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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Life After Linn

Consonance Mini Droplet CDP3.1

A few months ago I started with an itch that I knew I would just have to eventually scratch. Excellent though the Linn system was I missed the presentation that previous valve based systems had given me.

Also, whilst the Linn DS was a fantastic source, when I compared it to a “valved” Lector CD player that I had, I felt that on a good percentage of CD’s the music was put over in a slightly more organic way. One other aspect that pushed me over the edge were the once or twice a week system crashes that occurred which would only be resolved by a reset of the system – ostensibly switching off and then back on again!

The bottom line was I realised that a valve based system would be the one to satisfy my musical and hifi requirements.

So how would I facilitate this sea-change? I had backed myself into an audiophile corner in a way and felt that an all or nothing approach would be required as a mix and match system with some of the Linn components wouldn’t be all that practical. Certainly a valve CD player with Linn solid state amps didn’t seem right and I doubted it would provide the answers I was looking for.

After 20 years of buying hi-fi I have to confess to a certain amount of cynicism when it comes to dealers. There are very few hi-fi dealers in my opinion that actually talk any sense or understand the equipment they sell or the needs of the customer. This is a sad fact of faceless high street chains.

There are probably 3 or 4 dealers that I have come across that I would trust and respect. On of them is Jim Burke of audiolincs.com in Grantham.

The Consonance Cyber 10 Integrated Signature

In all of my dealings with Jim he has been nothing but a gentlemen – open and honest. His knowledge of the equipment he sells is exemplary. Co-incidentally we have very similar tastes in music and so when I have described the presentation that I was hoping to achieve he was able to very quickly recommend three components that would give me what I was looking for – or should that be hearing for?

So a few conversations later, Jim and I had pieced together a system of and Opera Consonance Droplet 3.1 CD Player, a Cyber 10 Integrated Amplifier and Reference 3A Dulcet speakers. Luckily I still had in the garage a pair of Custom Design Reference 300 stands on which to put the speakers on. Coincidentally they were also the stands that Jim recommends to get the best out of the Dulcet’s.

Over the next few weeks the Linn gear disappeared to new owners and the huge heavy boxes began appearing at my front door. Not something that SWMBO relishes.

Finally, I had unboxed everything and had it in situ and ready to go. In Jim’s opinion the CD Player, amplifier and speakers would be able to compete with equipment several times their price and he was confident that, wonderful as the Linn system was, the new trio would be able to exceed the performance of the Linn gear.

Whilst I have not had an opportunity to test each piece in a different scenarios what I can say is that as a system the three components gel perfectly producing easily some of the best music I have had at home.

The Consonance Cyber 10 Integrated Signature

To cut a long story short the new system simply sounds right. The Dulcet’s don’t go as low or loud as the Linn 140’s, they don’t produce the same cavernous soundstage as the Totem Model One’s but what they do which is to stop me continually evaluating what I am listening to. For example with the Model One’s the soundstage was so eerily huge I ended up listening and thinking wow I can hear the acoustic guitar solo on the opposite side of the room well outside the cabinet boundaries. Isn’t that amazing. And then forgetting about the song as a whole and the message and emotion conveyed.

I found myself just listening to music. It is just there filling the room. Natural, flowing, unforced. If I was to ask myself after listening to a song how wide the soundstage was or deep the bass was I couldn’t tell you. All I could say would be that I was totally captivated by the performance.

When listening back and being much more analytical you realise that all the audiophile building blocks are there. Wide soundstage, realistic timbre, great rhythm etc. It is just that no one area sticks out as being more impressive than another.

All the elements come together to create an emotionally captivating performance.

The amplifier belies it’s 11 WPC power output by sounding like a much bigger beast but still with the delicacy that valves are renowned for and the Droplet 3.1 simply looks stunning. Better in the flesh and than in the photographs. I suspect the rock solid build quality and filterless dac all play their part.

So all in all this is one hell of a system. The incredible thing is that all this can be had for less than half the price of the Linn system. Now I am not going to start knocking that system. It too, is superb. But for my ears the valves edge it. And by some margin.

Before you upgrade or if you are starting afresh with a reasonable budget give Jim a call and get a demonstration. I am sure you will be astounded at what this little set up can do.

Reference 3A Dulcet

Totem Model 1 Signature Review – A Giant Amongst Small Speakers

The Totem Model 1 Signature

My desire to try out the Totem Model 1 Signature has not been with a view to changing from the wonderful Majik 140 but simply to see if there is an alternative brand that can offer a synergistic match to my Linn electronics at a price point between the Majik and Akurate ranges.

I am aware that the upgrade path with the Majik range would be to go “activ” before taking the jump to Akurate level but there is a substantial financial investment required to do this. Also, space for the extra amplification is required. Purchasing a set of speakers slightly more expensive than the Majik’s may yield a better interim sonic return on your money.

