Bowers and Wilkins 686 S2 – Small is Big

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I have long been a huge fan of standmount speakers and have owned and, or, reviewed speakers from mainstream companies such as Wharfedale, and Kef to more esoteric brands like Sonus Faber, Harbeth and Totem.

It was change again this last week with the at home with the Yamaha set up I have been enjoying thoroughly for the last 12 months being sold and shipped to pastures new for me to enter into the 21st Century with (takes a deep breath) a one box system from Marantz.

A Marantz MCR610 to be precise and this will be the subject of another review where I will cover off my findings with this little unit.

The subject of this review as the introduction alluded to is a pair of standmount speakers: the new B&W 686 S2’s.

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The motivation for getting these speakers was the same as purchasing the Marantz – to downsize the hi-fi system and try and replicate something that would cater for my audiophile sensibilities without dominating my lounge.

I auditioned a number of speakers and for one reason or another these were discounted due to the fact they didn’t have the musical balance or performance I was looking for. So what did I have on my wish list?

Basically, I was looking for a musical hybrid which would offer something close to the performance of two of my favourite speakers of all time – the midrange and vocal capabilities of the Harbeth P3ESR’s and soundstaging and the stupendous bass from a small box capabilities of the Totem Model One’s.

Oh, and all for less than £350. Or at a quarter of the price of the above two speakers.

A tall order and to be honest I was not holding out much hope of achieving anywhere near my goal.

As previously mentioned, I listened to a number of speakers and compared them to the existing Wharfedale Denton 80th Anniversary speakers at home including Dali’s Zensor 1 and 3’s, Monitor Audio’s BX2 and Q Acoustic’s 2020’s.

They all sounded fine – the Dali Zensor 3’s being the best of the bunch (albeit the biggest) – but were not as good as the Wharfedale never mind the Harbeth and Totem’s. I could never have lived with them over the longer term.

The dealer then suggested I push the budget slightly from the £200-£300 range to try the B&W 686’s S2’s. At just £50 more than the Dali Zensor 3’s I did not have much hope.

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These speakers are the latest incarnation of B&W’s entry level offering and have a number of changes from the previous model including improved tweeter, woofer and a smaller cabinet. Specifications taken from B&W website are:

Technical features: Decoupled Double Dome aluminium tweeter with Nautilus™ tube loading
Flowport™
Description 2-way vented-box system
Drive units 1x ø25mm (1 in) aluminium dome high-frequency
1x ø130mm (5 in) woven Kevlar® cone bass/midrange
Frequency range -6dB at 54Hz and 50kHz
Frequency response 62Hz – 22kHz ±3dB on reference axis
Dispersion Within 2dB of reference response
Horizontal: over 60º arc
Vertical: over 10º arc
Sensitivity (84)85dB spl (2.83V, 1m)
Harmonic distortion 2nd and 3rd harmonics (90dB, 1m)
<1% 110Hz – 22kHz
<0.5% 180Hz – 20kHz
Nominal impedance 8Ω (minimum 5.2Ω)
Crossover frequencies 4kHz
Recommended amplifier power 25W – 100W into 8Ω on unclipped programme
Max. recommended cable impedance 0.1Ω
Dimensions Height: 315mm (12.4 in)
Width: 160mm (6.3 in)
Depth: 229mm (9.0 in) cabinet, grille and terminals
Net weight 4.6kg (10.1 lb)
Finishes Black
White

The star of the above show is arguably the Decoupled Double Dome tweeter. Full technical details are on B&W’s website but it seems clear that the application of this technology works amazingly well.

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So how do they sound?

Set up on their dedicated stands in my lounge I connected them to the Marantz MCR610 one word truly sums them up: remarkable.

It is hard not to start each sentence with: for their size they are…… and then insert a description relating to an element of their performance which simply stuns you with it’s scale or clarity or soundstaging. Considering their diminutive stature they simply sound significantly bigger than they have a right to. My lounge is not exactly small (20ft by 13ft) yet the 686’s filled the room with music.

