I once read an article in an audio magazine which described a debate between well-know audio reviewers and designers on the question of whether the front-end, the speakers or some other component was the most important factor in the music reproduction chain. I read it with great interest, wondering what the “answer” would be. As it turned out, the experts didn’t agree. However, they all eventually sounded a common theme: component synergy can make the overall system greater than the sum of its parts. After many years of system experimentation, I couldn’t agree with them more.
This article describes the synergy between two top-of-the-line components from well-regarded players in high-end audio: the Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus 800D and the Electrocompaniet Nemo monoblocks. I’m not going to dwell much on technical information in this article, but in order to make the description meaningful, you first need a little background on these two monsters.
Individual Product Descriptions
Let’s start with the B&W 800D’s. Other than the snail-shaped flagship Nautilus itself, the 800D’s are at the pinnacle of B&W’s speaker line, and monsters they are at 275 pounds each. Starting at the floor level, each speaker stands on a base which houses and isolates the crossovers. Mounted on the base is a large enclosure which incorporates twin, 10-inch diameter sandwich cone woofers that have a radiating area equivalent to a single 15-inch driver. Bass output is also enhanced by a down-firing port. Sitting on top of the bass enclosure is a separate rounded enclosure which houses a 5.5-inch woven Kevlar cone midrange driver. Mounted on the midrange enclosure is a separately tapered metal tube 1-inch Diamond tweeter. I understand that it is called a “Diamond” tweeter because it is made from a single piece of synthetic diamond. The enclosures are highly rigid and the suspensions are designed to take vibration to vanishing levels.
The 800D is a speaker that seeks to be a true “monitor”. It will not do anything to sanitize a bad recording – that will have to be done by another component in your system. It is also very, very dynamic. Coupled with capable amplifiers it will reproduce pace, rhythm and timing in ways you may not have heard before. The bass goes very deep and has impressive weight, but it is also very tuneful and agile, allowing you to hear all the individual notes played by an electric bass, double bass or organ. Its imaging is also among the best you can get. The diamond tweeter is clearly a major advance. It not only expands the soundstage projected by the old B&W tweeter, but it totally eliminates any remnant of top-end harshness. I can attest to this from first-hand experience since I owned a Nautilus 802 for 2 years before acquiring the 800D’s.
There is one other characteristic of the B&W 800D you need to know for this review. Though it has a surprisingly high sensitivity (90db), the 800D, like all of the other models in the Nautilus line, absolutes loves power. More specifically, it loves current. The more current it gets, the better it sounds.
The Electrocompaniet Nemo monoblocks are also definitely monsters. What else can you call a 600/1200/2400 watt per channel (into 8, 4 and 2 ohms, respectively) Class A mono amp? They’re obviously not as heavy as the B&W 800D’s, but at 90 pounds each they’re not lightweights either. Each of them produces a maximum peak current in excess of 150 amps and have a damping factor of 900. The original Nemos were designed to drive the then-top-of-the-line B&W Nautilus 801’s. (Captain “Nemo” commands the “Nautilus” – get it?) These particular units have had the most recent Electrocompaniet upgrades.
Despite their power, everyone who listens to Nemos comments on how smooth they are. This is an Electrocompaniet characteristic, which is most pronounced in their CD player. The Nemos are also characterized by a very wide soundstage, which becomes especially noticeable when the amp is used with components that image well. Finally, the Nemo’s have excellent natural bass weight. Bass extension and bass tautness, which the Nemos also have in spades, should not be confused with bass weight. Bass weight can be felt as a presence of the bass player or organ in the listening room – it’s the way those instruments feel in a live performance. Some highly damped amplifiers sacrifice bass weight for bass nimbleness. The Nemos exhibit both characteristics.
One last comment about the Nemos: the longer you leave them on, the better they sound. Specifically, the longer you leave them on, the more “tube-like” they sound. I have found this to be true with several solid state components, but my subjective impression is that it becomes increasingly pronounced with the Nemo monoblocks.
A little more about the review system — it’s a very simple setup. The front end is an Esoteric P-70/D-70 transport/DAC combo. The two units are connected via three Transparent Reference digital interconnects: two 110Ω AES/EBU for the split digital signal and one 75Ω BNC to slave the clock. The D-70’s analog output signal is transmitted by Nordost Valkyrja interconnects which run directly to the amps via a pair of the EVS Balanced Ultimate Nude Attenuators between the interconnects and the amps. The amps’ output is carried by Transparent Ultra MM Bicables, which are biwired to the B&W 800D’s. Power cables are Nordost Brahmas for the P-70 and D-70, and Bybee Power Cords (no name yet for these “unreleased” Bybee power cords) for the Nemos.
