Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3 review: Home theater power bar

Close-up of the Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3's touch controls.

Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3

MSRP $999.00

“The Panorama 3 is a visceral performer with a few missing features.”

Pros

  • Exceptionally powerful
  • Elegant design
  • Amazon Alexa built-in
  • Hi-res audio compatibility
  • Strong low-end bass
  • Stirring performances for movies

Cons

  • Not expandable
  • No HDMI inputs
  • No room correction
  • No height channel adjustments

There’s a cadre of soundbars designed to be full home theater replacements, all starting at around $900. And not only do they support modern surround sound formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, they can also expand via add-on speakers and subwoofers, giving you maximum flexibility in terms of room size, immersion, and investment. They often double as smart speakers too. These include the Sonos Arc ($899), Bose Smart Soundbar 900 ($899), Sony HT-A5000 ($999), and LG SP9YA ($1,000).

Curiously, Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) — a name that’s synonymous with world-class audio — has decided to throw its new Panorama 3 ($999) soundbar into this mix, but without the ability to expand it beyond a single speaker. B&W says this is intentional, as it wants to provide customers with the easiest and simplest setup possible. But has the venerable U.K. brand stripped away too many features in its quest to be plug-and-play? Let’s take a look.

Design

Wide shot of the Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Is there a Bowers & Wilkins “look?” Given that products like the PX7 headphones, Formation wireless speakers, and Nautilus wired speakers look like they were designed by completely different companies, I’m not sure that there is. But if I were to pick a quality that unites them, it would be sophistication, a word that I think describes the Panorama 3 as well. With its tasteful blend of fabric, glass, and plastic, and its low-slung, hexagonal shape, it perfectly straddles the line between stealth and sculpture, fading into the background when you’re focused on your movie, while avoiding the ugly black plastic rectangle look of so many other soundbars.

At 46 inches wide and only 2.5 inches tall, it should have no problem finding a home sitting in front of any TV 50 inches in screen size or larger. Depending on your TV, it might even fit between the legs if they’re positioned at the furthest width. But, as with all soundbars that have up-firing height channel drivers (which the Panorama has), you’ll get better performance if you keep it well forward of the TV.

The Panorama’s greatest weakness is its lack of expandability.

If your TV is wall-mounted, B&W includes a bespoke mounting bracket — a rarity at this price range — which is designed to float the Panorama almost flush to the wall. I didn’t try it, but I did pull off the small rubber gaskets on the back of the soundbar that hide the internal sockets and I was able to insert the corresponding support bars effortlessly — a good sign that it will work as designed.

I confess to being easily impressed by small things and I’m quite a fan of the Panorama’s touch controls. They lay hidden beneath that central glass surface, and automatically illuminate when your hand approaches. Granted, that glass will need frequent cleaning if you use the controls a lot, but that seems like a small price to pay.

Right below the B&W logo on the front face of the speaker is a thin LED strip. Because the Panorama can double as an Amazon Alexa-powered smart speaker, that LED indicator is primarily used for visual feedback when issuing voice commands. The rest of the time, it stays dark.

Connections

Close-up of the Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3's connections.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

I mentioned B&W’s focus on simplicity in the introduction, and nowhere is that more apparent than when you look at the Panorama’s back panel. There, you’ll find an HDMI ARC/eARC port (misleadingly labeled as just “HDMI”), an optical port, an Ethernet port, a USB-C port, and the input for the speaker’s power cable. That might sound like a lot, but it isn’t. The USB-C port is strictly for service, meaning you can’t use it to connect other devices. The Ethernet port is handy for those who have Ethernet cables near their TVs (but the onboard Wi-Fi is more than capable of handling networking tasks). Which leaves the HDMI and optical ports.

Unlike many soundbars that provide an HDMI and an optical port, but then force you to pick just one to use with your equipment (ahem, Sony), you can use both ports on the Panorama. The soundbar will automatically use the port that it detects as having an active signal, but you can force it to switch manually using the Bowers & Wilkins Music app.

B&W hasn’t equipped the Panorama 3 with any kind of room-correction system.