The way that they can three dimensionally portray a singer between the speakers is spooky. And there is height to the image which adds to the sense of realism. Turn the volume up and the image get’s bigger and bigger.

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I started my listening session in earnest once the speakers had been running for a few hours with one of my favourite test tracks that I have used dozens of times before: Broken Wings by Dougie MacLean from his Marching Mystery album. The track though the 686’s starts wonderfully with a fantastic ring and resonance to the acoustic guitar.

The bodrhan providing the beat, though, was the initial surprise. It was deep and authoritative and maintained it’s rhythm beautifully. The bass performance was easily the equal of the larger Wharfedale Denton’s.

The next surprise was when MacLean started singing. His vocals were startlingly real and set clearly and precisely in their own space. I was genuinely taken aback.

I tried track after track and the speakers simply disappeared leaving performers perfectly placed in my living room. From blues to classical and folk to heavy metal these speakers continued to astound.

Admittedly, they are unable to move air on rock tracks in the same was a bigger speaker can but the bass performance always carried a significant punch and stunning weight for the size of the speakers.

Suffice it to say that they totally fit the bill in terms of the original brief. Are they as good as the Harbeth’s? No, they lack a some of that’s speakers refinement and midrange warmth and they way the P3ESR’s portray vocals is uncanny in it’s realism – more so than the 686’s.

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If I had one slight criticism with the little B&W’s it would be that, just occasionally, the treble would stand out slightly but this was mainly at lower volumes. Not a problem in the slightest but a noticeable difference with comparing with the Harbeths.

But the Harbeth’s retail at nearly £1,500!

How about the Totems? These, to me, are the soundstage kings. Width, depth, height. They have it all. They are remarkable in terms of bass too (for their size!). But they have a new contender.

The 686 S2’s.

The only area (and to be honest this is more from memory from when I had them) is in terms of soundstage width where the Model One’s have the 686’s beaten. Having said that I have not played around with positioning too much and so I may be to gain improvements in this area with some experimentation.

So the bottom line is at £350 these speakers are bargains. I would put my money on them being able to compete with speakers several times their price and show them a clean pair of heels in many areas. I am not familiar with the previous models and so could not offer an opinion here.

I would have loved to have pushed the budget for the 685’s but it wasn’t to be so. I suspect they would be even better in my lounge but for now I will enjoy the 686’s thoroughly.

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It’s life Jim but not as we know it………

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So, following on from the initial Blog post…….

I returned home after work on a Friday afternoon to find a large box with Wharfedale and 80th Anniversary emblazoned on the side. The Denton’s had arrived.

I was naturally, eager to set them up and within no time at all had them had them connected to the new Yamaha A-S700 amplifier (where’s the Rega you may ask – that may be the subject of a separate post!).

But to back track I must mention the packaging. This is superb. The speakers were packed in their own cotton bag which was in turn packaged in heavy duty plastic bags. They were nestled firmly in Styrofoam inside a very well made cardboard box. There was also a plastic wallet in the box which contained a pair of cotton gloves, manual and a booklet detailing the history of Wharfedale. It may not sound like much but the way that a company cares for their products says a lot about their quality.

And in terms of build quality I was not disappointed. Every element from the veneer, to the binding posts and the way the 80th anniversary stickers are applied to the rear of the speakers oozed quality. They feel solid and have a reassuring heft to them. Very impressive.

And, so it was with hopes raised that I switched on the amplifier and started to put the speakers through their paces with some tracks that I am very familiar with. I didn’t have the Harbeth’s on hand for a direct comparison but their sound signature is so unmistakable to me differences in sound quality and presentation are straightforward to evaluate.

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The first song that I listened to was Broken Wings by Dougie Maclean from his Marching Mystery album. I must have listened to this song a hundred times or more over the years and never tire of it.

