Bowers & Wilkins 683 S2 loudspeaker

For some time now I've wanted to upgrade my weekend system in Connecticut, and have been surveying three-way floorstanding speakers priced below about $2500/pair. I've focused on the stereo performance of each pair with music because, despite my interest in surround sound, the great majority of recordings are available only in two-channel stereo. Not wanting to look like a Bowers & Wilkins fanboy—my main system has long included their 800-series speakers—I put off auditioning B&W's 683 S2. But my goal was to get the best bang for my buck and with the 683 S2 costing $1650/pair, it would foolish to be influenced by such extraneous considerations. Besides, the 683 S2's three-way design and physical proportions were precisely what I was looking for.

I was amazed that the 683 S2's specs are so similar to those of B&W's 804 Diamond, which I reviewed in the September 2013 issue. Indeed, as even their weights are almost identical—the 683 S2 weighs 59.8 lbs and the 804 Diamond 59.4 lbs—they seem to most differ in price, with the 804 costing $7500/pair.

Each is a three-way design with dual 6.5" woofers, B&W's proprietary FST Kevlar-cone midrange unit, a 1" dome tweeter, and a front port. The 683 S2's woofers have dual-layer aluminum cones that are loaded by the cabinet's generous proportions and by a Flowport, flared and dimpled to support laminar flow by reducing turbulence. The midrange cone is a B&W classic, its Kevlar cone and suspension shared with those in the 800 models. The tweeter's double aluminum dome is decoupled from its mounting by a synthetic gel, and mounted in a tapered tube first seen in B&W's late-1990s Nautilus speakers, which absorbs the tweeter's rear wave, minimizing the wave's effects on the driver's acoustic behavior. Unlike in the 800 series, this tube is inside the speaker's cabinet. All of this technology comes at a very attractive price, leading me to suspect that B&W must have been under some pressure to make compromises elsewhere.

But unpacking the 683s revealed a degree of fit'n'finish nearly commensurate with B&W's costlier models. The only finish available in the US is Black Ash, and it's vinyl, not wood. (In the UK, the 683 S2 is also available in White.) Still, the veneer's consistency of quality, especially at the edges and around the back, is impressive. It's complemented by a matte-black grille so fitted to the cabinet that a distinctive groove frames the front, much as a fine pinstripe accents the contours of a car. In addition, B&W supplies an optional base plate, or plinth, that widens the speaker's footprint from 7.5" to 12.6". The supplied rubbery feet or spikes can be used with or without the plinth. I went plinthless, and used the rubbery feet to spare my wood floor. The 683 S2's were quite stable, and eschewing the plinths maintained their crisp, slim profile.

Listening
I set up the 683 S2s in the same spots my Paradigm Reference Studio/60 v.3s have occupied for years, first aiming the speakers at the listening position. With a slight decrease in toe-in, the soundstage and center image snapped in sharply—changes of less than 5° sounded unequivocally less right. Those parameters secured, the other critical parameter to confirm was that the speakers produce satisfactory bass from those positions. For this, I challenged the 683s with a barrage of recordings ranging from the subtle to the formidable.

I began with Christoph Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra's recording of Saint-Saâns's Symphony 3, with organist Olivier Latry (SACD/CD, Ondine ODE 1094-5), and concentrated on the Poco adagio at the end of the first movement and the Allegro moderato that begins the second. In both passages, the pipe organ is less a soloist than an accompanist or member of the ensemble. Through the 683s, every organ note was clean and full, and in proper balance with the strings and woodwinds. The organ's lowest tones, particularly in the Poco adagio, weren't as weighty as they would have been with a subwoofer and/or much larger speakers, but the instrument's tonality and character were right, and nary a hint of a resonance stuck out.

I moved on to bass with punch, from a recent recording by Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra of Shostakovich's Symphony 9 (SACD/CD, Mariinsky MAR0524). The timpani had heft and impact, and balanced well with the snare drum and the rest of the orchestra. As expected, this low-frequency incisiveness carried over to the nonclassical repertoire, from double bassist Buster Williams playing a solo version of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, on Williams's Griot Libertè (SACD/CD, HighNote HCD7123), to the electrically juiced pulse of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars in "Uptown Funk," on their Uptown Special (CD, RCA 505310).

