Bowers & Wilkins 50th Anniversary and 800 D3 Speakers Unveiled
When I received a personal invite to celebrate Bowers & Wilkins turning 50 years old, I thought to myself: Do I really want to go to Boston and eat all that lovely lobster, or listen to the highly anticipated flagship 800 D3 speakers in an acoustically controlled listening space? The answer was a resounding YES on both accounts! This was a great opportunity to get a behind the scenes tour of one of the most respected names in audio, and most notably the people responsible for its continued success. I was also looking forward to mingling with fellow members of the press from the likes of Stereophile, AVS Forum and Sound & Vision to name a few.
McLaren Sports Car (left pic) ; B&W in-door speakers (right pic)
When we arrived via limo at B&W Corporate headquarters in Boston, we were greeted by some seriously cool automobiles all fitted with B&W automotive systems. Harman originally did most of the car audio OEM work for B&W, but I believe this has evolved over the years as B&W seems to be really focusing more resources on becoming a bigger market player in this segment.
Of course being quite an avid car enthusiast, I admittedly was just a tad more interested in actually sitting inside of the $200k+ McLaren sports car than listening to the audio system. I was quite pleasantly surprised at how good the sound system sounded however. I also checked out the B&W system in the new BMW 750i which in itself was good but there was just something really special about the McLaren.
Enough drooling over the cars, it was time to get a peek inside Bowers & Wilkins to not only see a slice of audio history but the vision of where the company is heading after the recent EVA Automation Acquisition.
I must admit, it was almost information overload once inside. I was like a kid in a candy store observing all of the audio gear from past to present. I'm kind a closet vintage audio nut so I really enjoyed seeing some of the earlier loudspeaker designs that made B&W famous such as their ginormous 808 floorstanding speakers or their old 800 Matrix series stackable towers. I loved seeing vinyl spinning on the 808s, and would have loved to sit for a spell and soak it all in, but time was a luxury we didn't have.
B&W 800 Matrix Stackable Tower (left pic) ; Vintage Saxaphone looking B&W Speaker (right pic)
B&W 808 Floorstanding Speakers (left pic) ; More Vintage B&W Speakers (right pic)
Next up was a Q&A session featuring Doug Henderson (President, B&W Group) and CEO Joe Atkins. It was very obvious to me that these gentlemen were very knowledgeable and passionate about this industry. It was inspiring to see what a music fan Doug was, especially for classic and progressive rock. I knew we would be in for some good demos ahead.
When asked B&W's philosophy for running a successful high end loudspeaker company, Doug replied with a quote from Neil Armstrong that went something along the lines of "1000s of people did their jobs a little better and that's how we got to the moon". B&W follows a similar philosophy as a corporate collective to pool their resources to continue the advancement of their art and hence the full realization has been met with the introduction of their new Diamond 800 D3 (MSRP: $15k/ea) flagship speaker system. Joe Atkins talked about the goal of making the perfect loudspeaker of the late John Bowers, which was to minimize distortion by not adding or taking away anything from the original signal source. The idea being to remove the pane of glass between the performance and the listener. According to Joe, the folks at B&W believe they've met the realization of this goal with the 800 D3's.
Questions were also asked about the direction B&W would take now that they've been acquired by EVA Automation. Joe Atkins explained that the core of B&W remains the same, to deliver a high end audio experience but now it would be expanded to also do so wirelessly. According to Joe, SONOS is the biggest player in this market but not at the level of performance that B&W hopes to achieve in the near future with products forthcoming. Their goal is high performance and simplicity of use. I'm down for that, especially if it opens the brand to a wider audience of enthusiasts.
The B&W 800 D3 Diamond Speaker System
The new 800 D3 represents a culmination of all the research and know-how from the folks at B&W. Dr. Martial Rousseau (head of R&D) explained they employed a laser Doppler vibrometer to optimize the enclosures and drivers to minimize mechanical resonances. You can see the results of the fruits of their labor in the 800 Matrix enclosure which is constructed of stiff plywood panels reinforced with aluminum sections and is rigidly coupled to the inner face of the cabinet with thick steel plates. Impressive!
Utilizing Finite Element Analysis (FEA) to simulate driver cone and enclosure stresses, and 3D printing for modeling, allowed them to print and test prototypes and also cut down on the permutation of variables that could be instantly analyzed without having to build endless prototype models.
