The top model in Bowers & Wilkins’ new flagship range is one of the best speakers ever built.
B&W’s 802D is good. So good, in fact, that it probably outperforms the top-of-the-line Nautilus 800 from the previous range. So, how come B&W has bothered with a new 800D which, at $35,000 a pair, costs thousands more than the 802D, yet which looks remarkably similar? There is some engineering justification, but the real question here, of course, is whether the sound has been improved to the same degree.
After a couple of hours installing these beasts – each weighs 125kg – it took roughly 10 seconds to realise that the 800D is very different and entirely superior to its junior range-mate. Appearances can be deceptive, and if the three-way 800D looks very like an 802D, with the same external mid and treble enclosures, its bass section is subtly larger. The 800D uses twin 250mm drivers (rather than the two 200mm units found in the 802D), and its main enclosure is significantly deeper and wider.
It also sits on an over-large, silver-finished plinth, which is arguably its least attractive design feature. Said plinth houses the crossover network from the speaker proper, and is supplied fitted with ball-castors. The network is fed from twin terminals and uses the very finest and most costly components available.
The midrange and tweeter both have their own sub-enclosures. B&W’s unique ‘free edge’ FST midrange driver has a 140mm woven Kevlar cone in a large teardrop-shaped enclosure made in mineral-loaded Marlan. A substantial tapered metal tube on the very top houses a 25mm tweeter. This is made from a single piece of synthetic diamond. It has the best stiffness-to-density ratio on earth, and takes the break-up frequency up to 74kHz – more than an octave above the 29kHz of the equivalent aluminium dome.
A new tweeter suspension has lowered its fundamental resonance, allowing a simple first-order crossover network with a single Mundorf capacitor. Both sections absorb radiation from behind the diaphragms, and are finished in high gloss black.
With a speaker this deep, free space siting is unavoidable. In-room measurements showed a similar tonal balance to that recorded for the 802D, but with more low bass and less mid-bass. Surprisingly, the 800D’s sensitivity is about 1dB below our figure for the 802D, though it still meets spec. However, it should also be seen in the context of a pretty nasty amplifier load, with a demanding 3.1-ohm minimum. The balance trend is smoother, though still a bit heavy in the low bass, somewhat uneven through the upper bass and lower mid, and a little forward around 500Hz. The presence zone, 2-4kHz is just slightly restrained – but less than its Nautilus 800 predecessor.
If the 802D is good, the 800D takes things to another level. Its superiority is obvious, not just in its magnificent dynamic range, but also in the grip and control through that range.
‘Authority’ is the first word that best sums up the 800D; ‘honesty’ is the second. It doesn’t sugar any pills – aggressively balanced recordings, such as the Chemical Brothers’ recent Push the Button, will continue to sound aggressive and edgy. But a recording, such as Laurie Anderson’s excellent Life on a String, sounds wonderful, thanks to the speaker’s magnificent bass extension and extraordinarily wide dynamic range.
Few can match the 800D’s potential capabilities as a genuine monitor, telling it like it is without any artificial sweetening. Such sweetness has more to do with its discretion, and an ability not to draw attention to itself, while still delivering the vital fine musical detail.
Imaging is first class, and especially realistic with choral material recorded in a large space such as a cathedral. However, because this speaker has consistently wide dispersion right across the audio band, the recorded acoustic will always be heard alongside the acoustic signature of the listening room. This may dilute the precision of a live venue recording, but with dry, studio style material, it does create the impression that the musicians are there in the room. The bass is just as impressive as the top end.
In the course of this review, the 800Ds proved invaluable in establishing the sonic differences resulting from changes made elsewhere in the system. With a speaker as good as this, it proved easy to tell immediately what effect a particular component change had made, even if this was merely concerned with what was used to connect the system to the mains. The most impressive thing about B&W’s new 800s, and this 800D in particular, is that the engineers have done so much more than add a classy diamond dome tweeter. The improvements are obvious throughout the speaker, with considerably better time-coherence perhaps the most significant of all the advances. Right now, it’s difficult to see how it can get much better than this.
B&W 800D |$35,000 | speakers |