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December 2023

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North America Premiere Review!
Bowers & Wilkins 603 S3 Floorstanding Loudspeaker Review
The truth, and nothing else but the truth.
Review By Ron Nagle

 

Bowers & Wilkins 603 S3 Floorstanding Loudspeaker Review

 

"The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children, all our lives." — Albert Einstein

 

  Like the ravens at the White Tower, I cannot think of a more iconic audiophile symbol of England than Bowers and Wilkins. That's of course if you happen to look at the world through audiophile eyes. John Bowers and Roy Wilkins met during World War II while both of them were serving in the Royal Signal Corps. They began business as a radio and electronics retail shop located in the town of Worthing England. Bowers & Wilkins was founded in 1966 in Worthing, West Sussex, England. John Bowers started the business we now know as Bowers & Wilkins. At that time he was no longer involved with the retail shop. The first speaker production line was established in the retail shop's backyard.

In 1970 Bowers decided to develop a loudspeaker wholly built in-house. The sizeable DM70 from 1970 combined electrostatics mid-and-high range drivers on top of a traditional bass unit. The distinct shape of the loudspeaker won a British Industrial Design Award. Good press reviews allowed the company to prosper. In 1981 the company opened a dedicated, purpose-built research center titled SRE or Steyning Research Establishment in Steyning, about 10 miles from Worthing.

In 2002 Bowers & Wilkins moved its Worthing production, warehousing, and head office to a new Ł7,000,000 location on Dale Road. A second plant was built in Bradford, in the north of England. In 2019, Bowers & Wilkins moved the Steyning Research Establishment into a new 30,000 sq/ft facility called Southwater Research and Engineering. Today, the company manufactures loudspeakers, wireless active / powered speakers, subwoofers, soundbars, in-wall surround speakers, and headphones.

In October 2020, Sound United LLC acquired Bowers & Wilkins and, subsequently, Masimo Corporation acquired Sound United in 2022. So the brand has had an interesting history, and quite a few owners over the years too. The complete list of speaker innovations derived from Bowers & Wilkins research is certainly remarkable.

 

 

The Bowers & Wilkins View
Bowers & Wilkins (a.k.a. B&W) home audio speaker production is divided into numeric categories. At the top of the range is the flagship Nautilus speaker. Next in line is the 800 Series Diamond followed by the 700 Series and last the more affordable 600 Series. The revised 600 Series Three is comprised of four different models. Included are two-way stand-mounted speakers the 606 S3 and 607 S3. A center channel speaker the HTM6-S3, and the review subject, the 603 S3. The speakers in the 600 series can be used to set up an audio / video system with surround sound and a center channel. The review sample is the latest three-way vented box 603 Series 3, not to be confused with a look-a-like predecessor, the 603 Series 2.

The speakers arrived as a freight shipment with two speakers strapped together; the combined weight was 179 pounds. After unpacking and bolting on the separate base plinth you have a 40.2" high speaker 10.2" wide and 13.4" deep (or 15.8" deep if you include the base plinth). The speaker weighs 60.6 pounds, seven pounds more than the Bowers & Wilkins Series 2. The B&W 603 S3 may be ordered with a solid black or solid white cabinet. My sample came with a very attractive oak finish. It has a white front panel that is covered by a gray grill cloth. More details and specifications are listed at the end of this report.

 

 

Profile
"Needs Must", is an old aphorism borrowed from our British cousins. It tells us we need and must describe the subject of this evaluation. The 603 Series 3 is an improved and revised Series 2. Some of these improvements have trickled down from the more expensive 800 and 700 series speakers. These include a mesh screen on the tweeter, a decoupled double-domed titanium tweeter housed in an elongated tapered tube, a six-inch continuum cone midrange driver, and two 6.5" paper bass cone drivers (both of these are crossed over at the very same frequency), a new textured (Flowport™) bass reflex port and upgraded bi-wire speaker binding posts. The entire cabinet benefits from additional internal bracing. Before I go any further I should mention the price of $2500 per pair.

It's a good idea to run in any new speaker before you do any critical listening. With that in mind, I dialed up some Bluetooth music and took myself and my wife for a nice dinner. After exercising the speakers for about six hours I deemed they were ready to tell their story. The sound of the Bowers & Wilkins 603 Series 3 can be adjusted to suit the owner's preference. This is an option I like very much.

At the rear of the cabinet, there is a (dimpled) port that affects the character of the speakers' sound and alters the response of the speakers' two 6.5-inch bass drivers. Supplied with the speaker is a round two-part foam plug that is the same size as the rear port. The round foam plug has a removable center. If it is removed what remains takes on a cylindrical shape.

 

 

The bass response of the speaker may be adjusted in three ways. As shipped, the port is open and unobstructed. Depending on your audio system and your tastes you may just leave the port open. The second option is to insert the two-part foam plug into the port to increase dampening by blocking the port. The third option is to remove the center of the port plug. The remaining cylindrical foam shape leaves the port opening narrowed but not closed.

The mad scientist in me decided to perform a little subjective and unscientific experiment. Using my Rives Audio CD, Testing for the Home Environment. I heard useful bass down to track six at 31.5Hz. The Rives audio test CD contains frequency bands starting at 20 Hz and in separate ten-second steps reaches a high of 20 kHz. Sitting next to the right speaker I played the test CD with the speaker port open. Starting with 20 Hz not until step five at 50 Hz did it reach a level that would balance my mid and tweeter levels. The resulting pitch definition was poor, our British cousins would call it "plummy."

