Bowers & Wilkins 703 Loudspeakers 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Floorstanding Loudspeakers
Written by Bryan Southard   
Tuesday, 01 June 2004

There are few audio companies that carry a brand equal to that of B&W. For many years Bowers and Wilkins, a British speaker manufacturer better known as B&W, have produced speakers that are argued to be at the top of each price class they compete in. Over a decade ago, the B&W Matrix 801s dominated the over $10,000 class with a speaker that was referenced by many professionals in the industry. After 801s came the futuristic yet functional Nautilus speakers. This $40,000-plus speaker looked radically different than anything consumers had ever seen. Sonically, the Nautilus was a masterpiece that employed technology meant to reduce internal resonances. This technology had precisely measured and formed tapering tubes with a conch-like shell form on the bottom. Much like Acura did with their flagship NSX sports car, the Nautilus line of speakers trickled down cutting-edge speaker technology to price categories that everyday music and movie enthusiasts could afford.

The brand new B&W 700 Series employs several technologies derived from their esteemed Nautilus line. This line consists of three different main speaker models that range in price from $1,500 to $3,000 per pair, as well as a center channel speaker, surround speakers and two powered subwoofers.

The B&W 703s are floor-standing three-way loudspeakers that measure 39-3/4 inches in height, 9-1/8 inches in width, have a depth of just over 14 inches and weigh 60 pounds apiece. They are available in five different hand-rubbed veneers, including Black Ash, Cherry, Rosenut, Walnut and Maple. The review models were Maple and carried a retail price of $3,000 per pair.

I am seldom tickled about the look and feel of a speaker in this price class. Comparably priced speakers tend to have a dated, boxy look with little to no individuality. Then, if there is any aesthetic signature, it’s often wacky and has little to do with function or consideration for the look of the rooms they inhabit. The 703s are different.

Upon unpacking the 703s, I was treated to a first class experience. They came wrapped in a cotton cloth and were well packaged. Little subtleties, such as a vacuum-formed package containing the choice of either spikes or silicone feet, were worthy of a stand-alone product. The 703s emerged from the box and upon first inspection were an absolute work of art. The finish was second to none in this price class. The veneers are beautiful and the seams consistent with the finer furniture money can buy. Upon further inspection, B&W had spared very little expense in producing a speaker that could sit beside your homes most elegant furnishings. This scored big points with me, due to my appreciation for architectural and design details, a passion which I would guess is common among other music and film enthusiasts.

At first view, the B&W 703s share a look familiar to that of the Nautilus line, with a cabinet that employs a sloping top and front baffle with a standalone top-mounted tweeter. The lower cabinet has B&W’s famed dimpled flowport, which reduces turbulence in the exiting air, much the way dimples work on a golf ball. The 703s incorporate an all-new six-and-one-half-inch mid-bass driver constructed of B&W’s woven Kevlar and employing an improved balanced drive motor. For high frequencies, the 703s have a Nautilus-inspired one-inch dome tweeter with their tapered-tube loading enclosure for improved clarity. Rounding off the speaker are two six-and-one-half-inch Kevlar/Paper bass drivers. The B&W 703s have a rated frequency resonance of 30Hz to 50kHz at –6 dB. This likely means that bass roll-off starts at or near 40Hz. The rated sensitivity is 90 dB, meaning that they are a fairly easy load and can be driven by almost any amplifier source. The 703s have nice speaker connection binding posts that will accept any type of wire connection. They are bi-wireable and have robust, gold-plated jumper plates for more traditional single-wire applications.

The Music
Keb’ Mo’ is a contemporary blues player who has reinvigorated the classic sounds of blues legends from generations past. His self-titled first release (Epic) and the song “Every Morning” was just the ticket for my mood at the time. I immediately picked up on a characteristic that remained consistent throughout my listening sessions: the B&W 703’s ability to provide lightning fast and effortless midrange, upper-mids and highs. Keb’s vocals, which range from deep baritone growls to rich and sweet melodies, were portrayed very realistically. I felt a natural sense of transparency that integrated seamlessly throughout the mid-band spectrum. I found the stage to be so solid, with minimal effort paid to the positioning of the 703s, that I later couldn’t stop myself from trying to make them better. My thought was that if three minutes made them this good, what would hours of tweaking do for the sound? I found that the sounds at midrange and up were so detailed and effortless that the speakers performed at 98 percent with little positional adjustments. I found the 703s to be fairly directional, meaning that their off-axis response was fairly attenuated and even small movements in the speakers, when not directly facing the listener, added a predictable depth increase, yet the sound remained sweet and the voices equally as detailed. I found my preference with the 703s had them toed only slightly away from directly towards the listener, perhaps 10 degrees as best. This kept the detail and decay at its very best, while maintaining an expansive stage, reminiscent of most mid-sized venues.