Each amp has its own dedicated 20 amp circuit and the front end has its own dedicated 15 amp circuit. Tweaks are Zcable Heavy Z-Sleeves and Walker Ultimate SST, both of which I believe is good enough even for non-believers to try. The room is 28’wide x 24’long x 8.5’ high. ASC tube traps and other room treatments are used to control bass boom and to enhance imaging.
You may have noticed that there is no preamp in the test system, but only the interconnects and the EVS Ultimate Nude Attenuators. Operating in this passive mode can create several potential problems. First, you can lose dynamics. Attack, crescendos and PRAT can all suffer as well. Second, if the speakers and/or the front end are highly detailed and revealing, the system can be too “bright”. On the other hand, if you can get a reasonable impedance match between your front-end’s output, your interconnects, and the amp’s input, it’s a great environment for revealing the characteristics of amps and cables. In this case, I feel that the impedances between the P-70/D-70’s output, the Nordost Valakryja interconnects, the EVS Ulimate Nude Attenuators and the Nemo’s inputs are really well matched.
As an aside, one of my goals for the next 12 months is to try a wide range of preamps in this system and report on comparisons. I would love to get suggestions from you — our readers.
My Personal Preferences
For a clear understanding of my description of the sound, it will help for you to know about my personal biases/preferences. My primary listening is to rock and blues. I like my sound at live listening levels. (Well, maybe not quite the levels that U2 produces in a
stadium setting, but close.) When it comes to jazz, I like female vocalists, smaller combos and fusion, and I want to be “in” the concert venue when I’m listening to them. Even when I listen to classical, I expect the crescendos to sound the way I hear them
when I go to Orchestra Hall to hear the Chicago Symphony.
I presently have no tubes in my system. This is not because I don’t like tubes – I like their strong points very much. I used to own and use a Cary preamp in my system and spent an extensive time demoing VTL 450’s with my older B&W Nautilus 802’s. I tried these components because my setup of three years ago (Cary 306/200 cdp, EAD Signature 8 pre, B&W 802’s and Levinson 336 connected by all-silver cables) was incredibly detailed, but too harsh with many recordings. Then, three things occurred.
First, I eliminated much of the harshness by making changes in cables and by the use of Zcable Z-Sleeves. Second, I decided that I like the B&W sound and couldn’t live without the extra bass “oomph” that only solid state amps could provide with the B&W’s when playing rock. (I’ll be the first to admit that an all-tube system could work for me if they were coupled with different speakers and could play rock the way I like it.) This meant that my tubes would have to be in the preamp or in a digital playback system
that incorporated tubes.
Finally, though I have tried dozens of tweaks, I don’t tweak for the sake of tweaking – I want a final result. Tubed preamps were not easy to match to my solid state amps, and after a year of trying different tube preamps and different tubes, I decided to concentrate instead on finding a better match of solid state components. Call me a quitter — but I’m a happier man now. By the way, one full week of living with the Ayre K-1x in my system proved to me that there are solid state preamps out there that can give me what I tried to get out of tube preamps.
It Takes Two to Tango
So what do we have here? We have highly detailed, accurate speakers that are capable of deep, taut and weighty bass, as well as imaging that will put the musicians in the room with you. They will reproduce superlative recording superlatively and harsh recordings as… well, ugh…harsh. We also have amps that can nimbly control any woofers thrown at them and can do so without sacrificing any bass weight. Those amps also have some “tube-like” characteristics: they produce a believable soundstage and ameliorate harsh recordings without losing detail. How do they work together?
Despite being digital-only, this system has no trace of harshness, and is somehow even slightly forgiving of harsh recordings. An example is Unclassified by Robert Randolph and the Family Band. That CD contains explosive, high-energy music featuring Robert Randolph’s pedal steel guitar. It makes you want to get up and dance. But I have yet to find anyone who hears it at realistic levels in a digital system without wanting to turn the volume down by the time you get through the third tune on the disc. (Luckily, the fourth tune, “Soul Refreshing”, tones it down just a bit before cranking up again on the next song.)
This problem was significantly ameliorated when the 800D’s, with the smoother Diamond tweeter, went into the system. The last remnants of the problem totally disappeared when the Nemos were substituted for my old Levinson 336. (The Nemo/800D combination also improved the bass, but I’ll get to that later.)
An example of an older CD that benefits from this combination is REM’s Fables of the Reconstruction. It sounds good on vinyl, but the 1985 CD (still the dawn of the digital age) can give you a headache when played at louder volumes. The Nemo/800D combination makes this CD much more listenable. Finally, the title track on Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell can sound not only like a mess, but a harsh-sounding mess on many digital/solid state systems. The piano and screaming guitar can get tinny and individual instruments can become difficult to distinguish. On a “lush” system, the tune can lose its frenzied energy. Again, the Nemo/800D combo strikes a great balance.
