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It is a sad state of affairs, but there are fewer and fewer high end audio stores in most communities outside the largest major metropolitan areas. As I reported here, Nashville is down from a half a dozen stores a few years ago to a single store. If you no longer have a high-end store in your area, you are left with few options: 1) go to your local Best Buy, which hopefully will have a Magnolia Home Theater store-within-a-store; 2) visit one of the increasing number of regional audio shows, or 3) buy without audition over the internet based on a recommendation or review.
With a disappearing dealer base, what’s a manufacturer to do? Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) made the difficult decision to expand beyond its diminishing crop of dealers into the Magnolia Home Theater section of Best Buy. A few have tread that road, including notably MartinLogan, Definitive Technology and Klipsch. The risk is that you devalue the brand by having it associated with a big box store. The countervailing risk is that as your dealer base dries up, so do your sales, and ultimately your business. It was a bold move for a storied brand such as B&W, but essential to their long-term viability. Audiophiles are the beneficiaries of their strategy, as now, no matter where you live, you will likely be able to actually audition a pair B&W speakers before you buy them.
Still in the entry-level review mode, I decided to request a pair of B&W 683 floorstanding loudspeakers for review. At $1500 a pair, they are at the perfect price point for a $3000 system. John Nicoll of Nicoll Public Relations, which handles B&W’s marketing here in the U.S., accommodated me with a lengthy loan.
Although not especially heavy, with a shipping weight of just 70 pounds each, my review pair arrived well packaged in sturdy boxes via freight delivery. Having injured my back the last time I lugged a pair of speakers out to my car for return to the manufacturer, I am now the owner of a hand truck, so wheeling them up from the street to my smaller listening room was easy and uneventful. Wanting to be able to report on the aesthetics on the speakers, I was treated to a beautiful pair in red cherry. Although the cabinet itself is constructed from medium density fiberboard, it is wrapped in a vinyl finish that had me fooled for cherry veneer, leaving me with a very favorable first impression.
The front grill is removable, revealing B&W’s trademark yellow Kevlar midrange driver, two aluminum/paper/Kevlar bass drivers, and a tube-loaded aluminum dome tweeter. A front-firing, dimpled flared port is also in evidence. At the base in the rear were two pairs of well made five-way binding posts affording the owner the opportunity to bi-amp or bi-wire the speakers, or simply replace the metal connecting plates with a pair of bi-wire jumpers from his favorite cable purveyor. I auditioned the speakers with a single run of my reference Mogami 3103 speaker cables terminated at each end with gold-plated Audioquest BFA connectors. Once connected, I let them run in for a couple of weeks before beginning my formal review. Although I could be mistaken, I recall no noticeable difference in sound during the break-in period.
The speakers, which are 38.8 inches tall (placing the tweeter 4-6 inches above ear level), a slim 7.8 inches wide, and 13.4 inches deep, have a specified frequency response of 38Hz – 22,000Hz ±3dB, a sensitivity of 90db, and a nominal impedance of 6 ohms. In other words, they are easy to drive, and neither my 200 watt/channel Meridian 557 power amplifier nor the 125 watt/channel Belles Soloist I integrated amplifier which I reviewed here broke a sweat pushing them to dangerously loud levels. I had just a day to try them with the 35 watt/channel PrimaLuna Prologue Premium tube integrated, which I will be reporting on shortly, and it too was easily up to the task.
Speaking of dangerously loud levels, given a set of full range speakers, I couldn’t resist the temptation to crank it up with Bonnie Raitt’s 1989 Grammy winning album Nick of Time. In Have a Heart, there is a an driving rhythmic exchange between the kick drum and electric bass that is floor shaking. At the same time, the clack of the drum sticks was fast and sharp indicating excellent transient response. Both the metal slide on the guitar strings and the background bells were reproduced with crystalline clarity. Rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and other music you want to turn the volume up on will be well served by these speakers.