B&W 800 D3 is a 3-way, 4 driver floorstanding loudspeaker featuring dual 10" Aerofoil woofers, a 6" Continuum cone midrange and a 1" diamond dome tweeter. Dr. Rousseau claims the first break up mode of the dustcap is 5kHz (thanks to the sandwich construction) which is well above the bandwidth of operation.
The 800 D3 are rated on-axis from 15Hz to 28kHz (+-3dB) and 90dB sensitivity at 1 meter/2.83 Vrms. They claim harmonic distortion is below 0.3% above 70Hz at a 90dB reference output level and are rated with amplifiers up to 1kwatt of power.
All 800 series speakers are produced in their 150k ft^2 Worthing, UK facility which employs 320 people churning out about 350 cabinets/week. The 800 series are available in three finish options (black, rosenut, and white). Doug Henderson explained about 30% of production revenues comes from their UK made products at this facility with the rest being produced in their own China factory.
B&W 6" Continuum Midrange Driver (left pic); B&W 800 10" Aerofoil Bass Driver Cone (right pic)
Driver samples were passed around the table, as were assembly parts with explanations on what and why things were done this way. I was particularly enamored with the 10" bass driver, especially noting how thick, yet light and rigid the cone material was. The cast basket employed a neodymium motor structure to create the necessary magnetic force without being impractically large and heavy. The turbine enclosure (weighs a whopping 40lbs), constructed of aluminum, was quite an impressive piece of engineering. It is used to house the 5" midrange starting on the 803 D3 model, while the 800 D3 model utilizes a slightly wider version of the enclosure to accommodate the 6" midrange. It was quite challenging hoisting it up on my shoulder for this photo opportunity. Kids, don't try this at home.
The same 1" diamond tweeter dome from the D2 series carries over to the D3 as B&W claims they haven't been able to design a better tweeter. However, the rest of the tweeter motor system and suspension has been improved for better linearity. The solid tweeter body has also been redesigned to enhance heat dissipation and reduce mechanical resonances.
B&W In-Wall Speaker Demo
B&W had several demo rooms at their facilities to listen to and they made it a point for us to check out their high performance CWM8.5 ($2,800/pair) In-Wall speakers. The CWM8.5's feature a 7" mid-bass Kevlar driver and a 1" aluminum carbon braced tweeter with Nautilus tube and anti-resonance chamber. They are designed for new installs and come with back boxes for a controlled acoustical enclosure and isolation. We listened to a track called "You Won't Forget Me" by Shirley Horn. The cymbal rides were very open and airy producing an excellent soundstage for an in-wall. Bass was a little lean but very clean. If I were installing a pair of these speakers, I'd definitely add an in-wall sub to supplement the bass response.
For years I've read about the B&W Nautilus speakers and always wondered how they'd sound. Although they are roughly 20 years old, they are still a timeless design kinda like the original Acura NSX. By today's standard, they may not be up to snuff, but their performance at the time was so revolutionary and the design so intriguing, that they aged well and still command respect. The folks at B&W did warn us that the new 800 D3 comfortably outperform the $60k/pair Nautilus speakers, but I wanted to hear them nonetheless. The demo started off with an instrumental piece followed by a vocal track all streamed to a Classe CP-800 Stereo Preamp/Processor. The sound was very detailed and lush and bass was warm and pleasant. I felt the overall sound was on the bright side but not fatiguing. I sat in the money seat for a spell to get a feel for how they imaged and they didn't disappoint.
B&W Nautilus Speakers (20 year old design still going strong)
Two-Channel 800 D3 Demo
B&W did a 2CH demo of the 800 D3's in an acoustically controlled room that had me thinking this is the kind of room I'd like to die in when I first walked in. They played some vocal tracks to show off the midrange clarity which I found to be excellent. Perhaps the most memorable moment of the demo was when they put on the Deadmau5 track “Seeya” which literally brought down the house. The bass was chest pounding and the sound was very clean and non-fatiguing. It was like being in a nightclub but without the annoying feeling of loud distorted sound making your ears bleed or being groped by the people next to you.
