Bowers and Wilkins CM8 S2 review

Your big-screen TV will turn into a sideshow next to B&W's stunning CM8 S2

You’ll lust after the way the CM8 S2 look, but you’ll fall in love with the way they sound.
You’ll lust after the way the CM8 S2 look, but you’ll fall in love with the way they sound.
You’ll lust after the way the CM8 S2 look, but you’ll fall in love with the way they sound.

Highs

  • Simple yet gorgeous aesthetic
  • Detailed, accurate treble
  • Open, honest midrange
  • Quick, tuneful bass

Lows

  • More forceful bass requires subwoofer
  • Port plugs may not be useful
  • Expensive for a small floorstanding speaker

If you had asked me 15 years ago whether I’d ever buy a pair of Bowers and Wilkins (B&W) speakers, I’d probably have snorted and said something snarky like, “fat chance.” The British company’s speakers were well out of my price range, and my tastes leaned a different direction then, anyway. But if you were to ask me the same question today, not only would I nod approvingly as I said, “Absolutely,” I’d go a step further and point you directly toward the pair I would buy: B&W’s CM8 S2 speakers.

The CM8 S2 will class up nearly any room they’re placed in.

Much has changed in the past 15 years, both for me and Bowers & Wilkins. I’ve matured a bit (OK, a lot), gained new perspective, and I’ve come to appreciate audio gear in new ways and for different reasons. For its part, B&W has also evolved. The company now offers a line of wireless audio products, a well-regarded line of headphones, and new series of loudspeakers which bring the company’s lauded sound quality down to approachable price points.

What B&W hasn’t changed, however, is its uncompromising approach to loudspeaker design and engineering, and the CM8 S2 models reviewed here are prime examples of that standard.

Originally, this review belonged to the CM8. But just as I was putting fingers to keyboard, B&W introduced the CM8 S2 (series 2) and asked if I wouldn’t mind reviewing the new version instead. I agreed, but held onto the originals to compare. The new version soon arrived at my testing lab, whereupon I (and pretty much our entire office) quickly fell in love with them.

Video review

Out of the box

Thankfully, one thing B&W did not change for the CM8 S2 is its product packaging. Shipping floorstanding speakers around is an invitation for disaster, but B&W’s smart use of EPE foam (the kind that doesn’t break into a billion tiny balls) and preventive measures such as isolated speaker grilles and double boxing provides the best possible insurance against damage.

Placed in the context of a room with bold, solid colors, the clean white finish becomes gorgeous.

Tucked in a foam recess at the top, we found silver floor spikes, rubber feet, and a brief installation guide. As we pulled the speakers from their boxes, we took stock of a pair of two-part foam port plugs and a pair of grey speaker grills, carefully isolated from the speaker and wrapped in protective paper. That’s when we noticed the CM8 S2, like the CM8 before them, have no visible plugs for the grill. Instead B&W opted for a magnetic system, with tiny neodymium magnets hidden the grilles’ frames and some sort of ferrous material hidden just below the surface of each speaker’s baffle. The result is an invisible means to fix the grilles on the speakers – that is, if you want to put the grilles on at all. These babies look stunning with no grilles at all – we say leave them off.

We weren’t sure how we would feel about a white speaker cabinet, but we gave it a shot, and we’re thrilled we did. Up close, the speaker’s finish is as plain enough to have come from a bathroom counter-top, but placed in the context of a room with bold, solid colors, the clean white finish becomes gorgeous. The CM8 S2 have appeared in many of our TV videos as an “extra,” and they always seem to garner interest from folks who originally visited to learn more about a TV. We think the CM8 S2 will class up nearly any room they’re placed in.

The CM8 S2 wind up being just a bit shorter than the original model, and by “just a bit” we mean 1.4 inches shorter. The other dimensions remain the same, as does the total weight, which comes out to about 43 lb.

Features and design

B&W’s revisions are more audible than visible, but the two changes you can see are pretty striking. For the S2, B&W went with silver trim around the drivers that is absent any screws, making the speaker considerably more attractive with its grill off. Also, the tweeter, which used to have a ring radiator plate surrounding it, now sits behind a metal mesh screen, with no radiator plate. While we preferred the look of the former design, the latter keeps the delicate dome safe from prying fingers.

