Weird New Pop, Vol.8: Meaningful Similarities and Differences

Photos: Stephen Mejias. Design: Todd Steponick, Nice Looking Designs

Track 41
If you listen for similarities between superficially disparate musical forms—hard bop and doom metal, for instance, or even noise and pop—you might be surprised by how suddenly you hear them. If you listen only for differences, you'll find those, too, of course.

I prefer listening for the similarities. While differences are often obvious, expected, and offer little to no lasting value, similarities can be deeply satisfying, illuminating, and fun.

It might seem that my taste in music is senseless, capricious, or just plain weird—and all of that might be accurate—but I strongly prefer to think that I enjoy all of the same music you enjoy, and possibly more.

Track 42
Introduced way, way back in the simpler days of 2009 and released shortly thereafter, B&W's two-way MM-1 powered desktop loudspeakers house a 1" tube-loaded tweeter and a surprisingly capable 3" woofer in a cylindrical enclosure that measures just 6.7" H x 3.9" W x 3.9" D. Although not much smaller than my PSB Alpha PS1s, the B&Ws' size and shape require significantly less space on my crowded desktop. And, unlike the beautiful PSBs, whose high-gloss piano-black finish collects dust and smudges like I collect records and books—that is, impressively but irresponsibly—the B&Ws, with their black-cloth outer wrap and brushed-aluminum details, are almost immune to such cosmetic annoyances.

Every aspect of the MM1s' physical appearance and industrial design seems purposeful and considered. Left and right channels are labeled as such with discreet laser etchings atop vertical aluminum strips along the speakers' backs. Near the bottom, where aluminum strip meets rubberized base, a small indentation accommodates the necessary cables (speaker, power, and signal) to satisfy the expectations of most consumers: all wires are neatly tucked away and out of sight—another nod to those who either lack space or crave more of it. The right-channel speaker contains the system's electronics—B&W's Digital Signal Processing (DSP), a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), digital amplification—and, on its rear panel, hides a 3.5mm Aux input and headphone output. The MM-1s also come with a small, egg-shaped remote that can be used to power the system, set volume, and control playback.

A product's features, if successfully incorporated, can tell a story about its designer's goals, its target audience, and, of course, the ways in which it can and should be used.

Track 43
Wayne Street, between Varick and Jersey Avenue, in Jersey City, is a notably quiet stretch of cinnamon-colored row houses and handsome trees, mostly oaks and maples. In the autumn, in the early morning, before the brooms have come out to play, the sidewalk is covered in leaves that crunch happily beneath your feet. On some short segments of sidewalk, the leaves have been so thoroughly trodden that their remains resemble dirt or sand. Above, the gentle sun slips easily through almost-bare branches and a sudden wind sends dozens of red and yellow memories spiraling to the ground, impossible to catch or comprehend.

How is it that this dizzying performance happens just now as I pass through? I feel fortunate to live in a place where such simple, everyday beauty can be absolutely startling.

I watch and feel full and think it's exactly like listening to music. No one can tell me otherwise. It is exactly the same.

Track 44
But of course there are meaningful differences. This wouldn't be audiophilia if there were no meaningful differences.

Track 45
Setting up the B&W MM-1 loudspeakers was simple, and, if not for the obvious chores of disturbing the contents and placement of my desk and rearranging a few cables, the process might have even been fun. The included installation instructions are neat and easy to follow. If you have any experience with this type of thing, you'll be up and running in 20 minutes or less. If you have no experience with this type of thing, the process might or might not take a little longer.

I had just finished listening to music through my PSB Alpha PS1s with the matching SubSeries 100 subwoofer, so, upon successfully setting up the B&Ws and pressing Play in Roon, I was expecting to hear some obvious loss of bass weight, impact, and overall scale. But, in fact, I didn't experience anything like that at all. Instead, the kick drum in SZA's relaxed and sexy "Doves in the Wind" sounded appropriately punchy, physical, and compelling. I was moved.

Which isn't to say that the small B&Ws actually played with as much low-end weight and impact as the PSB Alpha 1-100 powered media system. That would be crazy. In fact, they didn't come close. But they did a damn fine job of allowing me to forget that the bass was missing. It wasn't until I played music with extremely deep and powerful lows, such as Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement's wonderful "Beyond the Yellow-Spotted Bamboo," that I was made aware of the B&Ws' relative shortcoming. And, even then, their fantastic imaging and overall way with space easily compensated, keeping my attention firmly on the music.

On the other hand, the newly unboxed B&Ws could not match the PSBs' sweet, seductive highs or seamlessly smooth top-to-bottom presentation. While the B&Ws created an impression of sounding faster and more agile than the relatively tame and grounded PSBs, casting a surprisingly large soundstage and producing thrilling stereo effects, the British-designed speaker also sounded unnaturally detailed, almost eager to throw a spotlight onto attack transients.

So, during those first few listening sessions, while the B&Ws consistently illuminated aspects of the music that had previously gone unnoticed and consequently underappreciated, such as the flute-like whistle that adorns the opening moments of "The Gate" from Bjork's wonderful Utopia, they also drew my attention to less pleasant, less informative aspects of the music: vocal sibilants, the sounds of fingers against acoustic guitar strings, tape hiss, and other recording artifacts were unduly emphasized.

Happily, however, after about a week or so of steady use, the B&Ws seemed to settle down, the sharpness with which they communicated music mellowed, and they became altogether easier to enjoy—all without sacrificing their surprisingly robust bass, large soundstage, precise stereo imaging, and detailed overall presentation.

Had the drivers needed some time to break in? Probably. The DAC and amp, too, likely benefitted from continued use. And, oh, I almost forgot to mention: The B&W MM-1s include an apparently inexpensive, unmarked USB cable, which, I'm willing to bet, required some play before fully reaching its own limited potential. Digital, like love, takes time. (Thank you, Mariah Carey.)

