It’s taken seven years, but the new generation of Bowers & Wilkins 685 speakers is finally here. And they sound impressive.
The previous B&W 685s have been long-standing favourites in our offices, with a rollercoaster history that saw them win Awards and then get recently dropped down to four stars in light of newer, stiffer competition.
But B&W has rallied back, with a new 600 series that incorporates existing technologies taken from their high-end speakers, hoping to reclaim that fifth star with the 685 S2s.
So what’s changed? The headline act is the decoupled reinforced dome tweeter.
The 25mm aluminium dome in the 685 S2 is reinforced with a thicker metal ring to make the tweeter stronger and better damped – a technology handed down from B&W’s flagship CM10 floorstanding speakers – and ensures a higher degree of clarity and accuracy in the upper ranges.
The tweeter assembly is suspended in a ring of soft gel, keeping it isolated from any cabinet vibrations brought about by the mid-bass driver.
This series marks the first time that B&W has used such mechanical decoupling for a tweeter in a cabinet loudspeaker.
Elsewhere, the 16.5cm mid/bass driver remains mostly the same. The bullet-shaped phase plug of the previous generation is replaced with a mushroom-shaped ‘dust cap’ derived from the high-end B&W PM1 speakers, which further damps the driver down at certain frequencies.
The new shape and foam material also lessens unwanted resonance and aims for a smoother driver response in the upper frequencies.
The sturdy, square-edged cabinet is slightly slimmer and taller than before (it’s now 34.5cm tall and 19cm wide), but there’s no mistaking that these are B&W 600 series speakers.
Pop the speaker grilles off and the 685s remain interesting lookers, thanks to an uncluttered fascia and the distinctive bright yellow Kevlar mid/bass driver.
The asymmetrical design is out, but we can all breathe a sigh of relief as B&W has finally covered up the fragile dome tweeter with a protective grille mesh (which helps with dispersion, too).
The easily-dented tweeter is no longer in danger of being accidentally (or otherwise) prodded and poked.
While the speakers are well built, we can’t help but wish for a more premium-quality finish. The 685s do look and feel rather plain, especially considering the price jump (now £500 from £380).
They’re now also only available in two finishes: white and black ash. Gone are the wood finishes, which reportedly weren’t very popular.
But enough of that – how does it actually sound? In one word: brilliant. Right from the start, these B&W 685s burst to life with a powerful, clear and agile sound.
These are hugely talented and enjoyable speakers, and a definite step up from their predecessors.
The sense of scale is massive, especially coming from relatively compact standmounters.
The soundstage is wide and deep, enveloping you in a richly detailed, subtly dynamic and cohesive performance, whether you’re playing Aerosmith, Lorde or a Hans Zimmer soundtrack.
The deep and taut bass is particularly impressive. Play Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love and the bass notes are so rich and powerful that it almost feels like there’s a subwoofer in the room.
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All the technology tweaks seem to have paid off as well, as the 685s sound remarkably clean and precise.
The piano notes in Amanda Palmer’s The Bed Song sound sweet and delicate, while her breathy vocals are full of texture and emotion.
Switch to Radiohead, and the stop and start of notes are definite, rhythm changes are handled with confidence, and each instrument is conveyed with a great deal of finesse and insight.
They can also go extremely loud with little obvious distortion – we rarely have this much fun listening to music so loudly in our listening rooms.
Crank up the volume when playing A Perfect Circle’s beautifully recorded Thirteenth Step, and the 685s charge along with more excitement and punch.
That slight discrepancy in character between the tweeter and midrange that we pointed out in the older B&W 685 speakers can still be heard, but to a far lesser degree than before.
While the 685 S2s don’t make too much of a fuss with hard or bright recordings, give them a pristinely recorded album and they truly shine.
It’s also worth taking care with positioning and partnering equipment.
As always, the new 685s sound happiest when given plenty of space (don’t shove them up against the wall), and slightly toed in towards the listening position.
While our reference Roksan Caspian M2 separates sounded fantastic with the 685s, they’re a couple of rungs up the budget ladder for these £500 B&W speakers.
Pair them instead with the long-standing favourite Audiolab 8200CD (£730) and the immensely powerful and revealing Arcam FMJ A19 (£650) integrated amplifier, and you’ve got one hell of a hi-fi system.
Was it worth the wait? Oh, absolutely. B&W’s improvements – no matter how small – have ensured that the B&W 685 S2 speakers are firmly back in the competition when it comes to mid-priced hi-fi standmounters.
They’re hugely entertaining, and their sheer power, punchy dynamics and excellent detail retrieval will make you want to listen to your entire music collection from the start.
They’re the speakers we’d put on to get our friends into hi-fi, and we can’t think of a better reason to recommend the new B&W 685s. They’re superb.
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