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Bowers & Wilkins 805S Bookshelf Speaker Review

Jack Roberts & The Flight of the Mini-monitors, Part 4: the $2,800/pair Bowers & Wilkins 805S

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Bowers & Wilkins 805S Bookshelf Speakers

Introduction

When asked to review a pair of Bowers &Wilkins speakers, I jumped at it. While I have never owned a pair over the years, many of my audio buds have. I still remember the first pair of B&Ws I ever saw, they looked like they were made of white plastic. They were big, wide, and had a big black circle in the center. Above the bottom cabinet was another cabinet of the same width but very short. It had a small electrostatic array in it. I will never forget their looks or how great they sounded.

John Bowers and Roy Wilkins had known each other from before the second World War. After the war, they decided to set up a supply shop for amateur radio enthusiasts. It grew in different directions. Once, it was even one of the largest record stores outside of London and they set up a room to demonstrate the new Hi-Fi’s.

Thus, John Bowers began to devote more and more of his time to the study and design of loudspeakers. Although Bowers & Wilkins is now one of the world’s largest speaker companies, John Bowers begun by hand assembling speakers for a few customers there in the back the electrical store. They were popular and eventually he was persuaded in 1966 to make speakers a separate business, B&W Loudspeakers Ltd., and they produced their first commercial loudspeaker, the P1.

Then in 1968, they came out with the speakers I remember seeing and drooling over as a teenager. The Domestic Monitor Line the DM1 and DM3. B&W has always aimed to make the finest loudspeakers across a broad price spectrum. The idea of DM – Domestic Monitor – lived on in many generations of superb and affordable speakers up to the 600 Series 3.

In 1970, they had a major breakthrough product: the DM70. There have been many breakthroughs since those early days, but the biggest came in 1974 when B&W decided to try a bulletproof material call Kevlar for making driver cones. The mustard yellow Kevlar midrange driver has come to be what we all think of when we think of B&W speakers. Then the next big breakthrough came in 1979 when B&W brought out their most successful product ever, the 801.

In some ways, the original 801 was the prototype of what many audiophiles think of as a modern high-end speaker design. Those were really good drivers, in a really dead cabinet, with high-grade crossover parts. The original 801 was an enormous success. Then, in 1993 came the famous Nautilus line of speakers. With the Nautilus speakers, B&W speakers would never look or sound the same again.

Description

The Nautilus 805 was introduced over nine years ago. The relatively new B&W 805S and its Nautilus 805 predecessor look so much alike that most people will think they are the same speakers. There are very minor visible changes like the grill cloth and the slightly different location of the tweeter on the top. The mid-bass driver is also slightly different, but most people will never notice these differences. I don’t know if it’s brave or foolish on B&W’s part to come out with a whole new line of speakers that look virtually the same as the one’s they are replacing, but that’s what they have done. Maybe a bit risky, but I guess they believe a good design doesn’t need to be changed.

Regardless of how close they are in looks, B&W says that most of the parts in the new 805S are different from those used in the Nautilus 805. It’s just that nearly all the changes are well hidden, and specifically oriented towards improving the performance and sound quality. The design goal is for the 805S to totally outperform the Nautilus 805 and cost nearly the same as the nine-year-old design.

The 805S speakers arrived only a few weeks after the Teresonic Magus speakers. The first thing my family pointed out was how much they looked alike. Both have a bright yellow driver in a curved cabinet. The 805Ss were curved in the back where the Magus speakers were curved in the front, and of course they asked why the B&W’s had a mic on top. They thought both speakers were very attractive. In both cases, the curved cabinetwork avoids the parallel sides found with many conventional loudspeakers and thus avoids the modes that develop in a traditionally shaped cabinet. Even though this design makes them already very sturdy, B&W still reinforces them with their famous internal ‘honeycomb’ matrix.

The 805S is a simple two-way, with B&W’s proprietary flared and stippled “Flowport” that is front firing. The speaker is intended for placing on a good speaker stand. For the midrange and bass, B&W is using a considerably refined version of its familiar Kevlar/Polmer cone driver. The familiar looking B&W Nautilus alloy dome tweeter is mounted externally on top of the speaker. The tapered tube shape that looks a lot like a microphone acts as a small horn/transmission line to absorb the output radiated behind the tweeter dome.

The 805S tweeter looks to me just like the Nautilus, but B&W points out a number of changes. First, the dome’s surround has been changed, from a foam to a polymer roll. They say this lowers the fundamental resonance, and thus allows for a much gentler, simpler crossover filter. The tweeter has also been relocated to work with the new crossover. The new simpler crossover and tweeter do indeed sound better to me than I remember earlier 805 speakers sounding.

