Bowers & Wilkins 606 S2 Anniversary Edition

One infamously ungrammatical piece of advice the fast moving, fiercely competitive world of hi-fi hasn’t exactly taken to heart is: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. A much snugger fit could be former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s extra-pithy aphorism: “If you’re not moving forward, you’re going backwards”. In other words, if there’s a good excuse to tweak the performance of a component to steal a march on the opposition, you should grab it while you can.

A fine example is B&W’s new 606 S2 Anniversary Edition standmount. If ever there was a product that didn’t need fixing, the 606 was surely it. I reviewed it soon after its introduction at the tail end of 2018 and came to the conclusion that it was a knockout, noting: “Right now, I can’t think of a better way to spend around £550 on a standmount speaker”.

Just over two years later, we’re hit with the S2 Anniversary Edition. So what gives? Some hidden flaw that needed rectifying asap? Clearly not. But with B&W’s most popular model line – the 600 series – turning 25 this year, the opportunity to upgrade a few things, including the price (modestly, from £550 to £600), was too tempting to ignore – not just for the 606, but also the smaller 607 (HFC 470), the HTM6 centre speaker and the 603 floorstander (HFC 474) as well. The three original 600 series subwoofers continue as before.

Back to the 606. There are changes to the cosmetics and inside, but first let’s remind ourselves what made it so good to begin with. By no means alone in trickling down tech from its pricier and more prestigious models, the practice is a recognisable B&W modus operandi and one that the company is particularly good at. The big news for the 600 series was adoption of the Continuum cone, B&W’s most advanced diaphragm material, bestowed from on high by its flagship 800 series. Continuum’s recipe is still a KFC-level secret, safe to say that it’s woven in the same way as B&W’s previously favoured Kevlar with the aim of stamping out the undesirable effects of a conventional cone’s transition from pistonic to break-up modes.

The 165mm Continuum cone mid/bass driver in the 606 S2 Anniversary Edition is carried over from the 606 unchanged, but the 25mm ‘Decoupled Double Dome’ reinforced aluminium dome tweeter is said to have been “refined and upgraded” while the crossover sees some action with components such as inductors and bypass capacitors swapped for superior items inherited from the 700 series Signature range, one tier up. For the 606 S2 Anniversary Edition, the mid/bass driver’s motor system and chassis is slimmed down from the one serving the 706 and doesn’t have its neodymium magnet. Similarly, the tweeter’s aluminium dome lacks the 700 series’ rigidity-enhancing carbon coating and the special housing that incorporates heat-sinks behind the dome. But it does use a neodymium magnet and wears a new grille mesh from the 700 series. Also, the dome is positioned slightly forward in its diaphragm to improve time alignment.

As before, build quality is reassuringly sturdy, but the finish not nearly so starkly functional. Joining the previous matt black and matt white options is the light-oak-with-matt-white-baffle of our review pair, an interesting combination maybe not suited to all decors, but quite striking and crisply executed nonetheless. There are lightweight, magnetically attached grilles, but it seems a shame to shroud the metallic sheen of the high-tech drivers. Round the back, the bi-wire terminal tray and dimpled airflow reflex port, also lifted from the 700 series, look very classy indeed.

For obvious reasons, I opt to keep the auditioning system largely the same as for the original 606 review. It comprises a Cambridge Audio CXC CD transport (HFC 401) and Chord Hugo 2 DAC (HFC 428), supported by an Elipson Omega 100 RIAA BT Carbon Black turntable (HFC 427) with Rega Fono Mk3 phono stage and Hegel’s H90 integrated amplifier (HFC 427), all connected via Nordost cabling and mains conditioning. B&W’s dedicated STAV24 stand (£119) supports the speaker, which is pulled a couple of feet away from back and side walls and mildly toed-in towards the sofa in my smaller listening room.

Sound quality
If I had a qualm with the 606 when I reviewed it in 2018 it was that its tweeter, while super clear, fast and detailed, could sometimes sound a little ‘obvious’. For example, on Christine And The Queens’ Girlfriend from the album Chris, the 606 would push into mild sibilance (a lot of ‘sss’ going on, admittedly) while the S2 Anniversary stays silky smooth. It’s amazing the difference a few ostensibly modest tweaks can make. As the listening session winds on, it dawns that the new 606 iteration is a subtly more refined, couth and discriminating performer than its predecessor ever was.

As before, bass is a class act – supple and plausibly weighted, nicely textured and agile. It smoothly extends in an unforced, easy-breathing way, without sounding as if the low notes are being squeezed from a tube. Quite an achievement for a rear-ported box of its size. Marcus Miller’s deep groove and death-defying fret runs on Power from his M2 album are crisply articulated and controlled and not even the deepest of deep brown, visceral twangs from the great man’s Fender Jazz Bass threaten to overwhelm the B&W.

From the same cut, Poogie Bell’s muscular drumming comes across as fast, potent and unfettered throughout. Rhythmically fluent and surefooted, this is a speaker that lets the music flow and, more importantly, locks you into the experience. It’s just as skilled at painting a stereo image of palpable solidity in a space curtailed in neither width nor depth and with excellent separation of instruments, performers and studio effects, however dense and busy the mix becomes.

Treble is open and detailed, neither too forward nor reticent and gifted a well-judged sense of energy and air and good tonal colour and shading. Easing the pace and darkening the mood, Joni Mitchell’s voice portrays all its smoky, wistful splendour on A Case Of You, the sympathetically warm and expressive production generously rendered, not least in the handling of the achingly lush backdrop of strings. Long-term listenability, the knack of keeping you involved and invested in whatever is playing, is a huge plus that wasn’t perhaps always nailed by its more ebullient predecessor. Overall, the S2 Anniversary Edition’s sound is transparent, even-handed and gifted a dynamic dexterity that’s every bit as impressive as it is likable.

An opportunistic spot of early doors tweakery under the guise of an anniversary celebration? Absolutely, and deserving of a pat on the back for B&W, I reckon. Also something of an education in demonstrating what a few, well-targeted tweaks can do to raise a speaker’s sonic game. Until listening to the 606 S2 Anniversary Edition I’d have happily recommended the previous 606 to anyone shopping for an absolute steal in the £500 to £600 region. This £600 update, with apparently the mildest of running mods, changes the game entirely. It’s a smoother, more refined and resolute operator that sounds still more assured and expensive. With a commensurately mild running mod, I revise my recommendation thus: right now, I can’t think of a better way to spend up to £800 on a standmount speaker. DV    

Product: Bowers & Wilkins 606 S2 Anniversary Edition
Type: Two-way standmount loudspeaker

● 25mm aluminium dome tweeter
● 165mm Continuum cone mid/bass driver
● Quoted sensitivity: 88dB/1W/1m (8ohm)

Read the full review in  Issue 475

B&W Group Ltd.