My introduction into the audiophile world consisted of a pair of inexpensive monitor speakers mated to a simple, affordable integrated amp. Throw in some generic lamp cord and my bout with the disease we call audiophilia began. Truth be told, I value budget speakers more than ultra-high-end offerings, especially bookshelf speakers like the Bowers & Wilkins 685 reviewed here. Speakers like the 685s are a logical entry point for most consumers, which is why that sector of the market has always been a hotbed of activity and why, for as long as I can remember, Bowers & Wilkins has lead the charge.
Retailing for $600 a pair, the 685s are classic in their design, representing the iconic look of what we've come to call the bookshelf loudspeaker. With a two-way, two-driver design, the 685 has a one-inch aluminum dome tweeter mated to a single six-and-a-half-inch woven Kevlar mid/bass driver. The yellow color of the mid/bass driver is a Bowers & Wilkins staple and, believe me, the similarities to the rest of the line do not end there. Finished in your choice of Black Ash, Light Oak (not available in US/Canada), Red Cherry and Wenge, the 685 is a handsome-looking speaker. Coupled with its rather compact size, this makes it ideal for audiophiles and home theater enthusiasts with budget and space constraints.
The 685 has a stated frequency response of 49Hz-22kHz, so while its ported box design provides surprising bass response and depth, you'll likely need a sub to reach those lower octaves. The 685 has a reported sensitivity of 88dB into an eight-ohm load, making it a good fit for a solid integrated amp or modern receiver, though if you're willing to step up the electronics a bit, the 685 will reward your generosity in spades. I normally don't speak about stands too much, for they are largely an expense that comes down to taste and budget, provided they're quality, but the 685 sounds best when mounted on a stand and the Bowers & Wilkins stand designed for the 685 is just stunning.
• The 685 reminds me why I love bookshelf speakers: fantastic midrange
presence and definition with a nimble, sweet tweeter, all in a compact
package. Who could ask for more?
• The 685s are as much a visual statement with their grilles removed as they are a sonic one.
• Spatially, the 685s are among the best, throwing a wide and
well-defined soundstage that is anything but vague and/or artificial.
You get a truer sense of scale, weight and space with the 685s than with
lesser (and even more expensive) bookshelf speakers.
• In small rooms, provided you don't listen to a lot of hip-hop or
bass-heavy material, the 685s may be all you need in terms of bass
response, but for the last bit of oomph, you'll want that sub.
• Mate them to, say, an NAD or Rotel integrated and a quality CD player.
You'll be in audiophile nirvana and may never lust for more. Because of
their smooth, rich and more composed demeanor, the 685s sound great
with lower resolution audio from sources like iPods.
• The matching stands for the 685 are not cheap but, because of their
style and design, I almost consider them mandatory, which drives the
cost up a bit.
• The 685s do like a bit of space behind them to sound their best, which
may or may not be an issue for some consumers. Park 'em up against a
wall and a lot of the 685s' magic disappears.
In today's economy, $500 goes a long way, but in traditional audiophile
terms, in some cases, it won't even buy you a pair of speaker cables.
Well, in Bowers & Wilkins' world, $500 buys you a pair of
wonderful-sounding, beautiful-looking, fully capable and respectable
bookshelf speakers in the 685s. When you consider that you could easily
build a real two-channel system, electronics and all, around the 685s
for about a grand and be totally happy and content, why spend more?