Bowers & Wilkins 800D Loudspeaker Review
Let’s make one thing clear at the outset: this is not your typical “review”. The Bowers & Wilkins 800Ds are not speakers I got for a month-long evaluation. They are my own speakers, around which I have built a system. I have been building and tweaking my current system for over four years, two of them after becoming a Dagogo reviewer and having the advantage listening to numerous high-end components in my own listening room. This means that the other components have been selected to enhance the 800D’s performance in accordance with my own preferences. The 800Ds have the home court advantage – all other speakers are the visiting team. Keep that in mind while reading this review.
You should also be aware that I’m going to spend more time on the speakers’ “character” than I usually do. This is something hard to do accurately unless you lived with a speaker for a long time and tried it with a variety of other equipment.
You may find it useful to check out my November 2005 commentary on the synergy between the 800Ds and the Electrocompaniet Nemo monoblocks. It’s interesting to look back on how I felt about my system back then. That review contains some additional thoughts about the 800D that can be used to supplement the points I make below.
Where Am I, And How Did I Get Here?
I won’t go all the way back to when I first started being an “audiophile”. That would take way too long, and it wouldn’t really help in describing the B&W 800D. I’ll start with the year 2000, a time when after a long search, I finally decided to buy my first set of B&W speakers: the Nautilus 802.
The 802 predated B&W’s “D” (diamond tweeter) technology. Some people felt that the Nautilus tweeters were too harsh, but I was willing to deal with that issue. The N802, like the other Nautilus models, really loved current, so I decided on a Proceed HPA2. However, the HPA2 was not a particularly smooth-sounding amp, so I had to look for ways to soften the overall presentation of the N802/HPA2 combo. I added significant amounts of room treatments to deal with room-induced ringing and replaced my silver speaker cables with Transparent cables. I also replaced the HPA2 with a Levinson 350.
The additional power and finesse of the Levinson 350 really opened up the soundstage, smoothed out the sound and significantly improved the bass. I added room treatments to deal with bass boom, and began to think that the system sounded pretty good. However, I still was not satisfied. I decided to add some tubes and replaced my Enlightened Audio Designs TheaterMaster Signature DAC/HT processor with the Cary 2001 tube preamp. This required a new front-end, so I also acquired a Cary 306/200 CD player. The Cary 2001 preamp added body and depth to complement the authority and smoothness brought by the Levinson. That’s where things stood for two years.
In 2003, I began to admit to myself that I was still bothered by the N802’s relative harshness on certain material. Sometime in 2004, I became aware of B&W’s new diamond tweeter, which was hailed as a breakthrough. B&W introduced a new 800 Series equipped with the new diamond tweeter, namely the 800D, 801D, 802D, 803D, HTM1D & HTM2D. Rejuvenated with new hope, I contacted my local dealer with the idea of listening to material that was heavy in the instruments that sounded the harshest through the discontinued N802: flutes, cymbals, violins and some piano music. My goal was to decide whether to replace my N802 with an 802D. Unfortunately, shipment of the 802D wasn’t scheduled to begin as yet, and the dealer had an 800D instead. I auditioned it and really liked what I heard. It was obvious that the diamond tweeter was a true breakthrough. There was no trace of harshness and it had a better soundstage.
Though it had not been my intention to upgrade bass performance, from my listening session, it became obvious that the new 800D’s bass was far superior to the 802’s and, in my opinion, the 801’s. In perspective, each 801 employed a single 15-inch woofer, and each 800 employed two 10-inch woofers. I thought that the 800 was faster and had better PRAT. Despite my best efforts to ignore it, I was attacked by the upgrade itch. I started reading the reviews of the older N800 and the earliest reviews of the 800D from England. The reviews echoed my own impression of the dealer’s 800D: a much smoother treble presentation. I eventually gave in and scratched the upgrade itch.
Once I had the 800Ds in place, I set out to build everything else around them. I added both power and richness by replacing the Levinson 350 with Electrocompaniet Nemo monoblocks (see my November 2005 commentary about the synergy between the 800D and the Nemo); I eventually added the MBL 5011 preamp (see my March 2008 review) for additional richness and dynamics; I added bass traps to the room; etc.
Variables To Be Aware Of
I have a few components that assist me in evaluating speakers.
