Review: B&W B&W 603 s3 Speaker

Category: Speakers

Let me start with a big disclaimer: I feel more strongly now than ever before that system synergy can be more important than individual components. I have heard pieces in my own system, and in others that have sounded terrible with the wrong mix of components. I have owned Rowland, Threshold, Plinius, Sonic Frontiers, Theta, Audio Alchemy, Camelot and Anthem electronics. I have auditioned too many to list. I have heard almost all of these components sound superb, and at times downright poor. Some just don't play well together. This frustrated me enough to make me jump off of the audiophile band wagon a couple of years ago. I settled down with mid-fi gear and lowered my expectations.
It was ok, but this hobby is like heroin, and I had to hit the stores a couple of months ago and start listening again.

Enter the B&w DM603 S3: a narrow, unassuming (with grille on) smallish floorstander with exceptional capabilities. I spent an afternoon with the 602S3, 604S3, 603S3, and Paradigm Reference 60s and 100s, a couple of Thiel models, and a brief period of time listening to the more expensive Nautilus models from B&W. The Thiel and Nautilus speakers were as they should have been: more transparent, and more refined than the DM600 and Paradigm Reference models. Thiels have never been my cup of tea, but I found myself more impressed by some of their newer offerings than the older models that seemed far too forward.

In any event, this ended up as a shootout between the B&W DM series, and the Paradigm Reference series. I owned a pair of Studio 40s years ago and wasn't thrilled with them. But The Paradigm series has been extremely popular with reviewers and audiophiles alike. I expected that I would end up bringing a pair of Studio 60s home to stay (based on comments about how the v3 is so much better than previous versions.) I am now very glad that I don't buy based on reviews, which is an inconvenience living in Vermont. A 2 hour drive is necessary to find hifi shops with enough inventory to really compare products.

I listened to the 604 first. It was quite remarkable, very similar to the Snell CVs that I owned previously, but with a sweeter and more extended treble, and a soundstage that was much larger than I heard the CV produce in the time that I owned it. There was abundant bass on tap, and it was tight, fast and had slam in spades. It did overload the medium-sized room we were in, but using supplied port plugs helped quite a bit. Midrange was quite good, but not quite as good as the Snells, or the more expensive Nautilus and Thiel models in the store. That last degree of midrange purity seems to be what the big dollars buy.

Next up was the Paradigm Studio 60 v3. A tremendous disappointment. The bass was adequate, the treble extended but slightly grainy, and the midrange was quite recessed. Switching from the B&Ws to the Paradigms was a shift from 3rd row to 12th row perspective. That alone would be acceptable, but the level of treble hash was enough to send me out of the room. I confirmed with the dealer that the speakers we were listening to had spent enough time as demo models to be fully broken in. Then I switched back, this time to the 603S3.

No comparison. I'll compare these to what has been one of my all time favorite under 5k speakers - the Snell Type D. The Snell did almost everything right. Bass, midrange and soundstage presentation were impeccable. The one drawback of the Type D was the tweeter, which proved difficult to match with suitable equipment. It did 2 things that I can't stand: it emphasized sibilants too aggressively, and rolled of a bit too early, lacking that last bit of air that most of us crave. But it bettered the more expensive CV and all of the Paradigm models (and even the B&W NT floorstanders) at absolutely disappearing when matched with proper electronics. Since selling the Ds two years ago, I've been left wanting for the positive attributes of the Type D, with the addition of sweeter and more extended treble response.

The DM 603 S3 nailed it. While the Type D had more realistic lower-midrange weight, there is no other area where the 603 is not superior or equal to the D. Bass response is ver similar, with good weight and speed. The Type D went a few hz lower, but only a few, and I'm hard pressed to hear any difference. The level of upper midrange and treble purity of the 603 is beyond reproach. It is dumbfounding.

