Bowers & Wilkins 685 Speaker Review

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After checking out B&W’s 685 stereo speakers for more than a month, I’m truly impressed. These mid-size speakers are perfect for a roomy bookshelf or on speaker stands, and they handled all the music I could throw at them with precision and superb richness. Movies still benefit from a decent subwoofer, but most acoustic music lovers can do without one in a small living room. At $600 a pair, these are definitely one of the best speaker values ever.

I’ve now spent over a month comparing the new 685′s against the larger B&W DM610i’s I’ve been using for the last several years. I tested both pairs of speakers using a Marantz S-5000 receiver and B&W’s .

My trusty 610i’s are great, but in some ways I prefer the newer model’s more aggressive sound at low to moderate volumes in my 12 x 11-foot living room, not to mention the more compact size. Each 685 has a beef y 6.5-inch woofer with a fixed bullet-shaped centerpiece, as well as a 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter — they look pretty hip without the grille covers on, too. They’re rated at 8 ohms impedance, so they can be powered by most receivers.

I sat them atop a pair of primo B&W speaker stands and let em fly.

Initially, before the “burning in” process of mellowing out the speaker cone and suspension, the 685s sounded a little on the shrill side, but this subsided within about a couple days. They have strong mids at any volume, where the 610i’s seemed to drop out at lower levels. After the burn-in, the highs are crisp but roll off just enough to avoid being harsh.

Since the 685s don’t reach as deep into the bass as the 610i’s, I set up a Cambridge SoundWorks passive subwoofer, which gave the overall sound a very accurate and natural bottom end. But even without the sub, the 685s sound superb for complex music thanks to plenty of detail and smoothness across registers. The sub is a must for movies, though.

I tested the 685s with plenty of acoustic jazz, including Miles Davis’s Round About Midnight and The Complete Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Everything sounded surprisingly full given the speakers’ relatively small size. The bass didn’t sound tubby and there were no gaping holes in the mids. Ride cymbals sounded very lively but not shrill, and I could easily hear the grit in the horn sounds on Miles’s mid-1950s recording.

Classical music like Bela Bartok’s Piano Concertos 1, 2, and 3 comes through exceptionally well, thanks in part to the speakers’ ability to maintain excellent sound even at low levels. There’s usually a lot of dynamic range in classical recordings, and it’s important that quieter passages sound as good as louder sections. The 685s deliver. If you listen to a lot of organ music or tracks with tympani, however, a subwoofer will make sure you hear everything down to the deepest tones.

On bass-driven albums like DJ Shadow’s The Outsider and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium, all the individual parts stood out, but it was still clear that the low end is the moneymaker on these recordings. This is one area where the 685s benefit a lot from a subwoofer — even a simple passive one, though a powered sub may fit bass-head tastes even better.

Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” had plenty of thump, and the imaging on some DVD-Audio tracks from Queen’s A Night At the Opera was excellent for speakers in this price range. Classic and modern rock both have plenty of screech, grit, and wail; the 685s really help separate out all the layers in tracks by studio-magic bands like Led Zep and The Who, and modern masterpieces like Interpol’s Antics have all the depth of a classic Floyd album.

Movies like The Matrix and Hero really need help from a subwoofer, but dialogue-oriented flicks like Broken Flowers sound as full as they need to with or without. They also integrated nicely into my Cambridge SoundWorks surround speaker set as front speakers, blending smoothly with the center channel (though this is as much a function of setup as speaker quality).

At roughly $600 a pair, these are a solid investment if you’re starting to get serious about your home audio setup. For movies and music with especially deep bass, a subwoofer is a must, but you’ll be well rewarded.

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