First, I always have at least one extra pair of amplifiers to use on the speakers I’m reviewing. For the past year I’ve had the Pass Laboratories X-600.5 monoblocks, whose power specifications are virtually identical to my Electrocompaniet Nemo monoblocks, but which sound very different from the Nemos. I’ve also had the excellent Plinius SA-210 for an extended review period. The Plinius is less powerful than the Nemo and X-600.5, but it is no slouch in the power department. Second, I own the Lyngdorf RP-1 digital room correction system, which can be bypassed so that I can evaluate how the speakers sound both with and without room correction engaged. Finally, I own a Quantum Symphony Pro, which is a strange and mysterious device that adds PRAT and definition to the musical presentation. Sometimes it improves the sound, and sometimes it makes things worse. However, switching the Quantum Symphony Pro on and off helps to evaluate whether a system is properly presenting both the pace and body of the recording.
With all this in mind, I have used the 800D with the my old Levinson 350, VTL 450 monoblocks, Sphinx Project Eighteen, XLH M-2000 monoblocks, Plinius SA-201, my Pass X-600.5 monoblocks and my Electrocompaniet Nemo monoblocks. With the EVS Ultimate Nude Attenuators, I have used them without any preamps. In other times, there were the Sphinx Project Eight preamp, the BAT VK-42 SE and my MBL 5011 pre. I have used them both with and without room correction, and with and without engaging the Quantum Symphony Pro. However, even after all this time I am still finding ways to tweak out even more performance from the 800D.
I will base my comparisons primarily on musical characteristics and, to a lesser extent, on price. I will use the following speakers as points of comparison: Usher Be-20, Coincident Speaker Technology Total Victory IV, Eventus Audio Lysithea and the YG Acoustics Kipod.
These are all wonderful speakers that have their own special character, as well as specific strengths that serve as useful points of comparison. In rough order (and using some hyperbole to emphasize my points), these strengths are bone-crushing bass, stratospheric grain-free top-end extension, exceptional transparency and PRAT, superior smoothness and dynamics, and unbelievable detail and soundstaging. Of these speakers, all but the Eventus are full-range floor standers, although YG Acoustics has two models that go lower than the Kipod. Moreover, the YG Acoustics, which is the most expensive, includes bass module amplification, while none of the others include any amplification at all. Their prices range from $14,500 to $38,000 per pair. The B&W 800D is priced at $21,000 per pair, so it’s priced in the middle of the group.
800D Overall Description
As is my usual habit in reviewing components, I will not spend much time describing the specifications and design details of the 800D. You can easily get complete information from the B&W website, and I am not an expert that can engage in a technical discussion of speaker specifications or design. However, in general terms, the 800D consists of two 10” sandwiched cone woofers, one 6” Kevlar® midrange driver and one 1” diamond dome treble driver. It’s big – each one weighs 275 pounds, stands 47 inches tall, is 25.5 inches deep, and just shy of 18 inches wide. B&W lists a frequency response of 32Hz-28kHz, plus or minus 3dB and a frequency range of -6dB at 25Hz and 33kHz.
For those who, on a very high level, are interested in overall design concepts, B&W’s 800 Series speakers employ what is generally known as transmission line loading. Transmission line loading guides the rear energy away from the driver to reduce the smearing of leading edge transients caused when internal reflections return to alter the cone movement of subsequent excursions. This technique is what was used in the B&W reference “Nautilus” speaker, whose drivers taper into long tubes at the back of the three treble and midrange units and curve like a snail shell in the bass driver. (The “Nautilus” name derivers from the genus of marine creatures named the Nautilus of the cephalopod family Nautilidae. They have exotic curved shells. The name and curved shape were also used in connection with a design of exercise equipment that used curved “wheels” to equalize the resistance throughout the range of motion of the equipment.)
Though it has a surprisingly high sensitivity of 90dB, the 800D, like all of the other models in the 800 Series, absolutely loves power. More specifically, it loves current. The more current it gets, the better it sounds. Of course, the downside to this is that you have to be prepared to pay for power if you want these speakers to perform at their best.
The Parts Of The Music
Let’s talk a bit about individual frequency range characteristics:
The Treble. The 800D diamond tweeter is tonally neutral. In my subjective opinion it is equal to the highly-regarded electrostatic and ribbon transducers I have heard, such as the ribbon in the Coincident Total Victory IV, as well as the beryllium dome tweeter in the Usher Be-20. The 800D’s resolving power is tremendous, but the treble region of the 800D does not artificially stand out. It is not aggressive or glaring, while still presenting gobs of fine detail in a very transparent way. It also combines pinpoint images with a wide dispersion that provides cues about the performance venue.