If I wanted to improve upon the B&Ws' fine performance, I would start by replacing the included USB cable. Other than that, there's not a lot to tweak. You might try to adjust their placement to achieve a subjectively better or merely different sound, but, compared to other speakers I've used, I found the MM-1s to be far less sensitive to this sort of thing. Whereas my PSBs welcome some attention to placement, returning extreme toe-in with a strongly focused center image, for instance, the B&Ws obviously preferred to fire straight ahead and never tempted me to alter their perspective.

And, of course, the B&Ws have a built-in DAC and DSP chip that, to some extent, will determine how your music sounds. For better or for worse, the listener who wants greater control over these aspects of playback should look elsewhere.

Interestingly, the PSBs couldn't quite fill our living space as completely or convincingly as the physically smaller B&Ws, which often sounded louder and clearer from well across the room or even from the bedroom and kitchen. (Does this have something to do with the DSP engine? I'm guessing it does, but I really don't know.)

Which brings me to the B&Ws' remote—a decidedly odd feature for a pair of small powered desktop speakers. I mean, how lazy can one be? But as the B&Ws' size and shape dissuaded me from fussing with their placement on my desk, their cute, little remote encouraged me to move away from the desk itself and expand my listening pleasure.

About 18' from my desk, along the opposite wall, we have a floral-printed chair and ottoman. I sat down, put my feet up, and easily controlled playback using the B&Ws' remote. While the MM-1s are designed for nearfield listening, the experience from the lounge chair was entirely satisfying and significantly more comfortable. (I need to rethink my workspace.) The music may have lacked some bass impact and overall scale, but it was totally hi-fi, in the best sense of the adjective: clean, clear, dynamic, and entertaining. Voices, guitars, and hi-hats sounded colorful and realistic, which meant that the reproduction of a relatively simple song like Mauno's delightful "Helah" was totally enjoyable. I felt like I was walking through sunshine and autumn leaves.

Track 46
Headphones are cool, right?

The MM-1s keep their headphone jack out of sight, on the right channel's rear panel, which poses a slight problem for headphones with thick, unwieldy cables. I nevertheless connected my Grado SR-60 headphones and decided that the sound from the B&Ws' headphone output was less dynamic than I was hoping, lacking some drama and color. That said, the MM-1s drove the Grados easily; my pre-production AudioQuest NightHawks, meanwhile, wanted a bit more power.

Compared to the headphone output of my MacBook Pro, there was no contest: The MM-1s sounded brighter and clearer, imbuing the electric guitars of Julien Baker's "Appointments" with more natural brilliance. By contrast, everything through the MacBook sounded softer, duller, and more distant, which is not to say that there was a greater sense of air and space surrounding Baker's voice, but rather that it was just a bit smaller and less appreciable. Neither presentation was really bad (or really good), but, if I had to pick one for pleasure, it would easily be the B&W.

As one might expect, differences were more pronounced with more demanding music—even slightly more demanding music—such as the recently released single, "Last Night All My Dreams Came True," by the excellent British band Wild Beasts. The song begins with a slithery, heavily fuzzed synth-and-bass line meant to provoke a deep and naughty groove. Through the MM-1s, the track was reproduced with just enough of the bass impact and timbral accuracy needed to succeed. Straight from the Mac, however, there just wasn't enough there there—too little dynamic range, resulting in too little funk, too little groove, soul, and sway. I wasn't convinced, I didn't care, I moved on.

Much of what I enjoyed in the MM-1's headphone performance was enhanced when I partnered them with B&W's own P3 Series 2 on-ear headphones, a set of which I had purchased several months ago for my wife. (I reviewed the original P3 in the February 2013 issue of Stereophile.) Were the MM-1s and P3s carefully designed and tuned to complement one another? That would make sense, wouldn't it?

They certainly make a physically attractive pair. And, in listening, I heard fatter, raunchier bass, more pleasantly forward highs, and an improved sense of momentum—the last of which was perhaps due to more cleanly presented attack transients or carefully exaggerated high frequencies. Either way, the result was more fun, more listening pleasure.

Track 47
Further, while listening to the B&W combo, it suddenly and clearly occurred to me that Wild Beasts are indebted to both INXS ("Need You Tonight"/"Mediate") and Nine Inch Nails ("Closer"), which, when you think about it, is really fun, interesting, and weird—at least to this music nerd. It's exactly the kind of thing that keeps me dizzy and coming back for more.

When the B&W MM-1s were launched in 2009, their retail price of $499.99 raised some eyebrows. Today, they sell for $100 less, which strikes me as a real bargain—perhaps even too enticing to ignore.

Weird New Pop, Vol.8

  1. Alvvays: "Dreams Tonite"
  2. Julien Baker: "Appointments"
  3. Phoebe Bridgers: "Killer"v
  4. Björk: "Blissing Me"
  5. Japanese Breakfast: "Soft Sounds from Another Planet"
  6. Big Thief: "Great White Shark"
  7. Charlotte Gainsbourg: "Rest"
  8. Wild Beasts: "Last Night All My Dreams Came True"
  9. Waxahatchee: "Hear You"
  10. Grizzly Bear: "Mourning Sound"
  11. King Garbage: "Tell It to My Heart"
  12. Deem Spencer: "Sex Maybe Babies"
  13. Marlon Williams: "Vampire Again"
  14. U.S. Girls: "Velvet 4 Sale"
  15. Mauno: "Helah"
  16. Deerhoof, featuring Juana Molina: "Slow Motion Destination"
  17. Nadine Shah: "Relief"
Weird New Pop: The Mega-Mix (Tidal Version)

Weird New Pop is also available in CD-quality sound from Tidal.