Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamond Loudspeaker Reviewed

Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamond Loudspeaker Reviewed

Bowers & Wilkins is one of the most iconic brands in all of audiophilia and home theater and their 800 Series Diamond is arguably the most iconic of the breed-if not of all loudspeakers. It's distinct shape, construction and sound has made it an instant classic, one that is used by recording artists, sound designers and engineers the world over.

bw_800D_floorstanding_review.gifI keep an audiophile bucket list of sorts and have ever since my first encounter with a true high-end system comprised of a pair of Wilson Audio Watt/Puppy 3/2’s mated to a Krell integrated amplifier and Wadia CD player many years ago. That was back in college and since then my list has grown to include not only the likes of Krell and Wilson Audio but also Mark Levinson, Pass Labs, Audio Research, Revel and of course – Bowers & Wilkins. Over the years I’ve been able to cross one component off the list after another with the exception of one – the famed Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series loudspeakers.

I’ve been chasing the mighty 800 Series loudspeakers for the better part of a decade, coming close to owning a pair (second hand) more than half a dozen times – yet, like Ahab, the 800 Series loudspeakers became my audiophile equivalent of the great white whale. My personal “Moby Dick.”

Until now.

Additional Resources:

• Read the HomeTheaterReview.com List of the 10 Best Audiophile Speakers including B&W 802D loudspeakers.

• Learn more about the brand Bowers and Wilkins.

The 800 Series from Bowers & Wilkins has been with us for some time now, beginning with the Matrix 801 in 1979 on up to the current 800 Diamond. The 800 Series’ story is as legendary as the great white whale itself. Since its inception, the 800 Series has been synonymous with high-end audio and has arguably made Bowers & Wilkins the company it is today. So when it was time to update the iconic and timeless loudspeaker, Bowers & Wilkins did what many fans hoped they would … they changed nothing. At least that’s what they appear to have done.

On the surface the new 800 Diamond is physically the same in terms of size, shape and weight as the outgoing 800D. Both are 46 and a half inches tall by nearly 18 inches wide and 25 inches deep. Both sit atop a cast aluminum plinth that houses the speaker’s crossover. Both weigh in at – wait a second – the new 800 Diamond is a full fifty pounds lighter than the previous 800D at 225 pounds apiece. See, a difference. I kid of course, for it would’ve been suicide for Bowers & Wilkins to alter the 800 Diamond’s appearance dramatically, as it is one of the most iconic designs (not to mention silhouettes), in the history of loudspeakers.

The physical changes made to the 800 Diamond loudspeakers are subtle but appropriate. First there is a new finish option of Piano Black Gloss to accompany the more traditional Cherrywood and Rosenut finishes that have been with the design for years. Aluminum accent rings have been added to the outside surrounds of the midrange driver and diamond tweeter for a bit of visual pop and separation from the surrounding finish. The 800 Diamond’s speaker grilles utilize hidden magnets both in the speaker’s cabinet as well as on the grilles themselves for proper adhesion. And finally, Bowers & Wilkins has begun using non-metallic paint on the tweeter and midrange heads to better compliment the new Piano Black Gloss finish.

While everything appears to be the same on the surface, Bowers & Wilkins left little untouched behind the scenes. For starters the new 800 Diamond’s one inch diamond tweeter features an all-new Quad Magnet Motor System for the tweeter, which results in greater dynamic range and less distortion (according to Bowers & Wilkins) for what was already arguably one of the finest high frequency transducers in the business. Bowers & Wilkins has employed the use of new surround materials for the tweeters as well, and while they don’t specify what that “new” material is, they claim it helps the new 800 Diamond achieve wider dispersion and uniformity throughout the upper frequencies.

The 800 Series’ trademark six-inch yellow Kevlar midrange driver goes unchanged with the new 800 Diamond loudspeaker, which is a good thing, for this reviewer found it hard to fault in the previous 800D. The dual 10-inch bass drivers, however, did not escape the engineers’ eyes, for they too have been altered over previous designs, beginning with the use of new Dual Magnet Motor Systems on both 10-inch bass drivers. The new Dual Magnet Motor System ensures that the driver’s movements are more linear and smooth thus resulting in less distortion. Also the bass drivers have a new, smaller dustcap assembly, which allows the drivers to play smoother and at a higher frequency, thus creating a more seamless transition between the midrange and bass drivers.

The 800 Diamond utilizes all new crossovers, which Bowers & Wilkins state, “are the simplest and best crossovers we’ve ever produced.” The new crossovers use Silver/gold/oil Mundorf capacitors, which result in a cleaner signal path than with previous 800 Series designs. Even the speaker terminals have been improved, designed in-house and made from oxygen free copper; the terminals are more conductive then the previous 800D’s all brass terminals.

So, what have all these little changes wrought? Well, on paper, not much has changed between the outgoing 800D and the new 800 Diamond. Both share the same frequency response at 32Hz to 28kHz plus or minus three dB on axis. Both are crossed over at the same frequencies, 350Hz and four kHz and both have the same sensitivity rating of 90dB into a nominal eight-Ohm load. Although its retail price has changed from $23,000 to $24,000 a pair.


But you don’t listen to white pages and spec sheets. You don’t listen to charts and graphs – you listen with your heart, it’s an emotional response, and this is where all the little changes made to the 800 Diamond begin to make a lot of sense.

