The moniker “USB Speakers” might not inspire confidence in a product, but the name B&W should, and for good reason too. They’re no stranger to top notch sound, so when they bring compact speakers aimed at delivering that quality in a 2.0 desktop form factor you can rest assured that they wont under-perform.
The Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 are just such a compact speaker system, and coming with no subwoofer they rely on the broad range of their drivers to deliver rich, deep bass and all the rest, to boot.
Whilst USB connected, the MM-1 aren’t USB powered; relying on a mains power supply to deliver the juice. This is to be expected, as USB can’t deliver enough grunt to drive a half decent speaker, much less a fully decent one.
USB means that the audio signal to the MM-1 remains isolated from your most-likely-sub-par laptop audio output. The signal remains digital until it reaches the speakers, where it can be cleanly converted without being adversely affected by any noisy components in your computer, poor audio cables, poor jack connections or any of the other faults that can plague lesser PC speakers.
However, if your USB ports are a precious resource, you can opt to use a regular 3.5mm audio input, you can also use this for hooking them to an iPhone in a pinch. But if you want to make the most of these speakers then USB is the way to go.
B&W have chosen an understated design for the MM-1 speakers, with a brushed metal top and a rounded square cross section. They look wonderful next to a 27″ iMac, and the behemoth Apple desktop really exemplifies just how small they are. Volume control and power buttons are hidden on the sides, cunningly disguised as part of the detailing. They also occupy a minimal amount of desk space with a footprint only 10cm square. This compact form factor isn’t without its drawbacks, though. The MM-1 speakers like to get warm, very warm, and thus are best kept on a desk with plenty of clearance for heat dissipation.
In terms of audio performance, I pitted the B&W against a 2.1 audio system, driving both simultaneously using a Composite Audio Device in OSX. Doing this, I could crossfade from one speaker to another and get an idea of how the B&W sound, and how they fill in the deeper sounds without a subwoofer.
The B&W mopped the floor with the 2.1 system, offering a better, more natural and balanced sound and adeptly filling in the bass, producing an understated low-end that didn’t overpower the music at high volumes. It’s safe to say that you get what you pay for, and I’d go so far as to say that the MM-1 are better than other similarly high-end products I’ve tried. Going from memory alone, I feel they sound better than the desktop Eclipse TD307 speakers I tried many moons ago, and they’re much, much more compact too. Whilst driving the competing speakers up to full volume causes horrible bass distortion and noises which could only be described as “farty”, the B&W MM-1 stayed crystal clear, even when boosted to ridiculous volumes.
The lack of a separate subwoofer is a blessing, rather than a curse, and prevents the oft irritating overpowering bass you might experience with 2.1 systems.
I’m a huge fan of ambient noise when working, and when I’m not in the mood for music. The MM-1 speakers did positively magical things with the rainforest ambience tracks I tried with it.
The MM-1 also come with a remote, but I’m going to dismiss it entirely as the battery came flat (I imagine every reviewer before me has used these extremely liberally) and I never got the chance to use it- nor would I ever really bother. It’s aesthetically pleasing, controls volume, play, pause, prev/next, mute and power and feels good in the hand, but its a little cheap and plasticy compared to the solid aluminium beauty of an Apple remote- which will handle most of the mentioned functions. It’s also small enough that it’ll likely be easily lost.
The sheer overwhelming number of 5-star reviews for these speakers in Apple’s online store confirm my findings and bring to the table some far better comparisons than I could make. Ultimately these are widely accepted to be the best speakers you can get for £400 and as a huge fan of beautiful sounding, clean and clear and balance music I’ll be very sad to see them go. I know a mob of audiophiles will probably lynch me for saying this; but you’d be surprised how good mere MP3s can sound.
In conclusion, when you combine their compactness, their stunning sound, their audio-purist friendly USB connectivity and their clean, minimalist and beautiful design I can confidently say that these are the best speakers I’ve tested thus far. Connecting them to a computer with anything other than their USB cable, however, would be an injustice and the remote is certainly something you could leave in the box.