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B&W 685 S2 review: Superb sound worth the extra scratch

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It's been said many times but I'll say it again: If you want to get the best performance from your home audio system, spend your money on speakers. Not on the receiver, or the amp, or the source device or (please, no) the cables, but on the speakers.

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8.8

B&W 685 S2

Pricing Not Available

The Good

The Bowers and Wilkins 685 S2 bookshelf speakers offer excellent sound quality in an attractive, stand-mountable package. Their versatile sound can handle both music and movies well. The redesigned tweeter offers better insight into recordings without becoming harsh, and the new tweeter cover is a godsend for parents.

The Bad

Bass could go deeper; somewhat uninspiring looks.

The Bottom Line

Whether you listen to death metal or nature documentaries, the Bowers and Wilkins B&W 685 S2s are an astoundingly good set of speakers and an excellent deal at this price level.

Most people will balk at doling out $650 on a pair of stand-mounters, but I would argue that these speakers in particular are where your money should start and stop. They cost B&W AU$999 RRP in Australia and £499 in the UK.

The B&W 685 S2 is a tweaked-up version of what was already an excellent-sounding speaker , and though the US price has increased a little ($50, though more in other territories), the improvements are worthwhile.

The 685 S2 manages to outperform B&W's own CM1 , and while it's not as pretty, it's also about $400 cheaper! Whatever style of music you like, the 685's mix of agile bass, vocal clarity and brutal dynamics make it suitable for pretty much everything. These speakers will work great as the fronts for a surround system, or go old-school and watch movies in trusty stereo. Sure, they don't go that far into deep bass territory, but you can always add an inexpensive sub to get your trouser flapping on.

It's tough to consider speakers this expensive a "bargain," but if you're serious about sound, you should at least give them an audition.

Design and features

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Sarah Tew/CNET

While the appearance of the B&W 685 Series 2 is very similar to the original 685 , there have been a couple of tweaks. The most obvious change is to the tweeter which is missing the striking silver nameplate and now features a metal grille.

But the new tweeter isn't simply cosmetic. The company completely redesigned its iconic tube-loaded tweeter to incorporate trickle-down technologies from its CM10 speaker. The tweeter features a thin aluminum dome surrounded by a thicker aluminum ring, and it is decoupled from the main cabinet by a layer of gel. B&W claims the result is enhanced treble clarity compared with that of the previous version.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The other, less-noticeable change is that the bullet-shaped dust cap has been replaced by a mushroom-shaped Anti-Resonance Plug borrowed from the PM1. Other than that, the stand-mount speaker retains the same 6.5-inch woofer and almost identical dimensions at 13.5 inches high by 7.5 inches wide and 12.8 inches deep.

Unlike the previous speaker, there is only one color option available at the moment, which is great so long as you love black.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Like previous models, the speakers have a front-mounted "flow" port, which means they can be placed close to walls, and the resultant frequency response extends from 52Hz to 22kHz.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're looking to make a home theater system out of this pair I would suggest pairing it with the smaller 686 S2 ($550/£349/AU$799) as rears and the HTM62 center ($450/£349/AU$699). The company offers the ASW608 8-inch sub as well, though models from Hsu or SVS might be good alternatives. Meanwhile, the other models in the 600 line include the floorstanding 684 S2 ($1,150/£799/AU$1,699) and flagship 683 S2 ($1,650/£1,149/AU$2,499).

Performance

Though the 685 S2s feature a definite lift in the vocal registers and a sweeter treble over the original 685s, these are still very even-handed speakers and benefit a wide range of musical genres, as well as being suitable for home theater duties.

Yet these are stereo speakers, and so designed to be plied with music. The B&Ws work great at low levels but simply beg to be played loud, and at a medium volume I just wanted to turn them up and bask in Pink Floyd's "Money." But even though they like be stretched, they are not ham-fisted when it comes to delivering fine details. I heard a guitar part in the left channel of this song I'd never noticed before.

While these speakers are great with rock, they also suit quieter music, too, and I had a blissful few hours listening to the acoustic folk of Villagers and King Creosote. The closely mic'ed vocals of both albums sat steadfastly between the speakers while finger-picked guitars and percussion simply sparkled.

When you're looking to break into the hi-fi or home-theater hobby, the Pioneer FP-FS52 s are a great deal at just $250, but the B&Ws, which we compared side-by-side, are a step beyond. While the Pioneers sound good for the money, the extra finesse and vocal detail of the 685s were very evident. I was also struck by how "fast"-sounding the B&Ws were compared to the Pioneer floorstanders. The Pioneers could be a little muddy in the bass, but the 685s were able to start and stop really quickly, and this suited precision rock like Shellac's new "Dude Incredible" record.

While it's possible to pay even more for extra insights into a recording, this can be at the expense of even-handedness. Music should be fun, and the 685s do this really well without making any particular frequency jump out. Take for example B&Ws own CM1 speakers, which feature the same tweeter. While very revealing, they can be overly so.

Exhibit A: The CM1 S2s made Spoon's "You Got Yr Cherry Bomb" sound like it had more tambourines than a Woodstock jamboree, while the 685s made sure the vocals took center stage while keeping the percussion crisp and lively, not overwhelming. Exhibit B: The 685s have more midrange warmth than the CM1s, which is better for "musicality", and an added dollop of bass weight. While Sir Paul McCartney's chewing celery (!) on Super Furry Animal's "Receptacle for the Respectable" sounded more "mouthy" and less "shaker-y"on the CM1s, the track lept from the speakers more readily with the 685s.

In what could be deemed a "fair fight," I pitted the price-comparative pairing of the B&Ws and the Marantz SR5009 ($1,600 total) against the Paradigm Soundscape ($1,500), probably the best sound bar we've heard in the CNET offices. While the Paradigm did really well for a bar, it couldn't deliver speech with as much clarity or summon the wide soundstage that you can get from two separate speakers. Music was unsurprisingly also better via the B&Ws.

When matched against another price comparable speaker, the PSB X1Ts the B&Ws also came out on top. While the PSBs are able to get deeper due to the larger size, they weren't as talented in the most important area: vocals. When the PSBs were playing "Do I Wanna Know" by Arctic Monkeys, there were some raggedy treble effects on the falsetto backing vocals -- similar to a worn-out cassette -- which didn't occur with the 685s.

Conclusion

The B&W 685 S2s come from a long line of excellent speaker designs. They may not look amazing, but the sound they make is simply gorgeous for the price. If you are looking to spend a little extra on speakers, you simply have to try these first.

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8.8

B&W 685 S2

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Sound 9Value 9