Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3 Wireless Soundbar Review
This soundbar may wear the B&W name, but does it have the performance? Michael Darroch decides…
Bowers & Wilkins
Panorama 3 Wireless Soundbar
US$999 (around S$1,450)
While many hi-fi enthusiasts have been looking the other way, manufacturers have been engaged in something of an arms race when it comes to the almost insatiable consumer demand for soundbars. Wireless surround units, ever-increasing channel counts, and sometimes incredibly huge subwoofers blur the lines between where soundbars end and traditional surround systems begin – in size, function, and price. Refreshingly, hi-fi powerhouse Bowers & Wilkins has returned to its roots with the design and connectivity of the latest Panorama 3, all while adding one very important new ingredient…
Anticipating that buyers are likely to be using a smart TV as their hub, the Panorama 3 has only a single eARC HDMI input, along with a backup optical TOSLINK with all input switching being handled by your TV. Music streaming is handled via RJ45, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, with support for Airplay2, Spotify Connect, and a host of other apps connectable through the Bowers & Wilkins Music app. This will let the Panorama 3 integrate into your B&W multi-room setup, with smart capabilities supported through Amazon Alexa. The single eARC HDMI means that there are no arguments over support for HDMI 2.1 needed. Still, it does present an issue for those with an older TV possessing only standard ARC, as you will not be able to take advantage of the Panorama 3’s most significant new feature, Dolby Atmos.
Perhaps the largest departure from the previous-gen Panorama is the inclusion of Dolby’s latest Atmos 3D audio format, along with Dolby’s TrueHD, Digital/plus and also generic LPCM. With a claimed 400 watts on tap, the Panorama 3 sports a total of thirteen drivers in a 3.1.2 Atmos configuration. The main channels are comprised of two 50mm glass-fibre mid-woofers apiece, along with a 19mm titanium-dome tweeter. Bass duties are handled by two top-mounted 100mm drivers (which B&W optimistically refers to as subwoofers), and Atmos duties are served by a further two upfiring 50mm glass-fibre drivers.
On paper, this gives a claimed frequency response of 43Hz to 48kHz and a sense that there is plenty of power available, particularly considering none of those 400 watts are being claimed for a bulky external subwoofer or surround speakers. However, the question will remain whether the extra power and in-built bass drivers can adequately provide the low end without a large diameter external subwoofer unit, which is almost a given in this segment.
Eschewing the curved frontage of the previous models (which, to be fair, could be considered quite dated in 2022), the Panorama 3 features a subtle yet engaging design, with the more traditional rectangle soundbar shape offset by a slight rhomboid profile which helps to keep things unique without being too distracting. The front and sides are pleasantly fabric-wrapped, but the upper surface is adorned with a premium perforated metal finish, which provides a unique visual separation compared to some competitors. Central to the top plate are the illuminated touch controls for multifunction, play/pause, volume and voice-assistant.
There is no remote for the Panorama 3; all control will be done by your TV or through the app – which is one less device to keep track of and replace batteries in. Thankfully this works well for two reasons. The first is that the simplicity of the design is such that once connected via HDMI eARC, there’s no need to make any independent adjustments. The second reason is that the Bowers & Wilkins Music app is perhaps one of the best device apps I have ever used. Setup is a low-complexity task, and the app helpfully guides you through each step in connecting to your network and setting a space so that even the least tech-savvy among us can manage easily.
Once set up, the B&W ecosystem within the app is a very inviting place to act as the hub for your music. Using Tidal as the basis for my experience, I have used just about every app interface now, from HEOS through to Devialet’s app using the same familiar text-heavy and somewhat generic interface. While this is largely true for the B&W Music app as well, once you start getting into the search and library functions, the home area is delightfully much closer to what you might find using Spotify Connect (arguably the benchmark for a music streaming user interface).
Large album art highlights my mixes and recently-played items, which are helpfully supplanted by a selection of Bowers & Wilkins curated playlists ranging from mixes made for the Panorama 3 specifically, along with other B&W products, and hand-picked genre-specific playlists like B&W’s True Sound Movies. I’ve yet to see any manufacturer put this kind of effort into its app environment, and it really struck me as something that brings you into the B&W family, as much as having just purchased a product. Outside of the music, the app allows for volume control, and there is also adjustment for treble and bass. To those of you used to devices and apps with innumerable options for dialogue boosting, sound modes, input selections and so on, there is none of that here. It’s the very definition of plug-and-play.
For TV watching, the Panorama 3 is seamless. There are no HDMI sync issues, resets, handshake misdirections or any of those things that can sometimes make watching TV a trouble-shooting exercise. It just worked; the first time and every time, which is a bonus in these days of increasing complexity of connection formats. Immediately it was obvious that the quality of the output from the Panorama 3 far exceeded that of a standard TV. The clarity and dynamic range improved the dramatic experience of my viewing, but probably most surprising was the ability of the B&W to bend sound around my listening position.