However, the Panorama shares a weakness that is common to all Dolby Atmos soundbars that lack a dedicated HDMI input passthrough port to go along their HDMI ARC/eARC ports: If your TV doesn’t support Dolby Atmos output via HDMI ARC/eARC, you will not be able to get Dolby Atmos sound from the Panorama. You’ll still get pretty great-sounding Dolby Digital 5.1 if your movie or TV show supports it (same as you would via the optical port), but not true Dolby Atmos.

To be clear, B&W isn’t the only company that has made this choice — we’ve seen it on models from Sonos, Bose, and Polk Audio, too.

Setup

Getting the Panorama set up is relatively painless, but it’s a multistep process and you’ll need a phone to do it.

The first step is to download and install the Bowers & Wilkins Music app. When you launch it, you’ll be required to create an account; you can’t use the app without one. From there, the app will walk you through the setup instructions, including plugging the Panorama into power and your preferred TV connection, identifying the soundbar on your Wi-Fi network, and then adding it to a specific room in your home (B&W calls these “spaces”).

Afterward, you can add any streaming services you may be subscribed to that are also supported by the B&W app — I’ll discuss the Panorama’s music capabilities in further detail later.

The overall setup process is quite similar to the ones used by Sonos and Bose, but with one big exception: B&W hasn’t equipped the Panorama 3 with any kind of room-correction system, a big, surprising missing feature on a soundbar of this caliber. Sonos has TruePlay, Bose has its AdaptiQ system, and Sony uses built-in microphones on its Atmos soundbars to measure how sound travels around your space, so that it can make the necessary adjustments. There’s no way to make manual adjustments instead.

When you’re finished with the initial setup, you can use the app to add Amazon Alexa to the Panorama if you choose. It’s entirely optional, but if you own other non-B&W, Alexa-capable speakers, it’s the only way to enable the Panorama as part of a multiroom audio system.

All of the above is the recommended way to set up the Panorama, but deep in the full instructions — which B&W does not include in the box — you’ll find there’s another way to set up the speaker that doesn’t involve the app at all. After initially powering it up, you can press and hold on the multifunction touch control (the icon with the three vertical lines) until the Panorama enters Bluetooth-only mode. At this point, it will function correctly as a TV speaker, and you’ll be able to pair and stream music from Bluetooth devices, but you won’t have access to any Wi-Fi features like AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, or Amazon Alexa. You also won’t be able to use the B&W Music app to change settings like bass or treble, or keep the speaker updated with new software.

Controls

Close-up of the Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3's touch controls.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Controlling the Panorama is simple. But as with the soundbar’s connections, simple is simply another word for “limited.” Without its own dedicated remote control, volume and muting is handled by your TV’s remote. When connected to your TV via HDMI, remote synchronization should happen automatically through the wonders of Consumer Electronics Control (HDMI-CEC), but if you’re using the optical port, you may need to teach the Panorama how to respond to your TV remote’s infrared commands through a learning feature built into the app.

Screenshot of the Bowers & Wilkins Music app for iOS tone controls.The under-glass touch controls give you access to volume up/down, but strangely, there’s no way to mute the volume either from the bar itself or via the B&W Music app. In fact, the app is bereft of many of the audio controls I’ve become accustomed to, like loudness, EQ presets for movie and music modes, 3D upconverting, a night mode for reduced dynamic range, or the ability to boost or lower the level of the height channel drivers. B&W gives you two sliders for bass and treble control, but that’s it.

These could be chalked up as minor annoyances, I suppose, but there’s one missing control that could potentially make you very irritated: An adjustment for TV dialogue synchronization. It’s a bit of an edge case, but some older TVs that use HDMI ARC (as opposed to the newer eARC) can take more time to process the image you see on-screen than they do to output sound to the soundbar. In these cases, the dialogue sound can precede the movement of characters’ lips. Being able to introduce a slight delay on the soundbar can fix this.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out that, much like the Sonos Arc and Bose Smart Soundbar 900, there is no visual indicator on the Panorama 3 for volume level. You’ll have to rely on whatever on-screen feedback your TV provides (or your own ears, I suppose) to know when you’ve successfully bumped the volume up or down, but the only way you’ll know where you are on the soundbar’s own volume scale is to check the B&W Music app.

