Are Bowers and Wilkins Good Speakers?
John Bowers formed the company from his electronics shop in Worthing, West Sussex in the south of England. This was in 1966, when the notion of high fidelity in recorded music was still a relatively new development. Bowers & Wilkins was founded on the belief that the tastes of listeners would grow ever more sophisticated.
Anticipating a market for high-quality speakers was central to Bowers' strategy for business growth. Today, B&W is one of the world’s leading speaker brands and is synonymous with innovative sound technology and ground-breaking design. You’d find them in daily use if you were able to visit Abbey Road Studios, the home of The Beatles, or Skywalker Sound. Professional recording engineers prize them for the extraordinary accuracy of their sound reproduction.
The question of whether B&W speakers are good is a simple one with a complicated answer. Yes, the sound quality is superb and the aesthetics of the design are striking and attractive. But are they worth the high prices they command and are they in some circumstances too good for the equipment with which they are paired?
To investigate, we brought together a comprehensive review sample of B&W speakers for testing in our listening room. We have tried to replicate the environment of the average listener in order to assess the sound quality you would expect to experience in your own home. We’ve also considered several other issues such as the options for housing your speakers and of course the vital issue of price range.
Whether you favor the more visual statement of floorstanding speakers or the practical versatility of the bookshelf speaker, this will be largely dictated by the amount of space available. If your sound system is in a study or a busy living room, then you may not be able to accommodate floorstanding speakers. On the other hand, if you have the luxury of your own dedicated listening room then this won’t be an issue.
Multi-room speakers are well worth considering, since they allow you to share your music around the house. B&W created its Formation range of wireless speakers to make it easy for you to add this functionality and it is available using a stereo pair or a one-box option.
The Bowers and Wilkins Ranges
The 600 series was relaunched in 2020 in its seventh incarnation to celebrate the 25th anniversary of this popular budget range.
The 603 S2 is the largest speaker in the range, a floorstanding model that delivers tonal and musical accuracy with the power to fill a large room with sound. This also makes it a great choice for your home theater.
The 606 S2 represents a significant advance on the original 606. The B&W trademarked continuum cone and the decoupled double-dome tweeter are as effective as ever and the anniversary edition also benefits from a redesigned finish. Smaller than the 603 it still makes a statement with or without its optional stand.
The 607 S2 has long been one a very popular bookshelf speaker, fitting easily into limited space but delivering dynamic sound that belies its compact size. It’s perfect as your main output and can also be part of a surround sound system.
Lastly, the HTM6 S2 is a compact and powerful accessory for a home theater system, designed to blend discreetly with most furniture.
Considering how impressive we found the 600 series, we turned to the next part of our review sample feeling slightly sceptical that it could be much of an improvement. However, after some serious road testing we had to conclude that upgrading to the 700 series was definitely worthwhile.
We focused mainly on the 706 S2 speakers for comparison purposes. The first thing to say is that they have similar dimensions to the 606 but they benefit from a superior gloss black lacquered finish. They look stunning.
So much for appearances. What’s going on inside? The main driver of the 706 S2 is a continuum driver, with a woven composite structure that is similar to the Kevlar previously used in B&W speakers. Above the driver is a carbon dome tweeter which has been isolated from the vibrations that emanate from the continuum driver, just one of many design elements that contribute to the sound quality and clarity.
On the back of the 706 S2 is a large port and two sets of binding posts finished in chrome. A metal connector allows you to use a single wire arrangement or you can remove this so the speakers can be bi-wired.
The 706 S2 is slim enough to fit comfortably onto the average shelving unit although it’s worth checking your measurements before you buy. Always leave space at the rear to allow air to circulate around the vented port.
The entire 700 series has exceptionally good bass drivers and we found the bass response to be equally accurate across several different musical genres, from the obvious ones like funk and dub reggae to bebop and classical. This bass performance doesn’t come at the expense of the midrange driver, which more than holds its own while the carbon dome tweeter does a great job on the higher range percussion and the vocals.
Unsurprisingly, the other 700 series speakers in our review sample didn’t disappoint. They truly deliver on the B&W promise to bring studio sound into the home. The series is not cheap and although it is priced below the 800 series Diamond range, it incorporates some of the technological features of the 800. These include the continuum cone midrange driver and the Aerofoil profile bass drivers.
