You’ll never realize how much you watch television with your ears until you go beyond the built-in speakers and step up to a top-quality dedicated audio solution like the Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 2. Switching between the factory-issue sound on a high-end Panasonic TV and the B&W system drives home the extraordinary difference. First, you hear sound as flat as the screen itself. Then suddenly you’re immersed in a rainy downpour as you watch the beginning of Ratatouille on Blu-ray. The crazed aerial chase in The Fifth Element is merely interesting, then pulse-pounding. And the B&W’s impact isn’t limited to dramatic viewing. The roar of the crowd at a game generates excitement, the sound of an attacker appearing from behind in a video game startles and musical performances soar.
Combining simplicity in design and setup with stirring audio quality, the Panorama 2 soundbar, from top-tier speaker manufacturer Bowers & Wilkins, is a room-filling solution in a sleek, stylish package. Unlike surround-sound systems with multiple separate speakers, the Panorama 2 is a single unit—roughly 43 inches wide—that can live above or below your TV. Surround-sound effects come from bouncing digitally processed audio off peripheral walls. The most convincing directional audio occurs in a relatively narrow space or from the corner of a room. In a wider space, you get clarity and heft, but not the feeling that a helicopter zooming in on the screen’s right is headed from that side of the room.
B&W dedicated five of its nine custom-designed drivers (two for the midrange, two for bass and its high-frequency tweeter) to the all-important center channel, producing crystal-clear dialogue even in busy, noisy scenes. The Panorama 2 relies on built-in woofers to provide bass reproduction. In a decent-size living room that’s no problem—low-end oomph comes through loud and clear. To make the walls shake, however, use the connection for an external subwoofer.
The new model has three separate HDMI inputs, so you can use the included remote to switch conveniently between your cable box, game system and Blu-ray, for example. If your TV supports ARC (the audio return channel), then sound from the set or anything connected to it will also be routed through the Panorama 2 through the HDMI connection.
The one beef is with the user manual. You get one of those ridiculous textless quick-start guides, while a good user manual hides on the web site, with nothing in the box to point you to it. For audiophile-grade sound this sweet and solid, the $2,200 price tag isn’t outrageous. But for two grand, I should at least get the printed info I need to make the most of my investment.