B&W DM603 S3 loudspeaker

It occurred to me recently that, after nearly a decade of specializing in reviewing affordable speakers, and with the exceptions of two entry-level Mission models, I'd never taken a look at recent designs from the large mainstream British speaker manufacturers. So with this review I embark on a Bob Reina "British Invasion" tour to seek out the most innovative and value-conscious designs from companies that have been household names in British stereo shoppes for decades.

Who better to start with than Bowers and Wilkins? Although I've been impressed at many a hi-fi show with the realism, tunefulness, and musicality of every B&W speaker I've heard—especially the more expensive and staggeringly sexy Nautilus designs—until now, a B&W speaker had never entered my home.

B&W has a wide range of designs in their current kit bag, from the entry-level DM303 ($300/pair) to the flagship Nautilus ($40,000/pair). I focused on the affordable 600 series, which comprises six two-channel designs ranging from $350 to $1400/pair. All of the 600-series speakers feature aluminum-dome tweeters derived from the original Nautilus design, with tapered-tube loading behind the tweeter diaphragm that's designed to soak up the backwave energy from the tweeter to reduce distortion. The midrange and bass/midrange drivers have cones of woven Kevlar with improved mechanical matching between voice-coil and cone. The bass-only drivers have rigid aluminum cones. After several discussions with B&W and their US import division to determine which 600 model would be of most interest to Stereophile readers, I chose the DM603 S3, which retails for $1000/pair.

The DM603 S3 is a so-called "2½-way," reflex-loaded floorstander sporting the aforementioned 1" aluminum-dome tweeter, 6½" woven Kevlar-cone bass/midrange driver, and 6½" aluminum-cone woofer. The speaker is drop-dead gorgeous in its Sorrento finish of simulated light oak, with or without its grille in place (a traditional Black Ash finish is also available). The DM603 S3 is also elegant and unimposing, with a footprint of only 8" by 11". Although the B&W is not magnetically shielded, I gave my review pair considerable home-theater duty over the two months I listened to them, and not once did I notice that they created any problems with my video display, even when placed as close as 3' from the screen. I slightly preferred their sound with their grilles off—there was a bit more detail—but the difference was very subtle.

This is not one of those "sonic checklist" reviews—it would be a bore to merely describe the sonic attributes of the B&W DM603 S3. Sure, it exhibited no notable deviation from neutrality across its coherently present frequency spectrum, and it excelled at transient articulation, wide and linear dynamic contrasts, and exemplary detail resolution and soundstaging. But I'd rather talk about music.

With the DM603 S3, I just wanted to play jazz, jazz, and more jazz. On Dizzy Gillespie's The Ebullient Mr. Gillespie (LP, Verve MGV 8326), my notes on Diz's trumpet sound read "bite, bloom, and air." The speaker's sophisticated transient articulation and detail resolution, combined with tonal purity from the lower midrange to the highs, portrayed a more natural rendition of a recorded jazz piano than I'd heard before. Ditto for percussion. On Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage (LP, Blue Note BVP 4195), I was riveted by Tony Williams' stunning and vibrant toms and ride cymbal during "Survival of the Fittest."

I continue to become more and more hooked on all the musicians' performances on "I'm an Old Cowhand," from Sonny Rollins' Way Out West (CD, JVC VICJ 60888). When I listened to Rollins' rich, breathy tenor sax through the B&Ws, I could almost see his spittle. Moreover, despite the number of times I've listened to Shelly Manne's drum solo on that tune, with the DM603 S3s I felt the drummer in the room with me more than I have with any other speakers.

Classical music also shone through the B&Ws. The solo performances by virtuoso accordionist Guy Klucevsek on The Heart of the Andes (CD, Winter & Winter 910074-2) revealed subtle low-level articulations from his Giulietti Free Bass accordion (two chromatic keyboards, each just like a piano), demonstrating why this instrument is the most dynamic of wind instruments. The air and extended partials of the upper register did not deviate from perfection. Listening to Tomiko Kohjiba's Transmigration of the Soul, from Festival (CD, Stereophile STPH007-2), I was fixated on the realism of the cello and the reproduction of the clarinet's lower register. This speaker's transparent window on the lower midrange was perhaps its greatest strength.

On George Crumb's Quest (CD, Bridge 9069), the shimmering, extended upper registers of the percussion instruments, particularly the bells, were uncanny in their realism. From my notes: "layers and layers and layers of detail" and "I've heard guitar passages I never noticed before" and "how many times can I use the word wonderful in this review?" and "don't these speakers do anything wrong?"

Well, that's the point—they didn't do anything wrong. During my listening sessions I could detect no single flaw, but by the time I'd finished I'd concluded that what I enjoyed most about the DM603 S3 was its realistic transient articulation, wide and linear dynamic envelope, and pristine high-frequency extension.

