They arrived on my doorstep nestled in a cardboard box—two Bowers & Wilkins 606 S2 Anniversary Edition Speakers, offered on loan for review. These bookshelf speakers are geared for hi-fi enthusiasts who might not have the wherewithal to go full “rabbit hole” on the pursuit.
Often, people who love hi-fi orient entire rooms to the pursuit of audio purity, arranging the environment around imposing, floor-mounted towers and temperature-raising amplifiers. The 606 S2s, on the other hand, are meant to accentuate a room with their sound, rather than occupy it by force. That’s simply the way it goes with bookshelf speakers.
At the time of writing this, I found myself in an anti-bookshelf, anti-nearfield frame of mind: I had previously secured a pair of full-range speakers for my home studio, and the chest-rattling change had been dramatic. How could I go back? How would I temper my expectations for bookshelf speakers ever again, given that I finally had the means to feel the music in my body in my towers?
If anyone could make me excited, it would be Bowers & Wilkins—in fact, the floor-standers I bought were a vintage pair of B&W 802s. Complicating matters are my existing bookshelf speakers: My living room hi-fi system sports Linn 109 3-way monitors, which roundly outprice the Bowers & Wilkins 606 S2 (thankfully, these speakers were a gift).
So, the question remained: Would this pair of B&W bookshelf speakers displace a pricier bit of kit secured at the low, low price of free?
The answer was “yes.”
These are passive speakers, which means they require an amplifier to operate. The amp will also have a discernible impact on the sound (Bowers & Wilkins recommends you use an amp that can drive 30 to 120W into 8 Ohms). On the rear, you’ll find posts that accept both banana plugs and speaker wire.
The speakers employ the company’s signature Continuum drivers, supplying a rear-firing port to help with low-end reproduction when placed on stands. An interesting feature: Bowers & Wilkins supplies two foam inserts meant to block the ports if you’re using them on a bookshelf. The company encourages you to experiment with these manual filters as you wish.
Bowers & Wilkins claims the speakers exhibit a frequency response of 52 Hz to 28 kHz (±3 dB), and a sensitivity rating of 88 dB SPL. But I’ve always found Bowers & Wilkins to be conservative in its measurements.
Using a test tone, I was able to audibly generate frequencies well below 52 in the ±3 dB margin. These 606 S2s go down audibly to 31 Hz, with the ability to read down to 28 kHz on a frequency analyzer before the response dips to the noise floor.
I was also able to blast a test tone comfortably at 88 dBL SPL coming from one speaker without anything like a hint of distortion (I didn’t go louder because I care about my neighbors).
What does this mean in non-tech lingo? The speakers go lower and louder they read on paper—and lower than comparable bookshelves, as well.
But none of that matters if these speakers don’t provide the right balance of sound. Thankfully, they do.
I always struggle with which adjectives to supply in communicating the concept of a good sound. I can say something is “balanced,” but that leaves no indication on how the speakers feel; a speaker can provide an accurate accounting of music and still be painfully aggressive on the ear.
For me, the only way to evaluate a speaker is to test the most familiar material against other familiar speakers as a reference. I ran this speaker through its paces with familiar tunes across a variety of genres, as well as two television shows we’re watching around the house. I’d often switch back and forth against the Linns, and I always have my other speakers for reference in my studio if need be.
Considering the traditional limitations of a bookshelf speaker—the curtailment of the bottom octave, the hard cap on loudness before it starts to sound less open—these speakers comported themselves brilliantly. They absolutely slew the Linn 109s: In contrast, the Linns sounded veiled and muddy, with dismal low- and high-end excursion in comparison.
These speakers absolutely rocked the low end and gave a sleek satisfying high-end presence, to boot. If you’re playing loud pop, rock, or hip hop, these more than handle the job: Your childhood tunes will sound as you remember them.
Equally impressive is the sound reproduction on softer material: On familiar pieces from Faure’s Requiem to any number of Ben Webster ballads, the instruments sounded exactly as intended, with delineation and ambience intact.
These speakers don’t just offer an accurate and pleasurable reproduction of music. Each television show we watched benefited from the sharper imaging, low-end extension, and high-end presence the Bowers & Wilkins 606 S2s provided, and by way of illustration, I’ll provide an example.
As someone who’s mixed for film, I’m always paying attention to the sound of a piece of media. This is by no means unique—my peers and I love to point out when we hear obvious ADR on The Sopranos or Arrested Development; it means our ears are still working. Along these lines, the Bowers & Wilkins 606 S2s showed me something interesting in an episode of the detective series Bosch.
It was a two-handed scene between the titular lead and the deputy chief of police, both of whom have sonorous baritones. As they spoke, I could hear the low-end with a punch and clarity on Bosch that lacked in the other character; Deputy Chief Irving, for his part, sounded roomy, more distant, more a part of his surroundings.
Suddenly, it became clear that in this mix, each actor was treated to his own kind of microphone; they didn’t share a boom, in other words.
The experience was unique for me in this listening environment: I can often pick out looped lines. Sitting in my living room, I can frequently tell you when a line of dialogue is denoised or gated due to the wind. But hearing the differing qualities between two mics on similar voices in a scene? That’s something new. And it wasn’t a fluke: The disparity was minimized in the Linns.
I couldn’t be more pleased with how these speakers sound in my relaxed, hi-fi environment. They’d also make a good reference pair in a studio, if you could spare the amplification for nearfields that aren’t NS10s.
Did we mention that the Bowers & Wilkins 606 S2s come in well under the $1,000 threshold for the pair? If you had told me the price was for a single speaker, I’d say they were worth it. I’d be surprised if other offerings in this price range delivered what Bowers & Wilkins has here.
But what do you think? Be sure to let us know in the Comments section below.
Curious as to what amp you used for your testing?
The speakers were intentionally tested in a home hi-fi setting, where they might shine in what you could call "normal" conditions. For this purpose, a Rotel RSX-1550 was chosen, as it can be found in many homes.