Pros: excellent imaging; remarkable clarity; tight, punchy bass; high quality connectors; real wood veneer; very attractive
Cons: probably can't reproduce the bottom octave (20 to 40 hz) due to their small size
Bowers and Wilkins (B&W) Matrix 1 Series 2 loudspeakers are small, attractive "bookshelf" speakers designed to function as main speakers in a high quality stereo system. I'm not sure exactly when they came out, but they're not true "vintage" speakers like Dynaco A-25s or KLH 6s. My hunch is that they're from the early 1990s. The cabinets are internally braced with B&Ws "matrix" technology, which is designed to provide an unusually high degree of cabinet rigidity and reduce unwanted vibrations. The drivers also appear to be fairly modern and high-quality. The tweeter is a small dome (I think I read somewhere that it's a metal dome), and the woofer is an 8" unit with a rubber surround and an actual radiating area of 5 1/2" or so.
The B&W Matrix 1 Series 2s are extremely nice looking little speakers. They measure 18" tall, 9 1/8" wide, and 12 1/2" deep, giving them an overall cabinet volume roughly equivalent to that of my beloved Dynaco A-25s. The B&W's cabinets are finished in high quality veneer (the ones I'm refinishing appear to be walnut, but I believe other finishes were available) and come with a nice-looking dark grille cloth screens on dark frames that snap on and off easily. On the back are four high quality binding posts that accept bare speaker wire or banana plugs. It appears that the B&Ws are set up for bi-amping or bi-wiring if desired, but I did not use this feature. They weigh about 20 lbs each.
Setting up the B&W Matrix 1 Series 2s was a breeze due to their small size and easy-to-use connectors. The first thing I did was run a B&W Matrix 1 Series 2 on the left and a Dynaco A-25 on the right to get an idea of the B&Ws' sensitivity. The first thing I noticed was not about sensitivity at all; I was struck by how similar the overall tonal balance was between the B&Ws and my (Solen-recapped) Dynaco A-25s. I was listening to KCSM (the local jazz station) in mono, so I was able to walk from one speaker to the other, at a distance of about 8 feet, and see how they sounded different. Instead, I noticed how similar they were. Both sounded clean and accurate, with no real peaks or valleys in their frequency response. After awhile, I noticed that the B&Ws sounded a bit "tighter" and perhaps a little more clear, but the similarities outweighed the differences. Both sounded more neutral and less warm then my KLH 6s, as well as a pair of KLH 17s I was working on at the same time.
When I finally zeroed in on volume level, I could hear that the B&Ws were slightly less sensitive than my Dynacos. The Dynacos are rated at 88 or 89 db (1 watt at 1 meter), and I guessed the sensitivity of the B&Ws to be 86 or 87. I think 86 is the actual rated sensitivity of these speakers.
After more extended listening, both in mono (KDFC) and stereo (Keith Jarrett, Greg Brown, etc.), I came to realize that the B&Ws are a bit clearer and cleaner than re-capped 1971 Dynaco A-25s, and that they're also a bit brighter, though I wouldn't really describe them as bright. They sound like what would happen if a pair of Dynaco A-25s and A/D/S 400s mated and had a baby.
I also noticed, once I had a stero pair going, that the B&W Matrix 1 Series 2s throw a large soundstage, with instruments well-presented in space, and a lot of air around individual instruments. Their bass was very tight and realistic, though I doubt they go very deep. Upright bass guitars sounded really good, well-located in space, and with good "throng" that could be felt in my gut. But it wasn't exaggerated or overly warm. It just sounded real.
On both KDFC and well-recorded CDs of the Keith Jarrett Trio, cymbals were more prominent than with KLH 6s or Dynaco A-25s, and they sounded really clean and clear as well. Piano had just the right amount of "pling" and sounded really clear through the B&Ws. I also noticed that "micro-dynamics" within jazz music were really well presented. Things like snare drum rim shots and hard versus soft drum hits were easy to hear.
