As the new 600 Series breaks cover, what better time to look back over almost two decades of Bowers & Wilkins engineering excellence applied to its best-value speaker range, and the acclaim with which successive series have been greeted, making them some of the world’s best-selling speakers?
There’d been DM600 speakers before, ‘DM’ being an established company designation for ‘Domestic Monitor’, but the current family of 600 Series models began in 1995, with the launch of the DM601 to DM604.
The launch brochure said that ‘To understand why Bowers & Wilkins created the new 600 Series, you must first understand the company. To understand the company, you must first understand its philosophy. That philosophy has always been to reproduce recorded sound as faithfully as it was made.
‘The inspiration was simple. The love of music.’
The most striking feature of the 600 Series was the use of those Kevlar cones, as technology from the higher reaches of the Bowers & Wilkins line-up began to trickle down. In 1975 it had been the first company to use this material, then more commonly found in armour and in the construction of racing tyres, for speakers. It was chosen for its lightness, strength – its tensile strength to weight ratio is five times that of steel – and self-damping properties, perfect for reducing unwanted resonance in a speaker cone.
The speakers also used aluminium dome tweeters, and cabinets with rounded edges to minimise diffraction, giving them a striking, modern look.
And the critics liked what they saw – and heard: What Hi-Fi? Gave the 601 a Best Buy in its 1996 Awards, commenting that ‘these speakers play music – all music – in a big, majestic fashion,’ adding that ‘these are extraordinary speakers for very ordinary money.’
Similar plaudits followed for the 602 and 603, while Home Cinema Choice got a bit carried away with watching The Lion King through a complete DM600 surround system, saying that the only way to better the combination would be to look further up the Bowers & Wilkins range or chase wallet-startling brands.
No surprise, then, that the 600 Series quickly established itself on the best-seller lists, but by 1999 it was time for a refresh: there was more new technology queuing up to find a place in the 600 Series.
The 1999 600 Series gained a variety of advances, including a flat-ring suspension to lower distortion in the tweeter, and paper/Kevlar bass units in the largest models, replacing the Cobex drivers used until then. But the biggest advance was hidden away within the speakers, and it came from one of the most striking Bowers & Wilkins speaker designs – the Nautilus, with its curling chambers and tubes stretching back from its drivers.
Inside the S2 speakers, the tweeter was loaded with a Nautilus tube – a tapered, damped chamber improving the absorption of unwanted radiation from the rear of the dome, and also lowering the fundamental resonance of the driver below the crossover frequency.
And the range gained an intriguing flagship model, the 605 S2, complete with an active bass section in which the twin woofers were driven using an internal 130W amplifier.
The 601S2 was declared by What Hi-Fi? to be superior in every way to the outgoing 601, and went on to pick up a 1999 Product of the Year Award, while reviewer Alvin Gold, writing in Hi-Fi News & Record Review, said of the same speaker ‘Scored out of ten, and then adjusted for value, I give it eleven.’
Value was also on their minds at Hi-Fi Choice: judging the 602 S2, the magazine said ‘This is an excellent speaker that’s all the more impressive because of its relatively modest price. A Best Buy.’
Meanwhile T3 said of the 605 S2 that it ‘pins you against the wall with its power: it delivers a massive sound, and is massively realistic and musical, and Gramophone’s John Borwick was sure the DM602 S2 could ‘take on any of its rivals at its very reasonable price. It can be confidently recommended.’
2001 brought another refresh, with the Flowport bass port technology used on the 605 S2 floorstanding speaker finding its way into all the 600 S3 models. Using the same dimpling idea that speeds the flight of a golfball by reducing the turbulence of the air in its wake, Flowport smoothes the flow of air through the bass port, reducing port noise while at the same time deepening the response.
But there was so much more to the S3 than just a new port: using technology derived from the Nautilus 800 speakers, the bass and midrange drivers in the S3 models gained a more open chassis, with slender, aerodynamic ‘legs’ to reduce the reflection of sound behind the diaphragm. Add to that a cutaway baffle for easier air-flow, and you had a cone reacting more to the music, and less to the cabinet.
