Though it's not as recognised for its design aesthetic as Bang and Olufsen, UK firm Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) has been churning out sophisticated speaker designs for years. At the pinnacle of this is the company's insane looking Nautilus, but with products like the Zeppelin and CM speaker range they are beautiful in their own right. But when we first saw the Panorama at CES in January we must say we were a little underwhelmed at its unassuming appearance.
Unlike children, a soundbar is probably better heard and not seen, and so it should be rightly judged on how it sounds first. Is it any good?
Yes, it may look a little plain in the picture above, but it's no less well-made for it. This is a solid piece of work with a metal cabinet seemingly borrowed from the XT series and a black grille. There is a red LED readout on the front, but this stays off most of the time, and so what you'll usually see as the Panorama sits under your TV is a slab of black. The Panorama's grille hides nine separate woofers, including a dedicated centre, and the company's trademark Nautilus tweeter. At the rear of the unit is a Flowport bass port, and the company claims the Panorama's bass response is deep enough as to not require a stand-alone subwoofer.
The unit comes with a pebble remote (which is used to control the main functions) and like the unit itself it is fairly spartan. While it's kind of cute, spending extra money on a universal remote is probably a good choice.
Like Yamaha's Digital Sound Projectors, the Panorama is a soundbar that fires sound beams off your side walls to simulate surround effects. It does this with a series of angled drivers along the length of the unit including a dedicated subwoofer and 1-inch tweeter. Technically, this is a 3.1 system as it includes a centre channel as well.
Unlike its competitors in this price range, the selection of inputs and compatible file formats is fairly limited, and won't be able to take full advantage of Blu-ray movies, for example. It lacks any sort of HDMI input and so won't decode DTS-HD or Dolby TrueHD. However, it will decode Dolby Digital, Dolby PLII, DTS and PCM stereo via its digital inputs. It comes with two optical, a single coax, and two stereo RCA sockets. We would have liked to see a 5.1 analog input, though. Lastly, while B&W claims you don't need one, there is also a provision for a subwoofer out as well.
The Panorama is a "sound" bar only and lacks any video inputs or outputs, and so all of the adjustments are done via the small LED readout. Users can adjust the sound to suit what sort of surfaces or wall types you have (soft, medium and hard), distance from the unit to the listening position, and compensate for any lip sync problems.
If you're someone who likes to keep an eye on the environment as well as your hip pocket then you'll appreciate the Panorama's auto-on feature — the unit will switch on when it detects an incoming signal.
The first thing we noticed when we got this out of the box was how big it is. In fact, it's so long it didn't fit on our TV rack properly and we had to fit the rubber feet to get it to sit underneath our television. That done we opened the manual and started to come unstuck — in order to get the best sound out of the device you need to set it up to suit your room. Unfortunately, it lacks an automated routine and you'll need to use the manual to get it to work. Due to the lack of an OSD you need to press a series of unintuitive buttons on the remote to access the menu. It's a horrible, ugly system and threatens to spoil the whole experience, if the Panorama didn't sound so damned good. To get the best sound you pretty much need to put the unit at the centre of a room equidistant from side walls, as there's no provision in the menus for inputting the unit's distance from each wall.
A good thing to note is that you shouldn't need to set it up again, and the results are pretty spectacular. As with most soundbars, the sound quality of the Panorama is skewed in favour of movies. While some people may miss HD audio decoding and less than that the lack of a 5.1 analog input, thankfully it sounds spectacular with DVDs and the vanilla Dolby soundtracks on Blu-ray discs.
The first thing we plugged in was the Earth Blu-ray, and Patrick Stewart's commanding voice was well-served by the Panorama's centre channel — sound was rich, detailed and enveloping. We tested the system using the excellent Oppo Blu-ray player so we can vouch for the quality of the B&W's electronics because when we let the Panorama decode surround sound instead of the Oppo there was a noticeable improvement in sound quality.
Moving to an action movie like Mission Impossible III was a revelation. The unit handled explosions and splintering glass with gusto ( they're right, you don't need a sub!) and never strayed into harshness — even at full volume. We heard details we'd never heard before; muttered dialogue was finally rendered intelligible by the Panorama. The surround effect was also quite convincing as the remote-controlled aeroplane from the bridge scene sounded like it was actually flying over our heads. There is no comparison between this and a set-up like the (much cheaper) Q Acoustics Q-TV2 — the B&W shows how a home cinema soundbar should sound.
The company claims that this is "the first soundbar for music lovers" and we'd debate this as some of its rivals have been quite musical, but it certainly does have an ear for melody. However, we found that it can be quite choosy about the sort of music it will play. The Panorama loved Nick Cave's Red Right Hand, for example. The bass guitar was deep and controlled, not honky, and the song filled the room.
However, with a complicated song like Battles Atlas the results were a little more confused. The song is quite dense, and the B&W couldn't quite control it. There was a lack of a stereo effect, and listening to it didn't make us want to dance as it should.
One thing we noticed during our tests is that the device has quite a pronounced sweet spot. Off-axis listening can get a little "phasey" and so its best to sit directly in front if you can — though it is possible to off-set this in set-up. Also, in stereo the centre speaker isn't engaged and since the stereo speakers are located at extreme ends of the device it means it can seem like sound is coming out of the ends of a tube instead of directly at you.
Sure, the Panorama has its faults, but it just also happens to be one of the best soundbars available. It's good looking, great sounding and effortlessly cool. In all, it's a solid first-effort from this speaker manufacturer. If it can iron out some of the problems, we look forward to hearing about the Panorama 2 (or should that be Vista?).