Though it’s not easy to make speakers that look or sound worthy of premium price points, Bowers & Wilkins has had a far better run than most Apple accessory developers. Starting with its flashy Zeppelin series and continuing in more conventional desktop and all-in-one models, B&W’s speaker lineup has remained at $400 and up for years. So while the average person might consider the new T7 ($350) expensive by portable Bluetooth audio standards, it’s actually B&W’s most affordable Apple speaker yet. But its handsome design is offset by only reasonable sonic performance and limited features, the product of compromises that earlier speakers have addressed in more cost-effective ways.
Fans of Bowers & Wilkins will recall that the company was quick to support Apple’s troubled AirPlay wireless speaker standard, releasing four separate, pricey models when most other companies were launching more affordable Bluetooth alternatives. Rather than just swapping Bluetooth chips into old AirPlay speaker housings, B&W came up with something entirely new for T7 — a highly distinctive industrial design that for the first time is actually portable. Measuring roughly 8.25” wide by 4.4” tall by 2.15” deep at its thickest points, T7 is in the same general size class as the now-$280 Braven 850 and Jawbone’s $300 Big Jambox, though a little smaller; T7 is narrower and thinner than both, but taller. Whereas its rivals have flat faces, T7 looks like a gunmetal speaker box is floating inside a plastic- and metal-reinforced honeycomb frame, with only the slightest hint of the electronic connection between the frame-mounted controls and the audio hardware inside.
T7’s look is its strongest selling point, and we really like the risks B&W took with its new design. But the hexagonal “Micro Matrix” inner frame is there for another purpose — to reduce distortion by holding the speakers firmly in place — and sealed with clear acrylic that neutralizes the hex pattern just enough to make T7 look good in any environment. A fine dot grille pattern reveals three front-firing speakers and one back-firing speaker, the latter next to power, aux, and micro-USB service ports. One slightly elevated power button and four white lights are hidden on the matte rubber-finished right side, while Bluetooth pairing, play/pause, and volume controls are similarly masked on the top alongside a blue pairing indicator. B&W uses a series of gentle but clear chimes to signal power on, off, and successful pairing, eschewing the voices and quake-mimicking vibrations found in many other Bluetooth speakers these days.
What’s missing from T7? Dedicated track controls, for one, though you can double- and triple-tap the play/pause button in Apple remote style to achieve the same effect. More obviously missing are Siri control and speakerphone functionality: T7 doesn’t include a microphone or enable you to use voice commands to scan your library from afar. While the speakerphone performance of rival products is often iffy enough that we don’t consider its loss fatal to T7’s appeal, we would have liked to see B&W get this right given the premium price point. Unless you’re excited by the packed-in wall adapter or variously promised 10- to 18-hour battery life — versus 15 hours on Big Jambox, 20 on Braven 850 — there’s no other frill here. B&W markets T7’s simplicity as a virtue, and in some ways it is, but it’s also lacking extras such as external USB device charging and dual-speaker pairing that the Braven has had for more than a year.
Sonically, T7 is firmly in “good” territory — more impressive for how much sound it packs into its smaller chassis than the overall excellence of its audio. On a positive note, Bowers & Wilkins has built in a respectable total of four audio drivers — twin two-inch glass fiber drivers, plus twin “high-output” bass radiators, as well as two amplifiers and a DSP – but it’s unusually quiet about the power output, beyond to say that it “packs an amazing sonic punch for such a little speaker.” That’s true: in direct comparisons with the Braven 850, the smaller T7 holds its ground, putting out a nearly identical, small room-filling level of sound without any added distortion. T7 also delivers a legitimate stereo field, extending an inch or two beyond each of its edges, and does equally well at low, medium, and high volumes. It is notably capable of playing much louder than the Cambridge Audio Go V2, which is similar in size, though far more plasticky, and only around half the price.
That said, we aren’t in love with T7’s sound signature. While the system offers a nice enough balance of treble, midrange, and bass, with slightly more pronounced mid-treble than the Braven 850, the low end lacks the warmth of similarly-sized portable speakers, and the overall sound is a bit too flat. The use of four drivers that would all be considered medium-sized by portable speaker standards denies T7 the ability to really sparkle in the highs or rumble in the lows. Whereas Jawbone and Braven used thicker, bigger frames to give their speakers extra resonance, T7 tries to do as much in a smaller, more elegantly stiffened container. The result is predictably a compromise, and despite T7’s better high-volume performance than Go V2, Cambridge Audio’s cheaper model offers more pleasantly warm bass. We also noticed occasional, quick mid-song hiccups in the wireless audio signal that were atypical of most Bluetooth speakers we’ve tested.
Overall, though it teeters on the edge of two possible ratings, we would call T7 a “good” speaker, the sort of option you should choose over otherwise similar alternatives if the industrial design really speaks to your personal tastes and you’re willing to pay extra for it. The $350 price tag is modest by Bowers & Wilkins standards but on the high end for portable Bluetooth speakers, with the $50-$70 premium over Braven and Jawbone models primarily coming from the industrial design rather than special sonics, features, or pack-ins. We don’t consider either of those other options to be slouches in the industrial design department, making the choice between their cosmetics a highly personal one; they’re sonically roughly peers, albeit separated by $20 to $50 steps. While T7 isn’t perfect, we like what Bowers & Wilkins has done with its first Bluetooth speaker, and are excited to see what it does in this increasingly important audio category going forward.
Company and Price
Company: Bowers & Wilkins
Compatible: All iPads, iPhones + Bluetooth-Capable iPods