Print

Bowers & Wilkins 600 Series Loudspeakers: The Sixth Generation

Past

Bowers & Wilkins and I have some history. Theirs weren’t the first speakers I bought -- those were PSBs, when I was 17, in 1981-- but a year later, the very first hi-fi seminar I attended was one held by B&W. It took place not in a hi-fi shop but in a hotel, during a large conference packed with audiophiles. Back then, the British company, founded by John Bowers in 1966, was called B&W (or the more conversational “B’n’Dub”), and was already a big and influential player in hi-fi worldwide. Now formally renamed Bowers & Wilkins, they still are.

What stuck out in my mind at that B&W seminar was their 801 floorstanding speaker, which had debuted in 1979. For the midrange enclosure of this model B&W had abandoned the usual wood for Fibrecrete, a form of concrete reinforced with glass fiber, in an attempt to eliminate enclosure resonances and make the speaker’s reproduction of the midband cleaner. The 801’s new midrange cone was also different from other companies’ drivers, in being made of Kevlar, a polymer invented in 1965 by Stephanie Kwolek, a chemist working for DuPont; though much lighter, Kevlar is five times stronger than steel. B&W had begun using Kevlar in their speakers in 1974, but it was the 801 that made the material’s use in drivers so famous that, in the years that followed, midrange drivers of bright-yellow Kevlar became one of the brand’s hallmarks. That early seminar experience cemented in this Canadian teenager’s mind that B&W was as technically advanced as they were serious about sound -- and seemed to be constantly developing cool new things.

John BowersJohn Bowers and the 801

Six years later, I’d finished my post-secondary education in computer sciences, gotten a good job, and could afford to get better speakers. When I began shopping, I remembered that seminar as if it had happened the day before, and had no trouble finding some B&W speakers that caught my eye -- their new Matrix series, launched in 1986 and comprising three models. The Matrix 1 was a bookshelf design; the 2 and 3 were floorstanders. They didn’t have Kevlar midrange cones, but they had something else B&W had recently developed.

The Matrixes’ cabinets looked like typical wood on the outside, but inside they were braced with and stiffened by what B&W called the Matrix. This had been invented by a hotshot engineer, Laurence Dickie, who later went on to cofound Vivid Audio, where he still serves as chief designer. It was Dickie who, a few years after the Matrixes, designed B&W’s legendary Nautilus loudspeaker, still in production today, with tapered tubes attached to its drivers to dissipate their rear-directed energy -- those tubes, and the Nautilus’s unique shape, being other things that have become synonymous with the brand. The Matrix comprised closely spaced, interlocking wooden panels like those in high-quality wine crates -- the interior of a Matrix speaker looks like a series of little cells -- but joined far more tightly and rigidly. As with Fibrecrete, this time in a much bigger enclosure, the Matrix was designed to minimize cabinet resonances, and it really seemed to work. When you rapped the side panel of a Matrix 1, 2, or 3, all you got was a dull thuck -- not the louder, hollower sound of a typical loudspeaker box. And so another technological earmark of B&W speakers was notched.

Bowers & Wilkins museumBowers & Wilkins ’60s- and ’70s-era loudspeakers in the Boston-office museum

I was so smitten with the look, build, and sound of the Matrixes that I bought a pair of Matrix 1s. I used them for several years, and in that time got so hooked on the sound of B&W speakers that when I sold them I went really upscale and bought a pair of Matrix 802 Series 2 floorstanders. The Matrix 802 Series 2 included what were then all of B&W’s latest technologies: a Matrixed bass cabinet, a Fibrecrete midrange enclosure, and a Kevlar midrange cone (Dickie hadn’t yet invented the tapered tubes). (By this time they’d also released the Matrix 801 Series 2, but they were too big and costly for me.) I loved the Matrix 802 Series 2 as well, but when a friend who fancied them practically begged me to sell them to him, I did.

Still hooked on B&W, I bought a pair of Matrix 3 Series 2s. Though the Matrix 3’s midrange wasn’t quite as clear-sounding as the Matrix 802 Series 2’s, the Matrix 3s produced a lot more bass, and I was satisfied to use them for a few more years. In fact, I still owned the Matrix 3 Series 2s in 1995, the year I founded the SoundStage! Network.

John Bowers quoteA John Bowers quote painted prominently on a Boston-office wall

Present

Although the Matrix 3 Series 2s were the last B&W speakers I owned, all of those years of living with the company’s products left with me a lasting positive impression of the brand, and I’ve always kept an eye out for whatever new products they offer. So when I received an invitation from Bowers & Wilkins in early June, to attend a “secret” product preview on June 26 with other audio writers at their North American headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts, there was no chance I’d turn it down.