It was on Greg Brown's Covenant CD that the B&Ws did something interesting better than any other speakers I've had in my system. Greg Brown is an Iowa folkie who sings in a deep and gravely but clear voice, often backed by just a couple of guitars and bass. On some speakers, Brown's voice can sound a little diffuse. On others, it sounds just a bit grainy. Through the B&Ws, it was dead center, full, tight, and grain-free. I don't know if it's the drivers, the matrix enclosure, or voodoo, but the B&Ws did a really good job on this CD. With well-recorded female vocals, like Diana Krall's When I Look in Your Eyes, I noticed the same thing. The B&Ws presented a well-defined center image, and they sounded extremely clear without being edgy.
On classical music (on KDFC, the local classical station, in stereo) the B&Ws sounded really expansive, with the sound presented well behind the plane of the speakers. Piano and orchestra (Beethoven's Emporor Concerto, as I write) sounded really well-balanced and realistic. There was little or no compression on orchestral crescendos at moderate volumes, just a really nice sense of space and separation of instruments.
If I had to offer a criticism of the B&W Matrix 1 Series 2s, it would be that they're a tad lacking in warmth compared to what I'm used to. But that may be a reflection of my personal tastes rather than an issue with the speakers.
To put things in perspective, I would much prefer these speakers to anything I've heard by JBL (except maybe L-300s), and I think I like them better than Paradigm's well-reviewed Studio 20s. I would also rather have these as my main speakers than the impressively dynamic ADS 810s I reviewed a few months ago. Readers of my reviews know I enjoy Kloss-designed classics like KLH 6s and New Large Advents. If I already had a pair of Kloss-designed speakers in my collecton, I'd probably opt for a pair of these over yet another Kloss-designed pair.
After I wrote the above text, I did a little experiment. I switched from the B&Ws back to a really nice pair of KLH 17s that I had re-capped with high quality Solen capacitors. I wanted to see whether I'd be l relieved to have the KLH's vintage syrupy warmth back in my system, or if I'd miss the B&W's accuracy and clarity. The results, of course, were different from what I expected. Still listening to classical music on KDFC, I didn't initially notice that much more warmth through the KLHs, nor did I notice a lack of clarity. What I noticed was that the well-defined soundstage that the B&Ws threw was greatly reduced. The KLHs placed the instruments behind the plane of the speakers, but I could not "hear into" the orchestra like I could with the B&Ws. After more extended listening, I did notice that individual instruments (a harp solo is playing as I write) didn't sound as airy and realistic through the KLHs, though they sounded quite good. Switching to the Greg Brown CD mentioned above, the KLHs are surprisingly good at not sounding diffuse or grainy, but Brown's voice is not quite as clearly presented in space. It's just...there.
Although I listened to the B&W Matrix 1 Series 2s only through my system (see below), my hunch is that they are the kind of speakers that are best served by quality electronics. They are not "ruthlessly revealing," but they are reavealing enough that they probably wouldn't sound that great if driven by cheap '80s (or later) CD players and receivers. They're probably also best served by placing them on stands. Place them deep within a bookshelf and some of their imaging magic will disappear. I found myself wondering, before I sent them back to their owner, how these speakers would compare in terms of imaging and soundstage to Spica TC-50s, which are among the best imaging speakers I've heard. What's impressive about the little B&Ws is that they compete with the Spicas in the imaging department, plus they can play bass at reasonable levels without blowing up.
Overall, I think the B&W Matrix 1 Series 2s are excellent speakers. They are tonally neutral, image beautifully, and have tight, accurate bass--an easy 5 star rating. I'm not sure what they cost in the early '90. I've been told everything from $600/pair up to $1600/pair. A friend just looked them up on a site he uses to find vintage speaker prices and it said they retailed for $1200/pair in the early 1990s, so that's what I'll go with. Today, I'm told that pairs sell on eBay for $250 to $400/pair.
The system used in this review consisted of the following: NAD 521BEE CD player, AR ES-1 turntable with Shure M97xE cartridge, conrad-johnson MF-80 power amplifier, NAD 1020 preamplifier, and an M&K V-2B subwoofer