 

 

Next with the foam plug completely blocking the port. Starting with the test frequency at 20Hz, with the port closed the steps between the first three tracks were not evident until it reached track six at 63 Hz. With the port closed it takes more amplifier power to reach the same port open volume. The third and last session had the speaker port partially blocked with cylindrical foam. At 63 Hz it was evident that the steps between frequency levels were more evident and the bass had much better pitch definition. This configuration reduces the subjective amount of bass compared to the output of the open port but at the same time, you gain more bass control.

In this way, I found a more articulate and better overall balance. To be more specific, the energy of the lower frequencies results in a better match to the midrange and tweeter levels. The effect it has is that the apparent individual driver levels are matched. This was the port configuration I settled on. Note: The port setup may be different in your home.

 

 

Placement
Normally when I adjust speakers, I try to squeeze all the sound stage I can out of them. The old rule of thumb tells you to start with an approximation of an equilateral triangle and with the tweeter height close to your seated ear level. Adding to this adjustment is the sightline or toe-in position aimed where you are sitting. Commonly writers refer to the ideal position as, "the sweet spot." For this evaluation, I chose to use the IsoTeck System speakers set-up disc and a long ruler. Ultimately the speakers were positioned in front of my equipment rack four feet apart and toed-in about five-degrees. I found I had better imaging when my ears were at tweeter level, which was 3.4 feet high and I sat about 8 feet away. I read a note suggesting that the speakers sound best when powered by a solid-state amplifier. I found that to be accurate, the speakers seem to like power. For this audition, I used my Sanders Mag-Tech 360 Wpc amplifier.

 

Listening
Enough frequency sweeps, let's listen to music. I have a CD I use to test bass and the Bowers & Wilkins 603 S3 low-frequency tonal integration. This CD is Adagio d' Albinoni as performed by Gary Karr and Harmon Lewis. This is my bass reference because you should hear not just low frequencies but the intricate and subtle wooden overtones of Gary Karr's bowed bass fiddle. This recording was originally issued on a Japanese Firebird label and it may still be available. Recorded in a cavernous cathedral it is a duo of a large sonorous pipe organ and Gary Karr's century's old Amati bass fiddle. The recording contains the reverberating echo of low-register organ pipes that hold the woofer for a moment on a deep sustained rumble.

The resinous wooden bass bowing sighs and breathes a mournful moan that tugs at your heart. The sound is organic and for a time you forget that it's not flesh and blood calling out to you. With the Bowers & Wilkins speaker port partially blocked the realistic flesh and blood quality remains at the heart of this composition. However, the two 6.5" woofers can only hint at the very deepest and sonorous rumble echoing off the stone walls of this cathedral.

Let's move on to my reference, the sound of a human voice.

 

 

The Music
Yes, I know many audiophiles have had enough of Diana Krall's recordings. But I found her CD recording titled Stepping Out. This is a three-dollar flea market find. She is a Canadian citizen from a small town called Nanaimo. This is her very first CD, a debut on a Canadian label [Just In Time, 50-2].

This is a recording of a trio with Jeff Hamilton on drums and John Clayton on bass and with Diana tickling the ivories. With this jazz CD, the spontaneity of the band's improvisations is captured with exceptional detail. Supporting all 12 tracks on this disk is John Clayton's resonant plucked bass. The bass sound seems real and live and custom-made for the 603 S3 twin woofers. The bass reproduction is slightly warm, but it is beneficial to the timbre and tone of this small ensemble jazz trio.

At the very end of track 3, the piano strings continue to vibrate and slowly fade to silence. On "42nd Street," you can hear Hamilton's sizzling crisp metallic brushes massaging the drum head while guiding the tempo. This is a level of resolution that places you in the performance. Ms. Krall's vocalization and breathy phrasing on track 5 "Body and Soul" is sexy and full of meaning, she can really sound sultry.

 

 

Wrap Up
What do you get for $2,500? The answer is a lot. The 603 S3 design and construction were well beyond my expectations at this price level. The oak finish of the test speakers is slick and modern. The slim profile will make these speakers very adaptable and easy to set up in your home. I played many different types of music and the more I listened the more I became convinced that the speakers told the truth. You can hear precisely what is lacking with poor recordings.

They have a decent and usable bass extension, so much so that I am usually not aware that anything is lacking. The bass reproduction is slightly warm. That type of tonal profile is beneficial to the timbre and tone of the human voice or a small jazz ensemble or a string quartet. The performance let Diana Krall sing and play in my home. If your focus is primarily on an intimate venue then look no further.

Remember to enjoy the music, and from me Semper Hi-Fi!

 

 

 

Tonality

Sub–bass (10Hz – 60Hz)

Mid–bass (80Hz – 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz – 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear
Soundscape Depth

Soundscape Extension Into Room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise
Emotionally Engaging

Value For The Money

 

 

 

Specifications
Type: Floorstanding loudspeaker
Frequency Response: 46Hz to 28kHz (-3dB)
Tweeter: 1" titanium dome (decoupled)
Midrange: 6" Continuum cone FST midrange
Woofer: Two 6.5" paper cone
Flowport bass reflex system
Sensitivity: 90dB/W/m
Impedance: 8 Ohm (minimum 3 Ohm)
Finishes: Black, White, and Oak (grille in Black or Grey)
Price: $2500 per pair

 

 

 

Company Information
Bowers & Wilkins
5541 Fermi Court
Carlsbad, CA 92008

Voice: (800) 370-3740
Website: BowersWilkins.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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