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Here's something that made me feel old: The groundbreaking Toy Story debuted in 1995, and there have been three sequels since. That year also saw the debut of another popular series: the Bowers & Wilkins 600s. The loudspeakers are now in their seventh iteration -- the 600 S2 Anniversary Series reviewed here -- and much like Pixar, B&W keeps the winning formula going.
The Bowers & Wilkins 606 S2 Anniversary Edition looks a lot like the speaker it replaces, but many of the changes are on the inside. The results are a real sonic upgrade that brings to mind the more expensive 700 series: These speakers bring transparency and slam in equal parts.
If you find that your movies and music lack vibrancy and impact, and you want to invest in something higher-end than the Elac Debut 2.0 B6.2 or Q Acoustics 3030i, these peppy B&W speakers look good and sound great. If, on the other hand, you already own a pair of 600 speakers -- and especially ones with Continuum cones -- then there is probably no tearing hurry to upgrade. The differences between the 606 and the older 685 were audible, but a new receiver could make a better investment, for example.
The Bowers & Wilkins 606 S2 Anniversary Edition is available now for $900 (£599, AU$1,299).
A few years ago, B&W introduced a replacement for its iconic, yellow Kevlar driver, a proprietary material it calls Continuum. It took some time for the drivers to make it to the 600 series, but now that it's in its second iteration, it's what you could call a tried-and-tested technology.
Like the original 606, the Bowers & Wilkins 606 S2 Anniversary Edition uses a 6.5-inch Continuum Cone mid-bass driver. The speaker box is also ported in the same way at the rear, which leaves the fascia looking clean. The front is topped with a decoupled double-dome aluminum tweeter, which comes with a mesh guard and a commemorative stamp. The 606 S2 also includes an upgraded crossover inherited from the recent 700 Series Signature line that, in my testing, did make a difference.
The speakers are generously sized for a stand-mounter at a height of 13.5 inches, a depth of 11.8 inches (or 12.8 inches including grille and terminals) and 7.5 inches in width. They come in a choice of matte-black (the one I received), matte-white or white and oak. While I had some misgivings about the finish on the last speaker -- the white front plate didn't match the box's color -- I had no such issues with the sample I reviewed. The speakers come with magnetically attached grilles.
The specification sheet lists a relatively high 88-decibel sensitivity, meaning they'll go pretty loud with most midpriced receivers or amplifiers. In terms of frequency response they'll reach down to about 40Hz (-6dB) in a reasonably sized room and up to a claimed 33kHz.
While you can place them on a credenza or shelf, I'd recommend buying dedicated stands -- I used them with the STAV 224 ($200), but if that's a little spendy then the Monolith by Monoprice 28-inch speaker stand looks decent for $120 a pair.
As the "Official Speakers of Abbey Road Studios," Bowers & Wilkins has a reputation to uphold for making products that sound highly revealing and involving. The 606 S2 lives up to the billing by bringing the hi-fi ideal to life, while also making music you can dance to. I've owned B&Ws myself and over the years I found that, like previous versions, the 606 S2 likes to play loud but it was also able to play at quieter volumes without sounding too forward. At times, the new 606 brought to mind the 707 S2 with its ability to let the listener peer into a recording.
While I didn't have a set of the original 606 speakers on hand, I did have a pair of the older 685s alongside the new Elac Uni-Fi 2.0 UB5.2. I powered the setup with the Marantz SR6015 and our reference Oppo UDP-205 disc player.
In general I found that the level of stereo imaging and focus were similar between both the Elac and the 606 S2, but the B&W pulled away in its ability to sound good with a greater range of music than the Elac UniFi. Of course, like the 606, the newer version will expose problems with some "poorly" mixed music.
I started with a live recording of Ryan Adams playing Oh My Sweet Carolina -- a tune I remember hearing on the 706 -- and the benefits of the 606 came immediately to the fore. Compared to the laid-back 685, the 606 S2 offered a better virtual image of Adams on stage, capturing his voice as it bounced off the walls of the large room. The word that came to mind was "crystalline," and the speaker showed a bit more dynamic heft once the guitar came in. The harmonica was right there, and I could hear more of the singer's breath passing through the reed.
Meanwhile, the Elac Uni-Fi was the most cavernous sounding of the three speakers and was able to make the crowd seem enormous as they cheered the singer's entrance. Similarly the guitar's echo was easy to discern, as was the click of the player's fingers on strings. While the 606 highlighted the metallic nature of the guitar and harmonica, the Elac pulled back a little and wasn't as steely. The Elac was able to capture his tenor voice but it didn't offer as much bass as the two B&Ws, and also sounded the least dynamic.
I then turned to something a lot more abrasive: the bass synth stomp of Future of the Left's You Need Satan More Than He Needs You. The 606 S2b offered a greater sense of power than the 685, with the pounding drums sounding more present and alive while also accentuating the metallic edge of the distorted bass guitar. This is a track that needs to be heard loud, and unlike other songs I listened to, the 606 didn't open up quite as much as the 685 did at volume. Most surprising of all was the Elac: Instead of sounding bloated, it activated the room's natural bass response and became the most entertaining of the trio with this track. The song's chanted backing vocals also seemed larger on the Elacs.
It wasn't all good news for the Elac though, and it started to unravel with complex music. The live version of The Cure's A Night Like This compressed somewhat and became midrange-heavy, while the B&W 606 S2 sounded more balanced. The B&W kept the bass guitar present, even when the volume was turned up.
I spent a lot of time watching TV and movies with the B&W's and found the vocal articulation to be crisp, especially when compared to the 685s. This speaker makes a great addition to a home theater setup and I used it in conjunction with Klipsch and SVS speakers. I found the 606 S2 was more exciting than the Elac when watching the Thanator chase scene from Avatar -- the start of the sequence begins with mumbled dialogue and buzzing insects, and the new speaker elevated these sounds, making them more present. It also offered a weightier sound on male voices and the thump of the shell plants as they retreat from Jake's touch. The Elac was similarly exciting in this scene, but it was a touch more measured and relaxed; the falling bullet casings and clinking of weapons weren't as metallic-sounding.
Like Toy Story, the technology behind the Bowers & Wilkins 600 series only gets better with age. If you want to hear every last detail in your music then upgrading to the 606 will bring some of the benefits of hi-fi without an exorbitant price tag. The speaker's not all about transparency though -- there is still a decent bass foundation for more forceful styles of music.
While I personally prefer the older, gentler 685, the 606 S2 offers a taste of the high-end in a way that the former speaker doesn't, and it does it for under a grand. If you've had your eyes on the 700 series but don't have the cash, the new 600s are closer to them in sound quality than they ever have been. Bad problem for Bowers & Wilkins, good problem for the rest of us.