Reviewing a single hi-fi component in isolation is often appropriate, especially when the item in question has unique qualities. But a group test can often be a more powerful and useful exercise, because the group as a whole sets an overall context against which individual models may be compared and contrasted.
The four models gathered together for this group test have been deliberately chosen for their contrast as much as their commonality. All come from major, high profile brands: the Focal and Tannoy are stand-mounts; the B&W and KEF are floorstanders. Prices range from £630 for the Focal up to £900 for the B&W, though in practice the cost of stands will bring the Focal and Tannoy into line with the other two.
Age rarely withers loudspeaker designs but, although many ‘new’ models are merely cosmetic variations on predecessors, some technical evolution does take place. KEF’s iQseries first appeared in 2005, making it the oldest of our four, and at least two stages behind the current state of the Uni-Q driver art. Focal’s latest Chorus 700V and 800V models were first introduced about two years ago. The latest 680-series variants on B&W’s long running, budget price 600-series first appeared in 2007. Tannoy’s Revolution Signature models are brand new, the rather clumsy name used to distinguish these luxury versions from simpler and less costly unsigned variations on a similar theme.
The two floorstanders have most in common. Both are full three-way designs, with twin bass units to give good cone area with slim enclosures, though the Bowers & Wilkins is significantly larger and heavier overall. Both also have unusual proprietary midrange drivers – a surroundless FST in the Bowers & Wilkins, and a co-axial Uni-Q in the KEF. The Tannoy also has a co-axial driver, this time a Dual Concentric that operates through the bass as well as the midrange and treble. The Focal might be a conventional twoway, but again its drive unit technology is unique to the company, and quite distinctive.
Give or take the occasional variation, the speakers were mostly auditioned on the end of my regular Naim-based system, with a Rega/Linn hybrid vinyl source, Rega Ios phono stage, Naim CDS3 with 555PS supply and Burmester 001 CD players, Magnum Dynalab MD 106 tuner, NAC552 pre-amp and NAP500 power amp. A Unison P70 with EAT valves provided a thermionic alternative. Supports and cables were from Vertex AQ, the Chord Company and Naim Audio.
Frequency response measurements were made with a venerable but effective Neutrik analogue pen chart recorder, using a far-field in-room averaged technique to generate an integrated power response. This also formed the basis of the sensitivity rating.
Bowers & Wilkins 683
B&W is currently in the process of reverting to its original Bowers & Wilkins name – which, incidentally, first appeared on the front of a Worthing electrical shop way back in the 1960s. However, the reason behind the change is apparently to avoid possible confusion with German motor manufacturer BMW, an issue that has become rather more significant since B&W forged an alliance to develop incar sound systems for Jaguar.
Whatever it’s called, this company, still based in Worthing, is now the biggest specialist hi-fi speaker maker on the planet. A huge range of different models are created in its very impressive research labs, and if the first fruits appear in the luxury, upmarket models, at least some of the technology trickles down to less costly 600-series speakers like this 683.
The 600s have long been the company’s budget bedrock. To help keep the price down, they come in a vinyl woodprint finish, and this latest 680-series has followed the seemingly inevitably trend of sourcing the actual manufacturing from China. The range currently consists of four stereo pairs plus a number of AV add-ons, the largest being this, the £900/pair 683 – higher numbers mean smaller speakers in the wacky world of Bowers & Wilkins! The whole thing weighs a very substantial 26kg (nearly 10kg more than the slightly smaller KEF), and construction feels very solid and hefty. It’s not a particularly pretty speaker, it must be said, but it looks purposeful enough and you do get plenty for your money. The vinyl woodprint comes in a choice of four finishes: ‘cherry’, ‘light oak’, ‘black’ and a dull brown called ‘wenge’.
A full three-way floorstanding design, its most distinctive feature is a version of the ‘surroundless’ FST (Fixed Suspension Transducer) midrange drive unit that was originally pioneered in the Nautilus 800 series some years back. Such a driver can only be used in a multi-way configuration, because it relies on the fact that midrange frequencies, unlike those at the bass end of the spectrum, don’t require the cone to move fore’n’aft to any significant degree. Although many multi-way designs have midrange drivers that are much the same as (or a smaller version of) the bass units, the conventional ‘long travel’ cone surround normally used to allow bass excursion is actually unnecessary for midrange duties. Bowers & Wilkins has therefore developed a surround expressly optimised to absorb edgeof- cone vibrations, and which is not actually fixed to the 143mm diameter Kevlar cone.