Bowers & Wilkins M-1 Mini Theater 20 Speaker System 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Speaker Systems
Written by Tim Hart   
Monday, 01 May 2006

Ever since HDTVs started working with Richard Simmons and eating a healthy diet, their significant others (high-performance speakers) have been forced to follow suit. Before you break out the drywall saw to bury some in-walls in your 2x4s, B&W has a creative new loudspeaker system that has audiophile soul and, as James Brown would say, are “super bad” (“bad” meaning “good” in this case).

The Mini Theater concept from Bowers and Wilkins comes in three different configurations, depending on the level of subwoofer in the package. Each of the three levels uses the same identical complement of five identical M-1 speakers. The MT-10 package is mated to the 85-watt AS1 subwoofer at $1,250 for the package. The MT-20 utilizes the 150-watt AS2 at $1,499 (which B&W sent for review), while the MT-30 that sports B&W’s much-heralded 500-watt PV1 at a cost of $2,500 for the 5.1 package.

The M-1 speakers priced at $200 each are a curvy two-way vented design, nine-and-five-eighths inches tall, four-and-one-half inches wide, and six-and-thirteen-sixteenths deep, weighing a mere six pounds apiece. The rated frequency response is 80 Hz - 23 kHz, with a sensitivity of 85dB, meaning that this speaker’s load is not the easiest to drive. The M-1s have a max power rating of 100 watts into eight ohms.

The M-1’s solid-feeling enclosure comes in three different colors: black, white or silver (the color of the review system). The aluminum housing and the glass-filled ABS front baffle makes for a very rigid and damped enclosure. Although the M-1 does borrow from the new 800 series by implementing the Nautilus tube loading for damping and neodymium magnets employed in the higher-end products, the one-inch metal dome tweeter and four-inch glass fiber midrange drivers were specifically designed for the M-1.

The M-1 tweeter enjoys some of the refinements made during the development of the reference-level 800 series speakers. The four kHz crossover network is actually just one carefully selected component. This approach demands that the rest of the design be most exacting in its execution.

The AS2 subwoofer, which has a 10-inch mica cone driver residing in a sealed enclosure, employs active design. The AS2 comes in both black and silver. This 34-pound mighty mite is twelve-and-three-quarters inches high, twelve-and-three-quarters inches in width and fifteen-and-a-half inches deep, powered by a 150-watt class-B amplifier that allows the AS2 to have a frequency response of 32Hz-125Hz. The controls for phase, crossover frequency, EQ, volume and mode are brilliantly located on top of the AS2 in a recessed panel that is out of sight, yet gives you the access that we all yearn for, all the while keeping the top surface from looking cluttered. This location makes sense in avoiding that annoying need to do handstands while adjusting the controls of a subwoofer.

The AS2 provides a single knob with three EQ settings that can adjust the response of the sub to your room’s modes, a crossover frequency knob that spans 20Hz to 140Hz at -6dB, volume, a simple two-position +/- phase adjustment and a mode switch that powers the AS2 on or puts it in standby or auto, which will turn the sub on once a signal is detected.

B&W takes great interest in the design details of their products, whether you are talking about their M-1s or $20,000 reference-level loudspeakers. Small details are well thought-out and executed. For instance, the speaker terminals are hidden by virtue of utilizing the vertical support of the M-1 as conductor for both speaker connections. The actual speaker cable connection is made within the stylish chrome-plated base. Removing the rubber foot of the base exposes the terminals themselves. Removing the rubber foot reveals an inset that captures two differently-sized Allen wrenches, one for the speaker terminals and one for the removal of the base for either a wall bracket or stand.

B&W provided four stands ($250 per pair) that came with the Mini Theater 20. These are also notable. Standing thirty-seven-and-three-quarters inches tall, each one consists of a ten-inch diameter by three-eighths-of-an-inch-thick powder-coated base, a powder-coated hollow aluminum extrusion that is elliptical in cross-section and a series of plastic molded parts that fit around the stem of the M-1 like a glove, so that the speaker wires are totally enclosed and out of sight until they exit at the back of the base. Attention to detail took this product to the next level, something that B&W does better than anybody.

For this review, I used my Denon DVD-2900 universal player, the Anthem AVM 30 preamp/processor, and the Aragon 2007 seven-channel amplifier. I set the M-1 to be used as a center channel speaker on top of my Sony TV, the two front M-1s on their respective stands about three feet to either side of the TV, the AS2 behind the TV and the remaining M-1s behind and to the sides of the listening position, which is about 11 feet from the TV. I ran the AS2 in line level mode, so that it bypassed the internal crossover, and utilized the crossover setting in the AVM 30.

If you don’t have a preamp/processor, you can run your speaker wires from a receiver to the speaker terminals on the AS2 and then to the M-1s to benefit from the on-board crossover of the AS2. I set the speaker size to large and the crossover at about 85Hz. I set the distances and level-matched the speakers at 80dB SPL. After getting the phase setting to my liking, it was time to rock.

Music and Movies
The M-1s are surprising in their ability to sound bigger than they are, not so much in how loud they play, but in the tonal accuracy and nearly full-range presentation. They lean towards the warm side and have a nice midrange that quickly seduces you. The M-1’s worked well with the AS2. I set the crossover a hair into the lower range of the M-1s and was pleased with the outcome. The AS2 gave a nice bottom-end accompaniment and didn’t sound bloomy or plodding.