The slide intro to “She Just Wants To Dance” was about as clear and detailed as reproduction gets. The warm sound of Keb’ Mo’s glass slide against the strings of his vintage Dobro resonator guitar was remarkable. The keys of the piano had whip-cracking quickness. As with most evaluations, the true test of reproduction is whether or not it is believable that you are in front of a live artist, of course within a reasonable stretch. The top end of the B&W 703 took me there. The bass and drums were solid and had good quickness, perhaps not reaching the deepest depths, yet were complimentary to the top end of this speaker.

Track 10, “Dirty Low Down and Bad,” starts off with the tap of Keb’ Mo’s shoe and the count of one, two, three, and four, both of which were deep and incredibly real-sounding. Amazingly, in true form of his old Mississippi Delta predecessors, the sound of Keb’ Mo’s shoes against the floor sounded old. If someone told me that he was wearing a 1930s shoe and the flooring was that of a wood floor from a delta blues bar, I would believe it. The 703s provided that level of detail.

I loaded up one of my favorite releases from the seemingly extinct northwest grunge explosion from the ‘90s, Alice in Chains, from their legendary MTV Unplugged show. This show signified the beginning of the eventual end of a band that was cut way too short by singer Lane Staley’s addiction to drugs, a story that came to a tragic end in April of 2002 of an apparent overdose. In the cut “No Excuses,” a song that starts with a great-sounding snare, the sound of fret buzz was remarkably detailed. This is a great indication of the 703’s ability to delineate the finest in detail. Having heard this detail on many different speaker sets, it serves as a clear tool for reproduced information, including decay accuracy. Being a guitar player myself, I also know the sound of new strings against the frets of a guitar with too low of action all so well. The depths of detail in the highs were reminiscent of the very airy and open detail I have heard from electrostatic panels – a true compliment to the 703s. The drum intro in “Sludge Factory” was solid yet somewhat lacked the energy of a live rock performance. Perhaps the only knock to this high-performing speaker was a somewhat polite low-frequency extension. It tended to lack spectral balance and overall low-end energy with some music, perhaps exacerbated by the remarkable top end of this speaker. At times, I found myself desiring the back-up support of a sub. It should be noted that I have a fondness for large full-range speakers, something that you won’t find in this size and price class.

Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms (Warner Bros) has been revered by rock lovers and audiophiles alike due to its better than average recording quality and pop timelessness. In the first song “So Far Away,” Mark Knopfler’s guitar had a natural attack and realistically believable decay, another testament to how good the top end of this speaker is at capturing detail. His guitar and voice had an open and decisively agile sound. Even at high volumes, the sound of his guitar remained both true and distinctively natural. Again, the bass wasn’t the deepest I have heard but nevertheless complimentary and satisfying. In the insatiable song “Your Latest Trick,” the horn-laden intro was superb. I was drawn to the edge taps of the ride symbols and occasional crack of the cymbal’s bell. The most accurate way to describe this would be immediate with a realistic attack. These details were not laid back in the least, yet they were not in your face. I found them to sound very reminiscent of the way I would expect them to sound live. The sound of the distant snare was very engaging, further drawing me into the hypnotic nature of this song.

Lyle Lovett’s I Love Everybody (MCA) has found its way into my listening examples in the past due to its fantastic recording quality and array of instruments in his Large Band. Having seen Lovett many times in intimate venues, I am very aware of the way the live instruments and musicians should sound. It makes this an unquestionably solid tool for evaluation. “I Think You Know What I Mean” has an acoustical bass intro that the B&W 703s handled very well. The tonal balance of the speakers in this tune was very good. There is a wide dynamic spectrum and the 703s separated instruments cleanly. Even at extreme volumes, the 703s remained uncompressed and focused throughout the stage. There were no outward signs of grain or congestion in the least, both signs of a very high quality speaker. With this recording and many others, the 703s played effortlessly at volumes ranging from the very lowest to ear-bleeding levels. This speaker is one that can be driven with the simplest of receivers if necessary, or one that can take advantage of supreme amplification, in my case the Mark Levinson No.436s, and sound all the better.