Moving to the midrange, what’s not to like? It doesn’t have the depth of soudstage that you get from tubes or a great solid state preamp, but it is very smooth and detailed with very good soundstage width and imaging. It integrates seamlessly with the tweeter, which only serves to enhance the soundstaging. For example, the Nylons’ One Size Fits All sounds very wholistic, yet puts the guys at their places on the stage. Similarly, the vocalists on Paul Simon’s Graceland are in the room with you, individually populating the front of your room, while still sounding like a whole.
All aspects of the bass are world-class. The acoustic bass on Diana Krall’s Love Scenes is taut, tuneful and dynamic, with the exact weight that you feel when listening to that instrument in an intimate live performance. The difficult-to-reproduce bass lines of the Smashing Pumpkins in Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness were too boomy in the Levinson 336/802 combo, remained a little messy with the Levinson/800D combo, but were completely distinguishable in the Nemo/800D combo. In fact, a buddy who gave his copy of this CD away for the complaint that the bass was just a bunch of indistinguishable booms, kept asking whether I somehow got a better-recorded version of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Similarly, the bass in Donald Fagan’s The Nightfly is meant to be subdued, but on many systems you can barely make it out, which is not how it would sound in a concert venue. Playing the CD on this system brings out the bass line just enough to hear all the notes without defeating the artist’s obvious intent to keep the bass lines from being overly prominent.
To supplement the description above, it should help to get a perspective on how this amp sounds in relation to some other high-end amps. I’ve previously lived with several solid state amps, but only three which have been coupled with the Nautilus 800D’s: the Mark Levinson 336 dual mono, the Classe M400 monoblocks, and the Nemo monoblocks. The three provide an interesting sonic comparison.
The 336 is a discontinued Mark Levinson model, delivering 350/700 watts per channel into 8/4 ohms. As a dual mono, it has only one power inlet, so both sides of the dual mono configuration must draw current from a single outlet. Levinson recommends using a 30 amp outlet. For various reasons I have two 20 amp outlets available for amps, but not a single 30 amp outlet. Consequently, the Levinson could not work at its theoretically peak current level. On the other hand, both the Classe and the Nemo’s, being monoblocks with their own AC power inlets, drew power from two 20 amp circuits, and performed better because of that configuration. The M400 is a new Classe model, delivering 400/800 watts per channel into 8/4 ohms. I only had the Classe for a full week, but I was able to listen to each amp extensively on a head-to-head basis during that week.
First, among the three amplifications, the Nemo and the Levinson 336 sounded closer to each other. Both were liquid, both produced taut bass, both had excellent midranges with very good imaging, and both emphasized the whole over the individual performers. It’s just that the Nemo was better on harsh recordings, added weight and depth to the bass and slightly widened the soundstage. As such, it made better use of the 800Ds’ talents and allowed the 800D’s to really open up. Of course, the Nemo’s
are quite a bit more expensive!
The Classe M400 introduced a whole additional dimension which I did not expect. It was significantly more detailed than either the Nemo or the 336. This was amazing to me because I’ve always had very detailed systems, even by audiophile standards. Detail can help produce superior imaging and can make intimate recordings sound like the players were playing in your home. For the first two days I couldn’t get enough of this, especially on acoustic guitar and other strings. Bluegrass recordings “blew” me away. Complex low-level dynamics that I hadn’t noticed before surfaced as new features in discovery of music I had played many times before. This produced very, very good results on recordings of individual performers and locales when a particular performer was showcased.
On the third day, I slowly became aware of something that seemed to me to be a downside. I found it hard to listen to the overall performance and instead found myself thinking “Wow, I never heard that cymbal that way before!” Now this is clearly an item of personal taste, and many people would opt for the sound of the Classe M400’s detail for a wide range of music. An even larger group of people whose speakers are a little more forgiving or whose cables are less detailed may be thrilled with the M400. However, I already own the 800D’s and a highly detailed front end and highly resolving cables, so for me the Nemo was a better fit.
The Levinson/Transparent/B&W combination has been a revered one in solid state systems. I have never heard the Levinson 33 or the 33H and have only read description from folks who have. Furthermore, it is my understanding that B&W and Classe are teaming up, and that the M400 is meant to be synergistic with B&W products.
However, for my money I can’t at this time imagine a better synergy than the B&W Nautilus 800D speakers mated to the most current iteration of the Electrocompaniet Nemo monoblocks. I’m not saying it’s the best speaker/amp combination out there – I have way too little experience with other products to say that. What I can say is that these two components do a wonderful job complimenting each others’ strengths and minimizing each others’ weaknesses. In this case it turns out that coupling a current-hungry, revealing monitor with a smooth and slightly forgiving ultra-high power amp could do exactly what you would hope, in spades.
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