About a year-and-a-half ago, I reviewed a loudspeaker that was, to me, the platonic ideal of everything a speaker selling for less than $3000/pair should be. It was tonally neutral, had amazing bass extension and good dispersion characteristics, and was beautifully built. And yet, in the months that followed I saw at least one user review on an online retail site describe it as a sort of jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none speaker that sounded “metallic” and failed to connect with the listener. So, while we have mountains of research describing the sound of a speaker that most people will prefer, it’s clear that not every audiophile likes what most people like. And it’s clear that not every reader is going to like what I like. So when Bowers & Wilkins offered its new 603 S3 floorstander for review ($2500 per pair, all prices USD), I leapt at the opportunity.
The reason is simple: I never quite know what any given Bowers & Wilkins speaker (or pair of headphones, for that matter) is going to sound like, but it’s generally a safe bet that it’s not going to follow conventions to a T. It’s going to introduce some personality to the music. Whether I’m going to like that personality is always an open question, but that’s part of the fun of this hobby, isn’t it?
The new 603 S3 (not to be confused with the DM603 S3 from nearly 20 years ago) is the top model in B&W’s entry-level 600 Series, now in its eighth generation. It’s a three-way tower speaker with two 6.5″ paper drivers for the bass and Bowers & Wilkins’s trademarked 6″ Continuum-cone FST (Fixed Suspension Transducer) woven-composite midrange driver. The big news, though, is the 1″, tube-loaded “Decoupled Double Dome” titanium tweeter, with mounting technology and grille design borrowed from the 700 and 800 Series, respectively.
Bowers & Wilkins reports frequency response as 46Hz–28kHz (±3dB), with low-frequency extension down to an impressive 29Hz (-6dB), owing in part to the dimpled Flowport on the back of the speaker. The company also specifies sensitivity as 90dB on-axis (2.83V/m) and nominal impedance as 8 ohms, but with minimum impedance of 3 ohms. Without knowing the electrical-phase characteristics of the speaker, it’s difficult to say how tough a load it is from those specifications, but needless to say, I probably wouldn’t attempt to drive a pair with something like my old Denon PMA-150H, which struggled even with 4-ohm impedance dips.
All in all, the 603 S3 is a handsome speaker, even in its basic matte black finish, although I have to say: I’m envious of reviewers who got samples finished in white or oak and white, as both look delicious in photos. No matter the finish, though, the speaker has a nice magnetically affixed grille, with super-tight tolerances that you wouldn’t necessarily expect at this price point. You probably wouldn’t install the grille, though, once you caught sight of the sexy metallic sheen of the Continuum midrange cone.
Setting up and dialing in the Bowers & Wilkins 603 S3s
I began the setup process by removing my reference Paradigm Studio 100 v5 towers from my listening room and plopping the 603 S3s in the exact same spots, which didn’t quite work. In fact, it took me a good bit of tweaking and scooching and nudging and toeing and un-toeing to dial in the best of what the speakers could give me. For reasons we’ll discuss below, the final position that worked best in my room was a few inches farther away from the wall behind than is normal, with a slight amount of toe-out. And I do mean slight. Without using a laser protractor, you’d probably assume they were pointed straight ahead (whereas I normally toe my speakers in such that their on-axis sound converges a few feet behind my head).
For speaker cables, I relied on pre-terminated Elac Sensible Speaker Cables connected to my dying Classé Sigma 2200i integrated amplifier, which was fed by my reference iFi Audio Zen One Signature DAC because none of the Classé’s digital inputs work anymore. (I’ve got a new reference integrated on the way—don’t worry!) The iFi, in turn, was connected to my Maingear Vybe media and gaming PC via USB.
I briefly tested the speakers with the grilles on, but quickly decided that since they didn’t noticeably affect the tonal balance of the speakers, I’d rather leave them au naturel for the aesthetic reasons mentioned above.
How do the 603 S3s sound?
As is often the case when I’m setting up a pair of speakers that reward extra effort in terms of precise positioning, I relied heavily on the Allman Brothers Band’s “Blue Sky” (Eat a Peach, 24-bit/96kHz FLAC, Mercury Records / Qobuz) as my North Star—not because it’s some paragon of high-fidelity sound, but simply because I know it so intimately. If I can get “Blue Sky” right on a system, along with a couple of Björk tracks with ridiculously deep bass, I can be confident that pretty much everything else will sound right.
