B&W 686 review

Good, attractive, detailed speakers, but they lack the five-star sparkle of their bigger brothers Tested at £280.00

What Hi-Fi? Verdict

Admirable in many of the usual B&W ways, but the 686s’ lack of agility and dominant bass mean there are better ways to spend your money


  • +

    Quality of build and finish

  • +

    good looks

  • +

    rich, cosseting sound


  • -

    Overstuffed bass means tempos plod

  • -

    safety-first approach isn’t the most thrilling

Why you can trust What Hi-Fi? Our expert team reviews products in dedicated test rooms, to help you make the best choice for your budget. Find out more about how we test.

Even where B&W loudspeakers are concerned, it seems that appearances can sometimes be deceptive.

Take these 686 standmounters, for instance. If they sounded as similar to the company's multi-Award-winning 685 boxes as they look, they'd be offering the sternest of challenges to Award-winners and contenders alike.

Instead, they finish with a three-star verdict – that's down a star since we last listened to them back in April this year.

There's nothing in the quality of build or finish to suggest the 686s can't live up to the high standards B&W sets itself. These are tidy-looking boxes, neatly finished and tactile – they look and feel as though they're from the next class up when you put them next to Dali's Award-winning Lektor 1s.

If the battle was won and lost on the retailer's shelf, this Group Test would be a much closer contest.
And, initially, our sonic impressions are just as favourable. Playing The Auteurs' Lenny Valentino, the 686s (which, as a glance at the technical specification shows, are by no means the biggest boxes in the test) generate an unlikely amount of low-frequency extension and presence.

There's the sort of authority and outright scale of presentation on offer that's quite at odds with their modest cabinet dimensions, too, as well as smooth, sweet treble sounds and winningly natural midrange tonality.

Big bass from a small box
Like a mouthful of high cocoa-content chocolate, though, the B&Ws' slightly rich overall sonic signature becomes cloying before too long.

Alexander ‘Skip' Spence's Broken Heart suffers from the 686s' gibbous low-end – while we admire the clever engineering that liberates this much bass from such a teeny cabinet, we'd definitely trade some of the prodigious extension for greater grip and control, as well as a bit more excitement.

Blocking the rear-firing reflex ports with the supplied bungs brings a little more discipline, but at the same time congests the low mid-range – voices once sweet become a little less detailed and expressive.

In some categories, a performance such as this would be ample to secure a four-star verdict. Not around here, though; the competition is feral, the standard giddily high.

Don't let the 686s familial familiarity blind you to the facts: you can buy better budget boxes than these B&Ws

What Hi-Fi?

What Hi-Fi?, founded in 1976, is the world's leading independent guide to buying and owning hi-fi and home entertainment products. Our comprehensive tests help you buy the very best for your money, with our advice sections giving you step-by-step information on how to get even more from your music and movies. Everything is tested by our dedicated team of in-house reviewers in our custom-built test rooms in London, Reading and Bath. Our coveted five-star rating and Awards are recognised all over the world as the ultimate seal of approval, so you can buy with absolute confidence.

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