Bowers and Wilkins' 600 series has been the bedrock of the storied British speaker brand since it was first introduced in 1991. The newest model in the series, the 606, is a fresh start.
It's the first entry-level B&W speaker to use the company's own silvery Continuum driver introduced several years ago. With a list price of $800 (£550 or AU$1,150) -- or $100 more than the 685 S2 it replaces -- the 606 marks a shift toward a more revealing, dynamic sound.
If you crave more excitement from your music and movies, the 606 certainly delivers. Dynamics and bass heft is noticeably better in than the excellent 685 S2. The 606 is best at creating a large sound stage and uncovering hidden details of jazz combos, singer songwriters, blues musicians and classical ensembles. Other types of music, in particular modern pop or rock, may simply sound too bright for the B&Ws, especially at lower volumes.
If you're careful about the electronics you pair the 606 with, you will get a lot out of them, but fans of more forceful music styles may be better served by the Klipsch RP-600M -- or even by the cheaper, more versatlie Elac Debut 2.0 B6.2. We were big fans of the 685 S2 but feel that the new step toward "excitement" could be going in the wrong direction.
While Bowers and Wilkins' proprietary Continuum cone may not be new, it is new to this speaker, having trickled down from more-expensive speaker lines. The 6.5-inch woofer is complemented by a double-dome aluminum driver that's now decoupled from the cabinet to inhibit interference from the mids and bass.
At 13.5 inches high, 7.5 inches wide and 11.8 inches deep, the cabinet itself is roughly the same size as that of the 685 S2. The main difference is that it's ported at the rear.
It's debatable whether this actually influences bass response. There's a school of thought that front-mounted ports can be placed closer to walls, but we've found that even unported, sealed speakers also exhibit boundary effect, or boosted bass, in the same position. B&W told us the difference isn't meaningful between front- or rear-mounted ports on this model. Even so, you'd still want to give the 606 a little breathing room -- at least 6 inches from a wall. While you're fiddling around at the back of the speaker, you'll find two sets of binding posts below the proprietary Flow Port.
As intriguing as the technological enhancements are, some of the speaker's overall luster is held back by a somewhat humdrum finish. It doesn't quite look or feel like an $800 speaker.
The speaker comes in a choice of two color options -- black or white. Our review sample had a white-matte finish with a face plate that was a different shade of white from the very light gray speaker box. The subtle color mix has its appeal, but it may upset sticklers used to the seamless, single-color finish of the 700 series or that of competing speakers from Q Acoustics. In addition, the 606's driver surround is plastic and will flex at the touch.
All that said, at a seated distance though the speakers look sharp, and we particularly like the addition of magnetic speaker grilles, though like all speakers they sound slightly better with the grilles removed.
Technical specs of the Bowers and Wilkins 606 include:
B&W fans are bound to love the 606. It sounds similar to what came before, but it's maybe a little more transparent. We only say maybe because we no longer have a set of the previous midsize bookshelf model, the dearly departed 685 S2 on hand for direct comparison.
We knew that speaker, and the higher-end B&W 705 and the 805 D3 speakers, really well. The 606 is solidly in the new tradition, with clearer sound than the older 600 Series models, the ones with the distinctive yellow woven Kevlar drivers. Presumably the drivers are chiefly responsible for the new sound, but other aspects of the speaker's design, such as the crossover network and construction of the cabinet, surely deserve some of the credit, too.
At a preview event in Boston several months ago we heard the speakers connected to the onboard digital-to-analog converter of the Rotel RA-1592 integrated amplifier. But as we discovered while testing the 700 series, this combo tends toward the over-bright and can even sound obnoxious on some recordings. We would caution against pairing these with a bright AV receiver from the likes of Onkyo or Yamaha, for example.
This time around we used the less-forward sounding DAC on the Oppo UDP-205 Blu-ray player for all of our listening tests. Settling in with a round of Norah Jones and Sufjan Stevens tunes, the 606's sound was still brighter and more detailed than the ELAC Debut B6.2. The B6.2s sound felt as comfortable as an old pair of jeans while cooler and brighter tonal balance of the 606 took some getting used to.
The 606's lively dynamics did outclass a pair of similarly sized Pioneer Elite SP-EBS73-LR bookshelf speakers. When we challenged both speakers with LCD Soundsystem's American Dream album played at a healthy volume, the 606's surefooted bass easily trumped the SP-EBS73-LR's low-end punch. The 606 sounded like a more muscular speaker, while the SP-EBS73-LR's dynamics flattened out.
With an audiophile grade recording like Doug Macleod's acoustic blues album, Break the Chain, the 606s put us in touch with the sound of Macleod's National nickel-plated, brass-bodied resonator guitar, and the man's bluesy vocals made our ears perk up. The intensity of his guitar thrashing lit up the room, so when Macleod really cuts loose you feel it. We couldn't ask for anything more. Switching over to the SP-EBS73-LRs, the sound was tamed and nowhere as brilliant as it was over the 606s.
The 606s really came alive when we pushed the volume up higher than we typically do with our speaker reviews. The SP-EBS73-LR was at its best when played more quietly. It's no slouch when it comes to resolution and clarity, but on the other hand the 606's brighter tone took some getting used to. It's not a mellow-sounding speaker.
The 606 is strictly a two-way speaker while the Pioneer SP-EBS73-LR is a three-way design, with a concentric midrange/tweeter driver, a woofer and a second midrange/tweeter on its top panel (for Dolby Atmos, which we didn't test for this review). Both speakers throw large soundstages, but the SP-EBS73-LRs were more sharply focused.
Finally we watched some movies with the 606 as a stereo pair, and found that while you'd definitely want a subwoofer, the speakers were able to convey much of the low-end effects from Transformers: The Age of Extinction as shipping containers, boats and robots crashed around our escaping heroes. Tinkling glass and triangle solos alike will be given more than their fair due, thanks to the speaker's bright balance.
You can't ignore the Bowers & Wilkins 606s' sound -- it's so big and alive. Dynamics are a cut above the Pioneers that we still hold in high esteem. On the downside, its design feels out of step with its $800-per-pair price tag, and the speaker can be finicky with certain styles of music and electronics.
The 606 makes the most sense if you're looking to build a system for home cinema. Add a pair of 607s as rears, the new HTM6 center and a good sub and you're in business.