With the Björk tracks, I mostly focused on front-to-back positioning, and it didn’t take me long to dial in the bass with a few plays of “Hyperballad” and “The Modern Things” from Post (16/44.1 FLAC, Atlantic Records / Qobuz).
With “Blue Sky,” I focused my energies more on left-to-right adjustments and toe-in, and it was during this process that the 603 S3s simultaneously challenged me and convinced me to open up to something kinda new. Long story short, I was never able to get the song to sound the way I know it should. I couldn’t get it “right,” in other words. What surprised me was that it wasn’t exactly wrong, either.
The biggest thing I found myself contending with was exactly the thing I expressed fear about in my unboxing blog post: enthusiastic upper frequencies. But I need to be exceedingly clear about this: the sound of the 603 S3 is not what I would describe as “bright.” To me—and this is something that several of my interviewees discussed in last month’s column on inner detail—the term “brightness” conveys an elevation of frequencies between, say, 3000 and 5000Hz relative to the lower and midrange frequencies. It’s vague and debatable, but that’s what I hear first in speakers that other people describe as “bright.”
With a speaker like that, you’ll often experience excessive sibilance in Dickey Betts’s voice. The “sunshine” in the phrase “early morning sunshine tell me all I need to know” will peel your eyelids back like the Ludovico technique. And I didn’t experience any of that with the 603 S3s. Dickey’s vocals sounded beautifully balanced and natural.
What I would refer to as a “bright” speaker will also rob some energy and proportion from Berry Oakley’s bass, or—conversely—jack up those frequencies to compensate, which ends up pushing Berry too close to the front of the stage. But with the 603 S3s, his instrument felt completely proportional to me, not to mention beautifully balanced.
So what was wrong, you ask? Well, if not “wrong,” what was I hearing that I wouldn’t describe as right? In large part, it’s the textural aspects of the mix. I’m not as good at identifying specific frequency bands by ear once you get above 5000Hz or so, but what I heard from the 603 S3s sounded like enhanced energy somewhere in the neighborhood of 6.5 or 7.5kHz up to 10kHz. (And please don’t take my word for that, I’m just conveying what I think I heard.)
Whatever the specific boosted frequencies happen to be, the consequence is that on songs like “Blue Sky,” I heard things like the crunchy strumming of the acoustic rhythm guitar a lot more. I heard fingers sliding on wound electric guitar strings a lot more. Rimshots were more pronounced. Especially in the percussion, certain harmonics were elevated relative to their fundamentals, which changed the snap and attack of the rhythm section without throwing off the balance of the rhythm itself. I wish I could find a more articulate way of saying that what seemed enhanced to me were the textural aspects of the recording more so than the tonal ones, but that’s what my brain keeps going back to.
Now, here’s the thing. Like it or dislike it (and in this case, I have to admit that I genuinely enjoyed what these speakers were doing to this beloved song, no matter how much it may have deviated from the more neutral presentation I typically prefer), my first instinct when I hear sonic enhancements of this sort is to try and figure out what’s lost in return. There are no free lunches. And it’s true that I had to tweak the positioning of the speakers a lot and get my head off-axis enough to keep the enhanced textural presentation from being overwhelming. But what I struggled to do was find music that sounded bad on the 603 S3s.
Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga” (The Works (Remastered Deluxe Edition), 16/44.1 FLAC, Hollywood Records / Qobuz) is usually the first song I turn to when I hear speakers or headphones doing anything distinctive in terms of overall frequency response, because it’s kind of a canary in a coal mine. Boost or cut the wrong frequencies—usually the frequencies that manufacturers tinker with when they’re looking to voice a transducer to taste—and you can quickly and easily throw this one completely out of proportion. Freddie Mercury’s voice will go from being buried to being strident, lickety-split. I can’t tell you how many headphones I’ve heard molest this song to the point of un-listenability.
