So can B&W's Panorama high-end soundbar offering set a new standard for one-box cinemas? There's no denying the convenience of the systems.
Essentially an entire speaker system in one submarine-shaped cabinet, they are designed for wall-mounting underneath your flatscreen TV, with many offering technologies that simulate a 5.1 soundfield.
But while they are certainly practical and increasingly popular, they also usually involve a sonic compromise, and I've found the results are patchy at best.
There are design similarities between the Panorama and B&W's Zeppelin iPod hi-fi – not surprising as the latter was a huge commercial hit for the company, and proved it could turn out tuneful systems as well as studio-grade speakers. The Panorama shares its exquisite engineering, with tapering cabinets and a seductive stainless steel skin.
SPEAKER ARRAY: The Panorama's gorgeous chassis hides nine drivers
It's definitely the most elegant soundbar I've come across, but not the smallest. The unit is elongated to accommodate nine separate drivers and weighs over 14kg. Unlike most products of this type, the subwoofer is built-in and so is the amplification. A type C digital amp drives all five channels at 25W each with another 50W powering the sub.
So what you have is a 5.1 surround sound system, complete with amplification and a neat pebble-shaped remote control to switch audio inputs. You could connect your TV and an iPod to one of the analogue inputs for example, and a Blu-ray player or set-top box to one of the digital inputs.
What you don't get here, however, is any kind of video input, so you can forget about HDMI switching altogether. It would have been useful, but would also have added a whole new level of complexity and price.
PLUGGED IN: The Panorama offers plenty of connections, but a notable lack of HDMI
Without video circuitry, the Panorama is easy to set up. Simply connect your source – in my case a bitstreaming BD deck – and you're ready to rock.
The speaker is designed to sit on a table or fix to a wall via its own bracket; a switch in the menu recalibrates the speaker for each position. You'll need the little remote to do this from the sofa, so don't lose it. There's no onscreen menu, of course, but the Panorama's display is large enough to see what volume level you're on and toggle between stereo, wide and surround sound.
In surround mode, all six channels are active as the Panorama floods the room with crisp sound. The fronts and centre face directly forwards, while the rear speakers mounted on the curve of the speaker use the side and back walls to bounce soundwaves.
With Battlestar Galactica's lively 5.1 mix (Blu-ray, on sale September), I got a good impression of Starbuck's Viper taking off and zooming through space. Without rear speakers the Panorama doesn't quite manage to place the craft behind my head, as a traditional 5.1 setup would – I've yet to meet a soundbar that can – but it does disperse the audio to create a tangible sense of spatial depth.
What sets the Panorama apart from its rivals is its refreshing clarity and impressive separation. With all those drive units huddled like peas in a pod, the sound could become muddled and compressed, but here it can really sing.
Switching into stereo mode cuts out all but the front left and right channels and delivers a tuneful performance with two-channel material, and it still projects well into the room. Its dispersive nature means there's a wide sweet spot, so you won't lose the stereo image when you cross the room.
You can enhance the dialogue channel if necessary, but there's no real need – voices, effects and music all sound distinct in the mix and propel well into the room. You can also make basic adjustments to the tone to suit a space with hard surfaces or soft furnishings, which does make quite a difference.
And the diminutive subwoofers are remarkably effective. I found myself dialling the level down more often than up, but it's nice to find a low frequency extension lurking in such a slim cabinet.
Despite the paucity of features (did I mention there's no radio tuner or iPod dock, or HD audio support?) Bowers & Wilkins' Panorama is a formidable soundbar debutante. I suspect it'll sell by the truckload.
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