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The UK in SoCal for the Bowers & Wilkins 700 Series 3 Launch—Looking and Listening

Traveling

If you regularly read my articles, watch my videos, and/or follow me on social media, you’ll probably already know that I like to travel to hi-fi companies around the world. In fact, I think I’ve already visited more companies than any hi-fi writer ever has—and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.

But even with all that traveling, the headquarters of one of the largest and most influential high-end hi-fi companies has eluded me—I’m talking about Bowers & Wilkins, which is in Worthing, England. It hasn’t been because of a lack of contact or me not trying to get there—it’s just never worked out.

For me personally, this is unfortunate because I go back far with Bowers & Wilkins. In the late 1980s, before I was a reviewer, I owned a pair of the company’s Matrix 1 loudspeakers. The Matrix 1, 2, and 3 were the first to use the company’s Matrix cabinet technology. Then I owned a pair of Matrix 802 Series 2s, still before I began reviewing. I followed those with a pair of Matrix 803 Series 3s at about the same time I founded the SoundStage! Network, in 1995. I’ve kept tabs on the brand since, so I know the company well—and I’ve long wanted to see its insides.

Sound UnitedSound United headquarters

I thought that my opportunity had finally come in early July, when I received an invite to a press launch for the company’s new 700 Series 3 loudspeakers, to be held on August 2. Flashes of arriving at London Heathrow and riding off to Worthing went through my head. But it wasn’t to be, because I quickly learned that the launch was happening at the Carlsbad, California-based headquarters of Sound United, which now owns Bowers & Wilkins as well as Polk Audio, Definitive Technology, Marantz, Denon, Boston Acoustics, and Classé.

Initially, I was disappointed, but then I realized that California presented different opportunities that excited me. One was that I would be staying in beautiful Oceanside, just north of San Diego, which is known as California’s “surf capital” and is where key scenes for Top Gun were filmed. I’ll tell you right now that the visit to that city was great—it’s just as beautiful as it looks in Top Gun, though busier, since it’s now a high-end resort-type destination. I also knew the trip would allow me to see the Sound United facility and learn more about Bowers & Wilkins and the other brands under the Sound United umbrella—so I was in.

OceansideOceanside

Traveling farther than me and the other journalists who were also invited was Andy Kerr, who lives in the UK and holds the title of director of product marketing and communications at Bowers & Wilkins. According to Lucette Nicoll, who handles Bowers & Wilkins’s PR and who also came to Carlsbad, Kerr is the face of Bowers & Wilkins these days, and he is the person to answer the difficult questions.

Evolving

We had just one day, so Kerr wasted no time getting down to business about the new 700 Series 3 models as he spoke to us in one of the Sound United conference rooms. I quickly learned that, just like the company’s other speaker launches in recent years, the 700 Series 3 line is about evolution, not revolution, meaning the differences between the old series and this new series aren’t that big. That didn’t really surprise me, though, because long ago I realized that at Bowers & Wilkins, change comes from the top models down.

Andy KerrAndy Kerr presenting

That was confirmed when Kerr was asked what the most important product range is in the Bowers & Wilkins stable. His “the 800 Series Diamond line” response came quickly. But he didn’t necessarily mean for sales, at least from what I could tell as he spoke. He seemed to mean how the line influences the perception of the brand in the marketplace, as well as how the models help to dictate the designs of the rest of the speakers the company makes.

What he said came as no surprise, because anyone who knows Bowers & Wilkins well knows that the 800-level speakers of any generation represent the company’s flagship designs, so that’s where the action happens first. Then those ideas, design elements, and technologies trickle down to the mid-tier 700 and entry-level 600 ranges, as well as to whatever other products the company produces. As a result, the updates in this new 700 range mainly involve some technologies and design flourishes that have recently made their way into the third- and fourth-generation 800 Series Diamond loudspeakers.

Updating

Because this is an update rather than a reboot of the line, there are the same number of speakers in the new 700 lineup, all with the same model names as in the previous line, though these new ones each have S3 at the end of the name rather than S2. They are (with prices in US dollars) the 702 S3 ($7000/pair), 703 S3 ($6000/pair), and 704 S3 ($4000/pair) floorstanders; 705 S3 ($3400/pair), 706 S3 ($2200/pair), and 707 S3 ($1800/pair) standmounts; and HTM72 S3 ($2500) and HTM71 S3 ($1500) center-channels. For the standmount speakers, there’s an FS-700 S3 stand ($800/pair).

The most obvious changes to the 700 Series 3 line are the industrial-design cues taken from the 800 models, which the company’s press release describes as follows: “the new range introduces slimmer cabinets featuring a curved front baffle and drive units mounted in external ‘pods’ that form a direct visual and technical link to the 800 Series Diamond range.”