The 700 series was introduced to replace the CM series and although it uses the same classic box-design as its predecessor, in terms of performance it is definitely a step up. The 702 S2 speakers are the floorstanders of the range, slim, stable and attractive. Their carbon dome tweeters are housed in an aluminium body to improve resonance resistance and attached via the top baffles. Not only does this enhance function but it gives the speakers a unique and appealing appearance.
Now we come to the serious end of the B&W price range. In 2021 Bowers & Wilkins announced their upgrade to the 800 series, the 800 D4 speakers. In some ways the term upgrade is inadequate to describe the technological advances of the new Diamond range.
There are seven models in the 800 series. If you’re looking for a top-end tower speaker then there are four choices: the 802, 803 and 804 three-way floorstanding speakers and the new flagship model the 801 D4, which supersedes the 800 D3. In addition there is the 805 standmounter plus two speakers designed for home theater, the HTM81 and the HTM82 center channels.
Many of the familiar elements are present, such as the continuum cone, which acts as the midrange and bass drivers. The 800 series also features B&W’s new Biomimetic Suspension system which reduces air pressure and improves midrange performance.
Let’s look at some of the other changes.
Reverse Wrap Cabinet
This was previously restricted to only the high-end models but B&W have extended its use to every stereo pair in the range. It involves the bonding of several sheets of wood which are then bent into a shell shape behind the speaker, reducing internal resonance. The whole unit is held together by an aluminium spine. This is not a simple or cheap process and the machines used to carry this out apparently cost over $1 million.
Enhanced Matrix Design
B&W have been using internal pieces as a way to brace their cabinets for decades. In the 800 D4 series they have added aluminium to prevent the cabinet flexing that can be caused by some lower frequencies.
Elongated Tweeter Housing
The solid body tweeter housing we know well from the D3 series returns here in an improved form, longer than ever and now on a decoupled mount to prevent any resonance from the cabinet leaking into the tweeter housing.
All of the floorstanding speakers in the 800 D4 series come with an aluminium plinth which has been made larger for greater stability and support.
Anti Resonance Plug
All the floorstanding models in the new 800 series feature upgraded Aerofoil woofers with a new Anti Resonance Plug which has been developed to prevent the driver from flexing when frequencies fall. The result is a more accurate bass response with minimal distortion.
We teased this feature earlier. It is a genuine innovation, replacing the conventional spider which has always been integral to the midrange driver. In the past the speaker voice coil has been placed inside the spider which keeps the coil centered. Spiders have usually been made from some form of fabric. The engineers at Bowers & Wilkins were troubled by the spider’s tendency to stimulate air movements which caused slight but noticeable distortion.
Years of research and experimentation led the engineers to the solution. This involved a new design with all the attributes of the spider but which is completely open and therefore cannot make any sound of its own. As far as we can see this is a truly ground-breaking development.
How Does the 800 Series Sound?
Well, in a word, superb. Of the four floorstanding speakers, the midrange and bass response improve from the 804 D4 to the 801 D4, but such is the sophistication and quality of B&W that even the 804 delivers spectacular sound. The 801 is, of course, out of this world but any one of the four is a best-in-class tower speaker.
The 804 D4 is a 2-way bookshelf speaker and the only stand-mounted model. It is an excellent speaker for the smaller room, although in terms of price, if you can afford these, then it isn’t much of a stretch to go all the way to the 804.
For home theater enthusiasts, the 800 series offers two choices, the HTM81 D4 and the HTM82 D4. These are center channel three-way speakers which also feature biomimetic suspension as well as separated aluminium enclosures within the cabinet, housing the continuum cone midrange driver.
So are Bowers & Wilkins speakers any good? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’ from us. In an ideal world, everyone would have the budget to stretch to the 800 D4 Diamond range but, honestly, compared to most other speaker brands, anything you choose from the 600, 700 or 800 series is going to give you a unique level of performance.
If you are already familiar with Bowers & Wilkins then you’ll know what to expect, although you’ll be pleasantly surprised by their newest innovations. If, on the other hand, you’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing your favorite artists through B&W speakers then you’ll be in for one heck of a treat.