In the relatively obscure song “Penguins,” the complex horns were rich in realistic instrumental texture, a characteristic that live horns have, making them an extremely engaging instrument to hear live. Every detail, from the outstanding background vocalist to the warmth of the cello, was placed precisely in the stage. There is so much said in reviews about soundstaging, yet there is no other characteristic that plays a greater role than midrange and high-frequency accuracy and detail. The B&W 703s are midrange perfection at its simplest.

From Disturbed’s 2002 DVD-Audio album Believe (Reprise) and the song “Prayer,” I cranked up the volume in anticipation. I rocked to this recording at 100-plus dB, yet the 703s were a few pounds short of the low-end smack to realistically reproduce this high-energy rock genre relegating the moshpit participants to their seats in my a/v room. It was exciting, yet a recording that could benefit from subwoofer backup. This recording is not the best, yet the 703s reproduced the voice of David Draiman exceptionally. The 703s are a very revealing speaker that make the very most from well-recorded music, but this recording was not one of them. This could be something to think about if the majority of your collection is ‘70s rock.

Stepping back a few years in both content and format, I spun up Ronnie Montrose’s 1979 gem Gamma (Electra) on vinyl. Through my Linn LP12 I went with song three from side one, “Razor King.” Hugely popular in his time, Montrose is one of the greater guitar heroes of the era. This cut had great depth and sweetness from Davey Pattison’s vocals. Not surprising, the B&W 703s added life and clarity to this aging recording. There was a good sense of ease without sacrificing the necessary edge to get the job done. Overall, I found the 703s to be very neutral on this cut. Perhaps one of more telling pieces of information was that of the echoplex Montrose uses in this cut. For those not old enough to remember, before digital delay and other modern guitar effects, for lasting sustain and echo, the tool used to be an echoplex that was merely a tape that ran in circles. You clicked a foot pedal that taped a sample piece from the guitar, and this machine looped it over and over. This machine had a unique airy and tubey sound that is used in the middle of this song, a sound the 703s separated in the detail necessary to add live reality to the cut. This listening session and the 703s brought me back to a time of greater simplicity when musicians were just that, a talent that has since left much of rock and roll.

The Downside
The B&W 703s are a hard product to knock. They are revealing and true to the music. One point to raise is that, although they have sufficient and balanced bass performance, they do not have earthquake-like, glass-shattering bass. Their bass is good and very well balanced, yet when the recording reaches for something extremely low and deep, the 703s tended to be on the polite side. I personally prefer good quality bass over poor quality abundance and the 703s provided the former. If you are looking to go low like Phil Mickelson on Sunday at the Masters, I recommend that you consider a matching B&W subwoofer which will take you to depths far below what you can hear and into the realm of feeling.

The 703s are a very revealing speaker. This is a fantastic attribute, one that some of the best speakers in the world possess. Yet this can be an Achilles heel if the majority of your music collection consists of poorly recorded music. If the best recorded piece of music you own is Ted Nugent’s Cat Scratch Fever, you may end up buying a new player along with some new recordings, but isn’t that the idea behind getting a top-notch pair of new speakers?

From the time I opened the box, I was in love with these speakers. They have a fit and finish second to none. Not a figure of speech, this is the best-finished speaker I have seen in its price class. The veneers are beautiful, the construction solid down to the last detail. The B&W 703s have the look, feel and sound of quality. You cannot simply throw money at a design and finish with class. This is something that B&W obviously takes pride in from the industrial design and finish of this product, to the uncompromising honesty of its sound. A few manufacturers make a speaker that is inaccurate in ways that appeal to the core consumer, yet B&W is obviously true to its morals, providing a speaker with integrity. Anyone looking for a refined speaker that can milk everything out of his or her favorite recordings must listen to this speaker. It was only a few years back that you paid as much as double to get such refinements. This speaker is a true value.
Manufacturer Bowers & Wilkins
Model 703 Loudspeakers
Reviewer Bryan Southard

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