Cabinet closeupThe protruding 703 S3 midrange driver

Those “pods,” like in the 800 models, allow the cone-based drivers to protrude from the front baffle. That certainly offers some visual appeal, but according to Bowers & Wilkins, there’s a performance benefit as well: “This revised form dramatically reduces the impact of the loudspeaker baffle on sound quality by minimizing the ‘cabinet diffraction’ effect, and as a result, the new range is better than ever at ‘disappearing’ acoustically, so you can just concentrate on the music rather than the sound of the loudspeaker cabinet.”

Complementing the improved cabinet appearance is a new wood-veneer finish called Mocha, which is medium-dark brown and attractive looking—and which I quite liked. There are also the three finishes carried over from Series 2—Gloss Black, Satin White, and Rosenut. But according to the press release, Rosenut will be “offered exclusively in Asian and Pacific markets.”

702 S3703 S3 in Mocha

Another change involves the 703 S3 and HTM71 S3 models. They each used to have their tweeter mounted directly on the front baffle, like the S2 and S3 versions of the 704, 706, 707, and HTM72 models. Now each has its tweeter atop the cabinet, like the 702 and 705 S3 and S2 versions.

Bowers & Wilkins calls this tech Tweeter-on-Top, which can again be found in the 800 line. But it’s important to note that there’s more to it than pinning the tweeter on top of the cabinet. It also involves attaching the tweeter to the wide end of an all-aluminum tapered tube, just like in the 800 series, though the origin of the tapered tube dates back to 1993 and the launch of the Nautilus loudspeaker, which was designed by former Bowers & Wilkins employee Laurence Dickie.

Tapered tubeSeries 3 Tweeter-on-Top assembly

The intention of the tapered tube is for it to dissipate the driver diaphragm’s rearward-directed energy so that reflections of that energy don’t interfere with the movement of the diaphragm, and thus the sound radiated to the front. A testament to the effectiveness of the technology is that it is still used in Bowers & Wilkins speakers today. A testament to how ahead of its time the Nautilus was is that it is still in production today—the longest living of any Bowers & Wilkins design.

But the Tweeter-on-Top’s tube has also been changed for the new 700 Series 3 speakers. According to Bowers & Wilkins, “the new 700 Series Tweeter-on-Top enclosure has been significantly lengthened, reducing distortion and ensuring an even cleaner presentation.”

705705 S3 (left) and 705 S2

As with the Series 2 speakers, the aluminum tube has a suspension system where it attaches to the cabinet, so the tube assembly rocks when you push it. The suspension is said to help reduce cabinet resonances that might travel from the main cabinet to the tube, which could interfere with the output of the tweeter.

The four models that still have the tweeter on the front baffle—707, 706, 704, and HTM71—each have a tapered tube attached behind the tweeter, but the tube on those speakers goes into the cabinet, so you can’t see it. The tube in each of those speakers is also longer than before to provide the same performance benefits noted above. But regardless of whether the tweeter is on top or on the front of the cabinet, the same 1″ Carbon Dome diaphragm, which is claimed to have its first breakup mode at 47kHz, is used for all the tweeters throughout the range.

TubesNew (bottom) and old internal tapered tubes

The three floorstanders’ midrange drivers are also changed—they now feature what Bowers & Wilkins calls Biometric Suspension, a technology first introduced into the midranges of the fourth-generation floorstanding 800 Series Diamond speakers. Biometric Suspension replaces each driver’s traditional accordion-like spider with a thin-metal skeletal structure that, according to Bowers & Wilkins, “dramatically reduces unwanted noise from the output of the spider as the midrange cone operates.” From what I can tell, it accomplishes this by not blocking air the way a traditional spider does, but it still holds the cone in place like a spider does.

Biometric SuspensionBiometric Suspension

The midrange cones in the floorstanders and midrange-woofer cones in the standmounted models are made from a material called Continuum, which Bowers & Wilkins introduced in the third-generation 800 Series Diamond speakers to replace Kevlar, a material the company began using in the 1970s. The floorstanding woofers vary in quantity and size depending on the model, but each woofer uses what Bowers & Wilkins calls an Aerofoil Profile cone.

The speakers’ ports have also been tweaked—but it’s the 702 S3 that’s been tweaked the most. Instead of the port being mounted on the cabinet’s backside, a larger port than was used in the 702 S2 is now mounted on the bottom of the cabinet, so its output is directed downwards. Because of that, the 702 S3’s plinth is designed so there’s a space between it and the cabinet to allow the port output to escape. With the old 702 S2, the plinth attaches with no space between.

Binding posts702 S3 binding posts and plate

There are other differences between the 700 Series 3 and Series 2 as well, but they’re minor compared to what I described above—for example, additional subtle cabinet changes, slightly different spikes, better binding posts, improved crossover components, etc.—but Kerr knew he wouldn’t keep our attention that long with that stuff, so we moved to listening, where we were able to compare three of the new models to the three equivalent Series 2 designs.

