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Bowers & Wilkins A7 review

AudioReviews
8/10
by Tim Gideon, 06 Dec 2012Reviews
Bowers & Wilkins A7 review

Not everyone has the budget for the iconic Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air, but what if you do, and simply lack the space for the horizontal behemoth in your living room? Fear not – B&W has just the thing. The new A7 retails at £699 and exceeds the Zeppelin Air in price, but comes in a more traditional style speaker shape, like its more affordable sibling which we recently reviewed, the Bowers & Wilkins A5.

Both the A7 and A5 stream wireless audio via Apple's AirPlay, and they look quite similar. The main difference is their size and power: The A7 is bigger, bulkier, and packs more of a wallop, but it also delivers a better audio experience. At moderate volumes, the A7 delivers detailed, crystal clear audio with a rich bass response, though its digital signal processing (DSP) will irk some audio purists. Regardless, the A7 is a top-notch system, if you can afford it.

Design

There's not much difference, visually, between the A5 and A7 except for size – the A7 dwarfs the A5, measuring 360 x 160 x 220mm (WxDxH) and weighing 5.7kg. The black speaker grille cloth matched with brushed metallic accents is identical, as is the minimal use of buttons along the central metallic band. The left side of the band houses the power/source button, although it's less of a button and more just an area on the band which you can tap. The same is true of the volume controls on the right side of the band.

The rear panel houses the bass port through which excess air created by speaker driver movement travels – this helps improve driver performance and overall bass response. Just beneath the port, there's a connection for the included power adapter, a 3.5mm Aux input, a reset pinhole button, a USB connection (for connected playback from Macs and PCs), and an Ethernet port for direct connection to a router.

Behind the grille cloth, a powerful array of drivers does the dirty work. The A7 has two 25 Watt tweeters, two 25 Watt midrange drivers, and a single 50 Watt internal subwoofer.

Bowers & Wilkins includes the same oval-shaped remote control (pictured right) that has accompanied all of its speaker systems from the outset. Visually, it matches up with the minimalist cool of the A7 quite well, but the remote can be awkward to operate because of its shape. It lacks full menu navigation (which shouldn't be the case on a system this expensive), and the battery compartment can be tough to access. Regardless, it works, with controls for power, track navigation, play/pause, volume, and switching the audio source, but you'll most often find yourself just using the iOS device itself to control things.

Setting up wireless Airplay streaming on the A7 is simple once you've downloaded the free Bowers & Wilkins app, but you'll need access to a Wi-Fi network (and the password) to get things going.

Performance

The A7 is quite powerful. It can get far louder than the A5, which allows its DSP to kick in at lower volumes and in far more noticeable ways. The A7 is also armed with DSP, which helps keep its drivers from distorting on deep bass tracks at high volumes, but its implementation is more subtle and shapes the sound less at top volumes. There is a trade-off, though: The DSP changes the overall balance of the mix at very high volumes, limiting the bass frequencies significantly and changing the dynamics of the mix.

On tracks like the Knife's "Silent Shout," it almost sounds like distortion at top volumes, but it's really the sound of the DSP preventing the subwoofer from buzzing and crackling. Dialling the volume back a bit reveals a solid amount of bass, without things going overboard. The A7 is by no means bass deficient, but its sub is not tuned to overkill, as is the case, one could argue, with the Beats by Dr. Dre Beatbox.

On classical tracks like John Adams' "The Chairman Dances," the lows are rich and imbue the lower register strings and percussion with a pleasant bass response that has depth but doesn't suffer from exaggeration.

The high-mids steal the show, however – higher register strings take centre stage, while the wooden percussion sits slightly behind them in the mix. The result is a crisp sound, but not one that is overly bright.

The A7 seems to do its best work with pop music, be it hip hop, rock, singer-songwriter, or R&B – the rich-but-refined bass response makes electric bass parts and rock drum kits sound amazing. The opening to "There There" by Radiohead features a crisp attack on the tom drums, rounded out by pleasant low-end sustain and a full-bodied bass line.

On Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild," the attack of the kick drum loop has a bit less high-end punch than you might hear on a more tweaked system, but it's in no way muddy, and the sub-bass synth hits are delivered with a subtle thump rather than an overpowering boom.

This is a system that favours clarity in the midrange frequencies above all else, which means vocals, guitars, most stringed instruments, and mid-range percussion sound the most upfront. The subwoofer does a nice balancing act, delivering the low frequency content cleanly and gracefully. The same can be said for the tweeters, which never sound harsh.

If £700 is out of your price range, there are, thankfully, less expensive AirPlay options, though none of the quality systems are terribly affordable. For example, the Klipsch Gallery G-17 Air offers a balanced, powerful audio performance with no distortion on deep bass, but it can't match the A7's power. The JBL OnBeat Xtreme is not an AirPlay dock, but streams wireless audio via Bluetooth and includes a physical dock for iOS devices – something lacking on the A7 and A5. It's not as powerful, but still provides a quality audio performance, and you can now purchase it for £250, a relatively cheap asking price.

Verdict

The A7 is undoubtedly pricey, but even given that outlay, it doesn't disappoint. Audio performance at normal listening levels is excellent, the design is simple and classy, the setup process is super-easy, and it can get louder than just about any AirPlay dock we've tested without distorting. If it's in your budget, you won't be disappointed.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Product

Bowers & Wilkins A7

Wireless Remote Control

Yes

Separate subwoofer

No

Power Rating (Speakers)

4 x 25 Watts RMS

AirPlay

Yes

Bluetooth

No

Channels

2.1

Power Rating (Subwoofer)

50 Watts RMS

Physical Dock

No

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