I’ve had the Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary Edition (website) speakers in my possession since April of this year (2021), and since day one in my affordable review system, I’ve been itching with ideas surrounding their build, technology, tuning, and preferred audience. It’s practically a tossed-salad of thoughts circling my mind each time I listen to them. Let’s unpack them.
Words and Photos by Eric Franklin Shook
I’ll begin first with a sweep through the history of the 600 Series from Bowers & Wilkins, of which I first auditioned in 2007 and deemed the 603 model of yore as the most serious one from the bunch. First introduced in 1995, the 600 Series over time has been gifted with upstream technology and attention to refinements, allowing the 600 Series models to remain relevant over their twenty-five year history.
This far into the timeline, we see the Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary, a now seventh generation entry to the history books, receive much of the technology and care-to-design that was previously reserved for the 800 Series Diamond flagship speakers.
Build of the Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary
The Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary is the only three-way loudspeaker in the series and with that is built around its six-inch Continuum™ cone FST™ midrange—material and technology borrowed from the 800 Series Diamond speakers specifically, and something to be extremely proud of at this price point.
Above and below, the midrange receives strongly built and considered company in the form of tweeter and woofer. The highest frequencies are handled by a Bowers & Wilkins designed one-inch Decoupled Double Dome tweeter, which like upstream speakers from Bowers & Wilkins features unique backwave control technology. The lowest notes of the music are handled by two six-and-a-half-inch paper cone woofers per channel.
Lastly, what makes this generation of Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 an “Anniversary Edition” over the previous model, is the upgraded three-way crossover which receives new premium components and refinements to the design.
Wait… shouldn’t I address the enclosure? I think I shall. The enclosure of the Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary is a straightforward MDF construction that features a proprietary Flowport™ on the rear to minimize port chuffing and tune the enclosure for precise and tuneful bass. To the knock test, the upper portion of the enclosure did display a more inert behavior than the lower portion, but that’s something I’ll concede to with the retail price of ~$2,000 USD in mind.
Aesthetically, I’ve never been impressed with a simple black box tower as I have with the Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2. It’s odd for me to say that, as I’ve traditionally felt as if the tyranny and proclivity of black box speakers was part of the reason mainstream audiences turned their domestic attention away from traditional hi-fi systems in the early 2000s. In short, I’ve always found black box speakers ugly.
The Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 black box however doesn’t look or feel ugly or even the least bit industrial at all, but rather executive and smartly finished. The glistening Continuum™ cone midrange and laser etched tweeter bezel come across as luxury trimmings, and do well to underwrite a visually sophisticated package.
To which point, several of the aforementioned adjectives I’ve used to describe the visual appeal of the Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary, also apply directly to their sound.
Sound of the Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary
My listening preferences favor that of a tight center image, and like with most B&W speakers I’ve spent time with, a gracious bit of toe-in was the correct way to achieve that more focused center image. Once dialed in, I was off to the races.
The new Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary sounds every bit like a premium product should. It’s true to the scope of high-end sounds and textures. These speakers are tuned to impress most people right out of the gate.
Though that tuning to some further along in the hobby may seem a bit U-shaped, and glitzy, it’s one that for me has sometimes been troubling, but in most instances the tuning of the Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary played music with welcomed attributes. I crave variety at times, and the 603 S2 in this instance were more than willing to take the music (and myself) down a path that most speaker companies don’t have the guts to explore.
I’ll start with what I found troubling about the musical presentation of the Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary, and then settle into what felt like sonic revelation. All songs used in my review period listening sessions can be found in our Part-Time Audiophile (War Room) playlist on Qobuz, linked here.
The Dicty Glide by Don Byron
Off the album Bug Music, here the wonderfully dynamic and sparkly tribute to the music of Duke Ellington becomes overly hot and slicing. Tweeter energy seems too out of balance from the rest of the drivers and distracts me from the musical program. Being a classically trained (and awarded) horn player myself, I know what’s happening here. Bass is full and borders on bombastic, but I don’t mind, as my time in the low brass is validated by the Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary will to push forward bass notes with authority and quickness to match the gloriously controlled midrange.