The speed of the AS2 kept up well with the M-1s, which was readily apparent on Aerosmith’s classic album Rocks (Columbia Records). “Combination” has an ample supply of Joe Perry power chords that extend down into the AS2’s range, lending more body and resonance than any other small satellite systems that have passed through my room. The AS2 exhibited speed and agility in keeping pace with the music and was always in step with the M-1s. The M-1s’ soundstage was pleasantly focused and slightly laid back. Cymbals had a nice ring and shimmer that didn’t sound harsh or edgy in any way, a trait that plagues many mini-theater surround packages. Probably the most impressive attribute with this MT-20 system was the absence of spectral gap between lower frequencies of the sub and the satellites. It is often difficult for these systems to span the gap between a large driver and a smaller one. No such issues for the B&W MT-20 system. “Sick as a Dog” highlighted this ability in the MT-20 system, providing authority, tangible transients and notable body to the guitar riffs. The system did falter a slightly at higher volumes, becoming slightly congested. However, this occurred at volumes that few would even expect this speaker to achieve.

The MT-20 Theater System can render a detailed multi-channel experience that is engaging and enjoyable. If a speaker system is not providing this attribute, then everything else is just technical window dressing. This was quite apparent when I listened to the DVD-Audio of Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit Records). This collection of Cuban songs was performed by a group of very talented musicians, who Ry Cooder played with and produced. I was captivated by the rich textures of the acoustic guitars and vocals when I first heard this on my ultra-high-priced reference system and was pleasantly surprised to hear a lot of the same characteristics with the MT-20 Mini Theater System. “El Cuarto de Tula” has a nice roomy sound to it that was believably conveyed, highlighting the ambience and vocal sibilance. Vocal harmonies also sounded agile and detailed on “Pueblo Huevo.” The guitar work by Ry Cooder was truly captivating. The MT-20 system brought out the body of the guitar and resonance of the plucked strings incredibly for their size.

Concert videos, in my opinion, should be played loud. Aren’t rock concerts themselves relatively loud? Rush certainly is, and their latest DVD R30 (Anthem), recorded on tour in Frankfurt, Germany, begs for volume and your listening attention. A boilerplate test if ever there was one, this is a must-own DVD for the clarity of both video and audio, the audio undoubtedly the best live recording captured of the band. The instruments are distinctive and detailed on “Earthshine,” which highlights Alex Lifeson’s atmospheric guitar riffs and Geddy Lees’ blistering bass runs, along with Neil Peart’s drumming virtuosity. The MT-20 system did a better job than I expected, sounding clear and resolute throughout. The MT-20 Mini Theater System seemed to find its legs better with this 5.1 material, playing a little louder before starting to sound overdriven. “Red Barchetta” took the M-1s and AS2 for a ride, musically twisting and turning through the myriad gyrations these accomplished musicians can create. Synth bass notes were carried well by the AS2, with fleshed-out lower guitar notes and a nice visceral slam on parts of the drums that belie the size of the speakers playing the music.

“Serenity” (Universal Studios Home Video) offered the MT-20 system a chance to display its finesse during the reentry of the title spaceship Serenity in an early sequence. The ship is groaning, popping and screeching from all channels. The detail was carried off well enough that you felt you could be in the cargo hold with the rest of the crew trying to get planet-side. The MT-20 stepped it up a notch on this movie by playing louder, yet without duress. It would appear that this is the best format for the set-up. Transients were more pronounced, and low-frequency hums, groans of twisted metal and explosions were definitely more enthralling. Speaker voicing worked well through all channels and deftly handed off information from speaker to speaker. The fight scene in the bar where River (Summer Glau) goes berserk allows the MT-20 to capture the sound of objects flying across the room, which travel from speaker to speaker, displaying the agility of the system.

“War of the Worlds” (Paramount Home Entertainment) offers some great low-frequency information when Tom Cruise’s character witnesses the emergence of one of the tripod machines in the center of town. The AS2 did a credible job of sorting the crumbling asphalt, the deep felt-more-than-heard rumble and the crashing of the buildings with more composure than expected. The transient cracks made by splitting wood and the sound of alarms made for a pleasant movie-watching experience. The M-1s displayed much better authority in this arena, as the earlier noted congestion either didn’t exhibit itself or the material itself masked some of this minor behavior.

The Downside
As great as this mini package performed, it does have limitations. If you want crack-the-paint-from-the-ceiling dynamics that can physically move the extra fabric of your baggy jeans, the Mini Theater 20 won’t get it done for you. This is no fault of the system itself. There are simply limitations to a package of this size, so these speakers are best suited for smaller to mid-sized rooms. B&W has other systems that are more suited to larger rooms.

The stands B&W supplied are, in my opinion, quite necessary to get the best performance from the M-1. Putting the M-1 on a shelf or a tabletop that is too close to the wall will affect the performance dramatically. Plan on the reasonable extra cost and you will be duly rewarded.

At this price range, there isn’t a speaker that has come through my room that can touch the M-1’s performance, engineering and the fit and finish of the Mini Theater 20 for the cost. The well-balanced demeanor of the M-1s and the seamless blending with the AS2 produced a nice, almost full-range presentation. Music sounded engaging and enjoyable and movies are where this package really shines. There were places, mainly on extremely loud music, where the M-1s displayed some very minor duress, but movies seemed to be a better match and performed admirably. The aesthetics are modern and classy, and the small footprint will reward the listener with a big sound that will blend with most décor. Looking for something that will match that new flat-screen TV? This could be your ticket. This speaker package is an absolute eye-opener. I clearly didn’t expect this much performance from such a small speaker and was happily surprised. I would highly recommend these speakers.
Manufacturer Bowers & Wilkins
Model M-1 Mini Theater 20 Speaker System
Reviewer Tim Hart

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