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Best Bowers & Wilkins Speakers
In the 1960s a man called John Bower owned a radio and TV shop in Worthing, a town on the Sussex coast in the UK. In 1996, as a special commission, he built speakers for an elderly lady who was so impressed with the result that she left him £10,000 in her will which was enough for him to found Bowers & Wilkins Electronics Ltd. To him, nothing but perfection was acceptable and he explained the success of B&W in the simplest of terms: ‘If you make a better product, you will sell it.’
The reputation of B&W speakers grew rapidly and they were soon the brand of choice for professional recording engineers, becoming an essential feature of the world-famous Abbey Road Studios. Nearly 60 years later, B&W products are held in equally high-esteem by anyone who values a great sound system. For quality and innovation, they have very few rivals. We tested a selection of Bowers & Wilkins speakers from their extensive range - premium, bookshelf, budget and floorstanding speakers - to identify the very best on offer.
Not everyone has the luxury of a dedicated listening room. This makes it imperative to find compact bookshelf speakers, suitable for environments with more limited space. The 607, as well as being the most affordable in the 600 series, delivers exceptional sound. The design is classy and expensive-looking while the audio output is powerful and dynamic, which a surprisingly deep bass for small speakers: they measure just 30cm x 16.5 x 20.7. They are bi-wiring enabled and the tweeter has been decoupled from the front panel which reduces vibration interference from the mid/bass driver. The performance is very well balanced with plenty of detail.
We feared this special edition of the 607 would turn out to be all marketing and no improvement but we’re pleased to report that B&W has not let us down. The original 607 is an exceptional speaker, but the S2 version manages to deliver an even cleaner and engaging listen, largely thanks to the improved bypass capacitors, treated by the experts at Mundorf. B&W has also incorporated these capacitors into its 700 series. For an affordable lower to mid-range speaker, the award-winning 607 S2 is the perfect choice.
These were also award-winning B&W speakers, and although you might think they had been supplanted by more recent innovations, they actually give a superb sound, offering openness and clarity across the entire frequency spectrum. This is due to the company’s Continuum cone technology, introduced for their premium range and then applied throughout their product portfolio. The B&W 606 has a 16.5cm Continuum bass/midrange driver and a 25mm decoupled double dome aluminium tweeter to reduce the unwanted effects of vibration from the mid bass drivers. They are also equipped with banana plugs for bi-wiring. With a weight of 3.5kg each and a height of 35cm, they can be easily accommodated on any bookshelf.
B&W 606 S2 Anniversary Edition
Here’s another special version of an already excellent product which didn’t seem to have much room for improvement. However, even though the changes to this award-winner seem modest, the effect is considerable. Initially, they sound very similar to the 606, but we soon noticed a real difference to the bass, which is cleaner and punchier. It benefits from the better-quality capacitors which are now found throughout B&W’s speakers and has a smarter finish than the originals. The 606 S2 speakers weigh 6.9kg, and their dimensions are 34.5cm x 19 x 30. If you’re looking for stand-mounters they are a truly high-powered, affordable option.
We’d have to say that these are probably the best stand-mounters in the B&W portfolio. As part of the fourth generation of the 800 series, they have genuinely class-leading resolution and clarity, revealing layers and depths to the music with an ease and consistency we’d expect from much more expensive models. The speaker cabinet construction incorporating reinforced plywood bracing is extremely sturdy, and the drive unit configuration has been refined. As always with stand-mounters, the sound quality will be slightly dependent on the stands, so we advise buying the manufacturer’s own. You’ll be impressed by the immersive listening experience, which has been transformed by B&W’s progress in controlling cabinet resonances to such an extent that with your eyes closed, it’s very hard to tell where the speakers are placed.
There is no better solution for multi-room use than wireless speakers and the Formation Duo, which are wireless stand-mounts, are among the best we’ve heard in our testing rooms. They give a precise, clear and agile sound with perfect stereo imaging. They give you punch and power when you need it but are equally capable of delivering the delicacy required in quieter passages. We felt the multi-room feature could have been simplified into a single app, but this is only a small criticism. They’re certainly not cheap, but we reckon they’re easily worth the money. The only worry is that if your source material is not what it should be, it won’t be able to hide its flaws from the honesty of the Formation Duo. They weigh in at 10.6kg with dimensions of 39.5cm x 19.7 x 30.5.
