B&W 683 Surround Speaker System Page 3

Given what I had just been listening to, I wasn't immediately knocked out by what I heard from the 683s. But transitioning to the B&Ws wasn't a hard adjustment. These are honest loudspeakers, and particularly impressive in the all-important midrange where the FST drivers earn their keep. I heard no readily identifiable coloration on a wide range of music, including both classical and pop vocals, male and female. Pop recordings, in particular, had a compelling presence. A bit forward, yes, but in a good way, not in-your-face or aggressively vivid.

Interestingly, the tightness of the bass varied with the driving amplifier, a result that may surprise some readers given that the powered subwoofer was the same at all times. But it's the upper bass, above 80Hz or so, which reproduces the overtones that give deeper bass its punch. There's no such thing as "fast" deep bass; if you don't believe me, just listen to the subwoofer—any subwooofer—by itself on percussive bass such as a drum struck with a hard mallet. Of the amps I used with this system, the Parasound A51 produced the tightest bass overall, but even the amps built into the Onkyo SR-TX875 receiver did an impressive job in keeping things sorted out. The 683s will profit from a great amp, but you don't need a great amp to make them sing.

In the deep bass, where the subwoofer was doing most of the heavy lifting, I never felt the need for more grunt on music. Soundtracks are a bit different (I'll get to that subject soon enough), but the sub 30Hz extension of the ASW610 woofer did a surprisingly good job for what is, from a major manufacturer, a near-budget sub. This small box will never pin you back against the rear wall, but you don't need that sort of foundation cracking bass for most music. What the B&W sub does do is blend beautifully with the 683s to the point where the overall bass performance simply appeared to be great bass coming from a pair of modest, floor-standing speakers—a result that might embarrass more than a few systems selling for several times the price of the 683s and a single ASW610.

The top end of the B&W is open and clean. While I would never describe it as sizzly or bright, it can sound a little prominent on some material, particularly at high levels (which, incidentally, the 683 system, with sub, can handle as long as you're not a relapsed headbanger). But for every cut I tried that called attention to the treble, I found more than one that sounded just right, neither prominent nor dull. And some sounded truly glorious.

What you hear from the 683's top end, however, will depend on the size and liveliness of your room, the positioning (in my listening tests I toed the 683s inward so that their tweeter axes crossed a couple of feet in front of my listening position), and whether or not you listen with the grilles in place. The latter did sweeten the top just a bit without any obvious degradation, but I had mixed feelings about it, liking the sound better with the grilles on with some material and at other times finding that the subtle loss of air, sparkle, and definition made the speakers less fun to listen to. If the test bench measurements (which I have not seen as I write this) are typical, the grill will add a bit of roughness not at all obvious in listening—together with a slight reduction in the level of the upper audible octave. It will certainly eliminate response anywhere near 50kHz, which your cat and dog might not appreciate.

(I do recommend the grilles to anyone whose living situation risks someone or something coming into contact with the drivers, particularly the unprotected metal dome tweeter. It cannot be easily repaired if dented. The tweeter's unconventional mounting, moreover, suggest that replacing it may be more complicated than a simple screw-in replacement.)

Other aspects of the B&W's music response didn't disappoint me either. The 683s are capable of tightly defined imaging, with particularly solid center placement of a soloist in two-channel playback. The reproduction of depth was good though seldom spectacular. But if a recording does have clearly defined depth, such as the recordings Stereophile editor John Atkinson has made with the choral group Cantus, a well set up pair of 683s will position voices extending up to and even through the wall behind the speakers. Imaging that extends beyond the left and right confines of the speakers was rare, but I did hear it on some program material. This imaging artifact, which audiophiles have been known to salivate over, depends as much on the room, placement, and recording as on the speakers themselves.

I did find the 683s to be more at home with pop and vocal music than with large-scale classical works. The latter are by far the most difficult material to reproduce convincingly in two-channel stereo. But sweeping multichannel orchestral soundtracks in films were a very different story—the B&Ws came alive with them. More on that below.

While many more expensive speakers, including some of B&W's own, offer greater overall refinement, both in appearance and sound, the 683s, with the ASW 610 sub, offer more than a taste of high-end music thrills. Most important perhaps is the fact that I spent more time listening to music in two-channels on this system than I normally do for a home theater speaker evaluation, and it was never enough. That really says all that needs to be said, so let's move on to...

At the Movies
I'd like to say that this aspect of the B&W's performance was glitch-free, but it was not. The final result, as you will see, turned out fine, but not with the configuration I had planned on.

The problem was the HTM61 center channel speaker. Despite the pedigree offered by its FST midrange, it blended poorly with the left and right 683s. Its sound was thicker, duller, and less open—a characteristic that was different depending on whether I was seated on-axis or off to the left or right by about 30-degrees (it was also different in the two directions). This not only reduced dialog intelligibility but also significantly reduced the "jump factor" of the whole system in full surround mode. Yes, the HTM61 was stand mounted below the screen, which placed it less than two feet from the floor/ But that position has worked well with innumerable center channel designs that have lived there before.

What the measurements will show remains to be seen, but a few basic in-room measurements indicated nothing obviously defective about our sample of the HTM61.

When I substituted the similarly priced Revel Concerta C12 for the HTM61 the soundstage and clarity opened up considerably. In fact I lived with that setup for a couple of weeks as I reviewed other gear and movies on the system.

But that setup was hardly appropriate for this review. So when I got down to serious business I tried something else. The vital front channels and the subwoofer, of course, had to be all B&W. So I pulled one of the 685s from surround duty and pressed it into service as a center channel. But this did leave me without a matched set of B&W surrounds. So I used a pair of Revel M12s, a very similar two-way, stand mounted design, as substitute surrounds (and only slightly pricier than the 685s, at $698/pair). This did not, in my judgment, affect the overall sonic performance of the system significantly, and I had already determined that the 685s can do an excellent job as direct-radiating surrounds.

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