Design Goals

B&W set out with the 805S speakers to provide a true, high end/high performance speaker for the person who does not have enough space for a floor-standing speaker. Even if you only have a relatively small listening room, B&W wanted their customers not to have to live with less than superb sound quality. So the goal of the 805S was for a compact 2-way system that would give a surprisingly full sound and not intrude in the room.

Setup

I found the 805S to be easier to place than most speakers I have set up. Upstairs it performed quite well, set up only about 18 inches from the rear wall, but well out from the side walls. Downstairs in the reference system, I ended up with them about four feet from the rear walls and about three feet from the side walls. I single-wired them upstairs and bi-wired them downstairs. In each set up, they sounded superb.

Sound Quality

As far as my memory can tell, the 805S represents a significant improvement in the sound of the 805 speaker’s history. The 805S is a special sounding speaker. I think it’s a speaker that many music lovers will find to be just right for their taste. It started off right out of the box sounding a little warm and fat, but as it broke in, that all disappeared. In fact, you will enjoy the sound more the first one hundred hours if you put the foam plugs that come with speakers in the ports. Do not forget to take them out when the speakers have broken-in though, or you will rob yourself of the remarkable bass these speakers have.

The 805S is a very sweet, robust sounding speaker system; maybe not the very last word in transparency, but a very balanced sounding speaker. When I talk about transparency I include immediacy in that term, and for many they would never want a speaker any more immediate than the 805s. The 805S speakers have a very coherent sound. They also have a very good sense of tonality. The resulting sound is robust, full-bodied, though not overly warm, not lacking in clarity, and can be listen to for many hours without any listening fatigue.

The 805S speakers have been my main speaker upstairs for several months and have spent many hours downstairs in the reference system. During that time, they have been played through a lot of different equipment and cables that have been in for review. The 805S speakers have always been very revealing of any and all changes as they came about. They also made it easy to determine whether these changes were an improvement or not. Still, the B & W 805S speakers never sounded overly analytical, strident or dry; but they sounded very musical indeed.

Bass

As mentioned above, at first I thought the bass was a too warm, but with proper break-in they tightened right up and had enough speed, plus the detail needed to have a very natural and musical bass. The bass extension the 805S speakers defy their size. It is very deep and satisfying for any speaker, but especially for a speaker its size. No, the bass does not go as deep as most full-range speakers, but I found them to be enough for me, even when watching movies or listening to rock. What they do have is bass that is beautifully balanced with their tweeter so as to produce a very coherent and musical sound. The bass is slightly warm without any boominess. The truth is that there are lots of full-range speakers in this price range that do not have this kind of musically satisfying bass.

The bass has scale and power that I have found quite unbelievable for a mini-monitor. The first night I put them into the upstairs system, the family watched a Blu-ray movie, and both my sons wanted to know where I had hidden the sub. Not only is this bass exceptional when watching movies, but bass of this quantity and quality is very conducive to music listening. The bass also has nice weight and air that I find most musically satisfying.

Usually when reviewing mini-monitors, this is when I say something like, ‘as good as the quality of the bass is, you can’t overlook that the speaker doesn’t move as much air as large speakers.’ The 805S speakers have such scale that they seem to move as much air as most full-range speakers and more than some. The bass of the 805Ss have more visceral power than anyone would expect from a speaker this size. Of course, there are speakers that go deeper and move more air, but I found the quality and power of the bass that you get from the 805Ss quite amazing.

Midrange

The B&Ws have a clean and clear midrange. Voices sound very natural without the least bit of a nasal tone or over emphasis of sibilance. I don’t know of any recorded instrument that benefits from coherency in playback more than a piano, and I find the B&Ws to play piano music really well. Remember, I have been listening to speakers with no crossovers a lot lately. I thought it was quite a compliment to still think the 805Ss, being two-ways, still were coherent enough to pull off a great piano solo. The midrange is well balanced, detailed, and beautifully smooth, although it is understandably not the very last word in transparency.

This smooth and balanced midrange allows strings to sound very beautiful. Strings come across appropriately sweet, and extended. On the 805S you hear a nice woody warmth to the string instruments, both plucked and bowed. The 805Ss are very good on all strings, but on plucked strings, the B&Ws are not quite on the same level as they are on other strings.

Overall I find the midrange of the B&W 805Ss to be an improvement over the earlier B&W 805 Nautilus speakers in how much more coherent they are with the tweeter. I think this overall improvement is what makes the 805S a much more musical speaker.