The 603s are the only floorstanding speakers in the 600 series. They have an impressive footprint, standing 98.5cm high and weighing 24.1kg each. Like the majority of models in the range, they include Continuum cone material. They have a very broad soundscape with equal weight given to all frequencies so that the heavy bass weight doesn’t come at the expense of clarity in the vocals and higher-range detail. In the FST midrange driver, the usual rubber surround is replaced with a foam ring which does a better job of damping vibrations in the cone, reducing distortion. The FST driver works with a pair of 16.5cm paper bass cones and has a 25mm double dome tweeter for the high frequencies. This makes the 603 a genuine three-way speaker, something of a rarity at this level. We have to admit that the speaker cabinet doesn’t quite live up to Bowers and Wilkins standards and John Bower might have had some concerns, but for performance, we really can’t fault them.
Of the many Bowers and Wilkins innovations we’ve encountered over the years in our testing rooms, one of the most visually striking is the Zeppelin. The original version introduced several years ago achieved instant icon status for its extraordinary sleek design as well as its superb sound quality. The new version prioritises wireless connectivity and supports AirPlay2, aptX Adaptive Bluetooth and Spotify Connect. In addition, the Bowers and Wilkins Music App allows you to access streaming services like Soundcloud, Tidal and Oobuz. You can also use Alexa voice control. The sound is among the best you’ll find in a wireless speaker, with clear, full presentation and a particularly effective bass injection. At 6.5kg, measuring 21cm x 65 x 19.4, it’s fairly compact but very powerful.
Pitched very well between the 600 and the 800 series, the 700 series is B&W’s mid-range collection. The 707 S2 speakers are the smallest and cheapest of the 700s, but this doesn’t mean any compromise on build or quality. The speaker cabinet has an excellent finish with some attractive detail and the audio doesn’t disappoint. The sound you’ll get from this compact speaker is solid and well-balanced, giving the kind of powerful bass that many comparably sized speakers struggle to deliver. Volume can also be an issue in this type of speaker, but here you can dial it right up with no distortion or loss of quality. This is largely due to the tweeter having a thin layer of carbon on its 30-micron thick aluminium dome and extra reinforcement in the form of a carbon ring. For small packages, they deliver a big sound.
Wireless speakers are easy to find and some of them are ridiculously cheap. However, it’s usually true that you get what you pay for, so if you’re happy with a 20-dollar speaker and all its limitations, then that’s absolutely fine. If, on the other hand, the sound quality of your speakers matters enough for you to consider a high-end brand like Bowers and Wilkins, then you’ll want to think about the Formation Wedge. This is part of the B&W multi-room range which means it’s ideal for pairing with the Formation Duo, which we’ve already looked at, through B&W’s wireless mesh system. You’ll be able to get hi-res streaming up to 24-bit/96kHz. However, you don’t need to use the Wedge in conjunction with anything else because it works superbly as a stand-alone wireless speaker. It has a three-way driver which makes it a complete sound system in one, easily capable of matching the performance of the best bookshelf speakers. Its sound is dynamic, powerful and immensely detailed. It is compatible with aptX HD Bluetooth, Spotify Connect and Apple AirPlay 2.
Among B&W’s floor-standing speakers the 704 is deceptively slight. This is a slim pair of speakers which, despite the size, delivers a detailed and well-organized sound, which shows no deterioration at the highest volume. Once again, traditional Kevlar has been replaced by B&W’s continuum cone technology and further damping is provided in the mid-range by its FST technology. The bass is delivered by two 13cm drivers, and although the bass might not be quite as well defined in the 704 as in some other models, the overall performance, especially at higher volume, is very pleasing. A word of warning when you get them home - they weigh 18.5kg each, so you might want to enlist some help when you set them up.
The first thing we noticed about the 705 S2 is the sheer elegance of the design. On top of each speaker cabinet is a decoupled, carbon-reinforced aluminium dome tweeter to reduce treble diffraction. This, in turn, means the main driver can sit higher in the cabinet and generate maximum energy. The 705 S2 benefits from B&W’s gradual upgrade from Kevlar to Continuum for better rigidity and controlled break-up. The dimensions of the 705 are only 34cm x 20 x 28.5, but they put out a rich, solid sound with very impressive depth from the mid bass drivers. The midrange driver is equally effective and the treble is clear and crisp. In our experience, you’ll get the clearest and cleanest sound through bi-wiring and they will benefit from being situated a meter away from the wall so the sound can really circulate. The 705 S2s are stand-mounters so it’s worth taking this into consideration, because the supports you choose can have an effect on sound quality. Ideally, we’d recommend you choose B&W’s bespoke FS-700 stands. They’re not significantly more expensive than comparable options and they really are made to complement the performance of this excellent pair of speakers.