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Equipment Review

October 2001

B&W DM303 Loudspeakers

by Aaron Weiss

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Review Summary
Sound "Grab your ear flaps with their upper midrange," which is "both crystal clear and flatteringly smooth" ; offer "a strong sense of openness to the listening experience"; "determinedly articulate and musical bass, but you may not want to plan a rave around them."
Features Trickle-down design features from B&W's pricier lines, including a tapered tube for venting the tweeter and dimpled Flowport around back.
Use Aaron got the most sound from the DM303s with a Creek integrated amp " known for its warmth."
Value "Matched well with equipment and song, the DM303s offer strong value."

If you speak fast or mumble your words, your non-audiophile friends may just as readily think you’ve claimed purchase of a set of "BMW speakers." While BMW has pretty much stuck to motor cars, B&W has indeed cultivated something of an esteemed reputation among British audiophile brands. Since the late 1960s and early 1970s, B&W has made its mark on the English audio scene, including, of note, the use of Kevlar in its speaker cones. B&W’s strongest ongoing legacy is probably its 801-model line, a studio monitor first introduced in 1979 and widely adopted in professional-audio environments. The 801 was reborn as a Matrix model in 1987 and again as a Nautilus in 1998.

While the Nautilus series has been extremely well regarded among the upper echelon of recent loudspeaker designs, it lies out of reach of most consumers. With the 300 series, B&W looks to be seeking ground in the meaty portion of the market, where more pocketbooks lie.

The DM303

In most respects, the DM303s appear to be conventional stand-mounted speakers. At 13" high, nearly 8" wide, and 9.5" deep, they are of quite average size and weight (11 pounds apiece) for a speaker to be used in a modest two-channel system. B&W also suggests that the DM303s are suitable in a home-theater configuration, although I did not set them up in such capacity -- the DM303s are not magnetically shielded.

Retailing at $300 USD per pair, the DM303s are clearly aimed at the budget audiophile market, competing with modestly priced offerings from Axiom, Paradigm, Athena and Mission. The loudspeakers are available in either maple or black vinyl finish -- the review pair was maple flavored. Build quality of the DM303 could be described as clean and precise, well finished for the price.

A single pair of five-way binding posts on the rear of each speaker, with easily gripped plastic nuts, allows for the usual variety of cable connections. Spacing of the posts should accommodate most terminations, although with thicker cables, the fit may be snug.

Kevlar has become a popular material for high-quality loudspeaker cones because it is both light and strong. B&W argues that these properties of Kevlar reduce standing waves, which can lead to artificial augmentation of the low end and heard as boominess. However, the 6" bass/midrange cone of the DM303 is composed of woven fiberglass rather than Kevlar, for which B&W claims "similar" functioning. Fiberglass is reported to be heavier than Kevlar and presumably helps reduce manufacturing costs for the budget-oriented DM303s.

The DM303's tweeter is a 1" metal-dome design. Trickled down from the Nautilus tweeter is the use of a tapered tube for venting the driver. The B&W argument states that tapered tubes gradually absorbs pressure as it propagates from the rear of the driver to the rear of the cabinet. This supposedly diminishes resonance inside the cabinet that can interfere with the driver itself, leading to unwanted distortions.

The DM303s are vented with what B&W has coined a Flowport, which is a flared rear vent that is dimpled like a golf ball. The dimpling is said to smooth the flow of air as it passes out of the loudspeaker, reducing unwanted chuffing. Beneath the cloth grille, the face of the DM303 is dimpled as well, but B&W offers no particular explanation for this.

Crossed over at 4kHz, the DM303 has a nominal impedence of 8 ohms (minimum 4.3 ohms), recommended power from 25 to 100 watts, and a claimed 88dB sensitivity -- a clue that these loudspeakers may be more comfortable in a quiet parlor than at a block party.

