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Bowers & Wilkins 603 S3 speakers REVIEW

Review

This is a review written by Terry Ellis January 2024.

For my video review please see my YouTube channel link here

Always setting the standard

Bowers and Wilkins have sold over a million pairs of 600 range speakers in the twenty plus years the range has been in production, that’s a pretty insane number when you stop and think about it.  I remember back to the early days of doing this I had the 603 S2 here to review and I went back and watched that review video again to remind myself of what I thought about them.  I found it interesting but not too surprising that pretty much everything I said about the S2 I feel the same about the new S3 speakers. I also wanted to memory job myself on their price because we all know the price of everything has gone up a lot and no surprise so has the price for the new 603 S3, I reviewed the S2 back in 2018 and they cost around £1200, the S3 now cost just shy of £2000 which is a lot of money for a set of speakers, especially I think with this type of finish quality.  I can’t really fault the build quality, you can feel they are well out together but we don’t get a very lavish finish, at least with the probably most popular colour, black.  There is wood sides white front finish I think I would prefer but either way there is no fancy gloss paint finishes if that’s important to you or if that’s what you are used to or expecting for this type of money.

Trickle down

It was some time ago but I don’t remember the 603 S2 being anything like as heavy or as well built as the new S3, especially when you wrap your knuckles on them. Those were my very obvious positive first impressions, how heavy, how solid and how inert the cabinets felt. I could make a pretty good guesstimate from this about how they were going to sound because there is a lot here that I am familiar with but also some that is new.

he big new talking point is the all titanium dome tweeter which features a 25 micron thick dome, that’s2 about a third of the thickness of a human hair and it has a titanium ring for improved bracing. Behind it is longer rear tapering tube thats inside the cabinet for better absorption of the the unwanted rear sound wave created by the tweeter and then the new more open weave grille design I first saw on the new 800 signature speakers last year when I was at Bowers factory. The tweeter also sits closer to the mid range driver on the baffle for improved sonic blending between the two drivers.

You could say its all about trickle down technologies from here because Bowers say the 6 inch continuum cone FST mid range and the dual 6 and a half inch paper bass drivers get the motor assemblies from the 700 range drivers which is a nice upgrade. The crossover gets the better bypass capacitor treatment Bowers have been putting into all their newer speaker crossovers which is again nice. On the rear are the more modern and nicer speaker cable terminals which I definitely prefer and I already mentioned the obvious improved cabinet bracing so enthusiasts should expect the 603 S3 to be the most refined sounding 603 yet. I think refinement is important but I think speakers can go easily too far that way and can become too serious sounding and lack some fun factor and that was somehting I was contemplating going into the listening.

Easy to setup

I have been listening to the 603 S3 for an extended period as I hurt my neck and back, I think moving the speakers into the room in the first place, like I said they were heavier than I was expecting.

I do like the fact they have a flat base so its easy to slide them around on the carpet to find a perfect spot.  I listened to them flat on the floor for well over a week slightly tweaking their position to get it just right before I put them on their spikes,  I think this improved their sound some. There was nothing difficult about setting them up, I always prefer some toe in with speakers in my room to help solidify the centre image of the sound stage but it was possible to overdo it and compress the sound. I also found getting the time alignment right improved their bass evenness and spread in my room, but this is just normal speaker setup stuff nothing out of the ordinary.

I have been listening to a lot of vinyl with them and in the last week of the review I have spent time listening to them with different amplifiers and trying and testing varied things to make sure I had a very good appreciation of their sound.  Starting with their big strengths with the first one being clarity. There is a lot going on at all times across the sound stage and you never once feel like your trying hard to hear the music details, you always feel like the musical information is there for you. That seems like faint praise but its not, some speakers soften off bits of information or smear the sound to create some character, Bowers speakers really don’t do that. I think they design their speakers to sound fast so the sound really gets out of them and in its that vein where the next big strength stood out to me and that’s in their overall three-dimensional sound stage delivery. Sound that’s very obviously left and right outside the speakers coming out into the room at times and very go beyond the speakers in a see through the speakers onto the music fashion and I think they did this very stand out for speakers of this level.  However I do have to remind myself these are now £2000 speakers, but they probably still did this better than I was expecting at this level.

Their sound is very tightly focused from top to bottom treble to bass and every note is composed and articulate and very serious, maybe a little too serious at times. I have to applaud Bowers for making technically better speakers but they and every other manufacturers should remember music is supposed to be fun and not something you always want to analyse.

