Bowers and Wilkins (B&W) 602 Bookshelf Loudspeaker Reviewed

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B&W_602_bookshelf_speakers.gifShould reviewers distinguish between the wares of giant manufacturers and the cottage industry? I say, 'No'. After all, no handicaps are applied in favour of, say, tiny TVR when car magazines place one in a shoot-out against the Fiat-owned Ferrari or Ford-owned Aston-Martin. David v. Goliath: it's merely a fact of life. (And remember: Senegal kicked France's ass...)

So keep in mind that B&W is one of the world's five largest speaker makers when you read this review, because the DM 602 Series 3 is one of those products which delivers so much back for the buck that it's almost freakish. Understanding B&W's size and the breadth of its resources goes a long way to explain how they can cram so much advanced technology into the '602, a speaker selling for only �299 per pair. And why you'd probably never find this much cutting-edge know-how in similarly-priced speakers from the small if valiant cottage industry makers. Unfair? In some ways, yes. But the bottom line is that this is still a two-speaker with a �299 price tag, yet what it offers will terrify smaller players:

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A light oak finish which looks like something you'd find on a �1000 speaker. Construction which cannot be faulted, including a front baffle whose tooling probably cost what some companies would consider a decent monthly turnover. A Nautilus tweeter with its tapered rear tube, derived from those found in B&W's five-figure systems; it's been modified for Series 3 with a stiffened voice coil and bobbin to raise the -6dbB cut-off all the way up to 42kHz, 'in order to take full advantage of...SACD and DVD-A.' A 7in woven Kevlar woofer, mounted on a newly-designed chassis. Redesigned connectors. The company's trademark flared and dimpled 'Flowport', which linearises airflow and removes harshness from bass notes. A cutaway wooden sub-baffle, to reduces 'tunnel effects' behind the cone drive units. Sspeciall-arranged absorbent wadding to reduce the level of internal resonance that might emerge from the port as midband coloration. As B&W spokesperson Danny Haikin put it, 'It's evolved so much beyond its predecessor that it's like a completely new model.'

HTR Product Rating for Bowers and Wilkins (B&W) 602 Bookshelf Loudspeaker

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All of these details combine with its large-for-the-price-point/category enclosure (19.3x9.3x11.5in HWD) to present huge perceived value. It's the kind of budget purchase for which apologies need not be made when a bunch of audiophiles have a pissing contest. If you didn't know it sold for so little you'd guess 'close to four figures' at the very least. But the price shouldn't fool you into thinking it's an easy, beginner's-system load...however much B&W would love to see these leave the stores with budget Rotel integrated amps. Despite an 8 ohm rating with a safe 4.3 ohm minimum and sensitivity of 90dB/1W, the speaker will not be happy with amplifiers nearer to the lower end of the recommended 25-120W rating.

I know, I know: we've been here before, and you've argued that, naturally, budget speakers sound great when driven by costly high-end amplifiers. Well, I'm sorry: the new '602 has two strikes against it when it comes to matching the speaker with like-priced amps: it's hungrier than the specs suggest, and it's way too refined and transparent to sound of its best with the sort of intrinsically-compromised integrateds which retailers would mate with 300 speakers. Its 25mm alloy dome tweeter will screech like a harpy if your amp has edgy treble or non-euphonic clipping. The bass is deep and well-extended - B&W states 52Hz-20kHz +/-3dB frequency response - but it can veer toward the sloppy if your amp lacks vice-like control down below; you'll soon learn why B&W supplied user-installed foam plugs for damping the ports.

Other details quickly need addressing once the box is opened: The speaker sounds best bi-wired - much cleaner and better controlled. It is so open-sounding and detailed that it will show up cheap and cheerful cables, and so refined that it won't embarrass Transparent Ultra. You will prefer it sans grilles, even if that expensive, Airfix-kit-grey baffle is so tackily styled. (And I thought the Wharfedale Diamond 8.1 looked cheesy...) You WILL hear what stands can do, and any absence of spikes will do a disservice to the '602. Pay attention to all of the usual tweaks, though, and you will be rewarded with such exceptional performance that you'll hug your retailer.

While vocals were sweet and lifelike regardless of source or amplification, even those crystal-clear warbles from Alison Krauss, I kept returning to high-powered valve equipment which best matched the harder-to-address frequency extremes. So finely tuned is the tweeter that it betrays any hint of nastiness. But it warms to valves, and both the McIntosh 2120 (expensive) and the Radford STA15 (affordable but rare) caressed the upper frequencies. The bass? The big Mc had enough control to keep the '602 in line, while the Radford seemed soft. So my advice is to match this to an amplifier - whatever its active devices - with tube-like treble but transistor-like bass.

For all of its precision throughout the frequency band and its susceptibility to careless system matching and tuning, actual position was not too critical. The speaker was unbelievably free of a hot seat and delivered a huge soundstage - wide AND deep - regardless of the amount of toe-in. Yes, you can move it in minuscule increments to optimise it, but the '602 is one of those speakers which delivers 99 percent of its performance even when roughly sited.

B&W speakers have always struck me as admirable but not lovable, proficient rather than breathtaking. The '602 sounds like fire-breathing audiophiles have infiltrated Steyning. The revolution starts here.

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