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B&W DM601 Series 2

Good, seamless, ambient - what more is there?

[B&W DM601 Series 2]
[Italian version]

Product: B&W DM601 Series 2 bookshelf loudspeaker
Manufacturer: B&W - England
Approx. price: US$-Euro 350
Reviewer: Dejan Veselinovic

Bowers&Wilkins, a.k.a. B&W, have been at it for almost three decades now. The older among us will probably never forget the legendary model DM6, affectionately known as "The Fat Man", the first speaker to employ stepped drivers, in an attempt to provide for better phase linearity, also an approach much copied afterwards (even by the Japanese - look at Technics' best speakers of the day). As I see it, two things make B&W a special case - their extremely quick climb to the top (well deserved, if I may say so) and their dedication to combining listening with top flight research, a goal they remain dedicated to this day.

However, their fortunes in terms of speaker sonic qualities have been mixed, as is reasonable to expect of any manufacturer. While we all know about their cult Nautilus series, not many I think have the means to go that high, so for the time being, let's take a look at their "real world", or more affordable offerings. Case in point: DM 601, now in its Series 2 configuration.

Description

DM 601 S2 measures just 356x204x244mm, or 14x8x9.6 inches (HxWxD), and weighs in at 6.1 kilos (13.4 lb). In my book, this is called a small speaker, though the weight is a little above the norm in this class. The sales literature describes it as a "2- way 4th-order vented system", or a bass reflex ported speaker. It uses two drivers, a 165mm (6.5 inch) mid/bass driver and a metal coated 25mm (1") dome tweeter. Crossover is at 4 kHz, efficiency is rated at 88dB/1W/1m, impedance is said to be 8 Ohms nominal (4.3 Ohms minimum - kudos to B&W for quoting the worst case!), and response is said to be 70Hz-20kHz +/- 3dB on axis. Dispersion is also quoted, something I wish other speaker manufacturers would also pick up as a habit, at within 2dB at 40 degrees horizontal and 10 degrees vertical. Harmonic distortion is said to below 1% 88-20.000 Hz at 90dB SPL at 1m. Power handling is said to be 25-100W continuous of unclipped programme into 8 Ohms nominal - impressive for what is supposed to be small speaker.

[B&W DM601 rear side] Its technical highlight is no doubt the woven Kevlar bass/mid cone; it is very becomingly yellow in color, but thankfully uses rubber rather than foam surround, so it should last a very long time. The bullet-like CENTER of the cone is a phase plug, now almost mandatory on European speakers with any pretensions. And yes, the reflex port is on the front baffle, much more preferable than on the back.

The front baffle is somewhat uncommon insofar that it is uneven, preferring a slightly "rough" surface to a perfectly smooth one - this should bode well for decreasing front baffle refraction. A good move.

Since the tested pair was taken out of a box brand new, I let them play four days just to settle in before I started really listening to them.

Siting

These speakers have, I confess, perplexed me. It is quite natural that any speaker will react to siting, the question being to what extent and exactly how. By default, I tend to experiment with speaker siting, partly because I'm always interested in squeezing the best out of any speaker, and partly because I have to, given that my listening sessions are divided between two systems in two different rooms. In short, I am generally acquainted with what is to be expected.

Well, the DM 601 didn't fail me, or not completely - as any speaker, it did react to siting, but what surprised me is how little. Usually, one hears the difference quite easily in more general terms, naturally decreasing as one moves towards the ideal siting - not so with this one. From one extreme to the other, it reacted very little, enough to be audible, but much, much less than usual. This must a good thing, I think, and not easy to do, or else everyone would have it.

[DM601 Kevlar<sup></sup> bass driver] Put on a shelf, the 601 reacted with the usual pseudo-bass, typical of poorly located speakers - however, after inserting a foam cushion beneath the boxes, and angling them inward towards the CENTER of the room, the nasties were more or less gone, save for dispersion - as expected.

But once placed on proper stands (my own construction, three point floor coupling, sand filled, 50 cm high), they seemed happy about it and the dispersion problem went away, as they were almost ideally lined up with my ears after I sink into my favorite armchair.

Cabling

As usual, I tried them out with my economy reference cables, Jamo OFC (5mm, 2x256 strands) first, and then switched to my preferred van den Hul D352 Hybrid. The Jamo cables measure at 2x5m, while the van den Hul cables measure at 2x6m. That's long, I hear you saying - perhaps, but as far as series cable impedance is concerned, both are below 0.05 Ohms, which is barely half of what B&W recommends as the maximum. As for capacitance, inductance and interactions, well, other speakers coming and going never complained, and besides, both reference amps have low output impedances, especially the Yamaha (damping factor is claimed at 320 into 8 Ohms, 20-20,000 Hz).

With the Jamo cables, I achieved good results in general, but with a slight difference. With the Yamaha AX592, there was no discernible difference in using either cable, but with the Harman/Kardon 680, the van den Hul produced audibly better spatial effects and smoothed out the treble.

So, if you have very standard, commercial quality electronics, a generous gauge cable of reasonably good OFC copper quality will suffice; however, if you're more upmarket (the H/K 680 costing exactly twice the price of Yamaha AX592), it would be a good idea to invest in some good cabling from a reputable source - this speaker WILL let you hear the difference.

Microdynamics

Play it at just above whisper levels and the 601 will come clean as a whistle. To be sure, its bass is lacking, which is normal given the small size of the enclosure, but what it has, it plays and makes no fuss over anything.

For a change, I started out with Vivaldi's "Four Seasons". Next, I moved on to Pavarotti, then Pavarotti with Zucchero, and progressed slowly all the way towards Enigma, Hevia, and yes, even Billy Idol. Hey, you want to hear how rock sounds, just play Billy's "Rebel Yell" or "White Wedding" and you'll have a pretty good idea.

