HP was right on the money when he recently concluded that we had “reached the limits of the descriptive vocabulary that has served audio writers so well for a generation.” I wholeheartedly agree. But of all the inopportune moments to finally run out of words, why did it have to happen just as I was about to tell you about one of the best loudspeakers I’ve ever heard? (Insert headthumping sounds here.)
While HP replenishes the stock, I’ll slap a Band-Aid on my forehead and start by saying that as far as I’m concerned, the new diamond-studded B&W 800 Series flagship is a work of art. And not just for its elegantly curvaceous good looks. With nearly four decades of breakthrough technological advances and innovations under its belt, B&W has taken the science of speaker building and turned it into a modern- day art form.
First launched back in the late 1970s with the introduction of the original Model 801, the B&W 800 Series remained relatively constant for nearly 20 years. The 1993 advent of the flagship Nautilus speaker brought a raft of new ideas to the fore, leading to a broader range of products and resulting in the highly acclaimed Nautilus 800 Series.
Building on the Nautilus’ groundbreaking technology, the next-generation 800 Series takes another step forward toward the realization of B&W founder John Bowers’ goal of the perfect speaker. Bowers believed the ideal loudspeaker should neither add nor take away from the original input signal. Although the perfect transducer still only exists on paper, B&W’s Steyning Research Establishment in West Sussex now houses some 20 graduate engineers and support staff dedicated to making Bowers’ vision a reality.
Along with the other top five models in the series, the 800D incorporates a number of significant changes, the most radical being the use of a diamond dome tweeter. Thus, the “D” suffix in the model designation. Additionally, based on the results of extended listening tests conducted by B&W, the previous fourth-order crossover feeding the tweeter has been done away with in favor of a less complex firstorder (single capacitor) version.
I was intrigued to learn that the benefits of a diamond dome tweeter are only realized well beyond the range of human hearing. (See sidebar for more details.) So how, then, can we hear the improvements? That’s a good question. After scouring the pages of a lengthy 800D development brochure, the answer remains unclear. I can only say the treble region of the 800D outperforms that of most every other speaker I’ve heard—but not so much for what it does, but rather what it doesn’t do. And that’s call attention to itself.
Going back to my initial listening notes, the first words I jotted down were “wholeness” followed by “seamlessness.” From the beginning, these were the two primary attributes that struck me. While high frequencies were the utmost in smooth, effortless, finely detailed, extended, and exceptionally clear, I was more taken in by how meticulously they were woven into the fabric of the music. I found it difficult to focus on the upper registers without always being drawn back into the whole of the sound. The transition from treble to midrange was as superbly transparent and seamless as I’ve heard.
I was also struck by the 800D’s world-class imaging. The center fill image was spot-on perfect, while the differences in image height between the onstage performers and instruments were so clearly distinguishable it was almost spooky. B&W speakers have always been known for exceptional imaging— I’ve owned at least a half-dozen pair, including a set of 801s and 802s. After 20 years of listening, when a component comes along that can still make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, you know you’re hearing something truly spectacular.
The 800D is a gutsy speaker with nerves of steel and a rock-solid constitution. The bottom end (by design) has a tighter bass alignment than the 801, which makes it more amenable to smaller rooms as well as acoustically untreated environments. But don’t make the mistake of thinking, as I did initially, that the bass might therefore be a tad limited. While tweaking the volume when listening to the Titanic soundtrack [Sony], my torture-test recording, I finally had to throw in the towel when I thought for sure I was seeing sound waves rippling through the room and parting the air in front of me. Of course, it didn’t hurt to have the iron grip of a 400- watt Krell amplifier, the 400cx, powering these B&W beasts. You could probably get by with less power, but I’d highly recommend sticking with a suitably robust solidstate amp for best performance.
Another aspect of the 800D that didn’t take long to win me over was its inherently revealing nature. Before you run screaming to the next review because you don’t think you’d care for a “revealing” loudspeaker, let me say—emphatically—that the 800D is not ruthlessly revealing. As I’ve stated before, it’s always nice when you can find the best of both worlds, but my musical choices are always based on preference over recording quality. So a speaker (or any other component) that would render my favorite music unlistenable wouldn’t last long at Chez Sue.
The revealing nature of the 800D made it seem as if I was always listening more to the associated equipment than the speaker itself—which is exactly what Bowers intended. I spent days schlepping familiar gear in and out of my system, and was pleasantly surprised time and again at the overall improvements I heard. I was also surprised by how much easier it was to hear the differences. (This is a reviewer’s dream come true.) The Meridian G Series (reviewed in Issue 152) was even more refined and sophisticated than I originally thought. I could have quit right there and been quite satisfied. Plugging in the Atma-Sphere MP-1 tube preamp revealed a degree of soundstage depth and spaciousness akin to adding another entire room behind the speakers. And while the less costly Sonic Euphoria passive had a more intimate soundstage, it was as smooth, natural and detailed as I’ve heard.
The more I listened, the more I entertained the notion of contacting every audio-component manufacturer on the planet to beg for samples. I wanted to hear it all through the 800D. I especially wanted to revisit one of my pet component matchups of the early days, which is how the Krell 400cx landed in my listening room.
While I fully expected that the B&W/Krell combo would be capable of blowing the windows out of my listening room, what I didn’t expect was the level of musical refinement these components have achieved over the years. The magical harmony of three Canadian singer-songwriters otherwise known as the Wailin’ Jennys [40 Days, RHR] revealed a flip side of the “deadly duo” that was as soothing and emotionally enveloping as some of my favorite tube gear.
When it comes to cabinetry and finishes, I’m usually just a basic black kind of gal. But lucky for me, the black ash wasn’t available when my 800D review samples were sent. The Rosenut veneer that showed up is absolutely gorgeous, as is the polished black lacquer “head” nestled in its own leather collar. These beauties rate an easy ten out of ten on the significant-other acceptance-factor scale. And the build quality is impeccable. I’m not quite sure how B&W managed to pack 275 pounds into a 46.5"-tall package, but according to the owner’s manual, you can safely support the entire weight of the speaker by its “floating head” without doing any damage. Now that’s built tough.
Setup and positioning was basically a non-issue. As with the other pairs of B&Ws I’ve owned, this is a speaker that sounds good before you even take it out of the box. (Note: When you do take them out of the box, you might want to have a couple extra pair of helping hands at your disposal.) In my 20 x 14 room, I placed the review samples out approximately four feet from the front wall, with a slight toe-in toward the listening position. It only took a few minimal tweaks to get the center image perfect, and due to the wide-dispersion tweeters, the sweet spot was ample wide enough for both me and the pooch with plenty of room to spare.
Unless you like a speaker with more coloration, I’m not sure there is a downside to the 800D. The only caveat is amplifier choice. Unlike my reference Coincident Total Eclipse, you’ll need some horsepower to make these speakers dance—preferably a “fast” amplifier such as the Krell. Although I no longer have the McCormack DNA-500 on hand, I’m guessing it would be a superb match as well.