B&W 800 D3 Two-Channel Demo Room with RPG Acoustical Treatments
Multi-CH 800 D3 Demo
They then moved the speakers into another demo room to set up five 800 D3's in a 5.0 configuration for SACD and DVD-A playback. I recall hearing someone on staff saying these speakers were good for a 120dB output level and with a solid bass foundation down to below 20Hz, meant a subwoofer just wasn't needed, at least not for musical playback. Normally I'd be skeptical about running five full range speakers instead of bass management with multiple subwoofers ideally placed and EQ'ed, but I have to tip my hat to the folks at B&W. They pulled off this demo quite excellently in a subwoofer-less configuration. The front and back speakers were located approximately in the 1/4L and 3/4L locations so bass distribution was very good. They utilized top flight Classe Electronics and an Oppo BDP-103 Universal Blu-ray player.
Multi-Channel Demo Room with Five B&W 800 D3 Speakers
We started out with a classical piece Pictures at an Exhibition "The Great Gate of Kiev" to hear how well the B&W speaker system could recreate the dynamics of the recording. I have to tell you it was pretty epic. Closing my eyes put me right in the venue it was recorded in. It actually had me wanting to hear the Emerson Lake and Palmer version of this classic. Next up was a track called "Riding" with Eric Clapton panned in the left speaker, and BB King at the right speaker. A huge wide soundstage with backing vocals immersed me. No this was NOT an Atmos demo. There were no bouncy house reflection speakers to simulate an "immersive effect". You don't need Atmos to get an immersed feeling if you've got a great core 5.1 speaker setup and good source material. The treble was crisp but on the bright side; though it could have been a function of the recording. BB king voice sounded live right in the room giving you that "better than being there" experience achieved only when reviewing the very best audio equipment.
We then listened to a 5.1 SACD of Allman Brothers "Done Somebody Wrong", an obvious favorite of Doug Henderson. Guitar was panned to left with the cymbal rides on the right, and the harmonica slightly right off center. I heard great ambience in the surrounds, and the bass was nice and punchy. The sound again was a tad bright but not fatiguing.
Last but not least, we listened to Pink Floyd’s "Brain Damage" in SACD 5.1. My ears were a bit traumatized after recently being blasted out by the Brit Floyd concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall so I was relieved that the B&W demo was much kinder on my ears. Roger Waters vocals literally surrounded me and the bass sounded deep and punchy from my seat. I heard other patrons also rave about the bass quality so I know my seat wasn't the only good seat in the room. Kudos to B&W for putting on such a great multi-channel demo of this very impressive new flagship speaker system.
Boston Symphony Orchestra Visit
What a delightful treat that B&W provided by taking us on a trip to the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). We started off with a personal tour of the BSO Deutsche Gramophone Gesellschaft recording studio by Nick Squire (Recording Engineer) where he discussed how the records were made in this very listening space using B&W 802 D2 speakers and dual subwoofers.
Note: The 805 D2s were set-up because the BSO moves out their 802 D2s to Tanglewood for the summer session in the Berkshires.
BSO Deutsche Gramophone Gesellschaft Recording Studio with B&W 805 D2 Speakers
When asked why the BSO uses B&W speakers, Nick explained that they hold the standard for classical music and recording though he wasn't certain why. I would speculate that B&W speakers have been historically known to have a slightly recessed upper midrange response that could make the strings sound less aggressive because the microphones were typically suspended above the players where violins radiate most of their high frequencies vertically. Alternatively it could just be that professionals generally love the sound of B&W speakers for classical music and they want a known reference for every recording listening space. Nick mentioned that he considers the speakers to be a “tool” that lets him hear exactly how the music sounds in the hall; this is a common comment among recording engineers using B&W speakers.
Scenes from the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Nick explained that they record with the ability to mix in surround by placing extra microphones in the space, but sadly the market doesn't sustain multi-channel recordings so most are only done in high resolution two-channel.
It was a great experience touring this 116 year old historical BSO building (opened in 1900). Unfortunately there were no live performances to witness but Nick did manage to get someone on staff to play the pipe organ for us to get a sample of the venue's acoustics. We also learned that during World War II, all of the windows at the facility were boarded up to prevent light from escaping and being detected by German U-Boats. Yes they were that close to the Eastern seaboard, scary thought!
My visit to Bowers & Wilkins really energized my enthusiasm for the company. I sensed great energy and pride from the employees that work there which is rare these days in the corporate world. Even the top execs conveyed a passion for the audio hobby and concern about maintaining the integrity of the company founded by John Bowers 50 years ago. I'm confident that he is looking down smiling at his accomplishment and the torch being carried from his legacy is in good hands. I'm excited to see what direction B&W heads in the near future and how EVA Automation influences their future product designs to make them more accessible to the general public.