Faced with two speakers in need of unboxing, which one do you dig into first? Normally, that would require as much thought as is needed to mutter “one banana, two banana” under one’s breath for a bit. But when a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 603 S3 loudspeakers shows up, and one of the boxes is caved in on the side, with a crumpled top corner, the selection process gets a lot easier.
I’ve mentioned before the anxiety I get about the possibility that someone else’s gear may have been damaged on my watch (even if “my watch” means “before the thing even arrived at my house”). I didn’t molest these shipping containers. But if something damages them before I return them, I’ll feel responsible. So I wanted to crack the more-jacked-up box as soon as possible. And thankfully, Bowers & Wilkins put pretty clear instructions for unboxing the speakers on the top of the box itself.
Opening up the top of the container, everything looked to be in good order. The crumpled corner, at least, wasn’t reflected in any damage to the accessories packed in with the 603 S3, including the bolts for the plinth, the spikes and ball feet, the manual, or the port plug with its concentric knockout.
The manual nicely illustrates the effects of the port on the frequency response of the speaker. Unplugged, low-frequency extension is deeper but rolls off faster. Half-plugged, the LF rolloff starts higher but isn’t as steep. Fully plugged . . . well, you can see for yourself.
One more bit of business to attend to before we get to see whether the speakers took a licking during whatever caused that cave-in on the side of the box. Nestled in beside the speaker is a cardboard wraparound with expanded polystyrene endcaps, which I figured should house the speaker’s plinth. And you may be wondering, as I did, why it’s so big.
Indeed, it is the plinth. But it’s actually not too big at all. Turns out, the extra packaging material around it creates a larger sort of puzzle piece that interlocks with the EPS endcaps for the speakers themselves to keep everything in place during shipping. It should also make repackaging these beauties a lot easier.
With the box tipped and the speaker mostly freed from its constraints, I was starting to get a bit more confident that it survived the insult to its shipping container, given the attention to packaging that’s obviously on display here. Bowers & Wilkins even individually wraps the speaker grille and puts a layer of foam paper between the speaker cabinet and the grille.
Since the speaker was already showing me its undercarriage, I decided to go ahead and install the plinth, which proved to be a simple task. I’m going to hold off on installing the carpet spikes for now, at least until I get the speakers into my listening room and tweak the placement and toe-in to my satisfaction.
With the plinth installed and the speaker flipped right-side up, I was quite smitten with the look of it all. The plinth gives the speaker a slight floaty look, in addition to adding some much-needed stability. In this shot, you can also see the nice five-way binding posts, with jumpers that come out quite easily should you decide to bi-amp. You can also see Bowers & Wilkins’ trademarked Flowport, with dimples that are designed to mimic the turbulence-reduction effect of dimples on a golf ball.
Stepping back to take in the full view of the 603 S3, it’s clear that it wasn’t damaged when its box was. It’s also a neat speaker to look at. The Continuum cone FST (Fixed Suspension Transducer) midrange driver catches the light in interesting ways that can’t be captured in a still photograph. It’s a cross between metallic shimmer and moiré. It’s a neat contrast with the paper woofers.
A closer look at the titanium dome tweeter also reveals the distinctive patterns in the acoustically transparent mesh borrowed from the Signature Series. This zoomed-in view also gives you a better sense of the texture of the matte finish for the 603 S3. It’s definitely a dust-and-fingerprint magnet, but it wipes clean quite easily with a damp cloth.
The tolerances of the magnetic grille and the way it clings to the speaker are also a bit nicer than you’d expect from a speaker selling for $2500 per pair (USD). I’m honestly undecided about the grilles though. I tend not to prefer them, but some Bowers & Wilkins speakers I’ve auditioned in the past have had somewhat . . . enthusiastic upper registers, so a slight bit of high-frequency rolloff might be to my liking. I’ll figure that out once I have the speakers positioned and dialed in.
Since I had to pull my trusty Paradigm Studio 100 v5 towers out of my system to make room for the 603 S3 pair, I thought I’d stand them side-by-side for a quiet comparison. You’ll forgive me, I hope, for forgetting to dust the Paradigms. It’s amazing what bright lights can reveal that you’d normally never see in my Batcave.
That’s hardly the point, though. What stands out to me most—aside from the obvious differences you’d expect when comparing a $2500/pair speaker to a $3600/pair speaker—is that the 603 S3’s acoustical center is a little lower than that of my reference Paradigms. Without spikes or feet, the center of the tweeter is about 38″ off the floor, which seems pretty much perfect for my room at my Steelcase Amia seat. At least in theory. Whether that ends up making an appreciable difference will only be revealed in my complete evaluation, which starts now.
. . . Dennis Burger