What I haven't yet mentioned is loud, bombastic music with deep bass. Not to worry. My notes on listening to Antal Dorati and the London Symphony's performance of Stravinsky's The Firebird (CD, Mercury Living Presence SR90226) are filled with exclamation points: "The hall sound!! The depth!! The drama!! The timpani!!" The high-level dynamics were staggering—the B&Ws sounded like much larger speakers than they are, and the rapid high-frequency transients were lightning-fast, without hardness but with shimmering, extended highs. Bass was not a problem for the DM603 S3. The midbass was natural, clean, and extended, and the organ pedals on Timothy Seelig and the Turtle Creek Chorale's performance of John Rutter's Requiem (CD, Reference RR-57CD) were as realistic as I've heard from a speaker this inexpensive, says this former church organist.

The DM603 S3's bass and high-level dynamic capabilities made it cook on cranked-up rock music. Ultra High Frequency is a new New York–based band that combines wailing vocals, intricate guitar counterpoints, driving dynamic drama, and loud power-pop blasts. After recently seeing them in concert, I bought their CD, Sun Never Sets in Dramaville (Mugshot 0001). I'm obsessed with the opening track, "Movie Theater," which has the catchiest melodic hook I've heard in a rock tune in five years. The CD is superbly recorded, and had me twitching in my living room as I settled into a high-level dynamic vibe with the B&Ws set to Stun. Similarly, the Black Keys' Rubber Factory (CD, Chrysalis 9-379-2) features that duo of distorted blues guitar and drumkit recorded in an abandoned rubber factory in Akron, Ohio. The rich, wet, dynamic drums and wailing, muddy guitar provided an emotive backdrop for the CD's blues vocalizations through the B&Ws. The DM603 S3's sophisticated, Nautilus-derived tweeter shone on Sonic Youth's Sonic Nurse (LP, Goofin Goo-6), which brought out the shimmering extended upper harmonics of the alternately tuned electric guitars.

In a lighter vein, male and female singer-songwriters fared well through the DM603 S3s—all acoustic guitars sounded detailed, vibrant, and natural, all vocalists rich, supple, and holographic. I did notice a bit of chestiness in Joni Mitchell's lower register on "Urge for Going," from Hits (CD, Reprise 46326-2), but I heard that characteristic on no other vocal recording I demoed with the B&W.

Finally, I used the DM603 S3s in my main home theater rig to play a wide variety of DVD-Video discs. The results were detailed, natural, and dynamic enough to make me forget about sound and just enjoy the movies. Moreover, I never felt I needed a subwoofer, even with the most demanding program material.

I compared the B&W DM603 S3 ($1000/pair) with three other loudspeakers: the Amphion Helium2 ($1000/pair), Epos M5 ($650/pair), and NHT SB-3 ($600/pair). I spent more time than I usually would comparing the Amphion with the B&W—two very impressive speakers at exactly the same price. I was determined to discover a preference for one of them but was unable to. On "Some People's Lives," from Janis Ian's Breaking Silence (CD, Analogue Productions CAPP027), Ian's seductive vocal presentation and delicate, airy piano sounded identical through the Amphion and B&W. Even with more complex fare, the two speakers' dynamic envelopes, transient articulation, and lacks of coloration were pretty much the same. The Amphion seemed to resolve a bit more detail, but the B&W had greater high-frequency extension, more extended bass, and a greater range of high-level dynamics.

I was splitting hairs. At the end of the day, I thought the Amphion Helium2 a bit more polite and austere, the B&W DM603 S3 a bit more warm. How to choose between the two? Well, one is a floorstander and the other a small bookshelf; at this price point, the shopper will probably have an easier time basing his or her choice on décor than on sound.

The Epos M5's midrange was as natural as the B&W's, with super dynamic capabilities but less refined and extended highs. The M5's low bass was not as extended as the DM603 S3's, and I felt the B&W resolved a bit more inner detail.

The NHT SB-3 was warm, natural, and pleasing, but with much less detail and high-frequency extension than the B&W. The NHT's high-level dynamic capabilities and bass slam were as good as the B&W's, but its midbass was less defined.

B&W's superb DM603 S3 touched me on many fronts. When I felt like being an audio geek, I would drag out my audiophile chestnuts and notice an articulation here or a level of detail there that I hadn't heard from most speakers at this price. At other times I said the hell with it, kicked back, enjoyed music or a movie, and didn't think about the sound.

I can see why B&W speakers have been a hit in the New York City area. Their sound will appeal to audiophiles, and the wife acceptance factor of their sexy, unobtrusive enclosures is very high. A case in point: When I'd packed up the B&Ws and was installing the speakers that followed them in my reviewing queue, my wife looked at me and, in a tone of "So you're going to blow the day reviewing speakers instead of helping our son with his social studies project?," asked what I was doing.

"I'm hooking up new speakers."

"What happened to the other ones?"

"The B&Ws? I sent them back."

"Oh. I really liked them."

"The sound or the way they looked?"


I rest my case. In my 22 years of speaker reviewing, that's the first time my wife has said that. B&W's affordable, attractive DM603 S3 is a bargain at $1000/pair. It should disappoint no one.

54 Concord Street
North Reading, MA 01864-2699
(978) 664-2870