It is a simple track dominated by a bodrhan, acoustic guitar and Dougie Maclean’s voice. Even the most straightforward of tracks are easy to get wrong on some systems and this one is no exception.

Each of the instruments has their own part to play in moving the track forward. If the rhythmic, almost hypnotic drumming of the bodrhan becomes overblown or lost in the mix it loses it’s ability to act as the drive behind the song. The acoustic guitar needs to be clear and resonant, the chords should stand out from the mix with Dougie’s voice sounding plaintive with the burr of his beautiful Scottish accent coming through.

Needless to say the Harbeth’s get all of these elements to me perfectly balanced. The Denton’s offer a slightly different version of the truth so to speak. The first thing I noticed was that the bass response was deeper but this should be expected as the this is a ported design with a slightly bigger cabinet and bass driver.

The Bodrahn seemed bigger with more of a bass thud. It was also slightly “muddier” if that is a decent term to use and lost a little of it’s rhythm.

The acoustic guitar sounded warmer too with slightly less ring and resonance to the strings than I am used to. The Harbeths seem to hold onto the notes a little longer and the guitar comes across a little smaller but more akin to how a real acoustic guitar would sound. The Dentons offered a presentation where the guitar sounds slightly larger than life.

And so to the vocals. They came across with the Dentons as slightly more recessed. They didn’t get lost in the mix as I have heard them on some speakers but Dougie’s diction was slightly less clear. Not unpleasant. Just not as real as through the P3ESRs.

Denton rear

There’s a couple of things with the above – firstly I am comparing a speaker in the Denton’s that is a third of the price of the Harbeth’s. I am also comparing a “home” speaker with one that is essentially a “domesticated” studio monitor speaker which has to sound clear, precise and totally natural or it would be missing the designer’s brief by a wide margin.

Taken in isolation away from the “studio” presentation of the Harbeth and for the money the Dentons sound superb and are a wonderful loudspeaker.

I have tried them out on a wide range of material and at no time did they offend. They presentation of music is warm and graceful allowing the message of the music to come through.

Are they as good as the Harbeths? No – the Harbeth’s are significantly better and I cannot wait to be in a position to get my hands back on a pair of the P3ESRS. For other people though they could be just what they are looking for as you can listen to music for hours with no fatigue or irritation. If you listen to rock music then I would steer clear of them but then again I would say the same with the Harbeth’s.

To me the Harbeth’s present the truth albeit a smaller scale version. The Dentons are slightly bigger and warmer version of that truth that I can live with and not be constantly looking over my shoulder to a time when the Harbeth’s were in place which, to be honest, I never thought I would find at this price level. Throw in the fact that they are beautifully veneered and made and you have a speaker that you would struggle to significantly better for less than £1,000.

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Is there life after Harbeth?

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Harbeth P3ESR – in a league of their own.

If you read my previous review of the Harbeth P3ESR’s you can easily establish that I am huge admirer of these loudspeakers. In fact having owned dozens of pairs of speakers over the last 20 years including brands such as Proac, Linn, Living Voice, Tannoy, Gamut and Reference 3A to name but a few I have found that the little P3ESRS are the head and shoulders above the rest.

It was with some regret recently, then, that I had to sell my treasured Harbeth’s and opt for a cheaper speaker. The reasoning and detail behind this decision are no particualroy interesting so I won’t go into that here.

Bottom line is that with the Harbeth’s sold I had a budget of around £500 for a new pair of speakers. A considerable amount of money to some – friends wouldn’t dream of spending that on a whole system. But coming from such lofty heights I was concerned at what I would find at a price point almost exactly one third that of the P3ESR’s.

I also had a fairly simple and short criteria for the new speakers – somewhere between what I wanted and what my wife would accept.

Ideally the new entrants would be a stand mount and a similar size to the Harbeth’s and have an attractive real wood veneer.