And so, after Phil at Totem UK kindly offered to loan me a pair of the Model 1’s, I had them set up next to the 140’s and was ready to see when these diminutive boxes could do.

The Model 1S is a two way standmount design with a heavily modified Dynaudio Bass Driver and Seas metal dome tweeter. Two pairs of fabulous WBT binding posts adorn the rear of each speaker which naturally allow either single wire (with links), bi-wire or bi-amp configuration. For the time I had the speakers I bi-wired them.

The Dynaudio Bass Driver

The loaned pair of speakers were finished in a fantastic Cherry veneer. The cabinets are made in a traditional woodworking method utilising lock mitred joints and this is reflected in the way the cabinet feels: solid as a rock.

The insides of the cabinet walls are also veneered and then lined with a material called borosilicate. According to Totem this is vastly superior to the traditional use of foam which can not only degrade over time but can also store electromagnetic energy influencing the performance of the drivers. I am no scientist but this to my mind does make sense and something I had not considered before.

I used the only pair of speaker stands I own which were collecting dust in the garage namely the Custom design RS300. I used them filled and would recommend the heavier more inert the support for these speakers the better.

As recommended by Totem I set the speakers up firing straight ahead. I never felt it necessary to experiment with toe in.

The Model 1’s have a soundstage that has to be heard to be believed

The system with which I exclusively used the Model 1’s is as follows:

Linn DS

Lector CD7

Linn Majik Kontrol Pre-amplifier

Akurate 2200 Power Amplifier

Cabling was all Linn

To start I played one of my favourite James Taylor tracks: Gaia from the Hourglass album. The first thing that struck me was the sheer enormity and solidity of the soundstage. James Taylor’s voice was locked dead centre in cavernous acoustic space with backing singers spread to the sides and beyond the speakers. Each instrument was clearly delineated and easy to follow. Not in a surgical, clinical fashion – the presentation was organic and rich with a slight hint of forwardness that made gave life to the recording.

Linn use the 2K driver configuration in the 140’s to aid dispersion of the higher frequencies but the simple set up the Model 1’s created a presentation that was wider, cleaner and more focussed than I have ever heard through the Linn’s.

With regards to high frequency rendition and again competing with Linn’s tweeter/super tweeter approach the 1’s seemed to be more extended although not quite as smooth. Certainly not aggressive though. There was a lot more detail at this level which made the high frequencies more obvious.

There was a leanness to the bass as you would expect but after a while I didn’t feel like I was missing out on the message of the music as the bass produced seemed deep enough with acoustic bass certainly easier to follow than with the Linn. The rest of the presentation was so involving and natural that after a while I didn’t give it a second thought. It wasn’t until plugged the Linn’s back in that I appreciated what was missing.

The Seas Treble Unit

I have now spent many a happy hour playing track after track discovering what these incredible little speakers can do. Each track would throw up a new level of detail or nuance that would put a smile on my face. Listening to the likes of Eva Cassidy can be unnerving with her voice and acoustic guitar palpable between the speakers.

If your music collection is predominantly made up of any of the following or similar then I can confidently say that, subject to your electronics being up to the job, these speakers are for you:

Diana Krall, Norah Jones, James Taylor, Dougie McLean, Lucy Kaplansky, Keb Mo, Eva Cassidy, Alison Krauss, Gretchen Peters, Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach.

If you live on a musical diet of Metallica, AC/DC, Mahler or Wagner the Model 1’s will simply not give you the bottom end authority to do justice to the types of music synonymous with these artists/composers.

To conclude these are truly world class speakers that seem to defy the laws of physics. The bass they can produce has to be heard to be believed. But, to me, it is in terms of sound staging, reproduction of acoustic instruments and vocals (especially female) where they score most highly. They are also thoroughly engaging connecting you to the message and emotion of the music being reproduced. Many times I would find myself listening through track after track happily discovering new details.

Traditional driver configuration

So where is the downside? Well, the speakers retail at around £2,200 which is around 30% higher than the Linn Majik 140’s. Not an insignificant outlay for a compact pair of speakers.

The market for compact standmount speakers is also jam packed with alternatives from the likes of Proac, Harbeth, Dynaudio, Kudos, Sonus Faber and Monitor Audio to name but a few.

I have owned or extensively listened to speakers from all of the above brands and whilst the Totems are top of the pile when it comes to cost I believe their sonic performance justifies the outlay. Something that cannot be said for many other brands. When you add in the quality of the construction and the material’s used (which gives peace of mid from a long term performance perspective) then I think that they are worth the asking price.

I would urge you to try and get to listen to a pair. If not to buy at least to get to hear what is possible to achieve with a properly engineered mini monitor. You may want to leave your credit card at home because one listen could be enough to make you want to buy a pair right there and then. To me they are that good.

Link to Totem website: http://totemacoustic.com/en/hi-fi/compact/model-1-signature/