Scenarios

The DM303s took the stage in several different configurations, each without their cloth grilles. Mounted on Osiris Audionics 24" stands, the DM303s were first powered, in a best-case scenario, with the same equipment used for the house reference speakers, ProAc Response 2S: a Marantz CC65SE source into the Audio Harmony TWO harmonic filter, then a Primare A20 integrated amplifier, with DH Labs BL-2 interconnects and Canare 4S8 speaker cabling. The Primare is probably more amplifier than the DM303s would be paired with in a typical environment, and any direct comparison to the ProAcs is without justification considering that they retailed for 12 times the price of the DM303s when available. But this isn’t a competition -- we want to coax out the best qualities of the DM303s and observe how those qualities stand up in more realistic configurations.

The DM303s were also driven by an Arcam DiVA A65 integrated amplifier paired with Arcam’s CD72 CD player as well as a Creek 4330 with the Marantz CC65SE, both with and without the Audio Harmony TWO filter. In these scenarios, the interconnects were Silver Serpents, along with premium speaker cables from BetterCables.com.

Upper cuts

On first listen, the DM303s grab your ear flaps with their upper midrange, especially on string passages such as Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg/Sergio and Odair Assad Fantasy on Dark Eyes [Nonesuch 79505-2]. The violin is smooth -- velvet comes to mind, and so does Velveeta. I wonder if smoothness can or should be infinite -- reality, for instance, is not always so smooth. The DM303s flatter and enrich Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg’s stabbing strings, with an extra dollop of butter that will ultimately be a matter of taste. The flare of Chico Freeman’s tenor sax on Mark Levinson Live Recordings at Red Rose Music Volume One [Red Rose Music RRM 01], "In a Sentimental Mood," puffs whisps towards the ceiling, and I am reminded of an animated sequence with disembodied notes drifting through the air.

The DM303s' upper midrange, both crystal clear and flatteringly smooth, and their ability to articulate natural waveforms roundly lend a strong sense of openness to the listening experience. The DM303s excel at preserving the individuality of a CD's tracks, to whatever extent the recording engineers did the same. The remastered version of Yes’ Fragile [Atlantic 82667] is a rather busy recording, but I never felt claustrophobic with the DM303s playing. Bill Bruford’s drums remained punchy and clear throughout despite the maelstrom often in front of him.

The quirky but accomplished Rheostatics also dish up a busy evening on Introducing Happiness [Sire 61791-2], loaded with dense layers of samples, riffs, one-shot sounds and remarks that haunt both the serious and offbeat contemporary pop-rock tracks. Again the DM303s did not flinch at the chaos. In fact, aside from being a fantastically engaging epic in its own right, Introducing Happiness is a nearly perfect promotional tool for the DM303s, playing on their every strength -- cleanliness, openness, and heavy on the midrange and upper midrange.

But while the DM303s love a clean recording, and despite their flattery for the upper midrange, they do not apologize for the muddy or congested work of overtired or under-schooled engineers. Pearl Jam’s Ten [Sony 47857] has plenty of grungy grit, but its muddiness seeps between the tracks, giving the disc a somewhat constrained and crowded feel. Whereas the ProAcs have the size and muscle to give beefy weight to the grunge, somewhat overcoming the stifling mix, the DM303s aren’t heavy handed enough to rescue this record from itself. Ten is tinny and tight, which may be how its engineers designed it, and it’s what the DM303s deliver.

Replacing the Primare/Marantz combo with the Arcam, we embark on a climb up the frequency range of the DM303s that feels uncrowded and heady, well demonstrated in the Mansun falsetto from Trance Nation, "Wide Open Space (Perfecto Mix)" [Ministry of Sound TNCD1]. This is trance leading up to the pearly gates, and the DM303s beg to provide the wings, so extended is their treble.

For the first many hours, it seems as if everything interesting happens above surface with the DM303s, if not entirely up in the clouds. I recalled coming of age -- something was happening down below, but precisely what was uncertain. Thirty-five seconds into the Mansun track, a depth charge is dropped into the mix -- the kind of sonic boom that, cranked up on the highway, would wake the next county. The DM303s arch their polite eyebrows and turn a deaf ear to the deep assault, as if to shrug in an upper-crust tone, "I simply will not boom; it is just not proper," which is to say that their bass was more a whimper.