Bowers & WilkinsBowers & Wilkins Boston

Before the preview, B&W kept reminding us that anything revealed had to remain embargoed until the date of the actual launch, August 20. This got me thinking ahead of time about just what we might see and hear. It also had me a little concerned for the brand. In 2016, Bowers & Wilkins had been bought by EVA Automation, a tech company based in Redwood City, California, and I couldn’t help wondering if they’d be introducing something that would build on the brand’s past, or if they’d break with half a century of company tradition and come out with something entirely new. I feared it would be the latter -- in the 23 years SoundStage! has been publishing, we’ve seen too many brands change hands and quickly collapse because their new owners apparently forgot or didn’t value the very things that had made those companies worth acquiring in the first place -- the most recent example being Thiel Audio, which closed its doors last January.

When B&W finally showed us what all the fuss was about, I was relieved to learn that they hadn’t forgotten their roots, but seemed to be embracing them anew. The big secret turned out to be a new 600 Series of loudspeakers. This line of entry-level models debuted in 1995, with updates in 1999, 2001, 2007, and 2014. (B&W originally launched the DM600, DM610, DM620, and DM630 speakers in 1991, followed by “i” versions of all about a year later. However, it was made clear at this presentation that, for their own reasons, B&W marks the beginning of the 600 Series with the 600 models launched in 1995: the DM601, DM602, DM603, and DM604.) The 600s are traditional passive speakers -- the kind that audiophiles know and love -- and, along with statement-level speakers such as the legendary 801, helped build first the B&W and then the Bowers & Wilkins brands to the levels of admiration and respect they enjoy today. I breathed a sigh of relief.

For the sixth generation of 600s since 1995, B&W has created the 607 ($600/pair) and 606 ($800/pair) two-way monitors and the 603 three-way floorstander ($1800/pair). For home-theater use, there’s the HTM6 center-channel speaker ($599). There are also three subwoofers -- the ASW608 ($500), ASW610 ($650), and ASW610XP ($1200) -- but these weren’t the centers of attention in Boston because they’re not really new. According to a press release that followed the June 26 preview, the three subs are “carried across from the previous 600 Series with updated finishes to match the new range.” (The finishes are Matte Black and Satin White.)

Bowers & Wilkins 607 and HTM6607 monitors in Satin White and HTM6 center-channels in Satin White and Matte Black

As with all B&W speakers, the finishes of the new 600s looked great, and despite lacking full-blown Matrix enclosures, when I rapped a knuckle on their cabinets, they felt and sounded pretty solid. The 600s’ overall build quality seemed excellent -- though I’d expect nothing less from B&W.

Those familiar with the fifth generation of the 600 line will notice that the new line eliminates one center-channel and one tower model. In my opinion, that’s not necessarily a bad thing -- in the older line, the two-way, three-driver 684 S2 seemed like quite a bit less speaker than the three-way, four-driver 683 S2 (now replaced by the 603). I reviewed the 684 S2 and wasn’t nearly as impressed by it as I’ve been with other B&W speakers. I suspect that last time out, most people opted for the 683 S2, which I never heard and didn’t review, but it was very positively reviewed in other publications. I’m not that familiar with center-channel speakers, but I suspect that, in the fifth generation of 600s, one center model sold quite a bit better than the other. If so, it would make sense to keep that model and drop the other.

Bowers & Wilkins 603The 603 without and with its protective grille

Otherwise, there’s a lot new in the 600 models. First, there’s their appearance -- the new 600s look a lot like the pricier 700-series speakers, launched in 2017. According to Andy Kerr, the B&W senior product manager who spoke to us in Boston, “700 series technology has been cascading into the 600 series where possible.” Like the 700s, the 600s have midrange and midrange-woofer cones made of a proprietary woven material B&W calls Continuum. The 603’s midrange and the 606’s midrange-woofer are 6.5” in diameter, and the midrange-woofers in the 607 and HTM6 are 5” -- all are made of Continuum. After 41 years of using Kevlar in their midrange drivers, the introduction of Continuum was a big deal for B&W when they began using it in 2015, in the 800 D3 models. The inclusion of Continuum in the entry-level 600s means that the material is now used in all of B&W’s model lines.

Bowers & Wilkins D3 speakersThe 802 D3 floorstander with 805 D3 monitors flanking the HTM1 D3 center-channel

Also notable in every new 600 model is a newer version of B&W’s 1” Decoupled Double Dome tweeter, with a Nautilus-inspired tapered tube extending from its rear, as in their more expensive lines. This tweeter has been designed to push resonances to about 40kHz, a full octave above the audioband.