I looked at many brands from Tannoy, Kef, Dali and Mission but couldn’t get excited by the looks nor the sound of any of them. Not a great start!

Doing some more research I came across a couple of reviews of the Wharfedale Denton. A limited edition update of a classic Wharfedale speaker.

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The Wharfedale Denton

They seem to have everything – decent wood veneer, not much bigger than the Harbeth’s and they also had an excellent heritage not only from the manufacturer but also the speaker itself. At £500 they were also within my budget.

As a bonus, having done some more research into the brand it seemed that they take a cradle to grave approach to manufacturing their speakers – designing and manufacturing their own cabinets, drive units and wiring themselves to retain control over every step of the process. They also, apparently, manufacture their own packaging to ensure that their products arrive in the condition they would expect.

Some more web trawling though unearthed a company in Bristol selling the speaker at a special offer price of £350 for a brand new pair. Despite the fact that hadn’t seen the speaker or heard it this seemed to be a bargain too good to miss. I don’t put too much faith in magazine reviews and star ratings but the one’s I read seemed to be consistent with describing the musical presentation of the Dentons and this suggested to me I would enjoy the speaker and so I ordered a pair and awaited their arrival with anticipation.
Part two to follow………..

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Harbeth P3ESR Review

Harbeth

Harbeth P3ESR on Stands

I can honestly say that I have lost count of the number of speakers that I have owned over the last 20 years. Of all the elements of my hifi system they seem to be the part that has changed the most.

What I do know is that I have owned, including the P3ESR’s, four different pairs of Harbeth Speakers: P3ES, Compact 7ES and Super HL5. I loved the each of them but, for various reasons which have nothing to do with sound quality I had to move them on.

In the meantime I have owned several mini-monitor speakers from Proac, Totem, Sonus Faber, Gamut and Reference 3A to name but a few. A few months ago an opportunity to acquire a pair of the P3ESR’s came up and despite me loving the musical capabilities of the Reference 3A Dulcet I just knew that I had to get my hands on the Harbeths and so the Dulcets were quickly moved on.

The change in speakers also coincided with a system overhaul. I decided that it was time to downgrade my system to something much more simple and affordable and out went the Consonance CD Player and Amplifier for a Rega CD and Ampliffier pairing of the Apollo R and Brio R.

Rega

Rega Brio R and Apollo R

Both are unassuming half width components and despite their budget price tag of £500 per unit they certainly punch above their weight and would offer an excellent foundation for the Harbeth’s to show what they could do. Their build quality is excellent and have operated flawlessly since the day I bought them.

So, how do the Harbeth’s sound?

Well putting to one side the limitations of their size and the fact that they are never going to defy the laws of physics and produce lower registers they are captivating, drawing you into the music like few other speakers I have heard. They are warm but with enough bite to strings for example to retain a realism that makes you want to keep listening long into the night. They can project large scale music better than they have a right to but really score well on smaller scale acoustic music where they just carry you away communicating the emotion of the music.

Listening becomes a more interactive experience with little subtleties and details drawing you further into the music.From classical to rock and folk to blues they seem to be equally at home in any genre.

Alan Shaw will not thank me for saying this but I always felt with the bigger speakers – and this was very subtle and possibly a psychological effect of the size of these speakers – that there was a slight hollow sound to the reproduction. It was if you could “sense” those large, thin walled boxes adding something to the sound.

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The Beautiful Grain of the Eucalyptus Veneer

Maybe it was also the fact that the other larger Harbeth speakers are ported unlike the P3ESR’s. I don’t know. Magical as the C7’s and Super HL5’s sounded their smaller cousin just has the edge for me. And that is, I guess all that matters.

The bottom line with the P3ESR’s is that they seem to take the best bits of all of my favourite small speakers – the Reference 3A Dulcets and Totem Model One – and roll them into a perfectly sized box that would fit into any environment bar an aircraft hanger sized lounge. Much as I loved the bigger Harbeth speakers I feel that the P3ESR’s are perfectly balanced soundwise.