Now confident that the 683s were set up for my long-term enjoyment, I sat back and plied them with all the stuff I know. First, their ability to absolutely nail centrally located voices, human or otherwise, was quite striking, and got me jumping up to make sure that, somehow, my disconnected center speaker hadn't gotten magically reconnected. And I kept checking, because the illusion, supported by the physical presence of the silent center speaker and the soundstage specificity of the 683 S2s, was unshakable. I think this testifies to the smooth midrange treble balance and the excellent matching of the left and right speakers, despite the fact that their serial numbers reveal that they were far from consecutive in manufacture. The seamless soundstage wasn't much wider than the distance between the speakers, but while it began at the plane of the B&Ws' front baffles, it seemed to widen as it extended more deeply behind that plane. This was distinctly apparent with "Malena," from Será Una Noche's eponymous album (24-bit/96kHz file, M•A Recordings M052A), a recording notable for its spacious acoustic.

The 683 S2s' tonal balance was generally excellent with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra's classic recording of Boccherini's La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid on Die Rohre—The Tube (SACD, Tacet S 74). Here was all the detail of bow on string—I could almost see the accompanying cloud of rosin—while warmth of tone from the wood of the instruments filled the recording venue. There was a similar rendering of detail with the brass outbursts in the first movement of the Shostakovich Ninth, mentioned above. These were striking, as intended, but in dynamic and tonal proportion. The 683s did as well with choral music as orchestral, and pop and jazz groups benefited from a lively presentation.

It was only when I began to listen to familiar recordings of solo voices—particularly low ones such as Hans Theessink and Leonard Cohen—that I had any hesitation about the 683 S2s. Sure, these singers' characteristic, clearly recognizable depths and familiar upper sibilants were apparent—their vocal ranges were being encompassed. However, they sounded somewhat less full or palpable than they should. It was similar with a wide range of women's voices: their fundamental tones and breath sounds were nicely presented, but their presence not fleshed out to my complete satisfaction.

Take "Late Last Night," from Theessink's Call Me (CD, Blue Groove BG-4020), or "Can't Stand the Rain," from Sara K.'s Hell or High Water (SACD/CD, Stockfisch SFR 357.4039.2). Through the 683 S2, there was no doubt of the unique identity and appeal of each singer—the voice was clearly positioned, and in proper relationship to the soundstage and supporting instruments—but the sound was slightly less convincing than I expected. I switched over to B&W's own 804 Diamonds, and, woot!, there they were: the roundness and fullness I'd missed. I'd had the opposite problem with Bryston's Middle T speakers in my Manhattan system: I was troubled by a subtle excess in the lower midrange. In both cases, the problem was a subtle one, and given the inevitable variations of room acoustics, recordings, ancillary gear, and taste in sound, may not even exist outside my specific situation.

Looking at it from another angle . . .
Compared to all the other speakers I've heard in my Connecticut room and system, the Bowers & Wilkins 683 S2s scored well. The Monitor Audio Silver 8 came closest in performance and price, at only $2000/pair. But while both speakers offer excellent bass quality, the B&W offers more of it. Still, the Silver 8 speaks a little more sweetly to me in my room. Sonus Faber's Venere 2.5 ($2498/pair) is more comparable with the 683 S2 over most of the audioband, but differs most from the B&W in bass extension and definition, and in having spectacular looks. Certainly compared to my relatively ancient Paradigm Reference Studio/60 v.3s, the B&Ws had a much smoother midrange and treble, more stable imaging, and tighter, more resolved bass. In short, no contest. Finally, B&W's 804 Diamond, at $7500/pair, costs almost five times as much and, judging from both its specs and my listening, scores over the 683 S2 only with some singing voices and in extension/enhancement at the extremes of the audioband.

I'd say that all of that makes B&W's 683 S2 a pretty attractive proposition.

