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Bowers & Wilkins 603 floorstanding loudspeaker

Bowers & Wilkins 603 floorstanding loudspeaker

Try guessing the price of this decent size loudspeaker, and I’ll warrant you’ll overestimate it by around 50%. Certainly £1,250 does seem very modest in view of the complement of eight drive units, two floorstanding enclosures plus a couple of large plinths – presumably this is the bonus of having a factory in China. 

The 603 therefore clearly starts off with a substantial price advantage, costing less than half the price of the equivalent 702 model (even though the latter features a ‘tweeter-on-top’). Indeed, the ‘plinths’ are very much an option, only provided to satisfy H&S requirements in case of children or large dogs running about. As neither applied here, they were simply left in the cartons.

The key ingredient in this new sixth-generation 600-series is the replacement of the longstanding Kevlar with the new Continuum material, which first appeared a few years back in the then new 800 D3 models. Like Kevlar it’s based on a woven fabric, so the outside of the cone will gradually become cancelled as frequency rises, reducing the effective radiation diameter and therefore improving the distribution. Alongside its 150mm Continuum cone, the midrange driver in this model also has a ‘surroundless’ (FST) outside edge termination.

Work has also gone into the other drive units and the cosmetics. A ‘decoupled double dome’ tweeter has a 25mm aluminium diaphragm and has been re-engineered for performance improvement; the twin 165mm bass drivers have paper cones. Cosmetic changes include mounting the port on the rear instead of the front, and a replacement of the vinyl artificial wood with a black or white painted finish. Sharp box edges work with the paintwork to give the whole package a very contemporary look.

The ports on the rear may be blocked or re-tuned by a couple of two-part foam plugs. These can either be left in one piece, so blocking the ports completely, or the centre of the bung can be removed to re-tune them to a different frequency. By means of this simple ‘trick’ it’s possible to position these floorstanders virtually wherever best suits, as the adjustable bass tuning should ensure that major room modes can be avoided.

 

Initially, the speakers were simply spiked and placed on Townshend decoupling platforms; as suggested, the ‘knockover’ EEC plinth was not used. Ports were open and there was a gap of roughly 56cm between the speakers and the wall. Subsequent measurement revealed that the bass was at least +6dB too strong below 60Hz. Since very little program material exists below 60Hz, it wasn’t too surprising that this wasn’t particularly audible. 

Blocking the ports completely actually gave the best possible results, though ‘ports open’ was the second favourite, despite the bass-richness, as ‘half-blocking’ seemed to over-emphasise the 50Hz room mode. As ever, trial and error seems to be the best policy.

With both ports blocked, the overall (room averaged) response was very impressive, especially from 100Hz up to 1.7kHz, where it holds within ±3dB, and ±1dB from 250Hz – 1.7kHz. A broad suckout of -3dB to -5dB is then found between 1.8kHz and 3.3kHz, prior to a treble recovery to flatness again. Although the 50Hz midbass peak is still visible, it’s only at +3dB ref. 100Hz.

The impedance tends to hover around three to four ohms throughout the bass and lower midrange, not really rising to 6 ohms until it reaches 1kHz in the lower treble. Therefore do take care if you wish to use a valve amplifier to drive them.

I spent nearly an entire month listening to the 603s, using a wide variety of digital and analogue sources, simply because I never really felt any need to change them for something more costly and exotic, despite the fact that the components driving them were unquestionably up-market (see box on page 70). They do have certain limitations, for sure, and I can certainly get superior performance elsewhere. For example, the 603s were preceded in my listening room by a pair of Node Hylixas, which certainly had superior distribution and also showed a significant reduction in cabinet influence. But they’re also considerably more costly, and the gains in sound quality didn’t seem to be worth the price difference.

According to the manufacturer, the 603 is very tolerant of positioning, and that does indeed appear to be the case. I took no particular care when locating the 603s, and can’t deny that they worked very well indeed when so placed – randomly and without any particular care!

A Little Feat album that I hadn’t played for some years, Sailin’ Shoes[Warner] had been a favourite when first released. Playing it again after a number of years was a revelation, not so much because of the sound that the speakers were delivering, but more because the ‘front end’ of the system had improved so dramatically over the years. The speakers merely made one aware of this observation.

I’m going to take a moment away from reviewing the loudspeakers in order to plug the Audiojumble, held twice-yearly in Tonbridge, Kent. The reason behind the plug is to draw attention to a significant growth in secondhand vinyl for sale that I noticed this time around. Some of this is certainly overpriced nonsense, of course, but I managed to pick up a secondhand Don McLean double album called Solo{United Artists] for just £2! OK, so it’s a live recording, but it seems to be in excellent condition and includes both ‘American Pie’and ‘Vincent’(the former is one of the all time great tracks in my view).

The Heart of Saturday Night[ANTI] is a Tom Waits album that I don’t know well, but getting into new music is very much a strength of my current system. I’ve always struggled to make out pop music lyrics, yet despite a voice that’s decidedly guttural, I had no difficulty in making out the words on this occasion.

However, a favourite disc is the Lowell George solo album, Thanks I’ll Eat It Here[Friday Music], so I slipped it onto the turntable and was immediately impressed by the overall neutrality of the sound that was being delivered. Why pay more? I kept asking myself. I do have a pair of B&W’s 800 D3s tucked away in the speaker store, and they do have some advantages over this baby, no question. That they will deliver a (slightly) wider dynamic range, with rather better all-round distribution is impossible to deny, but I do find it difficult to justify a price differential of roughly 15×.

If there’s a better example of the loudspeaker being a slave to the rest of the system, I’ve yet to find it. Bowers & Wilkins’ 603 are entirely capable of reproducing just what they were being fed, no matter how high-end you go. However you look at it, the 603 is quite exceptional value for money.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

The Review System: The (substantially impeccable) driving system included the following components: Sources: Rega Naiad turntable with Aphelion cartridge and Aura m-c phono stage; Naim Audio CDS/PS555 DR CD player. Amplification: Naim Statement pre-amplifer and NAP500 power amp. Cables are a mixture: Naim mains; Rega and Wire-on-wire interconnects; Vertere pre-amp-to-power; Vertex AQ (Quiescent) speaker cables

Description: 3-way vented-box system

Drive units: 1×ø25mm (1 in) aluminium dome HF
1×ø150mm (6 in) Continuum cone FST mid
2×ø165mm (6.5 in) Paper/Kevlar bass

Frequency Response: 48Hz–28kHz ±3dB 

Sensitivity: 88.5dB spl (2.83V, 1m) 

Nominal impedance: 
8Ω (minimum 3.0Ω)

Rec amplifier power: 30W–200W

Dimensions (W×H×D): 
190 ×985 ×340mm

Net Weight: 24.1kg

Finishes: black or white

Price: £1,249/per pair

Manufactured by: Bowers & Wilkins

URL: bowerswilkins.com

Tel (UK only): 0800 232 1513

Tags: FEATURED

By Paul Messenger

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