Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
My first and second reviews for the SoundStage! Network are of loudspeakers from Bowers & Wilkins. I’m hoping that, just as this reviewing gig begins to burgeon, this won’t typecast me as “the B&W guy.” But if it did, I wouldn’t mind -- I’ve loved spending time with these beauties. I’m just finishing up listening to a pair of 705 S2s ($2500 USD per pair) for SoundStage! Hi-Fi -- now, for SoundStage! Access, I’ve got my hands and ears on a pair of 606 minimonitors.
Although its prices keep creeping up, the 600 series is B&W’s line of affordable loudspeakers, and the $800 they ask for a pair of 606es seems the entrance fee to the world of B&W hi-fi. For comparative listening, I also had on hand pairs of B&W’s last two 600-series bookshelf models, now supplanted by the 606: the 685 S1 (ca. 1997, $600/pair), currently doing service in my modest home theater; and the 685 S2 (ca. 2014, $700/pair), which Al Griffin reviewed for this site in January 2017. I was intrigued: would comparing this trifecta of equally sized 600-series B&W speakers reveal an evolution or a revolution in sound?
The new 600 series was the second line of Bowers & Wilkins loudspeakers to benefit from technology trickled down from B&W’s current line of 800 D3 models, in which B&W’s trademark Kevlar midrange drivers -- in use and refined for 40 years now -- had been replaced with their new Continuum drivers. Like Kevlar, Continuum is a woven fabric, though B&W remains tightlipped about its precise composition. The Continuum cones are the result of eight years of R&D, during which, B&W says, they tested more than 70 prototypes. The Continuum drivers are claimed to operate on the same principle of controlled breakup as the Kevlars, but with a more open and neutral midrange. In describing the 606’s new Continuum midrange/midbass driver, B&W’s head of research, Martial Rousseau, says, “we did to the Kevlar cone . . . what we did about ten years ago to the aluminum tweeter dome by using diamond.”
There are three stereo loudspeakers in the new 600 series line, with the 606 sandwiched between the smaller 607 bookshelf and the 603 tower. You may wonder what happened to the 604 of the previous line, and/or why the 606 isn’t called the 605. It seems curious, but I believe I’ve figured out B&W’s current model-naming system. First, consider that the 606 directly replaces the 685, which replaced the 602, which replaced the 610 (of which I owned a pair some 25 years ago). Confused? I was, too.
On closer inspection, it seems that the current system of model naming makes more sense: It’s consistent across speaker lines, and emulates how the 800 model numbers have been arranged for some time now. For example, if a buyer today was looking at a model whose name ended in “07,” it would be a minimonitor with a 5” midrange-bass driver (e.g., 607, 707); models whose names end in “06” are larger bookshelf designs with 6.5” midrange-bass drivers (e.g., 606, 706); finally, a model name ending in “05” is a higher-end bookshelf design with a tweeter on top (e.g., 705, 805). With respect to the floorstanders, “04” models sport 5” FST midranges (e.g., 704, 804); “03” models have 6” FST midranges (e.g., 603, 703, 803); and names ending in “02” and below are reserved for high-end floorstanders at the top of a series (e.g., 702, 802, 800). B&W first developed and implemented their Fixed Suspension Transducer (FST) midrange driver for the first generation of their 800 Diamond series. According to B&W, as the midrange diaphragm moves only a little, the FST was developed with a “surroundless” suspension in which a ring of foam with a resistive mechanical impedance identical to that at the cone’s outer rim is placed under that rim. Bending waves traveling up the cone are almost totally absorbed by the foam ring, which also compresses sufficiently to accommodate the cone’s movement at midrange frequencies.
