, I don't believe they add anything (if not subtract!). Overall, it is my belief that the Matrix series are musically superior to the Nautilus series.


  1. John,

    Interesting! I have owned and loved my pair of Matrix 805's since purchasing them new in the early 1990's (powering them with a 120w Rotel amp from the same period). These speakers are my reference.

    Recently I purchased a 1975 Yamaha 600 receiver (40w) which sounds great and I am auditioning speakers to pair with this unit in a small room. I will listen to the KEF LS50, KEF R300 and B&W CM 5 and CM 1.

    Given that for you too the Matrix 805 is a reference, are there other speakers that you think would compare favorably to those above (at a maximum price of $2000 U.S.) for pairing with the vintage Yamaha?


    Washington, D.C.


  2. Now sure how small is your room where you're going to have the Yamaha receiver. I suspect it's not too small as your 1975 receiver should be of good size. I say this because the KEF LS50 (a good choice) has a rear port and needs a bit of room behind (though it is pretty good in this respect.

    I highly recommend you look into the superb TAD TSM-2201, provided you're receptive to the astonishingly revealing "monitor" sound.

    Lastly, why not a pair of the (in)famous Yamaha NS-10M for peanuts? They are fabulous and way ahead of its time. Bass is a bit light though.

    I have covered the LS-50, TAD TSM-2201 and Yamaha NS-10M comprehensively in this Blog.

  3. Thank you John! I will check out your speaker recommendations! Thanks!