Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 Desktop Computer Speakers
Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 Computer Speakers ($499)
British firm B&W has some serious cred in the speaker world. In fact I'd say they are probably one of the most well known higher quality brands among the general non-audiophile public. Ask random folks on the street if they have heard of Wilson, Sonus Faber, Rockport, or Harbeth, and the answer will almost certainly be no. B&W on the other hand, while not quite a household name like Bose, has managed to gain some renown with the Average Joe. On the other end of the scale, they've consistently offered high-end models into the 5-digit price range.
In terms of computer audio, B&W was something of an early entry in the category with their MM-1 ($499) compact speakers which launched in late 2009. At the time this class of speaker was not all that common - the Focal XS ($599) 2.1 system was the main competition, having just launched earlier in the year and being similarly available at an Apple store near you. Audioengine had their A2 and A5 models already on the market by then but they looked decidedly more like traditional speakers and therefore reached for a different audience. And of course there was Bose, Boston Acoustics, Cambridge SoundWorks and some others, but nothing that really stood out to me at the time. Maybe it's a matter of perception but I just didn't see as many folks being interested in this type of thing. Some frugal shoppers turned to budget studio monitors from the likes of KRK and Behringer, which isn't necessarily a bad way to go, but if aesthetics are a concern those are all similarly bulky and bland looking so are not an option for some people. And of course they don't have the hi-fi pedigree of B&W or Focal which may or may not matter to you.
Fast forward a few years and this is now a popular category with lots more options - Paradigm has a few models (Shift and Millenia), Focal has additional offerings, and PSB is getting in on the action as well. Audioengine is more popular than ever and has expanded to offer more than just speakers. I could go on but the bottom line is that people have become more accepting of really compact powered desktop monitors that sell for somewhat high prices. We've also gotten more accustomed to using powered monitors like the Emotiva airmotiv5 so it almost has to be separated into two distinct catagories: those larger models that are somewhat boxy and clearly look like speakers, and those with the looks and/or size to qualify for the dreaded "lifestyle" category.
So why the MM-1, and why now? Three years after its release, B&W still champions the MM-1 as their one and only offering in this category. They clearly have the resources to build a new model whenever they want, so that indicates to me that they still consider it relevant. I wanted to see how well it held up to some of the more recent competition, so here we are.
The MM-1 is a 2.0 system with a compact and aesthetically pleasing design. Each speaker is roughly 7 inches tall, 4 inches wide, and 4 inches deep. Build quality and appearance were clearly prioritized by the design team. Each speaker is covered by a non-removable "sock" of grill-cloth material, similar to Vandersteen or GoldenEar speakers. The silver metallic accents do more than just catch your eye - the right speaker features hidden volume controls and the top section acts as a heat sink for the electronics housed below. Underneath that speaker we find a USB port for connection to a computer, a jack for the outboard switch-mode power supply, and a plug for the umbilical which connects to the left speaker. On the back we find 1/8th inch jacks for the auxiliary input and headphone output.
Though elegantly simple on the outside, these little guys are surprisingly advanced on the inside. Each speaker features a 3 inch Kevlar woofer and a 1 inch metallic dome tweeter. The tweeters are tube loaded using B&W's "Nautilus" technology - a trickle down feature from their higher end speakers. A tapered chamber behind the driver is said to dampen resonance resulting in a more accurate high frequency response. On the larger B&W models the tweeter usually gets mounted outboard, on top of the cabinet, with the Nautilus chamber extending back a good distance. Since the internal space in the MM-1 is so limited, the Nautilus tube actually curves into a U shape in order to maximize the chamber length. Clever.
The right speaker houses all of the electronics. USB input is handled by the multi-function Analog Devices ADAU1761. On-board DSP shapes the signal to compensate for the limited size of the speakers and enclosure. The signal then gets processed by the integrated D/A converter. This same chip doubles as a headphone amplifier with a maximum output of 14mW, and also converts analog signals from the Aux jack to digital - a required step to allow for DSP processing. A 32-bit Atmel microcontroller handles system tasks while a pair of Analog Devices ADAU1592 Class-D chip amps deliver up to 18W per channel to each of the 4 speakers.
USB playback is limited to 16-bit/48kHz. I'm not exactly sure why, as the ADAU1761 should be capable of going as high as 24/96. Perhaps some limitation with the Atmel MCU is holding it back. Whatever the cause, this puts me in the somewhat awkward position of being unable to play B&W's own Society of Sound releases at their native 24-bit/48kHz resolution. Yes, I can reduce the bit depth to 16 with negligible impact on the sound quality, but it still demonstrates a certain lack of foresight by the manufacturer. On the plus side, the MM-1 does work with the iPad via the Camera Connection Kit, a fact that B&W doesn't mention anywhere.