The 606 has a 6.5” Continuum midrange-bass driver and a 1” aluminum-dome tweeter, housed in a cabinet of dimensions essentially identical to those of its predecessor, the 685: 13.5”H x 7.5”W x 11.8”D. It weighs 15.2 pounds. There’s a port near the top of the rear panel, and below that are high-quality binding posts. The crossover frequency isn’t specified, but other things are: a frequency response of 52Hz-28kHz, ±3dB; a nominal impedance of 8 ohms, with a 3.7-ohm minimum; a sensitivity of 88dB/2.83V/m; and, at an output level of 90dB at 1m, less than 1% harmonic distortion from 100Hz to 22kHz.
The fit and finish are of high quality, and, unlike the 685 S1 and S2, the new 606 has no visibly mitered corners. The plastic front baffle aside, the cabinet looks like a single rectangular solid. Gone is the 685 S1 and S2’s dated faux “black ash” veneer, replaced by a more contemporary matte finish of black or white. However, this matte material looks a bit cheap in bright light, like the plastic melamine of a bathroom cabinet door. I prefer the black ash -- but my wife, who’s considerably younger than I, prefers the new finish. And the new finish at least looks pretty durable -- as if it would receive the impact of a set of keys or loose change dropped on it a few dozen times without so much as a scratch (not that I tried this).
I placed the Bowers & Wilkins 606es on the stands that came with the 705 S2s, in the same positions: the 606es’ rear panels were about 22” from the front wall, the speakers described a 9’ equilateral triangle with my listening seat, and they were toed in 18°. To establish a commensurate level of quality and cost between speakers and system, I removed from the signal chain most of my reference gear, and instead used as a source my Bluesound Node and its internal DAC, connected to the RCA inputs of an NAD C 316BEE integrated amplifier, which drove the B&Ws with speaker cables I made myself. And that was it -- no subwoofer, no room-correction software, no external DAC, no McIntosh pre- and power amp, all of which I use with more expensive speakers. The little NAD integrated, specified to output only 40Wpc, turned out to be more than up to the task, offering plenty of transparent power that allowed me to play the 606es at earsplitting levels. And to break in these new speakers, before doing any serious listening I played music through them on a loop for ten hours or so.
Listening to the 606es, my first impression was a feeling of familiarity: I heard the same open, detailed midrange and extended top end I’d gotten used to hearing from the 705 S2s. The 606es, however, couldn’t deliver the 705 S2s’ degrees of realism and transparency, or pull off the same “disappearing” act. I was subtly aware that sounds produced by the 606es were indeed coming from two small boxes. At slightly more than three times the 606’s price, the 705 S2 should sound better, and they did -- but not three times better. On the other hand, most audiophiles are willing to spend a lot of money for only incremental improvements in sound. Everyone draws his or her own line.
Deciding that my first order of business was to evaluate the 606’s bass response, I played some hip-hop, thinking that “I Feel It Coming,” from The Weeknd’s Starboy (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC and CD, Republic), would be a nice test of the 606’s low-end prowess. Well, wow -- color me impressed. In my relatively small room, these relatively small speakers put out prodigious amounts of low-end energy, serving up big helpings of full, deep bass. The tightness and detail of the bass fell a bit short of what I was used to from the 705 S2s, but in terms of bass quantity and depth, the $800/pair 606 may have marginally outclassed the $2500/pair 705 S2. Measuring both speakers’ -3dB points relative to 1kHz in my room with my miniDSP UMIK-1 calibrated microphone validated what I’d heard: the 606es were 3dB down at 31Hz, while the 705 S2s were 3dB down at 33Hz at the same positions. The little 606 is unlikely to disappoint those looking for deep, satisfying bass, as long as their expectations are kept in perspective by remembering the speaker’s size and price.
The 606’s reproduction of the midrange of “Turn Me On,” from Norah Jones’s Come Away With Me (16/44.1 FLAC, Blue Note), presented her voice with very good clarity, detail, and extreme presence, and with an impression of air that placed her in the room, front and center and forward in the mix. The piano was also delivered with realism, the notes occupying distinct positions on the soundstage, and with natural decays. This album in general is well recorded, but “Turn Me On” in particular is closely miked, which was why I chose it: to hear if this track’s tendency to make Jones sound too sibilant would be worsened by B&W’s characteristically forward-sounding tweeter. And it was, at least at high listening levels (peaks of 90dB SPL) in my treated listening room. (I use broadband absorption at the first reflection points and on the long wall behind the speakers.) At more moderate levels (70-75dB), this cut was engaging, detailed, and a treat to listen to.