Does this realization come because of my exposure to speakers like my ProAcs, which will play lower? Of course. It’s no secret that the DM303s do not go extremely deep: 72Hz at -3dB by B&W’s own literature. This is manifested in what at first seemed to be over-politeness. While the full weight of a double bass reaches below the DM303s' threshold, there’s enough roundness there that the speakers convey the instrument in a satisfying way. The more flat thump of, say, house or electronic music seems to offer less for the DM303s to chew on. With the right associated equipment -- and especially with the Audio Harmony TWO in place -- the DM303s offer determinedly articulate and musical bass, but you may not want to plan a rave around them.

Acting on the hunch that some of the perceived helium may have been the result of ancillary equipment, the DM303s were moved once again from the Arcam components to the Creek 4330, a modestly priced integrated amp known for its warmth. Like a shot of bourbon, the change did the DM303s good, and their stiff upper lips relaxed just a bit. Mark Levinson’s double bass on "Little Dog’s Day," once again from the Red Rose Music sampler, quite clearly had pluck and roundness, despite a sheer but visible veil. Chris Squire’s bass on the classic Yes albums has enough bite to require a leash if not a muzzle, and the melodic bass line that drives the opening passages of "Heart of the Sunrise" on the remastered issue of Fragile is articulated definitively by the DM303s. So is the opening bass slide from the second track on the Barenaked Ladies’ sophomore effort Maybe You Should Drive [Warner Bros. 45709] "Intermittently," which the DM303s doggedly follow on its downward slope.

On the stage

The ProAcs Response 2Ses are relatively large stand-mounted speakers, and they cast a soundstage that's deep and wide, as well as accurate. Switching to the DM303s, the soundstage was like clicking one or two notches back on a camera’s zoom-out dial -- the overall image shrunk about 20%, but the details remained largely in place and intact.

Sara K.’s ditty "History Repeats Itself" on Stereophile Test CD 3 [STPH 006-2] is a veritable diorama. While each of us has our own definition of what a "forward" loudspeaker might sound like, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the DM303s are more forward than laid-back. While not tipping off the front of the stage into our laps, the DM303s re-create a proportional soundstage on which one can imagine the performers scooting closer together a step or two.

From same Stereophile disc, track 10 of soundstage maps and microphone techniques demonstrates with a cowbell that the DM303s seemed roomier side to side, expanding well beyond the horizontal boundaries of the physical cabinets, than front to back. That said, soundstaging and imaging are often two of the more sensitive areas of acoustics, and small differences in listening environments can lead to significant differences in listener experience.

Right system, right material

No one can accuse B&W’s DM303s of being generic. These loudspeakers have character and personality. And like anyone who does, whether they gel with the party depends a lot on the crowd. The DM303s are more light than heat, and thus may pair more successfully with warmer rather than colder amplification and upstream equipment. Details and density do not easily confuse the DM303s from staying focused. These loudspeakers glide and swing across genres, but they are polite enough not to stomp or snort -- which isn’t to say they won’t ever swing low, but they sure prefer the sweet highs.

Many -- indeed, most -- audiophile speakers cost considerably more than the DM303s. But value is always relative, and even at $300, what’s a week’s pay to one person is a nice meal to another. Matched well with equipment and song, the DM303s offer strong value. Matched poorly, no piece of equipment can offer much value.

Of course, different brands vary in nature and value. The DM303s, like many budget speakers, don’t try to do everything right, but focus on strong achievements in chosen areas. Typically, more cash buys fewer compromises, especially in bass and soundstaging. But most speakers at sane prices represent compromises. The question with the DM303s, as with any speakers at (nearly) any price, is how well their compromises map onto your needs and wants as a listener.

...Aaron Weiss
aaron@soundstage.com

B&W Nautilus DM303 Loudspeakers
Price:
$300 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

B&W Loudspeakers of America
54 Concord Street
North Reading, MA 01864-2699

E-mail: marketing@bwspeakers.com
Website: www.bwspeakers.com

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