Introduced in 1980, the B&W 801 almost overnight became the speaker for top-shelf recording studios and mastering suites. EMI, which later became Abbey Road, adopted the 801 as its reference monitor. Many other studios followed suit. To this day you will find B&W 800 series speakers used in quite a few pro monitoring environments.
According to the first 801 brochure, “The B&W 801 represents the first commercial effort to develop and produce a loudspeaker that would reflect the highest standards attainable without regard to any of the so-called ‘practical considerations’ that inevitably compromise conventional designs.”
To achieve these sonic goals the 801 used a three-way acoustic-suspension design in a two-piece enclosure. The 270mm-diameter bass driver was housed in a sealed enclosure with a system resonance of 37Hz and a Q of 0.7 while the 100mm midrange and 26mm dome tweeter were in their own separate enclosure on top of the woofer module. This upper module was made of rigid polystyrene plastic and fibercrete, which was a glass-reinforced concrete material. According to B&W, the resulting enclosure improved signal-to-noise by 10dB between 300 and 3kHz, and yielded a cabinet vibration measurement of 60dB below the cone vibration levels.
The 801 used a 4th order crossover that was created via a computer-modeling program that employed a design technique that B&W called “numerical optimization.” According to B&W, “by measuring and comparing a working model of the crossover network with the computer model…we were able to achieve a very high order of correspondence between ideal and real-world function.” In the late 70s, using a computer for this purpose was revolutionary.
One feature that endeared the 801 to professional audio engineers was its built-in overload protection circuit. It had a circuit that monitored the voltage levels at each driver. When voltage to any of the drivers exceeded “safe operating levels” this “fail-safe” circuit cut the power until the 801’s reset button was pushed.
It’s safe to say that no other loudspeaker enjoyed such universal success among both professionals and audiophiles as the B&W 801.
Anthony H. Cordesman on the B&W 801 Nautilus (March/April 2000)
“The B&W 801 stood up to direct comparison with the Quad ESL-63 and Apogee ribbon speakers. I found them cleaner and more lifelike than the Quad ESL-63 the moment the music got really soft or presented challenging dynamic peaks. The mix of midrange detail, timbre, life, air, and dynamics is almost ideal. So is the smooth integration of the upper bass, lower midrange, and mid-midrange. The Nautilus is a superb speaker that notably outperforms the 801 III and competes at the very top of high-end reference speakers. Oh, and it is also a real visual statement, with superb finish and woodwork.”