Here’s the thing: Some audiophiles disparage B&W’s hot tweeters, but most find B&W’s house sound quite pleasing, as do I -- and as evidenced by the company’s impressive sales figures. Still, that lovely, detailed, airy, extended B&W top end that I hear and enjoy with most of the recordings I listen to can indeed sound grating with the wrong recording, especially at high volumes. This shortcoming can be obviated or at least mitigated using various strategies -- equalization, a treble control, a larger room, less toe-in (though at the expense of imaging and focus), room treatment, listening at lower volumes, even old age. (I think we all know what happens to our ability to hear high frequencies as we age, especially for men. If my wife is reading this: “Honey, it’s not that I don’t listen, it’s that I can’t hear the higher registers of your voice!”)
Next I tried a cut that I enjoy for its dynamics and rhythm, and that I know doesn’t suffer from closely miked vocals: “Run-Around,” from the Blues Traveler’s Four (16/44.1 FLAC, A&M). What I heard was exhilarating. The voices had nice presence and focus, imaging well above the speaker plane, with no hint of sibilance. The bass was ample and rhythmic, with a quality that got my toes tapping (always a good thing). Each instrument was well delineated on the soundstage, occupying its own space. Even when I turned up the volume, the 606es remained composed and focused, laying bare all of the sounds in this track’s more complex musical passages without over- or under-emphasizing any part of the audioband.
To judge the 606’s abilities in the higher frequencies, I played “Black Velvet,” from Alannah Myles’s self-titled album (16/44.1 FLAC, Atlantic). The cymbal crashes seemed to extend a mile, gently decaying into oblivion. I wanted to see if the 606es did this recording justice, and I was not disappointed. The cymbals had width, extension, dispersion, and decay approaching the level of sound quality in these regards that I’m accustomed to hearing in my room from the B&W 705 S2s.
Comparison: B&W vs. B&W vs. B&W
I listened to each recording mentioned above at least once through three successive bookshelf speakers from Bowers & Wilkins’s 600 line: the 606, then the 685 S2, and finally the 685 S1. Although time-consuming, this sort of direct comparison is easily achievable with minimonitors set up on the same pair of stands -- I sure wouldn’t want to try it with three pairs of 100-pound floorstanders.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, all three speakers sounded, overall, quite similar, with B&W’s usual open, detailed midrange accompanied, to varying degrees, by an extended top end. I listened for differences with Norah Jones’s “Turn Me On”: The 606es threw a slightly larger soundstage than the other two pairs, Jones’s piano seeming to extend farthest out than through either pair of 685s. It was also clear that the 606 provided the most up-front, intimate, detailed midrange and top end, followed by the 685 S2 and then the 685 S1, the differences between the 606 and 685 S2 being greater than those between the 685 S2 and 685 S1. In fact, those degrees of difference held true through all of my comparisons. As for the accentuation of vocal sibilance in “Turn Me On,” you guessed it: the 606 was the worst offender; only the 685 S1 managed to rein in this sibilance enough to make listening to this track enjoyable even at high volumes. For most types of music played at low to moderate levels, the winner in terms of overall pleasure was the 606, followed by the 685 S2, then the 685 S1. But for listening at very high volume levels to closely miked vocals that tend to be sibilant, reverse that ranking.