I think on that Bowers have a reputation for their speakers being bright sounding and I can see why that is.  It would be possible to use the “wrong” HiFi components with the 603 S3 and experience too much high frequency energy because the treble is crispy and clear and definitely not rolled off. That means the 603 sound fast and have a good sense of height to their presentation but this can always be too much of good thing with components that also emphasise this.   I didn’t find them bright in my acoustically treated listening room. I Idid find them to be a bit crispy sounding in the vocals, not with all music just when its there in the music you do notice it. However this was very much amplifier dependent. I think my best advice to anyone considering these speakers would be to consider them as high end, high performance speakers. They will need very good gear to sound as good as they can, that doesn’t mean crazy expensive, but it does mean very good hifi components are needed here.

Easy to drive

I didn’t find them hard speakers to drive either, quite the opposite. They are rated with a 90db sensitivity at 8 ohms, but they do drop to 3 ohms hence my recommendation to use a very good amplifier with them. I think they can appear harder to drive than they are because they have a quite neutral bass profile and when you combine that with fast and lively mids and highs it can create a leaner a sound. I think they want an amplifier with a bolder or warmer character to best balance their sound or that would at least be my recommendation.

I found their bass output to be enough but also quite modest, I think Bowers are assuming a lot of owners will position the speakers up close to walls and in that case you will get a more bass out of them. If you are thinking about also well them great news, I think they will work ok used like that. I can pull speakers very much into the room away from the front wall which can enhance the three dimensional sound stage capability but it doesn’t give you as bass output enhancement. For me the bass is very typical modern Bowers speaker bass, if your familiar with it you will immediately know what I mean by this. Its very tightly focused and articulate bass and it can be very punchy with good extension, but its not what I would call big warming of the music bass.

The vocals were also presented very clearly and cleanly and at times quite holographic which I really enjoyed and their overall sound stage capability I mentioned before its very impressive for the money.

I did the bulk of the review with the biggest system I have here at the moment the Bespoke Audio passive preamplifier and the Gryphon Essence power amplifier mostly because I was injured and couldn’t move the near 60kg amplifier to try something more price appropriate. I actually think this setup was too neutral for the Bowers and I wanted an amplifier with more character. I did a whole host of testing with two the Audiolab 9000a and the criminally good for the money Musical Fidelity A1.

Interestingly with the smoothness of sound of the Audiolab and its slightly forgiving nature the crispiness to the 603 vocals sibilance were completely gone, the warmer sound of the Audiolab balanced fantastic with the Bowers to create a very pleasing listen to all music all day presentation. I was very happy with this setup.

However the Musical Fidelity A1 showed me a different side to the Bowers, one that was more to my taste. The A1 has a very bold sound, it has a pumped a bass but not in a bad way, in a way that made the 603 have more roundedness and vivacity.  The A1 also added some drive to the Bowers for the bass presence, but especially their deeper bass power which came as a huge surprise and overall this warmed up the musical presentation making it more pleasing. For me the A1 also rounded off the sound to make it the holographic sounding of the two. The downside to the A1 were the vocals remained a little crispy again only with specific music. Not so much as to be distracting but noticeable when you have just listened to the super smooth 9000a.

There was a more energy and drive to music from the A1 so I think I prefer it on a Friday and Saturday night loud listen, whereas maybe I would prefer the Audiolab on a Sunday with more of a Netflix and chill mindset hopefully you can appreciate what I mean here. You could use either amplifiers with the Bowers and be happy but I would choose the A1 from the two for my taste.

I also think I was enjoying listening to vinyl through the 603 S3 because of the warmer bolder sweeter character of my current vinyl setup and how it was balancing really nicely with the more neutral speaker, softening the sound a little and adding some character and charm to the mix.

Worth short listing

I could go into a comparison here with my Mission 770 speakers but these are chalk and cheese speakers in looks and sound. The Missions don’t do everything as technically good as the Bowers who take music more seriously, but they have a greater sense of ease about them, more special character to the vocals and more easy going top end. I also think have a nicer finish quality but they also cost nearly twice as much and what’s interesting sonically the Bowers more than hold their own with the more expensive speaker in a lot of ways and do some things better.

So its an easy conclusion for me, yes the 603 S3 cost a lot more money than the previous model, they are sonically not perfect and can be a little bit serious sounding if your not careful with your partnering equipment.  Also their finish quality is not the best you will see at their price point.

However what’s inside the speakers seems very well done, the 603 S3 are very accomplished speakers regardless of price so as always it will depend on your priorities, I have enjoyed many an hours sat listening to them.

Pursuit Perfect System Essential Audition Awards

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For the full specification of the Bowers & Wilkins 603 S3 speakers please see their website linked here