COMPANY INFO
B&W Loudspeakers
US: B&W Group North America
54 Concord Street
North Reading, MA 01864
(978) 664-2870
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
chrisdemarse's picture

I found a deal on a pair of the 685 S2's and couldn't pass it up. I've experience the same uncanny experience of centralized vocals and very competent overall sound, but I can't seem to find any reviews anywhere that unpack them in detail with a more competent amplifier (i'm driving the modestly efficient speaker at 87db with a NAD D3020). Anyone else have a pair that cares to share their thoughts?

fetuso's picture

Chris, see my comment below

Anon2's picture

Besides the excellent "product of year" designation and accompanying video review of the B&W 685 S2 by What Hi-Fi, here are some other recent reviews:

CNET:

http://www.cnet.com/products/b-w-600-series-685-speaker-wired-series/

Connect.de (seems to be the successor site to Audio.de, which gave a "Sehr Gut" rating to the 685 s2):

http://www.connect.de/testbericht/bowers-wilkins-685-s2-test-lautspecher-boxen-meinung-2388587.html

Numeriques (France):

http://www.lesnumeriques.com/enceintes-home-cinema/bowers-wilkins-685-s2-p20166/test.html

Nextmedia (Australia):

http://i.nextmedia.com.au/Assets/bw_685_s2_loudspeakers_review_test_lores.pdf

I hope, still, that we can add Stereophile's review of the B&W 685 S2 to these soon.

This speaker, while perhaps not the best stand-mounter overall, is an outstanding product. I have heard the 685 on Marantz, Rotel, and Arcam amplification. Its easy impedance load and good sensitivity make it a versatile speaker with a variety of gear.

The 685 s2 projects a massive presence for its modest size. It has the characteristic, kind of laid-back "B&W sound." This sound can be laid-back for some, but there is little listening fatigue for this product. Many stand-mounters crossover to the tweeter around 2,800 Hz. Other, more expensive stand-mounters, cross over a lower frequencies of around 1,600 - 1,800. B&W with the 685 S2, as with their other stand-mount speakers get a good result, to my ears, by crossing over to the tweeter at 4,000 Hz.

Weight-wise, the B&W 685 s2 is not heavy at around 15 lbs per unit. There appears to be no inner-bracing of the cabinet. However, another leading manufacturer of speakers is asking almost $3,000 per pair for a pair of speakers that weigh almost the same as the B&W 685 S2 (makes you wonder where the additional $2,300 is going).

An interesting thing I have noticed is that the B&W 685 S2 is such a great deal at $700/pair, that the product at times seems to get limited exposure, by retailers and publications alike. I am sure that many would gravitate toward this product, over much more expensive alternatives, if they knew the sound at which this product was capable, compared to more margin-rich, but not much better products. A major retailer in my major city conspicuously has the B&W 685 S2 on display, but not connected to any amplification or source equipment; they are on display to be seen but not heard.

This is my amateur-hour appraisal of the B&W 685 s2. Read the professional reviews relayed by me for more polished insights.

Obrej's picture

I have had several more expensive pairs of speakers through my place lately looking for something that pairs well with my "new to me" Rega Elex-R, and the 685 S2's are staying put, as they sound fantastic - and they haven't even been run in properly yet. And I'll admit that I kind of looked down my nose at them because of their low price, and that they were being sold at Bestbuy, but man was I wrong. Believe the hype - these speakers are giant killers.

AllanMarcus's picture

I really appreciate these "Connecticut home" reviews. I too am in the market for the $2000-ish speakers. Any chance you can try some of the internet direct brands like Ascend, XTZ, SVS, Philharmonic, Tekton, Gallo, LSA, or Salk?

Kal Rubinson's picture

The difficulty I have with ID brands is that it is difficult to get any prior exposure or audition that would encourage me to commit to a review.

AllanMarcus's picture

Every brand I listed has rave reviews, some even from TEN magazines.

fetuso's picture

If the brands you listed have rave reviews, why do you need another?

I investigated an ID brand, Chane, before I purchased my current speakers. I decided to not try it because of shipping charges.

AllanMarcus's picture

Chane is another really highly regarded (albeit budget) ID brand.

I guess you are right. All we need are a few Amazon or AVSForum reviews of audio equipment. We don't need professional reviews that can provide consistent comparisons between brands and models.<\satire> Also, just because the brand had one or two speakers doesn't mean they can't have other speakers reviewed.

Kal commented that [essentially] he is not familiar with these ID brands. I was just pointing out that in many cases all these brands have had good reviews, some even by his own magazine. Just because they don't buy ad space should not disqualify them from reviews. All of these brands have speakers that, when reviewed by the pros, garner comments like: "Without fanfare it exists as a completely balanced musical package, with no single element vying for dominance and no unharmonious weaknesses (TAS)", "system is a lovely and effective problem solver (TAS)", "There are few other speakers in this range that can cover the frequency extremes with such versatile ease (HiFI Review", "an audiophile-grade speaker that will appeal to anyone who craves big, highly transparent sound (CNET)". "Based on my reviewing experience, these practically free speakers will get you a satisfyingly big portion of those $50,000 models' performance (Stereophile)". I'm just saying, some of the speakers from these ID companies have been reviewed, but it's always great when a trusted reviewer can compare and contrast to known equipment.

fetuso's picture

You're asking the impossible. there's no way every speaker out there can get reviewed. My point was that it seemed that you were asking to have certain speakers or brands reviewed, then later said that those brands already have numerous reviews. At some point you're just gonna have to buy something and see if you like it at home. If not, return it.

