Global market leader in hi-fi speakers, Worthing-based Bowers & Wilkins (now reverting to its original name in place of the familiar B&W acronym) recently revised its long-standing budget price 600 Series models.
The previous S3 generation first appeared nearly six years ago, so a number of engineering developments have been included in the new series, alongside revised styling and pricing, and an opportunity to restructure the whole range to take account of changing market conditions.
This fourth generation 600 Series includes just four stereo pairs at present - two floorstanders and two standmounts - and it's the larger of the latter, the 685, that is the subject of this review.
In terms of past B&W ranges, the 685 is most closely related to the 601 S3, which sat in the middle of three standmounts in the 600 S3 range. The 601 S3 was based on a 14-litre enclosure and 165mm main driver. Sadly, there's no direct replacement for the larger 20-litre/180mm 602 S3, which just happened to be this reviewer's favourite.
The new range is considerably more costly than its predecessors, this 685 sells for £380 per pair, whereas the 601 S3 cost £249 per pair back in 2001. However, improvements to the new model include a solid fixed central 'bullet' for the main driver, closer spacing of the two drivers, and a new tweeter surround that allows a simpler, first-order crossover.
Though smaller in frontal area, the enclosure is somewhat larger than the 601 S3, due to much increased depth. It's quite a lightweight affair, at just 7kg, and the box combines a ported black front with vinyl woodprint on the other five, in a choice of four finishes - black ash, light oak, red cherry and Wengé.
The main driver is equipped with a 120mm Kevlar cone, while the tube-loaded tweeter has an unprotected and rather vulnerable looking 25mm aluminium dome. A bracket is fitted to the rear to facilitate wall mounting, and a clever two-part foam bung allows the port to be blocked or re-tuned. Twin terminal pairs provide a bi-wire/-amp option.
This is an exceptionally competent loudspeaker, sonically speaking, that demands one's respect, at least in part for the way it avoids the pitfalls that trap many of its rivals.
At the same time, one can fairly accuse it of some lack of ambition in its determination to try and be all things to all men, with the first priority being to avoid causing offence, regardless of the system it's paired with.
Given Bowers & Wilkins' market leadership, it's an approach that's both obvious and logical, though it doesn't necessarily lead to the most exciting or involving sound around.
That said, the 685 has a beautifully judged tonal balance, with a cleverly chosen (and usefully flexible) bass alignment that deftly avoids the energy loss through the upper bass and lower mid that is so widespread among compact two-ways.
Barring slight chestiness on male voices, coloration is impressively low and the dynamic range unusually wide for this class of speaker. However, dynamics themselves do seem a trifle muted (possibly because our test pair were still running in), and the slightly 'shut in' presence does impair diction a little, which might not suit every taste. The top end does lack a little sweetness too. This
is not a loudspeaker that will excite passionate allegiance, or cut through to the emotional core of a musical performance. But it is a very safe bet that will do a fine all-round job.