Those into hi-fi for a long time have particular models of equipment for which they lusted for an almost equally long time. For me, one of those was the Bowers & Wilkins 801 loudspeaker, first released in 1980.
They have been long since superseded, but the 800 series has lived on ever since. Here I’m reviewing the ‘baby’ of the current range, the bookshelf speaker-sized Bowers & Wilkins 805 D3 stereo loudspeakers.
What are they?
If nothing else, you must know that these speakers are special from the recommended retail price. Although largish bookshelf speaker in size, each weighs over twelve kilograms (as much as many far lesser floorstanding speakers). That shows how solidly constructed are the cabinets.
They are also beautifully finished. They curve gently towards the back and the review units were finished in a gloriously deep gloss piano black. Rosenut is also available. The tops are also curved and on top of the main bodies of the speakers are the one-piece tapered sections of solid aluminium, housing the tweeters. The teardrop-shaped casing is said to be mechanically inert and able to provide an “incredibly rigid platform” for the tweeter.
The 25mm tweeters are described as diamond dome models, and despite the pricing I’m pretty certain their domes aren’t carved from enormous chunks of diamond. Reading the material on B&W’s website, it turns out that the dome is in fact made of artificial diamond, formed using the Chemical Vapour Deposition process. The point of this it to produce domes with much higher breakup frequencies than even the 20,000 to 30,000Hz of metal domes. Diamond, being so stiff, can raise that to 70,000Hz.
The larger drivers use a ‘Continuum’ shaped cone which, says, B&W, effectively negates cone breakup.
A bass reflex port is on the front panel underneath the larger driver. Foam bungs are included in case circumstances require close to wall placement. Placed in the ports, these can help tame position-induced bass excesses.
The speakers can be bi-wired. Indeed, when being installed conventionally, the included jumper leads need to be installed.
B&W rates the frequency response of the speakers at an impressive 42 to 28,000Hz ±3dB. Their eight ohm impedance curve bottoms out at 4.6 ohms so they ought to be an easy load. B&W is a rare company in rating their distortion. For output levels of 90dB measured at one metre (that’s pretty loud) the second and third harmonics are rated at less than 1% for frequencies above 70Hz, and less than 0.6% for frequencies above 120Hz.
The speaker documentation comes in a sturdy cardboard box. Included is a manual concerning placement and connecting the jumper leads. There’s also a smallish hardcover book which is almost like a small coffee table book, filled with pictures of the speakers and just a little text. And there was “A letter from Bowers & Wilkins Steyning Research Establishment” in a sealed envelope. I left that unopened because anyone who spends $8,500 on a pair of speakers deserves to open their own letter.
We can talk all we like about specifications and build and drivers and such, but really what it’s all about is listening. I have lovely speakers which I enjoy very much, but I’m afraid they simply can’t measure up to this quality. Indeed, despite my line of work, I get to review loudspeakers of this level perhaps once a year at most.
In brief, these loudspeakers both stood out from what one normally hears, while remaining within the mainstream of normality. Weird speakers also stand out, and may emphasise some part or other of high fidelity performance, while remaining weird. The B&W 805 D3 speakers were uniformly high quality in every aspect of performance except, not surprisingly, the very deepest bass. Speaker size does matter.
I started with some piano, specifically Glen Gould playing (gasp!) Mozart sonatas. The sweet sadness of the Sonata #2’s Adagio (written when he was just 18) was at peak beauty, with the pre-Dolby recording tape hiss clear, but well controlled. This recording is, as usual with Gould, afflicted somewhat by his muttered humming, and the clarity of the speakers provided full access to it all. There were also some other random noises of things happening on the sound stage, tiny little dropped objects by the sound of it. The piano was spread widely across the stage, but these intrusions into music were startlingly identifiable in their position, as though someone were standing between and somewhat behind the speakers making the noises.
I shouldn’t start Gould because it’s hard to stop. Before I could tear myself away I immersed myself in the A minor 8th sonata, which sandwiches between two urgent and angry movements an amazing movement in which Gould’s practice of making each note stand alone resulted in the piano singing gloriously from these speakers, without seeming limit.