Listening

Kerr began the listening session by going small—707 S3 versus 707 S2. He and a helper did their best to switch the speakers’ positions and cables as quickly as possible so we could hear the same music selections rapidly enough to make meaningful comparisons. He said that the sensitivities of the two speakers are about the same, so level matching wasn’t an issue—and it sounded that way (i.e., they both seemed to be playing at the same volume level). The Marantz components and the computer seen in the photo were used as the front end. The music played in this room and in the one described below was streamed.

707 S3707 S3s

Kerr first played Laura Marling’s “Only the Strong,” from her album Songs for Our Daughter, and then Dominique Fils-Aimé’s “Old Love,” from Stay Tuned! We went back and forth between the speakers a few times with each track. The sonic differences weren’t huge, but the midrange did seem clearer through the 707 S3s—that was the most obvious thing. The bass seemed roughly the same, though. The treble surprised me, because for several years I’ve been a bit put off because of how bright some Bowers & Wilkins speakers I’ve listened to have been, but neither pair of 707s sounded over-the-top bright in this setup.

We then compared a pair of 705 S3s with 705 S2s in the same room, using the same equipment, again with each playing at the same volume level. This time Kerr played Freya Ridings’s “Lost Without You,” from her self-titled album. Here I thought there was quite a bit of difference in the bass—the 705 S3s seemed to reach lower and have better control—and there was more clarity in the midrange with the S3s versus the S2s. However, both sets of speakers suffered from what I felt was too much of that brightness I just talked about—I could hear the speakers’ tweeters more than I wanted to. Thus, any prospective buyer should audition the new 705 S3 carefully to see if the sound suits his or her taste. But if someone already likes the 705 S2, they’ll like the 705 S3 more because of the improved bass and midrange.

705 S3705 S3s

Next we moved into a much larger room to audition pairs of 702 S3s and 702 S2s, which were being driven by Classé electronics. The speakers were level matched again, but one issue I had with this setup was that the new 702 S3s, because of their plinths, were standing a little taller than the 702 S2s, which had no plinths. Another issue was that the newer speakers were on the outside and the old ones were on the inside of them—and the speakers’ positions weren’t switched like in the other room when the cables were changed. Differing speaker heights and floor placements can make big sonic differences in rooms, but I didn’t know which pair would be at an advantage—or if there even was an advantage. I felt the need to at least point that out for this article in case someone thinks I overlooked it.

Kerr played “Old Man” from Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall 1971 and pretty much blew me away with the sound that came out. The brightness I heard from the 705 S3s and S2s was still there to a degree, but there was much deeper and more powerful bass coming out of the 702 S3s than either pair of 705s could muster. Therefore, the sound was also more balanced from the lows through to the highs, so I didn’t find the prominent highs off-putting at all. The bass coming from the 702 S3s also sounded deeper and more powerful than what was coming from the 702 S2s, which could have to do with the new port position or speaker positioning—or both. Once again, the 702 S3s sounded clearer in the midrange than the 702 S2s—I could hear Young’s voice and the acoustics of the theater space quite a bit better.

702 S3 and 702 S2702 S3s (outside) and 702 S2s

Yet the most important thing with this setup was that I stopped dissecting the frequency ranges and simply listened as the music poured over me, because it sounded really good—I mean really good. It actually left me so jazzed that just after I listened, I texted our measurements specialist, Diego Estan, who’s owned several pairs of Bowers & Wilkins speakers in his lifetime, including a pair of 705 S2s (which he also found too bright), and told him that I was quite bowled over by the sound of this flagship 700 model. The largest and most expensive speaker isn’t always, or even often, what impresses me the most at demos—but this time it certainly did.

Concluding

Although I would’ve liked to have seen and heard the new 700 Series 3 speakers in the UK, I confess that doing so in Southern California was probably just as fun and interesting. But as I wrote above, this new lineup is an evolution, not a revolution, so be aware of that. Still, from what I heard from the three pairs of speakers played there, they are at least a little better than the speakers they are replacing—and in the case of the 702 S3, perhaps a lot better.

703 Series 3703 S3 (left), 704 S3 (right), 705 S3 cabinet (on table), HTM71 S3 (on table), and various S3 parts

Of course, I didn’t hear the 706 S3, 704 S3, or the one Andy Kerr said he would like the reviewers attending to consider, the 703 S3 (probably because it, like the flagship of the range, now has its tweeter mounted to the top). I didn’t hear the center speakers either. Therefore, the jury’s still out about those models, though I’m sure that the company will, at some point, offer at least some of these models for review. But from what I could tell from my time in Carlsbad, Bowers & Wilkins fans should check this new line out, even before any reviews surface, since it follows the company’s tried-and-true aesthetic and sonic formula, meaning the speakers likely won’t disappoint anyone. And based on what I heard from the 702 S3s, if others are just as impressed as I was, that speaker, and perhaps others in the new 700 Series 3 line, could attract some new fans as well.

Doug Schneider
Founder, SoundStage!