|Bowers & Wilkins DM303 Loudspeakers|
|Home Theater Loudspeakers Bookshelf/Monitor Loudspeakers|
|Written by Bryan Southard|
|Thursday, 01 November 2001|
When selecting a speaker for your music or home entertainment system, there are so many critical variables to consider including size, aesthetics, price and, lastly but surely not least, performance. Some buyers make their decisions based on looks alone, others select based on performance somewhere near their target price range. Due to the fact that many (or at least spouses of many) prefer not to have their speakers as a visual centerpiece in their living rooms, small speakers are dominant in the AV retail environment. Some hardcore AV enthusiasts are scared away from smaller speakers by their perception bigger is better. There is no denying that bigger speakers can provide more bass and in many cases more dynamics, yet there are advantages to smaller speakers, as smaller cabinets are less expensive to produce. Therefore, the manufacturers can afford to use better materials and or better cabinet bracing. Smaller cabinets tend to interact less and often introduce less sonic coloration due to cabinet resonances – a major sonic issue with dynamic loudspeaker design. Also, speakers that are less visualy obtrusive can provide a more sonically transparent listening experience. To employ the old cliché, "Out of sight is out of mind."
Smaller speakers generally come in two categories, bookshelf and mini-monitors. Bookshelf speakers are typically low-priced mass-market speakers that, as the name states, are typically placed on a shelf and that is it. Mini-monitors, which can cost as much as several thousand dollars are speakers made with performance in mind first. Size and price come in a close second and third.
The B&W DM303’s are the next generation of the acclaimed DM302 mini-monitor. The DM303’s come with a new tube (not to be confused with the tubes that go in a "tube" amp) loaded tweeter, a byproduct of B&W’s flagship Nautilus technology. This damped tapering tube sits behind the tweeter, providing absorption of unwanted radiation, resulting in a more natural high-frequency response. The DM303’s also come with an improved woven glass fiber bass/midrange driver for better mid-to-low-frequency control.
The DM303 measures a mere 13 inches tall, seven-and-three-quarters inches wide and nine-and-one-half inches deep, weighing a scant 11 pounds apiece. It comes in two simulated wood-grain finishes, black ash and maple, and retails for $300 per pair. The basic stats on the DM303’s say they are a two-way rear ported speaker with a rated frequency range of 52Hz to 30kHz.
You will achieve the best performance from any monitor when it is stand-mounted and placed away but not too far from your back wall. The audio law is, the more sturdy and solid the stand, the better the speaker will sound. A good stand is one that is both sturdy to protect your speaker and equally rigid to provide coupling to reduce coloration caused by speaker cabinet resonance. I used the B&W STAV 601’s, which are constructed from steel and have a bottom plate that easily accepts mounting spikes. These stands comes in a black finish and are appropriately matched to the DM303’s and priced at a modest $90 per pair. While not everyone can stand mount their speakers, it is important to note that the B&W’s, with their above-the-box tweeter design, allows for better than average imaging in a more hostile environment, such as a bookcase. As for a ported box, how you would place a speaker like this B&W on a shelf or a bookcase is critical to its performance. Properly decoupling the speakers with store-bought rubber feet is one performance trick. Another concept is to be very conscious of what is on the shelf with the speaker. Try adding books and then removing them until you find the best level of dynamics for your tastes – clearly an inexact science but well worth 30 minutes of experimentation. Also, be sure to remove any loose items that may cause rattling, because these little suckers can really put out some serious physical energy. Blue Tack ($2 per pack at the hardware store) is another good product to use for adhering knickknacks and/or other items to your potential bookshelf speaker environment.
After break-in, set-up, and some detailed positioning, I sat back for some tunes. I loaded in some Greg Brown from his 1996 release, Further In (Red House Records). This recording has great dynamics and a very pure midrange, in which the DM303’s reproduced surprisingly well for a $300 pair of speakers. The 303’s have a solid soundstage, both proportionally and with focus. Soundstaging is always a product of resolution, a well-treated room, good upstream components and positioning. Due to the price range of the DM303’s, I didn’t expect to discuss soundstaging in this review, but was pleasantly surprised.
Next I reached for the music of folk idol Bob Dylan from his 1998 release of the 1965 classic Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia). In the song the incomparable Jimi Hendrix helped make famous, "Like A Rolling Stone," I was greeted by Dylan’s alluring, yet far from virtuoso, guitar and aged gravelly vocals, which the 303’s handled realistically with high-end speaker presence. Dylan’s voice had body and was reasonably liquid. The tambourine had definition and openness, yet was missing the extreme high-frequency information found in very expensive speakers. Remarkably, the 303’s performed quite well and were cohesive for a speaker of this price.
Anxious to see if the 303’s could rock, I showed no mercy, loading the classic rock album AC/DC Back in Black (Atco) and going straight to the anthem title track. I was surprised at the punishing volumes that the 303’s handled without complaint. I had to laugh at one point, as I felt that I was torturing these little guys. The bass was as tight and about as deep as you would expect from such a small speaker. This recording exposed characteristics associated with lower-priced speakers, yet the 303’s continued to perform like speakers costing much more.
Tracy Chapman’s mega-success New Beginning (Elektra Entertainment) made for a good test, as it exposed the 303’s ability to not only handle volume but also dynamic range in their ability to display the extremes between the loudest and quietest information simultaneously. They had good clarity and a surprising amount of low-frequency information. The bass was abundant for a speaker of this size, which held together well even at high volumes. The vocals were very good and are clearly the DM303’s strength, as I found Tracy’s voice to be both liquid and possessing good body.
For theater applications, I recommend the B&W LCR-3 center-channel speaker, which retails for $220 and is the proper match for the DM303’s. For shielding reasons, it is important to use a speaker designed to be used on top of your television, as well as to choose a quality match for your front and surround speakers. B&W also has a complement of subwoofers to match the low-end needs of your system. Clearly, the 303’s aren’t going to shake you to your foundations, but a pair of powered 12-inch woofers sure will.
The DM303 is obviously a mini-monitor that performs at a level greater than its price. I strongly recommend that it be given the best possible opportunity to perform. This means the use of a quality stand, such as the B&W STAV 601, which I used for the review. I was disappointed that the DM303’s do not have apertures that make it possible to screw them into the stands. The stands provided four rubber landings for the speaker. This puts the speaker at risk of being knocked over by an animal or passerby – both a hazard to the speaker and a toddler. Mounting holes would have created a better ground to the stand and a safer mount for the speaker.
The DM303’s performance was unquestionably surprising to me. I did not expect them to provide the opportunity to critique them on as many levels as I have. I expected to discuss the basic sound and packaging, but certainly not soundstaging, vocal liquidity and resolution. The DM303’s sound like speakers costing better than twice their price. They have obvious flaws when compared to much more expensive loudspeakers, but in their prospective price class, they stand out like a supermodel at a Shriners convention. They look good, are solidly built and sound great. They have their flaws but, even when pushed with demanding musical selections on a truly reference-grade music system, the B&W DM303’s held their own. The DM303’s are among the best in their class at $300 per pair. It gives me great satisfaction to find budget products that perform, and the DM303’s are near the top of this list.