I’d recently stumbled on a post on the SoundStage! Network’s Instagram account (@soundstagenetwork) about how research at Harman International found that Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” from Tracy Chapman (16/44.1 FLAC, Elektra/Asylum), was particularly good at revealing differences among speakers. With “Fast Car” played at any volume level, the 606 won hands down, easily besting both 685 models. The 606 reproduced Chapman’s voice with more detail, presence, air, and body, and not a hint of sibilance. Guitar plucks sounded more realistic, with more sparkle and decay. The 606 also seemed to provide better delineation of instruments in dense, complex passages. Between the 685 S2 and S1 it was a very close call, but I give the edge to the S2 for its slightly more forward- and detailed-sounding midrange. In the lower octaves, the 606 seemed to deliver a fuller, more satisfying experience compared to both 685s, but I wanted to confirm that impression with some bass-heavy music.
Yep. With The Weeknd’s “I Feel It Coming,” the 606’s bass reproduction clearly outclassed that of both 685s, which to me sounded exactly the same. This wasn’t a difference in bass quality -- all three B&Ws produced bass of equal tightness -- but of bass quantity and fullness. To confirm what I was hearing and feeling, I measured the in-room bass response of both 685s, and both were 3dB down at 34Hz, compared to the 31Hz I measured for the 606.
To compare the treble performances of the three models, I returned to the cymbal crashes in Alannah Myles’s “Black Velvet.” No surprise: the 606es reproduced the cymbals with more extension and width, and with slightly longer decays, than either pair of 685s. And to put one more nail in the coffin of B&W’s Kevlar cones: The 606es with Continuum drivers simply created a more pleasing sound with Myles’s voice, with more presence, air, and structure. The differences in the 685 S2’s and 685 S1’s reproductions of the midrange and treble were similar but much smaller.
The Bowers & Wilkins 606 costs $100/pair more than did the 685 S2, which cost $100 more than did the 685 S1. Is that $200 net increase worth it? Well, B&W doesn’t upgrade their speaker lines every year or two or even three, so inflation must be taken into account. That said, inflation accounts for only a small fraction of that $200 difference, so the question lingers. But having spent time with all three models concurrently, I think the 606 is definitely worth it. I would also argue that, in terms of the improvements I heard, the $100 increase from 685 S2 to 606 is much easier to defend than the $100 increase from 685 S1 to S2.
So: A case of evolution or of revolution? Moving from the 685 S1 to the 685 S2 represents a small incremental evolutionary step in sound quality, while moving from the 685 S2 to the 606 is a . . . well, revolution is too strong a word, but it’s a big step in the right direction. In my room, the Bowers & Wilkins 606 provided clean, surprisingly ample bass for its size; a clean, extended top end; and a detailed, airy midrange -- all with very few cabinet colorations. The main drawback I detected was the hotness of B&W’s aluminum-dome tweeter, which manifested in measurements as a bump in the frequency response between 5 and 12kHz, as measured in my room, and audible as accentuated sibilance at high volumes. When you play recordings that are already sibilant, the 606 will not lie by masking this aspect of their sound. The prospective owner should ideally listen to a variety of recordings through these speakers before buying. But for me, the many strengths of the Bowers & Wilkins 606 render this occasional drawback trivial, and this speaker very easy to recommend.
. . . Diego Estan
- Speakers -- Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2, 685 S1, 685 S2
- Subwoofer -- SVS SB-4000
- Power amplifier -- McIntosh Laboratory MC302
- Integrated amplifier -- NAD C 316BEE
- Preamplifier-DAC -- McIntosh Laboratory C47
- Room correction -- miniDSP DDRC-22 with Dirac Live (between digital sources and DAC)
- Digital sources -- Rotel RCD 991 CD player, Bluesound Node streamer
- Analog source -- Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Esprit turntable and tonearm, Ortofon 2M Red cartridge
- Speaker cables -- 12-gauge oxygen-free copper (generic) terminated with locking banana plugs
- Analog interconnects -- AmazonBasics (RCA), Monoprice Premier balanced (XLR)
- Digital interconnect -- AmazonBasics optical (TosLink)
Bowers & Wilkins 606 Loudspeakers
Price: $800 USD 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
B&W Group North America
54 Concord Street
North Reading, MA 01864
Phone: (978) 664-2870
Fax: (978) 664-4109