Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary Edition

Hardware Review

Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary Edition
Monday, May 17, 2021
floorstanding loudspeakers
Rahiel 'Naz' Nasir

There are creepy moments in the Aphex Twin’s dark and atmospheric electronic tracks that, when played back through headphones, have you turning around to see where those unsettling sounds are coming from. The Bowers & Wilkins 603 Series 2 Anniversary Editions have an uncanny ability to reproduce that effect. I am not talking about any kind of surround sound processing here – this track isn’t recorded with any such technology. Instead, what these speakers excel at is delivering what can only be described as a ‘holographic’ sound. We’ve been here before. In my 2019 of the 607, the entry-level model in Bowers & Wilkins’s 600 Series, I was blown away by how those bookshelf speakers’ were able to present performances in a three dimensional soundscape. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.

Silver jubilee 
The 600 Series is Bowers & Wilkins’s second-longest continuously available range of speakers after the 800 Series Diamond. While the 607s mentioned above are part of the sixth generation 600s that were launched in 2018, the 603 S2 on review here is the flagship model in an Anniversary Edition range that was announced in September last year to mark 25 years since the first 600 Series speakers were launched.

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The line-up includes four models as well as a home cinema package. They’re available in new finishes that include oak as well red cherry for Asia-Pacific markets, along with the matt black or matt white cabinets that are currently available for the 600 Series. My review pair looked quite striking with their oak-sided cabinets and matt white baffles, although their styling was admittedly not to everyone’s taste. All Anniversary Edition speakers also include a new celebratory logo inscribed on the tweeter surround in either light or dark finishes, depending on the colour of the rest of the speaker.

Prices for the music line-up range from £449 for the compact stand-mount 607 S2 to £1,499 for the 603 S2 on review here. These bi-wire floor-standers use two 6.5-inch paper-cone bass drivers along with a single, six-inch Bowers & Wilkins ‘Continuum Cone’ midrange driver. This was first seen in the flagship 800 Series Diamond range, replacing the firm’s iconic yellow Kevlar cone. The 600 Series also introduced an updated version of Bowers & Wilkins’ ‘Decoupled Double Dome’ aluminium tweeter’ technology which, and as experienced during my earlier review of the 607, promises “clearer and more accurate” treble performance. 

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On top of this, the Anniversaries feature upgraded crossovers, as well as what’s claimed to be “greatly improved” bypass capacitors. The latter have been specially treated by components specialist Mundorf and were originally used for Bowers & Wilkins’s 700 Series Signature range that was launched in 2020.

Sinister sonic moments
Mounted on their supplied plinths and attached to Cambridge Audio’s CXA81 integrated amp via multi-strand Ecosse speaker cable, I left the 603 S2s cooking for a good two weeks before attempting any critical listening. Speakers that are fresh out of the box (or indeed any that have been unused for some time) will need to be run-in before they give of their best, and I found that these Bowers & Wilkins needed a particularly long period to get their drivers loosened up and their electronics cooking. And then it was time for a treat.

I have been over-dosing on moody electronic music of late, with Boards of Canada, Moby, The Aphex Twin, et al dominating the soundscape. So that’s why, one grey and wet Sunday afternoon in late April, I found myself listening to the latter’s On (28 Mix) from the 1993 On Remixes EP. And as mentioned at the start, the 603 S2s served up the sinister subtleties of this track in such a way that they created a vivid three-dimensional soundscape that enveloped the listener with sounds that emanated from around the room. Even our cat Rumi seemed disturbed by it.

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I wanted to experience more of this holographic, aural impression of depth that the Bowers & Wilkins seemed capable of, so loaded-up my trusted Marantz CD-17 CD player (now more than 20-years-old) with the Day Seven disc from Ludovico Einaudi’s Seven Days Walking series. This is the one that was apparently recorded in a remote hut in the Alps on an upright piano with all the pedal noises and cracking of wood in the hut left on the disc. As soon as I hit play on the Marantz, I felt a strange crawling sensation as the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. This is a recording that has a stark simplicity and the 603s deliver it with a great deal of intimacy, giving the listener the impression that they are right there in that wooden hut with Einaudi.

So far so good. But by now, the four bass drivers on these speakers were looking at me as if wondering when they were going to join in the fun. So in a radical change of mood, I teed-up Syrian singer Omar Souleyman and his Four Tet produced Bahdeni Nami from the 2015 album of the same name. Here, I was instantly taken by the supreme musicality of the 603s, and they never missed a beat. Above all everything was delivered in exactly the right balance; on some speakers the higher-frequencies of the mijwiz-like sounds on this track can really bite and sound way too sharp (a mijwiz is a traditional reeded woodwind instrument used in the Middle East but a synthesised version may have been used on Souleyman’s album). The Bowers & Wilkins keep these high frequencies under control but not so much so that they sound restrained or if they’re holding back. And now that those drivers have something to get their teeth stuck into, the same could be said of lower frequencies. The bass never sounds bloated or over-cooked. 

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Low-frequency performance can be tweaked using the supplied foam bungs that come as a two-piece set. If you want to reduce the volume of bass without moving the speakers further from the wall, fit the foam plugs in the rear ports or, for less severe bass reduction, separate the foam rings and just fit those instead (I didn’t use the bungs for this review).

Switch to Alt-J’s 2012 album An Awesome Wave, and everything sounds so rich with all the individual elements of tracks such as Matilda blending and gelling together in harmonic bliss. Unless otherwise intended, at no time do individual frequencies trip over themselves or vie for attention, meaning that there’s no shrill treble or over-stretched bass suffocating the dynamics.

The 603s consistently repeat this with well-recorded pieces, and particularly with female vocals. That same balance and control becomes evident again with Ella Vos’ Down In Flames, which, on a lesser set-up can come across with an over-enthusiastic bassline that swamps Vos’ sumptuous breathy vocals. That’s definitely not the case here. 

The Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 is a powerful and majestic loudspeaker with a look and sound that delivers rather more than the price tag might suggest. It’s an excellent celebration of the 600 series anniversary.

Specifications: 

Type: reflex loaded three-way floorstanding loudspeaker
Crossover frequencies: not specified
Drive units:
Bass – 2x 165mm paper cone
Midrange – 150mm Continuum cone
Tweeter – 25mm aluminium dome
Nominal frequency response: +/ -3dB 48 – 28,000 Hz
Nominal impedance: 8 Ohms (min 3 Ohms)
Connectors: bi-wire binding posts
Sensitivity: 88.5dB (2.83V/1m)
Dimensions HxWxD: 985 x 190 x 340mm (plus plinth)
Weight: 24.1kg
Finishes: oak, black,white
Warranty: 5 years

Price: 
£1,499
Manufacturer Details: 

Bowers & Wilkins
T 0800 232 1513
www.bowers-wilkins.co.uk