The 603 can disappear very well when set up properly. This is due to a rather remarkable soundstage. If partnered with overly bright electronics or cables, the 603 will lack depth, and the treble gets pushed too far forward in the mix. But it is much easier to coax excellent performance from the 603 than with the Snells. The 603 does not require 5-10k in front end electronics to sound wonderful. I highly recommend Analysis Plus copper cables for use with the B&Ws. In the context of my now mid-fi system, these speakers are making beautiful music in a very large (33 x 16 with cathedral cielings) room.

I could have purchased the larger 604, but it only offered a bit more bass weight and slightly higher max SPL. The 603 on the other hand seemed to disappear a bit more easily. This probably has to do with the fact that it uses 6 inch drivers in place of the 7 inch drivers of the 604. The result is a more narrow baffle with the 603, perhaps allowing for better dispersion. But it's a close call. For those who long for hardcore bass that will negate the need for a subwoofer with movies, the 604 is a great choice. Otherwise you might find the 603 to equal the 604 and maybe even better it until the volume knob reaches ridiculous levels.

I listen to most types of music, although classical is low on my priority list. I do listen to quite a bit of jazz, pop, some hard rock and a few rap tunes. All are handled equally well by the 603. This is not a "jazz" or "rock" speaker. Vocals are rendered beautifully, well in front of the speaker plane, with instruments redered in a wonderful sondstage, even at volume. Patricia Barber floats wonderfully in her own space, Audioslave blows the roof off of the house, and Margo Timmins sounds as though she is singing front and center in the church on The Trinity Sessions. Watching James Taylor Live at the Beacon Theater is stunning. The attack of plucked guitar strings has weight and is realistic, the backup singers spread well beyond the outer limits of the speakers themselves, melting away the walls of my listening room. The treble response of these speakers seems to go on forever, and in actuality it does. Check the specs. 6 db down at 42khz is rather remarkable in any speaker, never mind one that can be had for around $900 at most dealers.

As an aside, I did take the standmount 602 home for an evening. It was quite good for $600. I would take the 602 over the Paradigm Studio 60, or 100 for that matter. But the 603 offers enough improvement in both bass and midrange to warrant the difference in cost (especially if you factor the cost of stands) and puts the 603 in a different class.

All of the 600 series speakers do sound slightly better with the grilles removed. I'm not fond of the growing trend among manufacturers of providing plastic matrix grid grille frames. Take them off when possible, and always spike these speakers.

Thinking about a speaker purchase?

Are these as good as the best speakers out there? Nope. Does the law of diminishing returns start to kick in really hard if you spend more? Indeed it does. It may not be hip among audiophiles to love a vinyl clad, traditional looking 1000 dollar pair of speakers. But if you value transparency, dynamics and tonal balance over furniture grade cabinets or the esteem of owning boutique brands, these are worth a listen if you are considering spending up to 3k. Match them with the right equipment and you'll be rewarded with performance that will have you questioning how much you really have to spend to live happily in the land of Audiophilia.

Associated gear
Rotel RC-1070 Preamp
B&K ST-1400II (modified)
Sony 555ES SACD Changer
Technics DVD-A10
DIY twisted pair solid core conductor interconnects
Analysis Plus shotgun bi-wire Oval 14 speaker cable.

