A new 800 series, and a return to the original 801 name, but the 801 D4's enhancements are more than skin deep
Some six years since the arrival of the Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamond range, and over 40 years after the launch of the company's original 'no compromise' 801 model [Audio Milestones, HFN Jan '13], here we are with an all-new flagship lineup for the Worthing-based company. The timing's about right: in the rolling programme of upgrades, we've seen the 600 and 700 series replaced since the 800 D3 models broke cover [HFN Dec '15], and the company makes no secret of the fact that work started on these new 800s almost as soon as the last generation was released.
Much has changed since that 2015 launch of the 800 D3 range: Bowers & Wilkins was acquired first by Silicon Valley-based Eva Automation, then by Sound United – joining the likes of Denon and Marantz. Meanwhile, the world-famous Steyning Research Establishment has been replaced with a much larger facility at Southwater, also in Sussex.
The new 800 lineup – officially called the 'new 800 Series Diamond' – comprises seven models: five main stereo speakers and two matching centre-channel designs. The range kicks off with the 805 D4 standmount at £6250 a pair, and then there are three floorstanders – the £9500 804 D4, the £16,000 803 D4 and the £22,500 802 D4 – plus the two centre speakers: the £4750 HTM82 D4, designed for use with the 803 and 804 models, and the £6500 HTM81 D4, for use with the larger speakers. All models are available in a new Satin Walnut finish, as well as the Gloss Black, White and Satin Rosenut available on the previous series.
The flagship 801 D4 features B&W’s 25mm diamond dome ‘tweeter on top’, a 150mm Continuum cone FST midrange and a pair of 250mm Aerofoil cone bass units, reflex-loaded through a very wide, down-firing port
And the largest of those speakers is the one we have here – the 801 D4 flagship, at £30,000 a pair, marking a return to the model designation of the original 800 series flagship, the 801 of 1979. The last series had an 800 model, the 800 D3, as its range-topper [HFN Oct '16], launched a year or so after the rest of the lineup arrived. Bowers & Wilkins isn't making quite the same claims for this one that it did when launching the 800 D3, when it made clear that just about every component was new aside from the odd nut and bolt. However, even though the new model might look very similar to the 800 D3 it replaces, much has changed.
Plus ça Change
Now adopted across the board is the company's 'reverse wrap' technology, in which the entire cabinet assembly, front and sides, is made as a single moulding, using thin sheets of wood laminated with glue under heat and huge pressure. This wraps round to create a tapered enclosure, terminated with a metal spine at the rear, onto which the crossover components are mounted for mechanical stability and heatsinking.
But that was already the case for the larger 800 D3 models, and not new in the 801 D4. What is, though, is a reinforced version of the company's honeycomb-like Matrix internal bracing, again used across the range. This now features vertical aluminium sections in addition to the horizontal used in the past, affixed with screws and glue rather than the simple pressure-fit of before. Moreover, the entire Matrix frame is now coupled to the front baffle via a substantial 10mm steel plate.
All that's internal, and thus hidden, but look a bit closer and the changes begin to reveal themselves. The top-plate of the main enclosure, on which the midrange 'Turbine' and treble housings sit, is now aluminium, rather than the wood of the old model, and trimmed in Connolly leather. Black is specified for the Black and Satin Rosenut main cabinets, and a light grey trim for the White and Satin Walnut finishes to match the silver Turbine Head used on those colours. Crucially, this top-plate is now a structural component, further stiffening the construction of the cabinet and the platform for the components above it.
3D rendering illustrates the component parts of the solid-body diamond ‘tweeter on top’ and Continuum FST midrange cone – with new suspension – and Turbine Head with proprietary tuned-mass damping
This metal-to-metal fit allows a superior decoupling of the Turbine Head containing the 15cm Continuum Cone FST 'floating' midrange driver, which also gains foam wedges to the rear of its mounting, plus Techsound damping and revised Tuned Mass Dampers within. The driver itself now has a four-point silicone decoupling, and a new 'Double Silver' motor, with silver on the top-plate and pole, further reducing distortion. Perhaps the most radical change is the removal of the concertina-like rear suspension 'spider' in favour of a flexible 'Biomimetic' skeletal frame with thin legs that connect the cone to the basket.
The 25mm Diamond Dome tweeter atop the Turbine Head now sits in a longer milled-from-aluminium 'Solid Body Tweeter-on-Top' tube-loading system, for improved attenuation of rearward energy. There are now two, not three, neodymium magnets in the motor, reducing compression behind the dome, while additional vents in the voice-coil former further enhance this 'free-breathing' design. The decoupling between the treble tube and midrange head is also improved with two L-shaped steel mounts covered in silicone rubber.
The woofers look bigger, but the size is an optical illusion caused by the use of a new foam anti-resonance plug at the centre of each of the 25cm Aerofoil bass units. Behind the cone, the steel in the motor system has been upgraded, for better current handling and lower distortion, while single spiders replace the double units used in the old model. Finally, the bottom of the cabinet has a new aluminium plate to stiffen it around the downward-venting Flowport, and the heftier alloy plinth now has 360° spinning wheels, for easier positioning, and threaded holes that accept long spikes to adjust the forward tilt of the speaker.