The Midrange. Some people have suggested that 800D’s midrange Kevlar cone has some coloration that changes as the pitch changes. I don’t know what associated equipment they were using, but I don’t hear any such thing. Rather, I hear a tonally accurate rendering of voices, complete with conveyed emotion, all with terrific image depth. This includes sopranos (250-1kHz), basses (80-350Hz) as well as the vocal ranges in between. Similarly, saxes, trumpets and violas all sound natural, with solid performer images and good depth. I must say that it is not quite as transparent as the midrange of the Total Victory IV’s paper cone midrange, and possibly (I honestly have trouble judging) slightly less than the Usher Be-20’s beryllium midrange.
The Bass. The two 10” bass cones produce bass that is fast and potent, with excellent slam and attack. I have heard it called “muscular’ and “physical”, which is the way it comes across in my room. The bass is also musical, with rich weight when called for and staccato rapping when that is the program. There is very little overhang that I hear, and with the virtually nonexistent amount produced, music from the 800D continues to sound realistic to me, the way it sounds live. The bass is not quite as deep or as powerful as the bass produced by the Usher Be-20, nor is it quite as tight and lively as the bass of the Coincident Total Victory IV’s, but it sounds generally “realistic” to me when compared to live music in a good venue.
The Summing Of The Parts
One result of the 800D’s aspects I’ve described above is neutral tonality across the entire spectrum. Pianos are a great test of this quality.
A piano can go as low as 28Hz and as high as 4.1kHz. I’ve never heard a single piece of music that covers this entire spectrum, but there are plenty of recordings that cover the top and bottom halves. When I play such piano recordings through superior speakers there is no change in the fundamental tonality of the piano, and you can sweep the frequencies from low to high in a smooth fashion. The 800D passes this test with flying colors. The superb transparency of the Coincident Total Victory IV surpasses that of the B&W 800D, but the coupling of the 800D’s tonality with it’s slighter lesser transparency again sounds very “live” to me.
A second result of these qualities is a very deep and wide soundstage, with good placement of performers. It is the depth that is especially interesting to me. I have heard speakers that are “forward” in that the front of the soundstage projects well in front of the speakers. I have also heard “laid back” speakers, where the front of the soundstage actually seems to begin a foot or two behind the speakers. Generally speaking, I prefer the laid back or neutral soundstage to a forward one, that is because I generally feel as though forward soundstages are both “in my face” and lack depth – they rarely seem to extend beyond the front wall.
The front of the 800D soundstage starts a shade in front of the speakers and extends back past my front wall, creating a very realistic image of the stage in front of me and allows me to “see” the musicians in the back. I found that both the Coincident TV IV and the Usher Be-20 were in the “neutral” soundstage category, and both with very good depth. Again, the Coincident’s spectacular transparency made it easier to “see” to the back row of the orchestra, but the 800D and the Be-20 both acquitted themselves wonderfully. Performer placement was quite good in all three, although in this regard I’ve never heard anything yet that matches the performer placement of the YG Acoustics Kipod. The Kipod let me “see” each performer, the space around him or her, how the instrument was held, the relative heights of each performer, how they combed their hair – OK maybe that’s a bit of exaggeration. In short, the Kipod’s spatial cues beat the heck out of everyone else in my room and system.
One interesting side note is that in my room, the Quantum Symphony Pro works best with the 800D and the Usher Be-20. The QSP does two things in my system. First, it tightens up the bass and midrange notes, creating an additional perception of speed and pace. The downside is that with some speakers it can also add a shrill edge to the treble. Second, it adds depth to the soundstage. The QSP adds depth to all the speakers I’ve tested, but it seems to add the most to the 800D. I recommend that anyone who feels that their 800D feel “slow” should experiment with a Quantum Symphony to their system.
A third result of the combination of the above qualities is excellent pace, rhythm and timing. Timing is one of those qualities that is difficult to describe. It’s not really speed, because I have heard speakers that make things sound “fast”, as well as those that sound “slow”, but sound quite good. One reason they sound good is because the timing between the separate drivers, just like the timing between musicians, creates a sense of cohesiveness to the overall music. Although pace is often most associated with bass instruments, timing is dependent on how the bass notes are reproduced and how they integrate with the midrange and treble. The 800D is very good at this. It is not as “fast” as the Coincident’s, but on really fast-paced music the TV IV’s could sound a bit too fast when played with my already-lively digital/solid-state system.
A fourth result is a delicacy (when appropriate) in the presentation. I’m not sure why, especially in light of its superior transparency, the Coincident sounded extremely resolving, but not as “delicate” as the B&W when the music called for it. I am guessing that this was mostly due to my companion equipment. A high-powered tube amp playing LP’s would have probably sounded heavenly. On the other hand, the Usher Be-20 really impressed me with its ability to convey delicacy, which, combined with its ability to blow your socks off with bottom-end bass slam, made it terrific on music with wild dynamic swings. However, the 800D conveyed this sense of delicacy nearly as well.
