B&W 683 Surround Speaker System Page 4

There are, of course, downsides to using a small bookshelf speaker as a center channel. When positioned upright (the only way I recommend), such a speaker could look awkward when sitting atop a big-screen TV. But with today's more compact digital displays, it could be easily positioned on a real bookshelf above or below the screen. A little creativity in this area, such as surrounding the speaker with books—admittedly a novel idea for a bookcase these days—should make it acceptable to the interior decorator in the family, as well as minimize the adverse affects of shelf mounting. (This sort of speaker nearly always sounds best when located well away from surrounding walls and on stands that place the tweeter at or near ear height.)

If a 685 is mounted above the screen and you can't tilt it toward the viewing area, try positioning it either tweeter up or tweeter down to find the best-sounding option. Just don't mount it horizontally!

Speakers such as the 685 are also generally sold in pairs. If you use a 685 as a center, that will leave you with a single, an odd man out speaker. If your dealer won't sell you just one (unlikely, since the speaker is not only sold in pairs, but also packed that way), and you can't find an audiophile friend who is considering the same system, you could use the extra 685 for a center surround if your receiver allows for a 6.1-channel option (most do).

While not intended as a center channel speaker, the 685 performed the job remarkably well. Apart from a slightly more pronounced top end directly on axis, common to nearly all speakers, its balance was consistently good across a seating area approximately 30-degrees on either side of center—and respectable even beyond that. Since it was mounted relatively close to the floor, I used the provided foam plug to fill half of the port (filling it completely leaned out the balance too much for me, but your mileage may vary). In this configuration, well-recorded voices were consistently natural-sounding.

The 685 kept up with the most action-heavy soundtracks. Crossed over at 80Hz, I heard no obvious distortion or overloading from it even in the heavy metal chaos of Transformers played back at theater-like levels in my 3200 cubic foot room.

With the final review configuration established, I settled in for a couple of weeks of serious home theater listening, and the system did not disappoint me. It produced an immensely appealing surround sound experience. The front soundstage, even with the entry of the 685 into the front mix, held together tightly, with well-recorded soundtracks producing a uniform spread of sound from left to right, with good imaging and respectable sense of depth.

The dynamic range, while not quite in the same class as the Revel Ultima2 system mentioned earlier, was totally convincing. I missed Live Free or Die Hard in the theater, but in this system it was a nonstop thrill ride that rarely let up. The B&Ws let me concentrate on the action in its full DTS-HD Master Audio glory. Freed from concerns about the audio (not to mention the excellent Blu-ray HD video), I could spend my time picking apart the wildly improbable story while at the same time enjoying John McClain once again driving the bad guys up the wall by picking them off one-by-one. (I hope that's not a spoiler. It's sort of like letting you know that the Titanic will sink.)

Interestingly, the slight brightness I noted in my music comments was nearly absent in the B&W's surround sound performance. The balance on most films sounded neither tipped up nor rolled off—and I didn't (and usually don't) use THX Re-Eq compensation.

The bass from the ASW610 subwoofer also continued its surprising performance. As with music, it didn't shake the foundations of my house in a way that bigger, more expensive subwoofers can, leaving me to worry whether or not there's a subwoofer clause on my homeowner's policy. Nor could it produce that additional 5-10Hz of deep bass grumble below that, when present, add an ominous undercurrent to suspenseful scenes. But it was always satisfying, never appeared strained or distorted, and rarely sounded overblown.

B&W had sent me a second ASW610, and I did try the two together, stacked in the same near-corner location. After readjusting the levels to compensate for the increased gain of two subs working, it was clear that the result was a little cleaner and punchier than with just one. When positioned close to each other, two subs will generally have lower distortion than one for the same output level (because each sub is only working half as hard). Or they will play louder at the same distortion level without stress. But they will not go deeper without additional low frequency contouring. Used separately in different parts of the room, two subs won't offer quite the same lower distortion benefits as when they are near each other, but properly positioned they can smooth out the in-room bass response. But that's another subject. I did not experiment with separated positioning for this review.

The B&Ws performed superbly on surround music as well. A great example of this is Legends of Jazz Showcase with Ramsey Lewis. This Blu-ray Disc, listened to from its Dolby TrueHD audio track, was a revelation with its sweet yet clear sound. The sparkle of the cymbals on the drum sets, the clear, open vocals on a few of the tracks, the sock of the kick drum, and the smooth natural instrumental sounds—whether a flute, a trumpet, or a piano—were all pristine on the B&Ws.

Regular readers know about my passion for soundtrack music, which I consider nearly equal in its importance to a film as the dialog (sometimes more so!). You expect great music sound on certain types of movies, and you do get it on Dreamgirls (Blu-ray)—despite the fact that this Blu-ray release is merely Dolby Digital Plus (inexplicably, DreamWorks/Paramount chose not to give us Dolby TrueHD). But it's still special. For this test I zeroed-in on the extended musical sequences in the special features. They all sounded exceptional. The 685, in particular, amply demonstrated its center channel prowess with a first-rate performance on these vocal-heavy tracks.

Nor did more typical, non-musical films come up short. Kingdom of Heaven: The Director's Cut (Blu-ray, DTS- HD Master Audio) is a top-shelf soundtrack. Harry Gregson-Williams' score for this film is superb, with a choir-heavy mix and a huge bubble of space and depth surrounding the listener. And Vangelis synthesized scores for the Final Cuts of both Alexander (Blu-ray but also on HD DVD—Dolby Dolby Digital only in another puzzler) and Blade Runner (Dolby TrueHD, HD DVD auditioned, Blu-ray also available) while created 20 years apart, both knocked me out on the B&Ws.

The music soundtrack for Transformers, mentioned earlier, impressed me the most of all the of all the movies I auditioned on the B&Ws. I'm not part of the Transformer generation, but I'm more than willing to accept odd science fiction plots if they are treated seriously. Science fiction often is about things we cannot imagine, but which could well exist somewhere in the vastness of the universe. So when heroic music swells up over a scene as a robot asks a character if his name is Samuel J. Witwicky, my chuckle was with the filmmakers, not at them—reserved for the odd name in counterpoint to the giant talking robot and the heroic score.

Whatever you might think of the film as a whole, the 8-9 minutes of this film that runs from the start of chapter 11 to the scene beginning with an aerial shot of a C-130 transport is the perhaps best demo sequence I've seen in a film this year. For me this sequence sums up what the B&Ws are about, and how they can send a chill up your spine whether the source is big or small effects, crisp dialog, or music ranging from gentle strings to soaring brass and vocal choirs.

In short, this speaker system is, as they say in Beantown, Wicked.

• Clean, open, transparent sound
• Excellent dynamic capability
• Woofer gets the job done while rarely calling attention to itself

• Can be a little unforgiving of bright-sounding program material, particularly on two-channel music playback
• HTM61 center a disappointing match for the L/R 683s