I don’t know enough about the company to really comment but from reading posts written on the Harbeth website Alan Shaw is clearly a dedicated and passionate designer of loudspeakers. He should be congratulated on designing a mini masterpiece. A number of people have suggested that the P3ESR’s will be their last speaker upgrade – I can honestly say that they will be for me.

Specifications:

Transducer system 2-way: Harbeth 110mm RADIAL2� mid/bass; 19mm Ferro-cooled tweeter with HexGrille.
Freq. response 75Hz – 20kHz +/-3dB free space, 1m with grille on with smooth off-axis response.
Impedance 6 ohms – easy to drive.
Sensitivity 83.5dB/1W/1m
Amp. suggestion Works with a wide range of amplifiers, ideally from 15W/channel.
Power handling 50W programme
Connector Two 4mm gold-plated binding posts for wires or plugs
Dimensions (hxwxd) 306 x 189 x 202 mm (inl. grille and terminals)
Finish Cherry, black ash, maple, rosewood, eucalyptus, gun grey, arctic white, jet black.
Space needs Ideally > 0.30m from rear wall
Stands Typically 24+ inches
Weight 6.3kg each (without packing)
Packing One matched pair per protective carton

Linn Majik 140 Review

My Majik 140’s in Maple

You may, by now, have read my somewhat glowing review of the new Akurate DS and what it has brought to my life as an avid music collector and fan. The other part of my system that is to me an integral part of getting the sound quality so right is the speakers: the Majik 140’s.
As you may have read in my previous blog, to me, after one’s source loudspeakers are the most important part of system building. With amps and pre-amps you will get a slightly different flavour of sound but with ‘speakers unless they are working well in your lounge or, if lucky enough to have one, your listening room then you are set up to fail each and very time.
Hi-fi magazines are full of photographs of ‘speakers placed in total free space in rooms of pristine white. Strangely they show no trailing cables from any associated amplifier but I guess this would ruin the marketing man’s vision of the perfect set up.
Hifi magazines also perpetuate this vision by with their advice on positioning – when they say speakers need to be two to three feet away from a wall to sound of their best how many audiophiles out their have lounges that can accommodate speakers in such a way without creating a hazard in the middle of their lounge. If the average lounge (especially in modern houses) was say 12 feet wide and the speakers were three feet into the lounge. With a 2 ½ to 3 ft deep sofa opposite would mean at least half the width of a room would be taken up with a pair of speakers and a sofa. This is not even remotely practical.
I have owned many pairs of speakers over the years and to give an example of what I have owned purely in the last five I have detailed these below:
· Living Voice OBX R2
· Living Voice OBX RW
· Harbeth Super HL5
· Harbeth Compact 7’s
· Sonus Faber Minima Vintage
· Sonus Faber Cremona
· Gamut L3
· Proac Response D2

As you can see, by audiophile standard I have owned some incredibly well reviewed and well respected loudspeakers of all shapes, sizes, styles and voicing. Associated amplification has always been appropriate to the speakers themselves – valve amplifiers always used with the Living Voice for example – and so I firmly believe that I have always got the electronics right.