The 601s sounded very composed, very seamless from top to bottom, but what I couldn't help noticing at once was the extraordinary amount of ambient detail. I like ambience as much as the next man, but I must say I don't often hear so much of it, and/or so clearly as with these speakers. Their midrange is uncommonly good, very clear, almost in the "see-through" class. Most unusual at this price level.

But, there's a price to pay for it. To my mind, the topmost part of the spectrum, while clearly present and completely lacking in spit, shrill, fizziness, ... (fill in your favorite adjective), it also lack some of the bite, the sting it sometimes needs to reproduce. The cymbals are very clear indeed, but just lack that sting required to make them truly belivable. Right, let's try cranking up the volume a bit ...

Macrodynamics

Well, I did, but to no avail. The 601 did change its overall color a bit, not much, but just above being noticable. Nothing to worry about, other do much worse. Of course, louder improved the bass a little, even if only by conforming to the Fletcher- Munson loudness curves of the human ear.

The midrange stayed as clear as ever, and if anything, subjectively improved during louder playing by allowing me to hear still more detail. The sound was still very composed, seamless, polished, almost gentlemanly. Not that the sound lacked dynamics - no, these are far removed from being "lazy" or "hard to move" speakers. Quite to the contrary, if anything they tended to go about their business with no complaints, almost eagerly.

The bass lines were firm and well defined, with no hangover, and with creditable speed. The midrange was very coherent, and very detailed. It's the top range which still failed to produce the sting and the bite. Actually, if I were to measure the effective sound pressure level, I think I'd find that the response is all there - I think this is a matter of "color" rather than actual physical presence. And when we get to "color", we are deep in subjective waters - Dire Straits, you might say.

Try removing their front grills - that will improve the sound and not a little, either. Both the quality and to a lesser degree quantity of the radiated treble range. And your sound stage will also broaden somewhat.

Overall sound

Removing the grilles will improve the sound of these speakers, a quite common occurrence in general, let alone in the economy class where these speakers belong. Also, if you have good electronics, do invest in good cable, these speakers will show that it does make a difference.

These are very well composed speakers, unusually seamless from top to bottom, nothing sticks out, and commendably little is lacking, save for very deep bass lines, which it would be unreasonable to expect from an enclosure of this size (and, I daresay, price).

Their strongest point is the amount of ambient detail they can reproduce, given good quality material and of course, good quality upstream electronics. Even more to the point, they produce this detail in a commendably linear fashon, no phase nasties, no humps and bumps.

Their weakest point is a certain lack of bite and sting in the topmost part of the spectrum. It's as if the designers tamed the tweeter a little too much, for fear of it being aggressive - too much of a good thing can turn out not so good.

I can't help comparing them to my economy class reference speakers, JBL's Control Monitor CM62. These are somewhat cheaper speakers, and made of plastic moulding - bad for inertia which is small, great for dissipating internal standing waves, as the enclosure has no parallell sides and no corners. The efficiency difference is quite small, just 1dB in favor of JBLs, and I doubt anyone would hear that in practice.

As for ambient detail, they came out about the same, with perhaps a small and uncertain advantage to the 601. However, I have to say this - while the JBLs managed to keep pace in detail, they did so with less linearity than the B&Ws. These CM62 speakers do have their humps and bumps and there's no escaping that simple fact. Sure, it sounds very nice, it's even charming, but it's not linear. And quality audio is at least in good part about linearity.

The JBL also had deeper bass lines, small wonder given their greater effective volume, plus the manufacturer's legendary penchant for quality bass lines. Much more to the point, the CM62 did produce that sting and bite the 601s didn't quite manage, but I must insert a disclaimer here - the JBLs have worked day in and day out for over 5 months now, while the B&Ws have worked about one fifth of that time. This may or may not be of significance, I have no way of knowing. The only way to really know would be to buy a pair and run them for five months, which I won't do - I might survive the financial side of things, but I surely wouldn't survive the marital part.

But did I enjoy the 601s? Oh yes, and how!

Conclusion

My usual final question - would I buy these speakers?

My unusual answer - yes, I probably would. Perhaps not straight out, but I would certainly put them near the very top of my shopping list in this class of speakers. I fault them for their lack of sting up there, but I admire and greatly enjoy their ambience capabilities. And I vouch that you won't find many in this price class with similar capabilities. Yes, my JBL CM62 springs to mind, but while greatly enjoyable and with better bass lines, they are nevetheless not as linear as the 601s.

As for the bass lines, in all truth, anything I say about the 601s more or less equally applies to each and every speaker of similar size I have ever heard over the last 36 significant (audio) years of my life (I was bitten by the audio bug when I was just 11 and never recovered), bearing in mind its price bracket. I did replace the CM62s with the 601s on each side of the JBL Sub10, and as usual, the bass was improved no end.

That is my only suggestion to potential owners - buy these and do consider a subwoofer in the near future. Small enclosures allow extreme freedom of placement, and a subwoofer will rid you of their potential pseudo-bass, while offering the punch and gut shaking feeling of savage power you might require here and there. I would consider B&W subwoofers on grounds of same sound signature and philosophy (which is why with the JBL CM62s I have a JBL Sub10), but you might disagree.

This is not a speaker you will, in all probability, love at first hearing; this one takes a little time to grow on you, as is in my experience almost always the case with neutral products. What it will do is make you wonder why you didn't buy it before, but that will take no less than a week (to settle them in), and probably more like a month or two. It requires, albeit silently, at least good quality, and preferably very good quality speaker cable to show all it is capable of, so don't deny it this cable - which cable, of course, is a matter of personal choice.

A charming product, then, and an unusual blend of qualities and complete lack of vices not often heard in this price bracket. Deserves to be a bestseller.

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