Similar products
Snell Type D and CV, QBX 25
Paradigm Reference Series: 20, 40, 60, 100 v1, studio 20 and 60 v3
Numerous models from Thiel, Totem, Vienna, Audes, Krix:
B&W N803, CDM7NT, 604S3, 602S3
Sold B&W for 6 years.While I agree with your point about diminishing returns I heard the 600 series day in and out and they are excellent.But ifyoi diregard the fancy outtter looks of 800 series the inrert cabinets made quiytes a difference.Like formula 1 racing cars have trickle down tech (say the v-tech valves on a Honda or Acura) many speaker manufacturers have always and even more so now allowed the better tech to end up in lesser end of their lione.Check out CMMD drivers in Infinty that began with high end products now being incoperated into lower end products.But with either hard wood cabintes that used to be the norm to the cost efficient MDF higher priced speakers will have more inerert cabintes.Look I am a guy who likes EL34 tubes and am willing to put up with lesser peformance for a dead on midrange.When I sold them some folks would pick hard wood floostading CMD9 over the 805 Nautilus.But for me it was a crazy pick given they could get for the same money a monitor with bteer imaging and a much more accurate midrange.Yes the 805's are double what you paid but their are other products now (haven't been into so can't say what the highly reviwed 700 series is all about) but the bracing in the 805's made the difference.You would be AMAZED at how little raw drivers from many companies cost.It's a matter of taste but I guess I'd go with a 602 as having most bang for the buck in a mid fi system.Properly set low enough you would get extension with many monitors and a sub.If you wne tout and got pair of $750 used 805 Matrix III's kept in good condition and spent another $750 on a used fast Vandertseen sub you would get for 50% more a system thaty absolutely creams 6000 or for my guess the 700 series.Secret with sub is multi drivers and sophisticated crossover that "see's" and responds to intire waveform.$1250 list $750 list they are a steal.But VGandersteen,REL and a few others are MUSIC subs which are fast and pitch accurate and can extend a good monitor and break the rule of thmb that you get more value out of a 2 piece as opposed to a 3 piece system.A 601 or 602 with a lesser HT sub (B&W,Veloidyne etc) might now do the trick.I think ultimately you got a great deal because to you it sounds great.But even with the law of diminshing returns you MIGHT like the system I suggest more than what you have.But B&W is a fantastic line at wins not at every price point but nails the compaetition at more than a few.BTW if you mnetioned the 803N which I tghinbk is a SUPERB value with a bigger soundstage and depth than the $3500 804N.I thought in their line the 803N FPR the dollar at $5K was a total winner basting in bang for the buck the 802 or 801.Next the 805N was my next favorite.And until the replaced it the little $250 302 was just great.Sold more 602's than anything else in the line but some buyers like yourself wanted more extension.Your happy and that's what counts.But many times what you pay for and occasionally you run up against law of diminidhing returnms is the cabinte build.But occasionally you could with B&W or other speakers pay up to $5K and REALLY get what you were shelling out the hard earned bucks for.The industry is full of snake oil and hype but occasionally you would get what you digging deeper in yopur pockets for.Just one jocks oppionion.You have a GREAT set of speakers just thought I thow in 2 cents about how sometimes you can if not beat thje law of diminishing returns at least rationally rationalize the deeper dive.Values are even out ther at what non-audiophiles would consider insane but what we sit down to and say "yeahhhh..."
I certainly understand that more money will get you more. But this is a product that exceeds the price/performance ratio substantially. The Snell Type D can be had for less money used than the 603 new. But for all of us who love to buy used and save money, we are dependent upon those who buy new products. This is a product that is worth more than its asking price. There is a reason that you can't find these on the used market.

I forgot to mention a very unique feature of the 603: the mid/bass driver is in its own enclosure, ported to the rear. The bass driver is ported to the front. All other 600 series are front ported only. The 603 allows you to tune midbass and bass response separately to suit your room, allowing for flexibility in placement.

Front porting of mid/bass drivers is not the best practice. Midrange information that escapes the port arrives at the listening position out of phase. While many folks don't want a rear port that causes a bit too much bass when placed near a wall, I'll take a rear port over a front port any day. The 603 offers a very unique solution for this issue, and should be easier to place than the 604.
Weel I have gobethrough S3 603 , Believe me they are not very Good in Vocals. It sound is very shrilled Dont go for it .

Paradigm are much better
S60 Version 3 with Denon 3805
Its amazing . Go for it .