Not that I consider Amazon Alexa a control per se, but getting it set up on the Panorama was easy and the speaker’s internal mics are extremely sensitive, even picking up voice commands from adjacent rooms.

Sound quality for movies and TV

Close-up of the Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3's height channel driver.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3 is a strong performer with exceptional power. If you want a soundbar that can fill even the biggest of entertainment spaces with sound, this is your speaker. My media room certainly isn’t huge at about 16 feet by 22 feet, but I couldn’t run the Panorama higher than about 50% before I had to back it off — it’s just that loud.

The middle ranges are detailed and the highs are incredibly clear — at times achingly so, verging on harsh. Some sibilance crept in now and then, especially when streaming music, but reducing the treble adjustment helped to keep it at bay.

The built-in subwoofers are no match for dedicated subs, but there’s plenty of low-end oomph and I have yet to audition a single-speaker soundbar that can do much better. Sony’s HT-A7000 is the exception, but it also costs a good bit more.

The Panorama 3 really puts the “theater” in home theater with a truly visceral performance.

Center-channel focus and clarity is very strong and that leads to clear and intelligible dialogue. It bests the Sonos Arc in this area and is a good match for the Bose 900. The same is true for stereo separation when playing two-channel TV audio or music.

When it comes to watching movies and TV shows, whether in Dolby Atmos or not, the Panorama creates a vivid and energetic soundscape, with impressive amounts of detail. Sonically, it casts a large net, and its up-firing height drivers help to create the impression that you’ve got speakers mounted near the ceiling, on either side of your TV. These effects are most pronounced when playing Atmos content.

Wide shot of the Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3 seen next to the Sonos Arc.
Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3 (left) and Sonos Arc. Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

But there are a two caveats. The first has to do with the way the Panorama 3 powers each of its 3.1.2 channels. Because there are no independent level controls for the “.2” height channels, I had to push the speaker to that almost-too-loud 50% level in order to really get the most from Dolby Atmos’ height effects. Movies like Mad Max: Fury Road, Ford v. Ferrari, and No Time To Die all sound great at this volume — the Panorama really puts the “theater” in home theater — with a truly visceral performance. But easing back to more moderate levels (the kind you’ll use most of the time) diminishes the experience dramatically.

There’s a great scene in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, where Duke Leto and his son, Paul, stage a rescue of spice harvesters on the desert planet of Arrakis as their harvesting platform is about to be attacked by a giant sandworm. With the volume cranked, the soundtrack’s drumming beat created fantastic urgency as the worm approaches, and the disembodied voices that Paul hears moved ghostlike around the front of my media room. But the Panorama simply couldn’t maintain the depth and immersion of those effects at lower volumes.

The other caveat is the Panorama’s greatest weakness: Its lack of expandability. B&W says this is by design and the company promotes its simplicity as a strength. But if you find the low-frequency effects lacking, or if you feel those front three channels just aren’t giving you the kind of immersion you expect from a Dolby Atmos system, there’s nothing you can do.

Unlike virtually every other soundbar in this price range, there’s simply no option to add an external subwoofer or satellite surround speakers, be they wired or wireless units.

Sound quality for music

Close-up of the Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3's front with touch controls.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

On paper, the Panorama 3 has everything it needs to be a standout speaker for music. It supports lossless hi-res audio streaming from within the B&W Music app, it includes Apple AirPlay 2 for CD-quality 16-bit/44.1 kHz streaming from Apple products, and it even offers aptX Adaptive compatibility for up to 24-bit/96kHz lossy streaming from Android smartphones that have Qualcomm’s Bluetooth tech. Yes, Chromecast Built-in would have been nice, but given the other specs, it’s not a deal-breaker. On the other hand, I was disappointed at the lack of support for DLNA or any other method for listening to music stored on a local network.

