Bowers & Wilkins is one of the world’s biggest speaker manufacturers, and for good reason. Many manufacturers buy components from around the world and assemble them in-house, almost entirely by intuition, but B&W has a different approach.
Instead, the British manufacturer relies on highly sophisticated measuring equipment in the search for the best frequency curve and lowest possible distortion – even in the time domain. The most expensive speakers are largely produced by robots at the factory in England, so you can be sure that every speaker sounds exactly like the next.
The cheaper ranges, including the 600 series, may be made in China, but to specifications carefully calculated in their own UK laboratories. And more recently, they’ve inherited a lot from the more expensive 800 series.
The most recent 600 series arrived at the end of 2018, where I fell head over heels for the floorstanding 603, while we crowned the compact 607 the 2020 Compact Speaker of the Year.
In 2020, the speakers were then refined into anniversary editions. Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the 600 series, so the manufacturer has seen fit to further improve the speakers.
The speakers have new crossovers with special capacitors from Mundorf and better resistors for the midrange and treble units. This should give the new 600 series better transparency and resolution.
Continuum and Nautilus
B&W’s Continuum FST midrange unit is carried forward in the Anniversary models with the same chassis and magnet system as in the more expensive 700 series. The 606 S2 diaphragm material behaves like Kevlar, but is even better at reducing standing sound waves. The result is that more of the energy is translated into sound, improving efficiency and therefore dynamics.
Nautilus-loaded tweeters mean they’re mounted in an exponentially narrowing tube that absorbs energy from the back of the diaphragm. The double dome is said to provide better stability and lower distortion, and we’re promised that detail will flow out whether you’re “playing thunderously loud or enjoying quiet jazz music over a glass of red wine at the end of the night”.
The largest compact
The biggest of the two shelf models in the new 600 Series is called the 606 S2 Anniversary Edition and features a 6.5-inch Continuum midwoofer.
The performance of the 606 S2 Anniversary Edition is trustworthy, but I have to admit that the black version, which I got for testing, is a bit dull and one-dimensional to look at.
You have to examine it more closely to see that it has a higher quality than previous 600 models, but after having it in for review for many months (sorry, it’s taken a while!) it has yet to show any signs of tugging at corners or edges, as speakers with a duller vinyl finish tend to do.
But the speakers look considerably nicer in a combination of white faceplates and light oak veneer
In testing I’ve used pretty much only the Hegel H95, which is excellent with these speakers. But if you think it’s too expensive, a good choice is the Bluesound Powernode and NAD C338. For beautiful, elegant sound that might just lack a bit of power, you could also try the Rega Io. In that case, you’ll also need a DAC.
I’ve also used the Lyngdorf TDAI-1120 and finally the fiendishly expensive Devialet Expert 250 Pro reference amp to hear what the speakers can really do.
606 S2 Anniversary Edition: Anniversary Sound
One way to check the goosebumps factor is to start with Phoebe Bridgers’ cover version of Tom Waits’ Day After Tomorrow. If it doesn’t move you, you’re made of stone! And the speakers pass with flying colours. Phoebe’s silky, almost whispery voice fills the soundscape and is fleshed out with air and warmth, surrounded by piano, gentle strings, a driving slide guitar – and a giant reverb.
She sings, “Tell me, how does God choose? Whose prayers does he refuse?” And it’s almost unbearable. The speakers focus the soundstage well, the midrange in particular shining with a presence I didn’t expect this side of the €1,200 mark.
The airy treble I’ve heard even airier, most recently with the expensive Audiovector R3 Signature floorstanding speakers, but they’re in a completely different class. The 606 S2 Anniversary makes exemplary compromises here, to my ears.
For something a little more danceable, Dagny might be a good fit for the playlist, as “Somebody” gives good vibes in the winter sun. Again, the speakers have a really good focus in the midrange, where the voice is allowed to romp. The overtones also tie in well with everything and are restrained but crisp, as they should be in this song.
The bass is tight, but obviously not the deepest – this is a pair of compact speakers after all. As a result, the soundstage doesn’t feel as deep and three-dimensional with the pitch-black, breathing backing that usually characterises larger speakers. But it helps to place the speakers closer to the back wall.
Also, to get good bass, big speakers have to be exemplary, and that costs a lot more than you have to pay for the 606 S2 Anniversary. So it’s not easy to find floorstanding speakers at this price and with this focus, resolution – and speed.
Among other floorstanding speakers that will probably challenge and perhaps surpass the speakers in the bass region, we find the Dynaudio Emit 20 and Focal Aria 906, but the important homogeneity between midrange and treble will remain B&W’s alone.
And it’s not because the speakers cannot make a good impression in the bass. Just listen to Laura Marling’s “Soothing”. There is real size on the double bass here. And her voice is at the same time palpable.
Classical music is demanding because the different instruments have such different tonal structures that a coloured speaker is mercilessly revealed. But Lucy Kay’s “The Armed Man” sounds both big and open, and the instruments are layered in the soundscape. Her voice has presence as hell, and the strings surround it airily.
When the powerful middle section suddenly emerges, there’s still a certain grandeur here, but at the same time it becomes clear that the speakers are now starting to gasp more when you turn up the volume wheel on the amp. Again, that’s what you’d expect with speakers like this, which will always be a compromise when it comes to the biggest dynamic outputs.
The Bowers & Wilkins 606 S2 Anniversary Edition is a very accomplished compact speaker where everything is right. It takes the music task in stride and brings out the joy of playing. It clearly prefers a good recording, because flatly produced pop songs can quickly sound a bit dull and tame. Here you need speakers with more energy in the deepest bass.
But music with a lot of dynamics and enough punch in the bass and with a polished treble sounds really good, and especially in the midrange and overtone range the goosebumps factor is high.
The speakers sound complete, you don’t experience any shortcomings, and in a smaller room they will do wonders!