Top-End

The 805S have a very extended top-end that goes way out beyond my hearing, but still it never sounds bright or etched. As always, a speaker with a proper and extended top-end gives you cues that make the whole spectrum sound more like music. They have very nice air and shimmer on the top-end, yet they never bring attention to the treble like the 805 Nautilus did. This top-end that now mates better with the midrange is what moves the 805S into a league beyond its price range.

Soundstage

The 805S speakers have always produced a soundstage that audiophiles like and the ‘S’ incarnations does not let us down in this area. They produce a soundstage that is holographic and has that ability to make you feel like you could reach out and touch voices and instruments. The soundstage has an expansive side-to-side and back-to-front soundstage, and they also have a very lifelike up-and-down soundstage. Image specificity is startlingly good. The images are precise in their front-to-back and side-to-side placement as well as on specific space.

For many, this ability to soundstage, combined with the remarkable bass, will make the 805S speakers most irresistible and provide many years of satisfaction with their system. Well… we are audiophiles, maybe at least years of satisfaction with their speakers.

Scale

In every review I talk about scale. It is something very important to me in a system. By scale, I mean the ability of a speaker system to allow a performance to have a lifelike size as well as volume. There are very few small speakers that can pull this off. The B&W 805Ss do this better than most small speakers because of their weight in the bass, their coherency, and without a doubt their ability to allow you to experience a good, vertical soundstage. This combination of qualities allows this small speaker to have a remarkably natural sense of scale.

Comparisons

And now there are four entries in the Flight of the Mini-monitors as our esteemed editor has calls this series. The first: Teresonic’s Magus, which uses a single Lowther DX55 driver, then the GamuT L3, the Genesis 7.1p Petites and now the B & W 805S speakers. Along with these speakers I also have in the house my Ikonoklast model 3s, the Teresonic Integrums, and the Lowther America Alerions.

The Magus, the Integrum, the Ikonoklast, and the Alerions are all crossoverless designs. The GamuT L3s, the Genesis 7.1ps, and the B & W 805Ss are two-ways. It should be noted though that the Genesis is a sealed box speaker not ported like the GamuT and B & Ws. I said in the review of the Genesis that it was the best buy of the bunch, and I think at the price difference between it and the B&Ws that is still true, but I think there are some who will think the B&W is so close to the GamuT in performance that for them it will be the choice.

Of the 3 two-ways, the GamuTs have an ever-so-slightly more refined sound than the B&Ws, and the B&Ws are also slightly more refined than the Genesis. In addition, all the mini-monitors, when placed out in the room, can create a holographic soundstage. The GamuTs have faster and a quicker, tighter bass, while the B&Ws have a bigger and more powerful bass. In the bass personally, my nod goes to the B&W 805S over the other three mini-monitors.

In comparison to the crossoverless speakers, all the two-ways are a little less transparent, but I am the first to admit that I know a lot of people who would rather have the little added warmth, and with digital I can especially understand this. Of the crossoverless designs, the Magus is the mini-monitor that is the best example of what I mean when I say a speaker can sometimes sound like real music. The Magus are better in the areas of Pace, Rhythm, and Timing than the two-ways, but the B&W S series did better in these areas than any B&W speaker I have heard in the pass.

Conclusion

The 805S does a very good job with voices, and it is extremely easy to listen to for long periods of time. Their performance is more coherent than any B&W I have ever heard, and they hold their own with the single-driver speakers in coherency if not transparency. Their bass is taut, big, bold, and dynamic. They are vastly improved in the area of PraT over the Nautilus 805s. They have a beautiful top-end that in the S series blends seamlessly with the midrange. All in all, they are simply more enjoyable musically and more fun than the previous 805 models. Last, I should share that, the truth is the rest of my family thought these were the best of the mini-monitors I have had in for review.

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4 Responses to Bowers & Wilkins 805S Bookshelf Speaker Review


  1. Akis says:

    They are vastly improved in the area of PraT over the Nautilus 805s
    Bowers & Wilkins 805S Bookshelf Speaker Review
    What do you actualy mean… 805 Nautilus before 2004
    How does it comPare with Diamonds

  2. Akis says:

    Matching with Cambridge audio 851 n and W makes them justice?

  3. Akis Papasavvas says:

    What i mean is… are they good in todays standards. Do you believe is it worth bying today at discounted price instead of a 2015 speaker of the same value? Are they suitable for the digital age (flac and streamers). Many consider the speakers to sound modern !!!! by todays standards even if the design is 10 year old. What amplification you recomend.. ( Thinking of Cambridge Audio 851 N & 2x 851 w in bridged mono.
    Any coments would be appreciated.

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