Still with the classical, but moving to an extremely percussion heavy orchestra, I played sections of the Schedrin ballet arrangement of Bizet’s Carmen. The Toreo section teases, promising the climax but shying away a couple of times before delivering it, with no engineer applying limiting or compression or fiddling knobs on this Chandos version. Throughout every element of the sound, the round and full tone of each drum, the ring of the chimes at the back of the orchestra – sounding exactly in position – and the startling presence of each percussive strike, was delivered with something reminiscent of a certain quarter million dollar pair of spherical speakers upon which I first heard this recording. And when the climax arrived, it arrived without constraint.
I was seriously amazed. These speakers sounded like they must be large floorstanders of uncommon grace. Yet there they were before my eyes, belying what my ears were hearing.
I feel in awe of what the larger models in the B&W 800 series must be capable of.
A challenge to any pair of stereo loudspeakers is delivering masses violins without sounding horrible and scratchy, so I turned to the Annina string introduction to the third Act of Verdi’s La Traviata (the 1981 Sutherland/Pavarotti/Bonynge version). Smooth, not in the least scratchy, and sweet. So, so sweet, yet made of a dozen or more individually sweet violins, the position of each clearly identifiable on the stereo stage.
A change of genre? How a little bluegrass jazz fusion? Béla Fleck and the Fleshtones performing Weed Wacker on the album The Hidden Land again demonstrated the utter lack of dynamic compression, their openness and precision. The sound stage was deep and tall and wide, and each instrument sat in its proper place, again almost tangibly.
One track I often employ to gain an overall sense of a pair of loudspeakers often leaves me disappointed. I’ve fiddled with the positions of speakers, with furnishings, with everything I could think of to try to reproduce the sense of body and sheer reality I have on rare occasions experienced. That track is “Nobody” on Ry Cooder’s album Jazz. But the very best I have enjoyed so far cannot, I believe, come anywhere near these speakers in their delightful delivery of the acoustic guitar, dancing over the heads of the male singers, each of which was a voice of integrity, separate from the others while merged in tune. Astonishing. Quite astonishing.
Don’t worry, I ran the speakers through the gamut of modern music, delivered from digital and analogue sources. The album 10 000 Hz Legend by French electronic group Air showed that the bass from these loudspeakers was surprisingly extended, down to close to forty hertz I’d guess, while remaining in ideal balance across the range with the upper frequencies. It gave the music a body that few speakers of this size could manage.
Rage Against the Machine’s fast, hard, metal rap is surprising in its dynamics and the “air” around the musical elements, and all this was elevated in level by these speakers, providing a window deeper into the music than I have experienced before.
Light-hearted stuff – the 1982 album Cha by Jo Jo Zep (on vinyl – sadly it never made its way to a digital format) for example – was appropriately playful. But nothing was papered over by these speakers. Track after track the bottom end limitations were revealed: no deep bass. No deep bass on the vinyl, that is, as the engineers tapered it off to ensure that there was plenty of playing time.
But neither did the speakers emphasis the inevitable surface noise. These are equal opportunity loudspeakers: vinyl or digital, classical or jazz, rock or rap. It really doesn’t matter. The B&W 805 D3 speakers will bring out everything that’s there to be brought out.
As I launched into this review, I was a little worried about the possibility that I might not detect – perhaps might not be able to detect – the virtues of what are, undeniably, an extremely expensive pair of loudspeakers. I actually shied away from having a proper listen for a week, letting them run on various background and utilitarian tasks such as digital radio sound and movie sound, telling myself I was “running them in”. I didn’t want what I feared might be my illusions shattered.
But I shouldn’t have worried. Anyone who loves quality music delivered by quality speakers will, from the second they assume the position at the apex of the listening triangle, know they are listening to something exceptionally special and rare. Do yourself a favour. Find a B&W retailer carrying the 800 series of loudspeakers, arrange for a listening session, and prepare yourself a truly great experience.