Waltz Whitman by Yo-Yo Ma
Off the album Not Our First Goat Rodeo, Edgar Meyer’s stand up bass does exactly that, it stands up. Nimbly plucked bass notes have depth, detail, and timbre. Things get rolling quickling as Stuart Duncan’s
violin fiddle belt out like a siren, and yet something seems missing. Knowing the song and performers like I do, Chris Thile is found in the mix, his mandolin now coming through bathed in shadow by the rest of the ensemble. This again is the U-Shape tuning that doesn’t always lend itself well to every piece of program material.
Let’s try something completely different.
Mississippi Queen by Mountain
Off the album Climbing!, things not only fall into place, this song is made for the Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary. A raucous song not so raucously recorded, now sounds new and imbued with the same invigoration that was key to its performance. Cymbals once softened, now appear in perfect measure. Tape hiss and recording room noise are lessened, while vocals and electric guitar have truer bite and grit.
This will send me down the rabbit hole.
Life’s Been Good by Joe Walsh
Off the album But Seriously, Folks…, it’s more of what I expected. Glitz and glamour. This is the lux Hollywood lifestyle of excess and self-importance personified in the sound that Joe sings about in this track. This older recording has been dosed with a little blue pill, and brought back to rigid life. I kid you not, this presentation of an all too familiar track of my youth sounds fresh and new to me with the 603 S2 at the helm.
Keep the party going.
Eye In The Sky by The Alan Parsons Project
Off the album Eye In The Sky, high-hats glisten, and snare takes on proper attack as the rhythm guitar and bass guitar fight for space among the mid-and-bass drivers, which now sound more unified than before. Midrange texture on all guitar parts is present in the mix, and comfortably distortion free. Still, I need to know more. Could they do more subtlety within a dynamic or theatrical track?
Reborn by Colin Stetson
Off the Hereditary motion picture soundtrack, coming full circle to horns and other classical instruments and noise makers, I find that the intentionally less-than-balanced tuning of the Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary works well with this sometimes screaming track to play instruments with refined excitement, and treat the more compressed mix with due theatrical presence. Exactly as it should and exactly as I wanted it to. This speaker, in the right hands, is addicting.
If I were to continue to kvetch on some things about the Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary speakers it’s that they are not the first word in driver integration at this price point or lower for that matter. Does it have something to do with this U-shaped tuning? I’d bet the neighbors house on that. Do I want these speakers tuned more flatly? Sometimes.
However, it’s the fact that these speakers play rock genre gems from the 1960s and 1970s in such a lively manner, that I’d argue there’s no need to change this successful recipe. To do so would ruin the appeal. An appeal I’ve just found, that B&W owners over the last twenty-five years have known and cherished in the 600 Series line of loudspeakers.
Conclusion – Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary
The Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary speakers remind me of what it’s like to date a Las Vegas showgirl and see them in their stage makeup. It adds dimensions to the already present beauty and makes it uber apparent from across the room.
What Bowers & Wilkins have done with the 603 S2 Anniversary, and possibly the 600 Series at large, is create a speaker that is immediately compelling to listen to with what could be considered the widest variety of music that real people enjoy most frequently—twentieth century rock-n-roll.
Impressing me most about the Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary is the level of refinement and poise given to what some audiophiles might consider pedestrian music. Bands like The Who, Led Zeppelin, Beatles, and more of the ilk are permanent fixtures of pop culture history and tradition, and like the speakers from Bowers & Wilkins 600 Series, I expect them all to remain relevant for many decades to come.
For the true music lover, highly recommended.
Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary Specs
- Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier
- Parasound NewClassic 200 Integrated
- Schiit Audio Modius DAC
- Schiit Audio Mani Phonostage
- VPI Industries Cliffwood Turntable
- Grado Green Phono Cartridge
- Cardas Clear Cables
Nice article and one of a few that are brave enough to express that flat, while technically better, may not deliver the desired result. I liken this to photography – there is not a picture published that is not enhanced in some way. Not to distort but to deliver the emotion that real life brings with it. To publish a technically perfect photo would simply appear FLAT because any experience is more than what is taken in by a single sense. I have the 804 d3 and found that the more power and better quality you feed it, the more it rewards. Your system is well matched at the budget but if you get a chance to feed them more power, you will be rewarded.