Unlike some soundbars, which reflect sound around the listener using angle-mounted speakers on the sides of the unit, the Panorama 3 does all of this through DSP processing using the forward-firing main left/centre/right channels (with the exception of the upfiring Atmos speakers). Having lived through the heyday of ‘virtual surround’, I am always sceptical of such implementations, but the time-travel scene in Amazon’s The Tomorrow War was a great example of why I need not have worried. Whether it was the electrifying effects of the time portal opening into the football pitch, or the chaos as the conscripted soldiers are mistakenly dropped out of the time-travel portal hundreds of feet above the city skyline, the Panorama3 implements its virtual surround so well that I had to irrationally check that my existing wireless surrounds weren’t somehow outputting sound by mistake.
The benefit of this DSP effect is that although the soundbar is ‘only’ 1,210mm wide, it can project a much wider soundstage. When you add Atmos into this mix, it becomes a surprisingly capable 3D audio performer, considering it all comes from a single unit. Height effects are reproduced admirably through the upfiring drivers, and the lack of adjustability for channel levels or content doesn’t seem to prevent experiencing an engaging presentation. Watching Chris Pratt’s character preparing to travel into the future was a good example. As the tendrils of electricity connect from corner to corner, the sounds fill the room with energy, culminating in the roaring, almost underwater-like whoosh of the opening portal creeping above the listening space. This height presentation peaks as the screams of people being sucked into the time-portal scale well above the screen, convincingly zooming into the ceiling above you. A side effect of a wide dynamic range is that sometimes the action does overtake the dialogue, and this does highlight the lack of adjustability or EQ options to counter this, which has become a staple in other soundbars. It would have been nice to see a dialogue boost option or even a night mode to compress the range to help counter this.
Dynamically, while the well-powered drivers are more than capable of delivering impressive volume, there’s no escaping physics that two 100mm bass drivers, while certainly a step up from your TV, simply cannot deliver the level of bass that you might find in a soundbar with a dedicated subwoofer. This is apparent in the opening car chase from Quantum of Solace. While I was impressed with the level of detail provided to the roaring V12 Aston Martin engine and David Arnold’s dramatic opening score, the surround placement and wide soundstage provided by the Panorama 3, I was left wanting by the lack of depth or punch to the spectacle.
Particular elements, such as the machine gun firing at 007 or the devastating crunch as the police jeep somersaults over the path of Bond’s car, there was a lack of real depth to those sounds. Those of you living in apartments will no doubt be relieved at this, so it’s hardly a true criticism of this product's design, but if strong bass performance is a critical purchase decision for you, this is worth bearing in mind.
Musically, the Panorama 3 proves to be a slightly inconsistent performer. It continues the Bowers & Wilkins tradition of a warmer presentation, with a generally good level of detail available thanks to the splitting of duties across dedicated bass, mid-drivers and tweeters rather than just a single full-range driver. It also helps that a lot that the bass demands of music are generally far more forgiving than a punishing action movie soundtrack, but depending on what you are listening to, the performance of the Panorama 3 can vary from surprisingly strong to adequate, or in some cases, a little disappointing.
Daft Punk’s Around The World from the album Homework was a great example of where B&W got it right when sharing out the power buried in the Panorama 3. The electro-drum beat played straight into the strengths of the 100mm bass drivers, even at hefty volume levels, while the mid-bass and tweeters made simple work of the remaining electronic synth and processed vocals without ever becoming harsh or jarring.
The Eagles’ Hotel California proved agreeable, with the acoustic guitar playing wonderfully into the frequency ranges best represented by the Panorama 3. Still, the tempo-setting tom-toms, followed by the bass guitar and kick drums, lacked weight and didn’t really seem to find their home between the 100mm sub-woofers and the 50mm mid-bass drivers. Thankfully the vocals of Don Henley were able to shine in the sweet spot, but this wasn’t the case for all voice performances.
The opening title song for Quantum of Solace, Alicia Keys & Jack White’s Another Way To Die, began well instrumentally, the warmer character preventing the explosive guitar, brass and percussion from being too harsh on the ears. But as soon as the titular artists began to sing, the delivery of the vocal performance was underwhelming. This continued as we moved on to another modern classic Bond theme, You Know My Name, by the late Chris Cornell. Perhaps one of the greatest male vocalists of recent times, he was reduced to a shadow of himself through the Panorama 3. This inconsistent musical delivery is somewhat challenging to overlook from a company with such strong specialist hi-fi credentials.
Bowers & Wilkins’ new Panorama 3 ticks almost every box that a soundbar in this category should aspire to – it looks great, is easy to set up and use, has wonderful app integration, and has exemplary Atmos and surround performance for a one-piece unit. For those residing in close proximity to neighbours who are looking for a classy, trouble-free improvement for your lounge-room TV viewing and casual music listening, then Panorama 3 should be a great option.
Where it falls slightly short is surprisingly where its pedigree and price-point should hold it strong – its middling musicality. It is perfectly passable and pleasantly enjoyable – but I can’t help but feel there is sadly an unfulfilled promise when listening to music on the Panorama 3 that keeps it from reaching its real potential. Still, it’s well worth hearing it for yourself – being such a good all-rounder, it could be just what you need.
With a 20 year passion for home cinema ensuring he will never be able to afford retirement, Michael’s days involve endless dad-jokes and enjoying the short time before his son is old enough to demand the home theatre becomes a temple to Frozen II.
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