Yes, the 801 D4 may look very like the 800 D3 it replaces, but it's almost entirely different – and its performance pays tribute to all the changes made by the B&W R&D team. Set up in PM's listening room powered by the mighty 350W Classé Delta pre/power amps [HFN Jun '21], with the Melco N1ZS20 music library [HFN Jun '17], the speakers proved that while they relish a good clean dose of power, when so driven they are capable of astounding results.
Indeed, having positioned the speakers in what was the long-established optimal position for the resident 800 D3s, we later pulled them out a little further from the walls – easy, with that new wheel arrangement – so mighty was the bass on offer here from the Classé/B&W combination. While that didn't alter the weight of low-end available, which is consistently phenomenal, it did tighten things a smidge, making even more of the speaker's excellent low-end definition.
Also worth noting is that the magnetically-attached grilles provided for the bass and midrange units have less impact on the sound than any we have encountered, but have a twist – quite literally. When attaching them, it's necessary to rotate them to align the magnets, as otherwise they will fall off… So, it's a matter of offering them up, then rotating them slightly until the magnets abruptly 'grab'.
With the studio heritage of the 801 series – the original was swiftly adopted as a reference by Abbey Road – it seemed only fitting to commence auditioning with some classical music, in the form of the remarkable Octave Records two-volume set of Zuill Bailey playing the Bach solo cello suites [Octave OCT-0008; DSD64]. Instantly there was a marvellous sense of three-dimensionality, of the instrument in space. I was tempted to push up the level a little – the 801 D4s will take a lot of power, and play extremely loud with no stress – whereupon the presentation became even more 'real', from the sound of bow on string and the resonance of the body of the instrument plus, of course, the acoustic around it.
The superb recording was conveyed with remarkable presence and detail – but all to the benefit of the music, not as a distraction. These are not in any way speakers lending themselves to a quick listen: the 801 D4s draw you into the music, and just won't let go, so compelling is their presentation.
As debuted on the 800 D3, the metal ‘spine’ of the 801 D4 completes the ‘reverse wrap’ cabinet, and hosts the crossover and (rearranged) bi-wirable terminals. The enlarged alloy plinth has 360o swivelling wheels plus spikes
A familiar test-track – the Jerry Junkin/Dallas Winds recording of the John Williams march from 1941 [At The Movies; Reference Recordings RR-142, DSD64] – thrilled from the off, with the distant percussion under the opening phrases in the woodwind resolved wonderfully. And when the bass drum kicks in, it does so with both serious conviction and absolute speed, the snap of snare-drums and the crispness of the tuned percussion set against the impact of the low bass, and the wide-open dynamics as the track builds piling on the excitement.
That mixture of growling low frequencies and absolute detail also serves well 'The Haunted Ocean' from Max Richter's Exiles [DG 00289 486 0445], the bass truly menacing and fully energising the room without ever seeming overblown or excessive, and still leaving plenty of space for the finely-detailed instrumentation above it.
Loading up Patricia Barber's latest album, Clique [Impex IMP7002; DXD], the entrance of her voice on 'Shall We Dance?' is astonishing in the intimacy of its focus – it just hangs in the room between the speakers, with the accompanying bass, brushed drums and piano delicious in their clarity. The warmth of the ambience is lovely, as is the way Jim Gailloreto's sax solo soars out of the mix, precisely located and with wonderful breathy reediness and the sense of the keys working.
Also sparkling in its intimacy is Anna Fedorova's new release, Shaping Chopin [Channel Classics CCS 43621; DSD128], her reading of the Three Mazurkas, Op.50, treated to that full picture of the scale and size of the piano. Every note, every touch is wonderfully clear, and there's such a persuasive impression of the instrument in the room, with the expression of the playing beautifully resolved.
Cutaway of the mid/treble section of the original 801, ancestor of the 801 D4’s sophisticated ‘head’ unit. Note crossover inside
Switching to the lush sound of Charlie Watts Meets The Danish Radio Big Band [Impulse! 0602557441932], the take on 'Paint In Black' has real depth to the sound of the massed forces. Here the solo guitar has great character, but above all Charlie Watts drives it with such restrained drumming, always leading the rhythms rather than simply cruising at the back. It's an understated, beautifully crafted track, and hugely impressive through these ultra-revealing speakers, with their controlled, tightly-resolved soundstaging and superb bite when required. When Charlie gets into an easy groove with 'You Can't Always Get What You Want', the speed of the big 801 D4s is much in evidence: the drumming is so laid-back, but so tight.
By contrast, the big slam of the opening of Yes's 'Yours Is No Disgrace' [The Yes Album; Atlantic WPCR 15903, DSD64] just cannons out from the speakers. The complex keyboards and driving, grumbling bass line fuse with the drums to drive the track relentlessly, and those harmonies are wide-open, as are the words – for good or bad! Yes, the soundscape is huge here, and the low end from those two aerofoil drivers is both punchy and remarkably controlled. These speakers will also go scarily loud with enough amplification driving them, but they remain resolutely clean and clear – a fitting apex to B&W's latest 800 Series Diamonds.
Hi-Fi News Verdict :
Not a match for low-powered tube amps, but driven firmly the new B&W flagships are capable of a sound as informative as it is vivid. They bring to life everything from driving rock to the most subtle of solo instruments and voices, with breathtaking insight into performance and music alike. Yes, they're demanding of both amplifier and system quality, but get it right and they will thrill and entice like almost no other.