Can't say too much about the B&W 603 S3 as I have not
auditioned them. But if allowed to back up a few years to
their older brother, the 603 S2's, I can follow up on the
previous reviews. Reading these reviews brought back familiar memories of auditioning the series 2 vs Paradigms
mentioned. Both were in my alloted price range and dimentional acceptance. After A-B comparisons between the 603 and 604 I strongly agree with a previous reviewer that
the 603 was more open with a bigger soundstage than the 6o4.
Knowing that I would be utilizing a subwoofer in a 5.1 music
and HT set I did not need the power robbing lower octaves of
the 604. Not to mention the additional cost. My next stop was at a dealer who sold both the B&W and Paradigm lines.
With my most familiar CD's in hand I was left alone in a private listening room with a pair of 603 s2's and a pair of
Paradigm 60's if I remember correctly. Having eclectic musical taste I ran both pairs through a series of tests involving individual vocalists, a cappella groups, full orchestral pieces, brass bands, trumpet soloists, acoustic
strings and good old rock and roll. After several hours of
switching cd's and wearing out the A-B comparison button I
came to a very simple conclusion. If all you listen to is
individual vocalists and acoustic music the Paradigm pair
should be your choice. The warmer, intimate sound of the
Canadian pair made vocals and strings appear, well, warmer and more intimate. However, all other forms of music sounded
DEAD through the Paradigms. Especially disappointing through
the Paradigms was brass bands and solo trumpet. When you hear live brass your hair stands up and your ears are
treated to a storm of musical tonations.(my word) This was not the case with the Paradigms. They really lacked the attack and brilliance that is brass. The B&W 803's however
delivered a lifelike portrayal of horns. Perhaps the difference between a soft cloth tweeter vs an aluminum dome tweeter. But throughout the entire genre of music the 603's
did a better job of creating a more true to life presentation than did the digm's I purchased the 603's for
fronts and 602' for rears with a smallish B&W center channel
for a very satisfying music/HT presentation. A 10" HSU sub
wraps it all up nicely. I will soon be moving up to the new
B&W 700 series so some lucky buyer will be getting really
BIG, BIG, BANG FOR THE BUCK when I sell the 600S2's.
I have owned these beautiful pair of 603s3 for more than two years now, and I have to say, I love them very much! I am very happy to see that others enjoy listening to them as much as I do.
I've auditioned Paradigms Studio (very close)/Reference, Kefs Q/iQs (disappointed), PSBs Image/T series (disappointed), and Theils (too bright). I found that none of these speakers were able match the dynamics, soundstage and most importantly able to disappear like the B&W 603s3. They came very close but, do not match them or exceed them. Perhaps my gear matches them very well.
My only complaint is that the tweeter could be alittle cleaner. Other than that, they sound awesome.
What I liked most on the 603s3 is string and brass instruments and for me Rock/heavy metal sound awesome on them. Vocals were better on the 603s3 than the other speakers I've heard. The vocals on some of the speakers I auditioned sounded as if the singers inhaled helium. And some sounded alittle nasal.
I listen to everything from Diana Krall, Ray Brown, Poncho Sanchez, to Mozart, Stark, Laurence Juber, Metallica, Audioslave,... etc.
My System consist of Rotel AV preamp, Rotel RMB985 5ch 100 watt amp, Sony SACD pl 222ES, and a Pioneer DVD pl.

Just needed to express my passion for good audio equipment and music ;)
I will go a few more years back to when I bought my B&W 640's. I listened to many different speakers from Vandersteen, Paradigm, Definitive Technology just to name a few. Nothing came close to sound of the 640s. I bought them back in 94 and still have them. As a matter of fact, I ran across an article on doing a mod on the internal crossovers and as I just completed the mod I can say I would put them up against the 802 Matrix and many other speakers costing much more. With this new crossover upgrade, I dont think these will be going anywhere anytime soon. Maybe I can see if I can come across some replacement drivers just in case.
I already have a pair of 603s3, buy it two years ago from local dealer, I runnit with vAcp90/90on tubes, and now sounds much better, with the use, it flows all around, excellent choice for the money.
I recently purchased some 603s3 second hand after listening to new speakers from Kef, R3, LS50(came close with these),Q750, Q950, B&W new 600 series, 702 and Monitor Audio. In the end I was not sold on any of them and picked up the older 603 for a good price.  I can only agree with Ineilb about the qualities of this speaker when matched with good quality source. These are a great value sonically and I wholeheartedly recommend them if you are looking for a great set of speakers.