Finally, the S3 models gained a new material for their bass drivers: while the midrange units were still Bowers & Wilkins’ famous Kevlar, the 603 S3 and 604 S4 had aluminium bass drivers, giving more low-end power through their greater stiffness and lower weight.
The plaudits followed: Stereophile’s Robert J Reina commented that ‘When I listened to Sonny Rollins’ rich, breathy tenor sax through the B&Ws, I could almost see his spittle’, ‘My notes on listening to Antal Dorati and the London Symphony’s performance of Stravinsky’s The Firebird are filled with exclamation points: “The hall sound!! The depth!! The drama!! The timpani!!“’
And the style of the speakers lived up to the sound, Reina commenting that ‘I can see why B&W speakers have been a hit in the New York City area. Their sound will appeal to audiophiles, and the wife acceptance factor of their sexy, unobtrusive enclosures is very high.’
No surprise, then, that there were some striking special edition versions of the 601 S3: the Blue Note had a cabinet illustrated with classic covers from the famous jazz label, a version in conjunction with fashion label Maharishi came in Disruptive Pattern Material camouflage effect, and the DM601 Fatboy celebrated Fatboy Slim’s Greatest Hits album, and was with cabinets matching the disc cover.
Fancy a pair of these limited edition speakers? Right now someone on Ebay reckons his Maharishi 601s are worth £3500!
The fourth-generation 601s arrived in 2007, with high-efficiency neodymium magnets for the tweeter across the range, greatly simplified crossovers for a more direct sound and, in the 683 floorstander and HTM61 centre speaker, B&W’s FST mid/bass unit.
Using a ring of foam mechanically matched to the Kevlar cone, this ‘fixed suspension transducer’ design means the surround acts as a shock absorber on the cone, allowing it to move more freely for better midband openness.
Even coming back to the 684s recently some years after first reviewing them, What Hi-Fi? said ‘this is another Bowers & Wilkins offering that was so splendidly realised in the first place that it demands consideration years down the line.
‘In simple bang-per-buck terms, they hold on to those five stars as securely as they ever did.’
Meanwhile The Absolute Sound’s Wayne Garcia greeted the arrival of the 685 back in 2007 with ‘let’s get straight to the point: B&W’s 685 is a terrific little loudspeaker.
‘It has impressive tonal balance, tremendous rhythmic authority, conjures a nice, open soundstage, has impressive if not super-extended bass response, a singing treble, plays loudly without strain (unless you’re a semi-crazy headbanger), and, thanks to a forward-firing port, can be mounted on the wall, shelf, or stand. Sweetening the deal, the 685 is finished to a degree that in my experience is unsurpassed at its price.’
The S4 range has so far proved to be longest-running iteration, but as we approach Bowers & Wilkins 50th anniversary, we now we have the new 600 Series – and again it’s taken on board technology trickled down from on high, as well as adding some tricks of its own.
In comes the Double Dome tweeter from the CM10 loudspeaker, with an extra-thin, super-light main dome for speed surrounded by a thicker ring for rigidity, loaded with the familiar Nautilus tube and floating on a gel cushion to decouple it from resonances and vibrations within the cabinet, giving a more open and detailed sound.
The midrange drivers gain foam Anti-Resonance Plugs for smoother movement of the voice-coil, and thus the cone itself, while like the tweeters, the aluminium-cone bass units in the new speakers have a reinforcing ring of the same material, damping down resonances and shifting break up frequencies beyond the crossover point for a richer bass with no distortion.
Given the popularity of the 600 Series for almost 20 years, the new models definitely have big shoes to fill, but with more Bowers & Wilkins advanced speaker technology than ever before, they look set to carry the appeal of great sound, stylish looks and superb value on well into a third decade, and delight reviewers and buyers alike.