Review: B&W B&W 603 s3 Speaker
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.
Rotel RC-1070 Preamp
B&K ST-1400II (modified)
Sony 555ES SACD Changer
DIY twisted pair solid core conductor interconnects
Analysis Plus shotgun bi-wire Oval 14 speaker cable.
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