The Bowers & Wilkins 702 S3 floorstanding speaker ($7,000 per pair) represents the company’s latest take on the largest model in their 700 series line, which resides just below their reference 800 series. In between its predecessor the 702 S2 and this latest version, Bowers & Wilkins also introduced an upgraded, limited-edition version of the 702 S2 known as the 702 Signature. I am very familiar with both the 702 S2 and the 702 Signature having reviewed both versions. I liked the 702 Signatures so much that I purchased a pair and still have them in daily use. So, I was excited to find out from our publisher, Jerry Del Colliano, that I would be reviewing the new 702 S3. It’s not often that reviewers get to directly compare two recent versions of a loudspeaker. Usually, gear is returned before such a comparison is possible.
If you’re a regular reader of Future Audiophile, you know that Bowers & Wilkins is one of the largest and most respected loudspeaker manufacturers in the world. As I’ve noted in previous reviews, the company is known for its attention to detail in design, investing heavily in research and development. It’s also known for the build quality of its speakers. So it’s no surprise that Bowers & Wilkins loudspeakers are used as the reference monitor of choice in numerous recording studios around the world, from Abbey Road in the U.K. to Skywalker Ranch in California.
What Makes the Bowers & Wilkins 702 S3 Speakers Special?
- The 702 S3 floorstanding speaker has several technology upgrades taken from the reference 800 series. These trickle-down technologies narrow the performance gap between the 702 S3 and the entry level reference 804 D4 floorstanding speaker at a fraction of the price, making them a tremendous value.
- The separate, nautilus style tweeter enclosure milled from a billet of solid aluminum has now been significantly lengthened from that of the Bowers & Wilkins 702 S2, with the aim ofreducing distortion and ensuring an even cleaner upper frequency presentation. Bowers & Wilkins has also introduced improved two-point decoupling that better isolates the nautilus tweeter assembly from the loudspeaker cabinet, ensuring a freer and more open soundstage.
- The six-inch, completely decoupled midrange driver features a biomimetic suspension taken from the 800 series, resulting in astonishing midrange resolution in the new version versus the older 702. Bowers & Wilkins has replaced the conventional fabric spider found in almost all other loudspeakers to dramatically reduce unwanted noise from the output of the spider as the midrange cone operates. The midrange drive unit assembly, with its aluminum chassis, features tuned mass dampers for reduced resonance.
- The three 6.5-inch bass drivers incorporate the latest generation of Bowers & Wilkins’ Aerofoil profile cone technology to deliver deep, dynamic bass that is even cleaner and less distorted than its predecessor.
- The Bowers & Wilkins 702 S3 cabinet has been narrowed and its front baffle has been curved to reduce cabinet diffraction.
Why Should You Care About the Bowers & Wilkins 702 S3 Speakers?
- There is an improved ease of placement with the 702 S3 due to the repositioning of the flow port to now point downward rather than the rear ported design of the previous 702 S2 and 702 Signature versions. The new 702 S3 can be placed closer to the front wall without concerns about boomy or exaggerated bass.
- Improvements in soundstage size and accuracy have been realized. This has been achieved through changes in both cabinet design and trickle-down driver technology from the 800 series.
- The 700 series lineup includes timbre-matched center and surround channel speaker options, as well as a matching subwoofer for those wanting to enlist their 702 S3 loudspeakers for home theater duty in addition to two-channel audio.
Some Things You Might Not Like About the Bowers & Wilkins 702 S3 Speakers
- The satin black MDF plinths are integral to the speaker’s flow port performance, so they are no longer optional. They must be installed, meaning the speaker requires a bit more floor space to accommodate the size of the plinth. On the plus side, Bowers & Wilkins has redesigned the plinths using a higher density MDF while making them both thicker and smaller in overall dimensions than on the previous 702 S2 model. They now look more integrated into the overall speaker design and less of the last-minute addon they appeared to be on the 702 S2. This is a major safety upgrade for anybody with small children, pets, or less-than-careful cleaning people.
- The amplification to be paired with the 702 S3 is important, as it was with the 702 Signatures. I used a Denon AVR-X8500HA receiver with great results. While not so difficult that you need a flagship receiver or extra beefy audiophile amp to realize their potential, I would recommend something more substantial than a $500 entry level receiver. But hey, if you’re considering a $7,000 pair of loudspeakers, you’re not likely to be trying to scrimp on amplification, right?
Listening to the Bowers & Wilkins 702 S3 Speakers…
The gloss black review samples I received were brand new and really pretty. I set up the speakers in my family room system and spent a bit of time optimizing placement of the 702 S3s, since we had just finished a complete remodel of the room, removing a large fireplace hearth from the front wall and pushing that wall back about six inches to line up with the adjoining kitchen. I spent almost two months casually listening to the new 702 S3 speakers serving up two-channel music on a daily basis, as well providing the two main channels of a 7.1.2 surround system for movies and television. After I had everything dialed in for a period of time, I sat down for critical listening of several very familiar music tracks. I brought my 702 Signature loudspeakers back into the room, too, where they had performed as the two main channels prior to the remodel. Swapping between the 702 S3 speakers and the 702 Signatures allowed for a direct comparison between the two successive models. That’s something we as reviewers seldom get to experience, what with review gear coming and going. I marked the final locations of the 702 S3 speakers with tape on the floor to ensure I placed both models in the same locations each time I swapped them.