You know what? I kinda loved “Radio Ga Ga” through the 603 S3s, and that is a sentence I simply didn’t expect to type in the course of this review. The speakers imparted a sort of organic tangibility to this largely electronic song. What’s more, there was definitely some enhancement of the attack of the bass. And when the chorus at 3:33 kicked in, I could hear more sizzle from the Linn LM-1-generated clapping effects.
From there, I turned my attentions to one of my top-five favorite albums: Tool’s Ænima (24/96 FLAC, RCA Records / Qobuz). I figured, if “Radio Ga Ga” couldn’t find the 603 S3’s Achilles’ heel, surely “Eulogy” would. Mess with the tonal balance of this one, and you run the real risk of throwing the opening percussion way out of whack—especially the balance between Danny Carey’s actual percussion and Adam Jones’s muted guitar-as-percussion on the top two strings. My whole body was prepared for such as the song started to play. But what I heard wasn’t what anyone would describe as “out of whack.” Given sufficient toe-out, I instead heard speakers that pushed the textures of the mix into the forefront without doing much if any significant harm to anything else.
With all that said, if the 603 S3s were my own, I think I would definitely use something like Dirac Live room correction (or gentle application of parametric EQ) to find the forward frequencies and tame them a bit. Because despite the fact that this aspect of these speakers grabs you by the bottom lip and gets all up in your face, there are any number of other admirable characteristics that just don’t fight as hard for your attention. I think their midrange presentation is quite good. I think imaging and soundstaging are wonderful for a pair of speakers in this price class.
No matter how much I subjectively enjoyed the more textural presentation of the 603 S3s, though, I ultimately found myself listening to my system for shorter durations. I didn’t find myself sneaking away between supper and family-TV-watching time for a bit of solo listening. I didn’t hunt for excuses to sit down and spin, say, The Dark Side of the Moon before my bath. So I guess you’d say that’s the price I paid for lunch here.
Again, I very much enjoyed my time with the speakers, and I think listeners who find neutral tonality unengaging will find a hell of a lot to engage with here. I just found myself treating the 603 S3s more like a theme-park ride—fun as all get-out in brief bursts, but a bit much for my aging constitution after a while.
What comparable speakers should you also audition?
If you’re shopping for a pair of speakers in the $2500-to-$3000 range, all in, and you’re itching for something with the sort of personality a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 603 S3s have, I’m afraid I’m not in a position to offer advice on alternatives. Other speakers I’ve heard in this price class (and above, for that matter) that deviate from neutrality sound good with some tunes and awful with others, whereas I couldn’t find anything that sounded bad through the B&W towers.
I have a lot more experience with speakers in this price class that shoot for a more neutral presentation, though, and I can think of three models off the top of my head that you should audition: the Monitor Audio Silver 300 7G ($2850 per pair), the Sonus Faber Lumina V ($2999 per pair, up $300 since the last time I looked), and the excellent SVS Ultra Tower ($2599.98 per pair).
TL;DR: Should you audition the Bowers & Wilkins 603 S3?
I’ve always said that my goal with product reviews is not to tell you what I like or dislike, but rather to give you the information you need to determine whether a product will likely fit your needs and tastes. With the 603 S3, I’m struggling in this task. It sorta plays by its own rules, and I ended up liking the speaker in spite of myself.
I guess what I can say is this: if you find neutrality boring, if you want more texture from your speakers, and if you expect a $2500 pair of tower speakers to be an eye-catching addition to a room instead of an eyesore, you should definitely find your local Bowers & Wilkins dealer and give a pair a spin. If you’re on a quest for something very specific in terms of sound, and you haven’t been able to find it in the world of by-the-book loudspeakers, the 603 S3 might be exactly what you’re looking for.
. . . Dennis Burger
- Integrated amplifier: Classé Sigma 2200i.
- Source: Maingear Vybe media center PC
- Speaker cables: Elac Sensible,
- Power protection: SurgeX XR115 surge eliminator / power conditioner.
Bowers & Wilkins 603 S3 Loudpeaker
Price: $2500 per pair.
Warranty: Five years, parts and labor.
B&W Group, Ltd.
Dale Road, Worthing
West Sussex BN11 2BH
Phone: +44 (0)1903-221-800
Bowers & Wilkins North America
5541 Fermi Ct. N.
Carlsbad, CA 92008
Phone: (800) 370-3740