Flush Mounted Drivers with Metal Grills
If you want a quick conclusion I will give it to you now and save you a read then it is my firm assertion that the Linn Majik 140’s are, in my room and with the type of music I like to listen to the best speakers I have owned. The may not sound the best – that title belongs to the Living Voice RW’s who had to me everything one could wish for a in a loudspeaker – imaging, vitality, tone, colour, rhythm etc. So why am I not writing about these and why was it necessary to o through a truckload of other speakers to get to where I am today.
A few reasons. Firstly as a design they are quite top heavy and a nudge near the top of the cabinet would have them rocking back and forth. I fixed this by fitting a set of superspikes to each with I then blu-tac’d to a granite chopping board. This gave them the stability they needed but did rob the sound of a great deal of warmth.
The other reason is that they sounded of their best with valve amplification. I have a four year old daughter who at the time was learning to get around the lounge. I was constantly petrified that she would touch exposed valves or valve cage and suffer some serious injury. When the hi-fi was on I could never relax if she was in the same room.
So, amazing as the Living Voices were, they were simply too impractical for my room and home life and so they had to go along with the valve amplifiers I had at the time.
After this I went through a stream of loudspeakers looking to replicate some of the Living Voice magic. The Sonus Faber Cremonas were too big, the Vintage too small; the wife never liked BBC Monitor look of the Harbeth’s but I have also covered their sonic shortcomings elsewhere; I never really liked the sound of the Pro-ac’s or the Gamut despite their exalted reputations.
And so to the Majik 140’s. When I first heard them at the House of Linn demonstration I was totally stunned that an entry level loudspeaker could sound so open and detailed without sounding sterile.

The 140’s specs are as follows:

  • Type 4-way floorstanding loudspeaker
  • Overall sizes incl. supplied stand: (H) 975 mm x (W) 250 mm x (D) 335 mm
  • Weight (with supplied stand) 21.3 kg
  • Cabinet volume 40 litres
  • Impedance (passive) 4 Ω
  • Impedance (Aktiv bass) 8 Ω
  • Impedance (Aktiv midrange) 8 Ω
  • Impedance (Aktiv tweeter) 7 Ω
  • Impedance (Aktiv super-tweeter) 7 Ω
  • Efficiency 88 dB for 1 watt at 1 metre (1 kHz)
  • Frequency response (Passive) 55 Hz – 20 kHz
  • Frequency response (Aktiv) 55 Hz – 20 kHz
  • Crossover options Passive or fully Aktiv
  • Connection options Single, bi-, tri- or quad- wire / amp; four-way Aktiv
  • Binding posts can accept 4mm banana plugs, bare wire and spades
The 2k Driver array with Tweeter above Super-Tweeter

When I got a pair at home these first impressions were reinforced and I have come, over the last few months to appreciate their incredible sense of purpose when producing the musical signal. Whilst they may not image as well as the Living Voices, produce vocals as well as the Harbeth’s or sound as sumptuous with classical music as the Sonus Fabers they get 90% there with all the categories to me.

They handle all types of music with equal aplomb from folk music, classical, rock, heavy metal. Nothing fazes them. Stick some ACDC on and they can be played ear splittingly loud filling room superbly. Drums sound real and have that typical ‘DC insistent rhythm. Guitars bite and “crunch” as they should. Vocals are placed dead centre. Majik?

Alternatively, play a Beethoven String Quartet and they will demonstrate a wonderful delicacy allowing enough space and aural clues as to the space in which instruments are playing that you can get lost in the ebb and flow of the music.
The fact they do this in a fairly compact structure with a world class fit and finish and are also unfussy with regards placement make them a speaker that should be on anyone’s shortlist. Oh, and the fact that they do all this for less than a quarter of the price of the RW’s and a third of the price of the Cremona’s is truly remarkable and makes them, in audiophile terms, a bargain.

Looking Up
There are two caveats to what I have said to this:
· I have only listened to them Linn amplification (Akurate 2200) and a Luxman SQ-38 (the amp I had before the Linn)
· Read my Audiophile Insanity Blog. If what you have is working for you then stick with it. If not and you are looking for a change then I urge you to stick these on your shortlist.

Thanks for reading!!!!

One Last Picture of the 140’s

Oh and one final thing. In case anyone is wondering I have nothing at all to do with Linn or House of Linn. I have paid over my hard earned cash to by all the equipment mentioned and have received nothing in return from either organisation. Up until last year Linn, as a brand, would have been last on my list to listen to. I am now converted to Linn as such that as a brand they should certainly be at or near the top of your list for audition……

All photographs taken with a Fuji X100 – Review to Follow!