After the tech talk came the most important part: the listening sessions. Although B&W had set up a home-theater demo with two 603s, an HTM6 center speaker, and, sitting on stands behind us, 606 bookshelf speakers used as surrounds, I couldn’t learn much about the speakers’ sound from watching and listening to the clips they played from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Blade Runner 2049, and Dunkirk. When SPLs are high and special effects are Ping-Ponging back and forth, the last thing you’re thinking about is whether or not it sounds real. Besides, with a movie, you end up paying more attention to what you see rather than what you hear. I could have closed my eyes to prevent being distracted, but with that kind of material, and without any comparison system, I could tell little, other than that the speakers played quite loud and sounded very clean.

600 home-theater setupSixth-generation 600-series home-theater demo

The two-channel listening sessions were more revealing. Andy Kerr placed pairs of fifth-generation 600 models alongside their new replacements and played them back to back: 686 S2 vs. 607, 685 S2 vs. 606, and 683 S2 vs. 603. The source electronics, interconnects, and cables remained the same -- Kerr simply swapped speaker cables from one pair to the other -- and, as best I could tell, the playback levels were matched. Kerr’s music selections were varied. I recall songs from Bob Dylan, John Lee Hooker, and deadmau5, and there were others.

The biggest differences I heard between the old 600s and the new that were consistent through all models were in the midrange: each new 600 model sounded clearer and more focused than the 600 it replaces, and not by a little. The fifth-generation 600s sounded almost woolly and indistinct through the midband -- not broken, just not nearly as good. Along with that improved clarity, detail throughout the midband also seemed increased.

Bowers & Wilkins 606The 606 monitor

Through the two new bookshelf 600s the bass region also sounded cleaner than through the older versions, though the improvement wasn’t as great as what I heard in the midrange. But it was in the bass that the larger 606 revealed its clear advantage over the 607, projecting more bottom end and a more room-filling sound, with no reduction in midrange clarity.

The differences in bass reproduction were bigger with the floorstanders than with the minimonitors, and were almost as significant as the differences I heard in the midrange. The 603 sounded a good bit cleaner and better controlled in the lower frequencies than the 683 S2; coupled with the midrange improvements, that made the whole speaker sound more detailed. I didn’t think the 603 necessarily reached any lower in the bass in that room than the 683 S2 -- the improvement in the bass was more a matter of quality than of quantity. Regarding how the treble was reproduced, I was focusing so much on the midrange and bass that I didn’t get around to concentrating on the high end before the demo had concluded.

Bowers & Wilkins 603The 603’s Continuum midrange cone

As for soundstaging and spaciousness, the demo was a bit of a toss-up. The sixth-generation 600s didn’t sound more or less spacious than the fifth generation, but they reproduced acoustic spaces differently. The more diffuse-sounding midrange of the older 600s tended to scatter sound around the room in a kind of aural mist. The markedly clearer-sounding sixth-generation 600s were more focused and precise, and this was particularly noticeable with voices mixed at center stage: they were tight, tight, tight in the center; through the fifth-generation 600s voices were still at the center, but less distinct, almost smeared. The newer 600s’ superior reproduction of details let me hear more deeply into recordings and therefore more deeply into their soundstages. When I closed my eyes, I could better envision the spaces in which the music had been recorded. As someone who wants to hear clarity and detail, I definitely preferred the clearer, more focused sound of the new 600s.

Although B&W’s stereo demos were well done, they weren’t nearly exhaustive enough to stand in for the listening sessions necessary for a full formal review. Instead, they gave a good taste of what the new 600 models offer. In the days following the demo, B&W sent the attending audio writers a questionnaire asking which models we’d like to review. SoundStage! checked off the 606 and 603, and I hope we’ll get review samples of both. But even if we get neither, based on what I heard in Boston, I can say that B&W’s new 600 models are better than the previous generation. But let’s hope some review samples come through, so that whoever reviews them can tell you a lot more.

Future

With the sixth generation of Bowers & Wilkins’ venerable 600 line of speakers, it’s obvious that, even under new ownership, the people now running the company seem determined to honor its roots. That means continuing to serve audiophiles by advancing the quality of reproduced sound with new technologies, even in entry-level designs. A wise move.

Bowers & Wilkins poster

Bowers & Wilkins and I have some history together, and their sixth-generation 600 speakers are already a part of it. As I left Boston, it was clear that B&W is on the right track, and that our shared story is far from over.

Doug Schneider
Founder, SoundStage!