Bowers & Wilkins 603 HiFi Speakers Review
Bowers & Wilkins introduced the 600 series to their speaker line up in 1995, which makes the current 603 speakers 23 years in the making. What’s interesting is the company keeping the range for such a long period of time through many changes in fashion and expectation spanning decades with the range fitting the bill for many audiophiles and they still do today
As an audiophile growing up the Bowers & Wilkins 600 range of speakers were aspirational to me, I remember lusting after those yellow Kevlar mid range drivers, there was just something about them that really made me want them. It remains to be seen if the current silver continuum drivers will have the same effect on the audiophiles of tomorrow, they should do.
I want to thank Nintronics the excellent HiFi and AV Dealership for loaning us the Bowers & Wilkins 603 for this review
Visually doing things right
In some respects the 603 speakers I have here for review remind me of the Bowers and Wilkins 600 series from the 1990’s and yet they also appear fresh and befitting current design trends and taste. I am a big fan of the white and silver colour combination Bowers & Wilkins use across their ranges, it works particularly well due to the colour of the Continuum drivers. The silver trim around the tweeter is a nice touch and sets off the look by contrasting very nicely with black bass drivers. On the rear its a simple affair with the expected dimpled Flowport bass port and the very Bowers speaker binding posts.
The light grey coloured grills again contrast nicely with the white finish, satin is a nice change from high gloss and really works. With the grills on the speakers look slimmer and less imposing and but not as cool, so I left the grills off. There is a large flat mdf base plate to the speakers which is again simple but a relatively elegant design choice for such a thing.
Easy to setup
Before I installed the speakers I removed the metal link plates between the speaker high frequency and low frequency terminals and replaced them with the matching speaker cable jumpers. I used Tellurium Q Silver Diamond speaker cable and all analogue cabling for this review
I started by placing the speakers in the usual spot in my room with a similar amount of toe in to how my KEF Reference speakers were setup prior. Straight away I could hear the central soundstage was compressed and the speakers toe in angle needed adjusting. I toed them out in stages to just about straight ahead and that was right, the mid range vocal clarity snapped into place and the elements of the sound stage between the speakers all formed clearly. This took about ten minutes to get right and then I started to run the Dirac Live measurements to check things more thoroughly.
Looking at the in room frequency response of the 603 speakers it confirmed my assumption that the the Bowers and Wilkins engineers have done a great job with the 603 and their frequency output is pretty even with good extension in the treble and bass. I applied the usual frequency target curve for my room and this worked out perfect with the 603 as I expected
Interesting Spec for the money
The 603 speakers have an RRP of £1249 and if you consider the flagship equivalent 803 D3 costs £12,500 it puts into perspective the current trickle down technology that’s included in the 603. The star of the show with 603 is the Continuum cone FST mid range driver that is trickled down from the 800 series also to the 700 series. Similar to the 700 series the tweeter in the 603 is a decoupled double dome design made from aluminium but the 600 tweeter doesn’t get the carbon treatment the 700 tweeter does and is mounted within the cabinet not on top. The 603 has dual paper profile bass drivers, Flowport technology and they are 8 ohms with 200w programme power handling.
The speakers come with a foam port bung that can be used to fully block the speakers ports, or they can be semi blocked by removing the centre of the foam bung to allow an extra degree of in room bass tuning. I reviewed the speakers with no bungs used at all.
Continuum is a Star
The continuum mid range driver really is the star of the show here from both a visual and sonic point of view. Vocals are slightly forward but they are clean, clear and open with great timing and a nice snap to them. This makes the speakers sound fast and really helps with the transparency of the phantom centre image. There is not an once of “fat” on vocals or the overall mid band and at the speakers price point this was a real surprise to me. The R&D thats gone into the Continuum driver material has really paid off for Bowers & Wilkins and is likely to become just as iconic as the yellow Kevlar.
Nicely Balanced Treble
With the mid range of the 603 being so clean, fast and nimble its important that the bass and treble keep up or the speaker performance will lose its balance. The 603’s treble performance was also surprising to me, its crisp with a good amount of sharpness to it but very importantly has no harshness or hardness. The treble timing is not quite as crisp as the mid range but its very close which allows the speakers sound to stay cohesive even during very intense passages.
More impressive is the combination of a slightly forward mid range and crisp treble and how it carries over the musical message or intent. If you watch the song demonstration video below you will hear this, the song is Aristocrats Bad Asteroid and about one third in the band really up the intensity of their performance to increase the emotion of it and the 603 delivers the musical message fantastically well.
Open and Wide Sound stage
The 603 produced an impressive well defined and clear sound stage between the speakers which is very evident in the solo drum section of the song demonstration in the video above. Switching music styles to something a little more folk the song demonstration video below of Barb Jungr Trouble in Mind demonstrates this as well when the song becomes more complex in its later stages. There is also excellent width to the sound stage in this song from the 603 with good depth.
Bass is a very interesting one
My initial reaction to the 603 bass output was of there not being enough of it, the speakers were delivering a leaner presentation than I am accustomed to and like. The speakers were brand new and I had given them some time to get going before doing the review. I tried 2 amplifiers the first being the Unison Research Unico 150 that has huge amounts of power, ruling out amplifier power as the cause. There is a stereotype among audiophiles being Bowers & Wilkins speakers require huge amplification to sound good. I discovered this is not the case with the 603 as 56 watts at 8 ohms from the Leema Acoustics Elements Integrated Amplifier, the second amplifier I used with the speakers drove them lovely.
Over time and the more I listened to the 603 I came to appreciate the bass quality from the speakers and realised the Bowers & Wilkins engineers have chosen quality over quantity with their bass output. The bass similar to the mid range is tight, focused and clean with good and smooth extension, leaving space for a subwoofer to reinforce their bottom end. A subwoofer is not essential with them but could be employed to great effect to add more foundation to the overall presentation, it would need to be a fast one.
The leaner but more articulate bass allows for a more precise transient on drums with no excess or boom being added. I think the intention here goes a little further accounting for the likely placement of the 603 speakers in users homes. There is a good chance the speakers will be used in small to moderate sized rooms, with the listener and speakers being placed near or on the boundary increasing the bass output from the speakers and room modal problems. In this instance a leaner but tighter bass will work better for 99% of users and 99% of music. There is enough bass to balance the sound from the slightly forward mid range and sharpness of treble which creates an overall nicely balanced presentation that's exciting to listen to, never boring
The song demonstration video below of Christine and the Queens Goya Soda shows how the bass from the 603 is very tight and extends fantastically smooth until the speakers roll off.
I enjoyed my time with the Bowers & Wilkins 603 and for the most part was very impressed with their performance right across the board. I can see these speakers being extremely popular and selling really well based on their looks and sound. At this price point I want to see more of the manufacturing budget being used on the components of the speaker rather than jewellery and that is what we are getting here, yet in a sleek and nicely styled package.
The sonic attributes of the speakers make them great candidates for front speakers of an excellent home cinema system and I can see many people choosing them for this use. Speakers that are clean, fast, detailed and lively sounding with crisp treble will sound like winners for home cinema buffs and the fact they DO music as well will certainly strengthen their appeal no end.
There is a good reason the Bowers & Wilkins 600 range has been selling well for over 20 years, its because they have always offered fantastic value for money while encapsulating the Bowers & Wilkins sound, benefiting from the trickle down technologies of the high end 800 range speakers. The current 6th Iteration of the 603 is exactly this and it offers further improved and out right fantastic sound quality with value for money and very little to criticise - well done Bowers & Wilkins.
A Serious Bang for Buck Award is granted in recognition of a products stand out high performance being significantly greater than its perceived price point