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The MM-1: The B&W of computer speakers

Bowers & Wilkins new MM-1 is surely an audiophile computer speaker, but is that a good thing?

Bowers & Wilkins staked out its claim as Britain's highest-profile speaker manufacturer long ago, and it's now easily the country's best-selling brand. B&W speakers are favored by audiophiles and grace many of the world's top recording studios.

I recently wrote about B&W'sterrific new headphone, the P5, which was introduced at the same time as the MM-1 computer speaker. They're both extremely handsome designs, and that's something we've come to expect from B&W.

The speakers black cloth grilles and brushed metal trim are indeed tasteful; the shiny black and chrome remote is also pretty slick. The remote controls power, volume, play/pause, and next/previous track selection for iTunes. The speakers make a cute little "plop" sound and the left speaker blue LED flashes when you raise or lower the volume. The MM-1 feels right.

B&W's first computer speaker, the MM-1 Steve Guttenberg

The MM-1 is pretty small; it's 6.7 inches high and 3.9 inches wide and deep; they have a 3-inch woofer and a 1-inch tweeter. The right speaker houses four 18-watt Class D amplifiers, two of which power the left speaker. I noticed the powered speaker's aluminum top panel runs warm to the touch. The USB connection is fed to an "audiophile" quality digital-to-analog converter (DAC) that incorporates equalization to increase the 3-inch woofers bass output.

We can't agree with B&W's "no need to add a subwoofer" claim. Computer speaker systems with high-quality subs, like Altec Lansing's Expressionist Ultra MX6021 PCspeaker-subwoofer system ($199), can produce dramatically more and very high-quality bass. This Altec system is one of the very best I've heard, with great dynamic power and overall clarity. Then again, you can't add a sub to the MM-1, but the wee B&Ws take up a lot less room than the Expressionist Ultra MX6021. As always, size does matter.

Listening to streaming radio with the MM-1s, sitting about 2 feet away from them, was mostly not so pleasant. The streams grit and harshness were all too evident. But there were exceptions, and the MM-1's woofers got a nice workout from WFMU.org's 128k MP3 reggae programming. Bass was deep and punchy, though no match for the mighty Altec sub.

The MM-1 all too clearly revealed marginal sounding MP3's shortcomings, so I mostly played CDs for my MM-1 listening sessions.

The MM-1's bass on the opening organ passages from Philip Glass' "Koyaanisquatsi" CD were fairly deep and clear, without the bloated boom we've heard from a number of computer speakers.

Pure pop from Zooey Deschannel and M. Ward's new "She & Him, Volume Two" CD was punchy and fun. Grizzly Bear's more challenging "Veckatimest" CD had a deeper, more layered mix, with pounding drums, prominent bass lines and vocals bathed in heavy reverberation. The MM-1 presented a very detailed view of the music.

Compared with my reference Audioengine2 speakers ($199) the MM-1 offers significantly clearer sound. Treble is brighter, bass is more potent and better defined. The B&W is a significant step up from Audioengine2s, just the ticket for those looking for a high-resolution computer speaker.

I may be the Audiophiliac, but the MM-1 won't be knocking the Audioengine2s off my desktop anytime soon. Please understand, I truly admire the MM-1 for its transparency and resolution, but for me the Audioengine2's softer, more laid-back sound works like a charm on iffy quality streaming radio and low-bit MP3s. With my hi-fi it's a very different story; there it's all about maximizing resolution from my LPs, SACDs, and DVD-Audios, and I'm 9 feet away from my hi-fi speakers.

One other thing, the MM-1 sounded increasingly strained when I turned the volume way up, if that's a priority for you check out the Expressionist Ultra MX6021 or Audioengine5 speakers.

The press materials that came with the MM-1 list a $499 MSRP.