Kal Rubinson's picture

The "brands" may have rave reviews but why would that motivate me to select a particular model when there are so many in every size and price category and the number I can review are so few? I need something direct and personal as I am not interested doing a general survey.

johnnyangel's picture

An interesting review of speakers I might be in the market for. Nice to read it on the web at least but I'm a paying subscriber whose Zinio copy of the edition from which this review was taken still hasn't shown up. Is there any end in sight to this ongoing problem?

John Atkinson's picture
johnnyangel wrote:
I'm a paying subscriber whose Zinio copy of the edition from which this review was taken still hasn't shown up. Is there any end in sight to this ongoing problem?

The Zinio edition of the September Stereophile was made available a week ago. (As a check on their schedule, I pay for a subscription and downloaded my issue last Saturday.)

You need to contact Zinio customer service. (As Zinio is an independent company, I am afraid there is nothing I can do.)

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

johnnyangel's picture

Thank you, I will contact them. And meantime I will investigate the alternate subscription mechanism through the iTunes store (now, roll on, rumored large-screen iPad Pro).

In any case Stereophile is to be complimented for only offering limited servings of what has appeared in print on its website. Many titles now (particularly automotive) now provide almost every bit of their content on the Internet before readers can possibly have received their copies. Nice for the freeloader, but really an insult to paying subscribers!

fetuso's picture

Chris, the review of the 685s2 on whathifi.com recommends pairing them with the Arcam FMJ A19. For what it's worth, I recently upgraded from the D3020 to Peachtree Nova65se, and it's made a huge difference. I'm currently using Wharfedale Diamond 220's, which are 86db, and 8 ohm nominal. The 685's are on my list of possible upgrades.

spacehound's picture

Unlike that dopey Gamut thing. Its grille looks awful and serves no practical function, not being cat, dog, and child proof.

The B&W is made for the real world.

Dr.Kamiya's picture

...and its largely decorative grill: A system with a $39,000 speaker is likely to be in a room where cats, dogs and children aren't normally allowed in.

spacehound's picture

On whether you consider $39,000 a lot of money of course :)

I don't. But I would not buy the Gamuts as they CERTAINLY won't sound 20 times better than the B&Ws. Once you get beyond a 'bound to be rubbish' price point, way below the B%W price, HiFi price and performance are not often connected, particularly with speakers.

russm535il's picture

I have RevelF12 floor standing speakers since I have no way to audition speakers here in Pittsburgh This review is so good should I consider selling my Revels and moving to the 683 S2 ?
Thank you for your input !
Russ DeJulio
Pittsburgh PA

Kal Rubinson's picture

Whew! I cannot help you there. I loved the F12s but I last heard them back in 2006. I would have bought them then but they were a bit too tall to fit under my display.

russm535il's picture

Thanks Kal yes I have had. Mine awhile also they are definitely tall and heavy !
Regards
Russ

lifeliver's picture

Hi'
I really stuck between 3 speakers,
Sonus faber venere 3
B&W CM10 S2
And Dali Rubicon 6
Can someone give me advise please ?

Regards
Leonardo

traynor3's picture

I plan to pair the B&W 583 S2 with Creek 50A. Could these 50wpc adequately power these 683 S2 in a 11' x 19' room?

ergonomico's picture

and compared them both to the 804d3 and the monitor audio silver s8 and s10 but, at least for my ears, they are way below the 804 and below the s8-s10. The B&W 683 s2 have excellent midrange for the price but that's it. The bass and highs are not extended and on many recordings they actually flat the instruments out. That goes for the highs but of course its not as evident as with the low frequencies. Compared to the MA S8 they sound less transparent, less extended and slightly moer boxy :/ Too bad because WAF was pretty high on the B&W and i really wanted to try out the brand but the 804 are way too expensive.

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