Although the B&W Music app is a far cry from the Sonos app when it comes to music management and streaming, it’s better than many others, and has strong searching and favoriting features. Bowers & Wilkins is doing a good job with supported streaming services: Deezer, Qobuz, Tidal, TuneIn, Last.Fm, Soundcloud, NTS, Dash Radio, QQ Music and Ximalaya are all included today, and B&W says that both Pandora and Amazon Music will be added shortly. When that happens, you’ll have two lossless hi-res streaming options in Qobuz and Amazon Music. There’s also Spotify Connect support, and B&W claims that if Spotify ever makes good on its promise of a hi-fi tier, the Panorama will be ready.

The tuning of the speaker’s high frequencies creates a coldness to the vocals.

Those are the specs. In practice, the Panorama 3 produces accurate, full-range sound, with an EQ that comes very close to the coveted neutral balance that audiophiles crave. I found there were only minor quality differences when streaming from Tidal HiFi within the app over Wi-Fi, or when using Bluetooth with my aptX Adaptive test phone, a Xiaomi 12 Pro. As with most soundbars I’ve tested, you’ll get the absolute best results if you stream your music from your TV over HDMI using either a built-in app on the TV or via a connected streaming device like an Apple TV 4K.

But as good as the Panorama is for music — and it’s loud enough to power a small rave — I prefer the way the competition sounds. The tuning of the speaker’s high frequencies that I mentioned above,creates a coldness to the vocals. The processing also introduces a hollowness that I attribute to the TV-oriented tuning, which sounds like it’s trying to introduce extra depth, but doesn’t quite succeed.

Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3 shown in front of a TV.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The Sonos Arc is warmer and uses its multichannel speaker array to greater effect, and if you like a more neutral EQ, the Bose 900 sounds less processed, and offers an even more expansive soundstage while managing to avoid the Panorama’s chilliness. Meanwhile, Sony’s AT-5000 is a musical Swiss army knife, with tons of format support (Chromecast, AirPlay, hi-res Bluetooth with LDAC, and Sony 360RA) and excellent sound quality. Once again, it’s the Panorama’s lack of settings that hurts it here. The bass and treble controls are effective, but they only go so far.

Our take

I respect Bowers & Wilkins’s desire to make the Panorama 3 a simple and great-sounding turn-key soundbar. It’s beautifully designed, and at the right volume levels, it’s a helluva great home theater speaker. But with no expandability, limited settings, and music reproduction that isn’t as good as its peers, I think most people will be happier with other options in the same price range.

Is there a better alternative?

I’ve yet to find a soundbar at this price that can match the Panorama 3 for sheer power, but as I’ve highlighted throughout this review, these products each have strengths that make them strong alternatives (bullets represent features that the Panorama lacks):

Sonos Arc ($899)

  • 5.0.2-channel processing
  • Alexa or Google assistant
  • Expandable
  • Adjustments for height channels
  • Room calibration
  • Superb multiroom audio support
  • Better overall Dolby Atmos performance
  • DTS compatibility

Bose Smart Soundbar 900 ($899)

  • 5.0.2-channel processing
  • Alexa or Google Assistant
  • Expandable
  • Dedicated remote
  • Adjustments for height channels
  • Room calibration
  • Better for music
  • Chromecast Built-in

Sony HT-A5000 ($998)

  • 5.1.2-channel processing
  • Alexa or Google assistant
  • Expandable
  • Dedicated remote
  • Adjustments for height channels
  • Room calibration
  • DTS:X compatibility
  • Chromecast Built-in
  • HDMI input with 8K/Dolby Vision passthrough

How long will it last?

Given Bowers & Wilkins excellent reputation for building quality products, I expect the Panorama 3 will last as long as you need it to. The one caveat would be if you decide to run it without a network connection, in which case a lack of access to firmware updates may shorten its useful life span. B&W backs the Panorama 3 with a two-year warranty.

Should you buy it?

Yes. If you’re mindful of the Panorama 3’s limitations, and think it will meet your needs, it’s an excellent single-speaker home theater solution for medium-to-large-size media rooms.

Editors’ Recommendations






link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.