That’s not to say they are not nuanced. On the track Nobody’s Girl, Bonnie’s Raitt’s vocals are augmented with a moderate amount of delay to make the acoustic space appear larger and create ambiance. This translates into additional depth and width which the B&W 683s reproduce convincingly. Again, the transient response of the pick on the close-miked steel guitar strings is quick and, based on personal experience, entirely life-like. Notwithstanding the extended frequency response, there is no hint of sibilance on any of the vocals.
Shifting to a completely acoustic recording, famed flat-picker Norman Blake is joined by his wife Nancy on cello and a variety of other stringed instruments on a collection of Americana songs, fiddle tunes, and instrumentals on the appropriately title The Norman and Nancy Blake Compact Disc. Although this is an amazing album, in my judgment it is a little thin sounding. The B&W 683s portray it honestly though, without adding any warmth or color of their own. That’s a good thing. Otherwise on a album more fleshed out, the midrange would be overblown. One track that is an exception is My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose on which the cello is featured prominently, and it sounds as rich and full as you would expect. Even the accompanying guitar takes on a resonance missing on other cuts, without compromising the clinky sound when the strings are muted and struck near the bridge. The same string sound is evident – and welcome – on Norman’s Blake’s rendition of the Carter Family classic Wildwood Flower.
Not wanting to slight the classical music aficionado, I spent a lengthy session with Beethoven’s “named” piano sonatas (Nos. 8, 14, 15, 17, 21, 23 and 26) performed by Bernard Roberts on Nimbus. For those not familiar with the Nimbus label, each performance is recorded in Ambisonic, which is a surround sound format pioneered by the late Oxford psycho-acoustician Michael Gerzon, who authored dozens of papers for AES and consulted with Meridian Audio in the development of its proprietary Trifield surround sound format. In fact, Meridian is the only remaining company whose surround sound processors can decode Ambisonic encoded discs. Not surprisingly, as the owner of a Meridian surround sound system, I have a healthy collection of Nimbus recordings. Not to worry though, Ambisonic discs sound great when played back in stereo as well. They are very natural sounding recordings which capture not only the sound of the instruments but the ambiance of the hall as well.
Focusing on the dynamic Piano Sonata No. 23 “Appassionata”, the first movement of which features both the extremes of the left and right hands, the piano spreads from speaker to speaker and appears well in back of them. In essence, the speakers disappear leaving you with the image of a piano from about the fifth row in a small venue; in other words, a very intimate presentation, yet with the decay of notes which leaves you with the impression that there is more space behind you than there actually is. Piano tone is excellent, and while the 683s can’t quite reproduce the last half octave of bass with equal loudness, it is not something that you will miss on the vast majority of recordings. I certainly did not feel anything was lacking. I’ll note also that when things get fast and furious, each note held its place with no congestion, unless the speakers were driven to really excessive levels. Though I listened for nearly two hours, I felt no ear fatigue. All in all, a really good showing.
At $1500/pair for full range speakers, the B&W 683s are a bargain. I can’t imagine someone shopping in this price bracket not being entirely satisfied with them for a long time to come. They go deep, are well balanced, have a detailed but smooth high end, and can get up and go when called upon without distress. They are equally enjoyable at lower listening levels too. I encourage you to seek out a local B&W dealer for an audition. Barring that, Best Buy is likely to have them as well. I’ll wager you’ll pick them from the competition on display there.
- Frank Berryman
Bowers & Wilkins
54 Concord Street
North Reading, MA 01864-2699
Analog Source: VPI Scout; Dynavector 20X2; Musical Surroundings Phonomena II; Meridian G2MC
Digital Source: Mac Mini, 2.5GHz, 16GB RAM, Pure Music; Halide Design Bridge, Benchmark DAC1 HDR
Preamplifier: Meridian G02; Meridian G68ADV
Power Amplifier: Meridian 557; Acurus A2002; Belles Soloist I integrated
Loudspeakers: Meridian DSP5500
Cables: Digital: Meridian; Analog: Mogami/Amphenol (RCA), Mogami/Neutrik (XLR); Speaker: Mogami/Audioquest (BFA/banana); Power: Volex/Marinco
Headphones: Etymotic ER-4S
Accessories: GIK acoustic treatments; dedicated 20 amp circuit; Audience aR2p power conditioner;