Sonically, though, it is clear B&W reevaluated what it wanted the CM8 to sound like, and we think its engineers made some great improvements, most notably in the treble. What you can’t see, you can definitely hear. 

Performance

Sonically and aesthetically, these speakers no more “disappear into the room” than a swimsuit model would at a bachelor party, and if you’re not catching our drift here, that’s a very good thing. Though, the CM8 S2 aren’t forward, “in your face” speakers. Rather, they strike an ear-delighting balance between the two extremes, delivering a sound that is both engaging, and completely comfortable.

These babies look stunning with no grilles at all – we say leave them off.

Sting’s Seven Days provided a beautiful illustration of that balance. Sting’s vocals on this track tend to be very sibilant, and on other speakers with overly-aggressive tweeters, those ‘S’ and ‘T’ enunciations can border on painful, like an ear-puncturing laser beam. The CM8 S2, however, deliver those sounds well enough for you to know that the track’s treble is a bit too hot, but with an expertly-refined touch that reveals the song’s mixing and mastering engineers knew exactly what they were doing. This is the most notable design improvement over the original CM8, which we felt tended to be just a bit too bright at times.

In fact, the CM S2’s treble response is our favorite aspect of this speaker’s voice. Everything from the etch of a bow on a stringed instrument, to the brazen blare of brass, to the thick snap of a mallet on a kick drum were delivered with the kind of clarity, speed, and precision that forces you to grin.

Bowers and Wilkins CM8

Lest that detract anything from the speaker’s performance in the rest of the frequency spectrum, let us tell you the CM S2 have a wonderfully articulate and open midrange response, with vocals so well reproduced, you get a sense that the artist is singing directly to you. We were tickled with how well these speakers handled the breathy, closely-mic’d croons of Diana Krall, with the perfect amount of texture mixed in from the tweeters. Even Donald Fagen sounded more skeevy than usual, and that’s saying something (P.S. we love Donald Fagen).

These speakers no more “disappear into the room” than a swimsuit model would at a bachelor party.

The CM8 S2’s bass response may not be as pronounced as you’d expect from a speaker rocking two 5.25-inch drivers each, all dedicated to the low end. But what they lack in force and volume, they make up for with quickness and tonal accuracy. Vegas power-band Sante Fe and the Fat City Horns’ Critical Mass opens up with a punchy kick drum followed by electric bass pulling double stops (two notes at the same time in unison, the lower of which is a deep, resonant movement from low A to B. And while the CM8 S2 didn’t exactly punch us in the chest with the kick drum, they successfully snapped our necks with the bass line, delivering dead-on tonality that outclassed most of the high-end headphones we’ve been listening to lately. It was a treat.

For those who crave deeper, more forceful bass, a subwoofer is recommended, and we can think of no better companion than the excellent SVS SB-13 Ultra. But when taking that route, we would recommend the use of the provided port plugs, which will steepen the roll-off of the bass response to better integrate with a subwoofer. Not everyone will need or want to use the plugs, but we think they’re worth experimenting with.

Bowers and Wilkins CM8

Since we spent time with the CM8 S2 as a two-channel music listening rig, we can’t comment on how well the floorstanding speakers will match up with their center channel and bookshelf counterparts as part of a home theater system. But what we can say is that the movie tracks we did pipe through the speakers sounded terrific, with enough dynamics to cause a start from time to time. Of course, we’ve always contended that a speaker that sounds excellent for music will usually deliver an impressive home theater performance in all but the largest of rooms.

Forced to ask for more, we’d like an extra helping of dynamics. The CM8 S2 deliver an engaging music listening experience, but could stand to offer just a bit more of a gulf between quiet and loud for us, something the Golden Ear Triton Seven excel at.

Conclusion

At $1,200 each, the CM8 S2 couldn’t be called a high-value speaker in the traditional sense, but if what you value in a speaker is excellent sound and gorgeous looks, we think you’ll find them a treasure. Anyone who has had a tough time selling the decorator in the home on a pair of floorstanding speakers should look to these, as we’re hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t think they class up whatever room they live in.

Highs

  • Simple yet gorgeous aesthetic
  • Detailed, accurate treble
  • Open, honest midrange
  • Quick, tuneful bass

Lows

  • More forceful bass requires subwoofer
  • Port plugs may not be useful
  • Expensive for a small floorstanding speaker
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