The Result Of The Sum Of The Parts: Character
Several years ago, a fellow audiophile I met was describing the speakers he then owned. He said “They’re very oceanic”. I said, “What?” He went on to explain that he meant that they were majestic, expansive and powerful, like the ocean. He was a classical music aficionado, and said that symphonic music played through those speakers could make him envision a vast calm sea, or a giant expanse of rolling waves, or a powerful storm whipping up furious swells of water.
I thought his description was a bit over the top, but he was clearly able to communicate the type of musical presentation I could expect from those speakers. He did not focus on their excellent treble, midrange or bass performance, nor did he pick nits with minor shortcomings of what were admittedly great speakers. The obviously top notch performance of his speakers was taken for granted. He was talking about the speakers’ character.
A speaker’s character comes from the sum of its musical parts. You can readily tell from my description of the 800D’s treble, midrange and bass that I think their individual performances were excellent. However, to me the 800D’s character is defined by the words “intimate” and “immediate”. The words “intimate” and “immediate” are usually associated with smaller speakers, not 275-pound behemoths like the 800Ds. They are also associated with smaller scale music, but that’s not what I mean here.
The 800D can reproduce large-scale music loudly while still feeling intimate. If the music is a 110-piece symphony you will clearly hear detailed recreation of the orchestra in a large setting. However, it does make you feel like you’re at a private performance of the Chicago Symphony in Orchestra Hall and got to pick a seat that is close, but not too close, conveying the impression that the symphony is playing for you. How can this be? After thinking about it, it’s not the scale of the presentation, or even the sense of being in row 8 versus row 18. I believe that it is the 800D’s combined ability to accurately sound delicate and thunderous, combined with the slightly forward but very deep soundstage. In contrast, the same music through the Usher Be-20 feels both like you’re sitting farther back and in a larger version of Symphony Hall. This may sound like it’s a failure to accurately reproduce the performing venue, but it can actually work in the opposite fashion.
The 800D’s effect is magnified when playing small scale music. You can easily feel as though you’re in the center of a small cabaret with a seat that is close enough that no one is obstructing your view, yet far enough away that you can see the whole stage with only small tilts of your head. This quality is marvelously demonstrated with the XRCD24 Super Analog Sound of Three Blind Mice sampler. The recording itself is intimate, but I’ve played it on other systems that do not replicate the effect. The performers were recorded in a studio, yet they seem to be in my room. A similar effect is experienced when playing Patricia Barber’s Mythologies. Patricia is singing to you and your friends, and when the drums and bass chime in your room is the venue they’re playing in.
I’m sure that there are reviewers who would tell you that this feeling of intimacy is the product of the soundstage, the perspective and the midrange, or the slightly forward soundstage with the full-bodied sound, or the slam combined with, etc., etc. I, however, cannot quite put my finger on why – it just does.
Much of what the 800Ds do is obviously attributable to the components I’ve matched it with. I cannot overemphasize that component matching and “tweaky” details can make all the difference. I wouldn’t characterize the 800Ds as “tweaky”, but they clearly benefit from obsessive care in their placement and surface preparation. For instance, I think the 800D sounds better with Walker Valid Points than with B&W’s own points. I also think that some of the demos I originally heard would have benefitted from a raising the rear of the plinth so the tweeters point slightly downward. They also readily respond to different cables, more so than many other speakers I’ve heard. I think they may get part of their intimate presentation from my extensive use of Z-Sleeves with my cables. I also think that the MBL’s house sound adds to this impression. However, the B&W 800D is obviously capable of this type of subtlety – you just need to be prepared to take the time needed to maximize what it can do.
These are expensive speakers, regardless of how much more expensive others may be. You have to be prepared to add to the expense by spending money on some serious power, because you won’t know how good they are if you don’t. You also absolutely need to try a variety of amps and cables with the 800D’s because they respond very audibly to changes in those other components.
Finally, you must be prepared to spend time with little positioning tweaks to get the optimal placement, and that isn’t easy with 275 pounds of speaker. If you aren’t prepared to do these things you may never know what they can do. However, if you do they will reward you with absolutely terrific music, with detail, smooth treble extension, soundstaging, depth, PRAT, slam, muscular bass and a sense of intimacy that belies their size.
I’ve had several really great speakers come through my listening room, and some have tempted me with superior bass (and I’m a sucker for great bass) or superior transparency or some other isolated quality, but I haven’t yet found anything with a better overall performance in my system. It’s going to take a really serious pair of speakers to displace my B&W 800D.
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