I listened to London Grammar’s “Lord It’s a Feeling” (Orchestral Version – Live at Abbey Road) (Qobuz via Roon, 16-bit / 44.1kHz) because it’s well recorded, has complex layering, and covers a pretty big dynamic range. I was blown away by how the 702 S3 revealed all of the minute details of the track. From Dot Major’s simple, quiet keyboard opening joined by softly playing violins to the James Bond-like crescendo, where the full orchestra is playing together, I was amazed at how easily I could detect each individual instrument. And yet, they all blended together so seamlessly. It was as though I was sitting in that Abbey Roads studio with the performers in front of me rather than listening through speakers.
Imaging had pinpoint accuracy. Hanna Reid’s haunting vocal just seemed to float in the middle of the soundstage, whose width extended well beyond the speakers themselves. There was appropriate bass weight to the trombones and kettle drums and yet I could still detect small details such as the plucking of the harp’s strings in the middle of these loudest passages. The three bass drivers played cleanly and went deep when called upon, with no perceivable distortion, delivering the appropriate impact. This helped me be able to discern the higher frequency details even with so much bass weight present. There was so much detail and yet at the same time, so much cohesion to the orchestral instruments as a whole. When played through the 702 Signatures, I heard much of the same, but with just a bit less soundstage width and individual instrument clarity. Imaging was just a bit less precise as well. The 702 S3 speakers have better imaging and clarity, most likely due to their narrower cabinet width and curved front baffle. In narrowing the cabinet but keeping the driver dimensions the same, Bowers & Wilkins mounted the midrange and bass drivers in external pods, similar to the 800 series drivers. And according to Bowers & Wilkins, the narrower cabinet and curved baffle serve to further minimize cabinet diffraction, leading to the baffle having less effect on sound quality. My listening experience confirmed this for me. Through the 702 Signatures, I had to listen more intently to discern some of the quieter instruments when the full orchestra was playing, such as the flute and harp. Through the 702 S3 loudspeakers, the soundstage just seemed to open up, creating a bit more space between instruments.
Listening to John Mayer’s “Gravity” from his Continuum album (buy at Amazon) (Qobuz via Roon, 24-bit / 96kHz), the Bowers & Wilkins 702 S3 speakers revealed themselves to be very quick and accurate speakers. Changes in dynamics were instantly and easily portrayed by the 702 S3 speakers. The resonance decay of the guitar strings being plucked was extended and lifelike. The buzz from snare drum rimshots was quick and realistic, as though I was listening to the drums being played live in the studio rather than from a recording.
The 702 S3s brought out all of the bluesy depth and emotion, providing a sense of the acoustic space that Mayer was playing in. The shimmer of the cymbals felt detailed and realistic. While playing the track through the 702 S3 speakers, the acoustic picture and energy created reminded me of the times I’ve been to Buddy Guy’s Blues club, Legends, on the south side of Chicago. Before I knew it, I had listened to the remainder of the album. When played through the 702 Signatures, the soundstage was just a little narrower, with blending of the drivers a tad less seamless. I’m not talking about a huge difference, but I found the differences to be consistent across the several tracks I used for comparison.
Do the Bowers & Wilkins 702 S3 Speakers Have Any Resale Value?
Given their quality and price, most owners will likely hold onto their Bowers & Wilkins 702 S3 loudspeakers for at least a few years before thinking about upgrading. So, don’t expect to see too many of them on the resale market for a while just yet. When they do, a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 702 S3 speakers in good condition should fetch a bigger percentage of original retail than less mainstream audiophile speaker brands, somewhere in the realm of 50 percent of retail. One issue is the shipping cost due to their almost 74-pound weight (each) so local resales will likely be the norm when a pair of 702 S3 speakers are offered for resale.
Who Is the Competition for the Bowers & Wilkins 702 S3 Loudspeakers?
The Focal Aria 936 K2 ($6,598 per pair) (buy at Amazon) has a similar driver complement and cabinet dimensions to the 702 S3. Its midbass and bass drivers have an aramid cone material, a modification to the regular Aria line, which utilizes a flax fiber material. It has two front ports and a downward firing vent, so placement should be equally easy to the Bowers & Wilkins 702 S3. The Aria 936 K2 only comes in an ash gray finish with a leather lined front baffle, whereas the Bowers & Wilkins 702 S3 comes in a choice of three finishes, including gloss black, satin white, and mocha, which resembles a highly grained dark walnut. Personally, I prefer the aesthetics of the Bowers & Wilkins 702 S3 over the Focal Aria 936 K2.
The Sonus Faber Sonetto VIII loudspeaker ($6,999 per pair) is another well-respected option. The lute-shaped speaker stands a couple of inches taller and is both wider and deeper than the 702 S3 and sports three seven-inch bass drivers, a six-inch midbass driver, and a 1.15-inch tweeter. It’s also bottom vented like the 702 S3.
Final Thoughts on the Bowers & Wilkins 702 S3 Loudspeakers
The performance of the Bowers & Wilkins 702 S3 represents an improvement in clarity of details, accuracy, and soundstage width compared to its predecessors, the 702 S2 and 702 Signature. The S3 represents a significant step forward in narrowing the performance gap between itself and its reference series counterpart, the 804 D4. This is great news for those longing for the 800 Series sound but without the required budget. To my ears, the Bowers & Wilkins 702 S3 gets you most of the way there for roughly half the price, representing a value sweet spot in the Bowers & Wilkins lineup for speakers designed for medium- to somewhat larger-sized rooms.