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Review: Bowers & Wilkins 606 S3 Bookshelf Speakers

These British bookshelf speakers have crisp highs fit for an orchestra.
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Bowers  Wilkins 606 S3 Speaker
Photograph: Bowers & Wilkins
Bowers & Wilkins 606 S3
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Fabulous detail and definition. Articulate stereo imaging. Good dynamics. Clear and pronounced center image. Full and musical bass. Gorgeous, premium design. Dual binding posts for bi-amping.
Light instruments and effects sometimes sound snappy. Midrange leans on the cool side. Poor recordings have nowhere to hide.

Bookshelf speakers come in a rainbow of flavors to cater to a wide array of listeners. Some of my personal favorites, like KEF’s LS50 II (8/10, WIRED Recommends) and Focal’s Vestia No. 1 ($1,198), provide a smooth and lyrical sound profile that seems to effortlessly expose detail and definition across the frequency range.

Bowers & Wilkins’ 600 series speakers go the other way. The new 606 S3, the third iteration of the company’s renowned stand-mount model, provide a forward and zippy sound profile that bursts forth with unabashed exuberance. With a new titanium dome tweeter and some upgrades to their cabinet design, the speakers match that play with impressively refined definition, vivisecting the subtleties of your music within a clear and spacious soundstage.

The S3’s sound signature won’t be for everyone. Their upper register can border on sharpness with some content, wearing a bit on my ears over long listening sessions. But their warm and musical bass helps to round out an otherwise loaded soundscape that can be a lot of fun—as long as you don’t mind some extra zing in your jams.

Deep and Dashing

The 606 S3 look fabulous, especially in their light oak veneers with matte white panels. They also come in more basic white and black configurations, but the grain in the oak version really stands out in a good way.

Photograph: Bowers & Wilkins

One point of note for setup is that the cabinets are quite deep, running back about 12 inches without the grilles. That’s a lot of room for internal spacing, and it helps the speakers dig up some serious authority in the lower registers, but it could also make placement more difficult. The company says the new cabinets offer improved internal bracing alongside changes to the woofer motor design to reduce distortion.

New titanium dome tweeters replace the aluminum tweeters found in the 606 S2 model. They’ve also been moved down to sit closer to the 6.5-inch Continuum woofers when compared to the S2, now dipping into the lower cone’s surrounding trim ring. B&W claims this enhances stereo imaging and general frequency fluidity. It also looks pretty stylish; if you’re like me, you’ll end up keeping the included grilles in the box to show these babies off. The design improvements come with an increased cost of $100 per pair over the S2.

At the back of each speaker, you’ll find new dual binding posts for bi-amping if your amplifier supports it, which the manual says can refine low-end detail. I only connected the single posts for this review, using a Naim Uniti Atom (8/10, WIRED Recommends) network amplifier for most of my listening. I also tested the speakers with Technics’ new SU-GX70 digital amplifier, but the Naim proved to be the better complement.

Roller Coaster Romance
Photograph: Bowers & Wilkins

It took me longer than usual to get a feel for the 606 S3. These speakers come in like a lightning bolt, with a bright and peppery punch in the upper midrange that can sometimes be overbearing. But there’s satin behind their steel, rendering rich refinement in the layout of instruments across registers. Over time, they revealed a penchant for smooth musicality in the bass and lower mids, cavernous detail, and a fair share of sweet gloss in the treble as well.

I started my listening by streaming compressed tracks over Spotify. The speakers were quick to show off their vivid definition across registers, with a clear and well-defined center image, plenty of instrumental separation, and broad stereo imaging. That’s especially true with acoustic and jazz-leaning tracks. The flute in Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” sounds airy and glimmering, while Elton John’s “Your Song” is layered in lush orchestration with a lovely tone in his subdued piano.

The S3’s sound profile exposes a cool tonal color and plenty of zip in the instruments and effects of sharper recordings. Bright horns tend to sound particularly uptight, while hot percussion can sometimes snap like a bear trap, especially notable in Notorious B.I.G’s “Hypnotize.” The articulation was so good I suddenly realized after years of listening that there are two cymbal hits, the second of which reveals the hi-hats closing. But that comes with a helping of aggression, like a tech bro at a wine tasting.

The brash, forward attack also comes through in dialog of certain TV content, namely sitcoms like The Office and Parks and Rec. The “s” consonant really gets the spotlight there, popping with extra sizzle. I noticed less hiss as time went on, either because the speakers warmed or my ears warmed to them, or possibly some combination of both.

As I listened over several days, the 606 S3 really stepped up with high-quality recordings. Well-made films, from Sam Mendes’ Skyfall to Ridley Scott’s Alien, revealed textural effects and articulate dialog without those standout pops. Listening to hi-res files over Amazon Music in HD also sounded sweeter, not only adding more dimension and breadth but also a smoother tone. These speakers really shine with your best content, and while that might sound obvious, it seems particularly important here.

For me, one of the most important components of the 606 S3’s sound signature is the bass response. It holds down the foundation with firm and smooth musicality that is a pleasure, from explosions in action films to the 808 kick in Too Short’s “Just Another Day.” It sounded a little loose at first, but moving the speakers a few more inches from the wall zeroed things in brilliantly. If that’s not enough, the speakers also come with foam bungs for the bass ports.

I still find myself somewhat torn on the 606 S3. Just as I’m about to fully fall for them, they pop in with too much spritely punch in a cymbal hit or a TV monologue, leaving me wondering if they’d fit as my primary speaker setup. Personally, I’d invest in something smoother and more laid-back like the fabulous Focal Vestia No1, which provide similar sonic riches without the extra bite. (They’ll also cost you a bit more.)

If you’ve come this far, though, you probably know where you stand. I’ve had moments of pure sonic joy with these speakers, more than I expected as we first got to know each other. If you’re the type who likes some extra pep up top, you’ll be rewarded with detail, definition, stereo imaging, and musicality that stands out at this price and above.