The Hookup
The new 800 Diamond loudspeakers arrived days after moving into my new home off the beaten path somewhere in the Angeles National Forest northeast of Los Angeles. They arrived in two large, imposing boxes strapped to a pallet. The delivery truck was unable to deliver the speakers to my door; instead I had to arrange for them to be dropped off at a friend’s house, for he had a “proper” road through which the large three-axel truck could navigate. After much negotiating I was able to get my friend (actually my wife’s boss) to help me move the speakers from his property to my own and into my newly renovated house. Moving the 800 Diamonds in any capacity is a job for two or three people, for they are very heavy, very cumbersome and very expensive, so every precaution should be taken to ensure they’re transported, unboxed and installed carefully and safely.

Unboxing the 800 Diamonds is relatively easy, considering their size, shape and weight, for the boxes themselves are designed to literally fall away from the speakers once the straps and staples have been removed. Once unboxed, the 800 Diamonds are easy enough to move about, thanks to the included rollers located on the bottom of the large aluminum plinths. I recommend leaving the rollers in place until you are 100 percent certain of the speaker’s final location, for once they’re spiked (which entails removing the roller balls) they’re somewhat permanent. Since there was still a lot of work to be done to my new reference system, I sort of eyeballed them in terms of placement, figuring I’d move them into their final position once the room was completed. Little did I know that my “rough” placement would turn out to be almost the ideal place for them to call home when everything was said and done.

The 800 Diamonds I was sent for review were finished in Bowers & Wilkins’ Cherrywood finish, which were absolutely stunning and fit my décor beautifully. The 800 Diamond loudspeakers really are a visual statement that manage to look both modern yet traditional at the same time, adding a spice of class to any listening room while looking decidedly non-loudspeaker-like. Numerous guests to my new home since the 800 Diamond’s arrival have stood in awe of their striking good looks and fabulous finish.

I began the break-in process by simply connecting the 800 Diamonds to an Onkyo receiver I had in for review and let them play at moderate volumes for about two weeks while the rest of my reference theater and two channel system was being completed.

When it was time to get serious I connected them to my Mark Levinson No 533H three-channel amplifier via a pair of eight-foot Transparent Reference speaker cables. I relied on my trusty Mark Levinson No 326s preamp for volume and source control, which like my amp and the 800 Diamonds was connected to the system via one meter lengths of Transparent Reference interconnects. As for the rest of the system I utilized my beloved AppleTV streaming uncompressed audio files, Sony Blu-ray player, Denon universal player and Cambridge Audio Dacmagic DAC – all of which were connected via Transparent Reference cable. Because this system was largely new, or at least new to my new surroundings, I gave them all a week of additional break-in to ensure everything was performing at its best and to allow me additional time to become familiar with the new room.

Speaking of the room and its acoustics, my new reference room is approximately 17 feet wide by 25 feet long with nine foot ceilings and features acoustical treatments by GIK (pronounced G-I-K) Acoustics with acoustical design work being done by Bryan Pape. When everything was said and done, the 800 Diamond’s final resting place was approximately two feet off my front wall and three feet off the sidewalls with almost exactly eight feet separating the right and left speakers.

Performance
I started my critical evaluation of the 800 Diamonds with Sarah McLachlan’s new album Laws of Illusion, which I ripped myself at full resolution and played back via my AppleTV and Cambridge Audio Dacmagic combo. Past experiences with Bowers & Wilkins loudspeakers, even the 800D, have left me with the knowledge that they are very musical yet posses a sort of restraint that I’ve come to associate with British born loudspeakers. It’s as if they have manners – manners that keep them from ever becoming vulgar, which isn’t always a good thing. Well on the track “Forgiveness,” the new 800 Diamond’s exhibited those same British manners but possessed a bit more air and extension that allowed McLachlan’s vocals to step out of their “comfort” zone and address me directly, inhabiting my listening space versus the speakers. The same Bowers & Wilkins midrange and high frequency magic was present, it just sounded as if there was more trust placed in itself to be free and open with me, the listener. McLachlan’s piano was truly three dimensional and well defined at a slight angle between the left and right speakers and an audible foot below her vocals. The piano possessed tremendous attack (though the melody itself was quite soothing) and decay with notes appearing to hang in space as if they were placed on a hook. Overall the sound was very smooth, very composed and again possessed a greater sense of air, space and extension that previous 800 Series speakers lacked for me. There was a real organic, almost “live” quality to the sound, evident in the subtle cymbal strikes that were neatly placed back and to the right of the soundstage.

Continue reading about the performance of the 800 series on page 2.

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On the track “Bring On the Wonder,” the delicate opening appeared
from a stark black background giving each note a haunting, ethereal
quality that while low in volume showcased the 800 Diamond’s dynamic
prowess. Dynamics aren’t simply defined by a loudspeaker’s ability to
play loud at the drop of the hat, sometimes it can take the form of
rich, textured subtlety – like in the individual strikes of a note or
chord, as demonstrated in the opening moments of “Bring On the Wonder.”
The high frequencies again were pristine with zero signs of glare,
grain or breakup even when pushed hard by my Mark Levinson No 533H.
Even though “Bring On the Wonder” is largely comprised of McLachlin’s
own vocals layered upon one another for a sort of Imogen Heap-ish
performance, through the 800 Diamonds it managed to feel intimate yet
aurally enveloping, possessing a soundstage that extended well beyond
the side boundaries of the speakers themselves and in some instances
beyond the side walls of my listening room. The 800 Diamond’s did a
wonderful job revealing each vocal layer, some of which were heavily
processed for effect, and then seemingly putting them all back together
again for one cohesive and involving performance. Again, the 800
Diamond’s midrange and high frequency prowess is simply sublime.

Next, I wanted to test the 800 Diamond’s bass prowess, so I cued up
the soundtrack to James Cameron’s Avatar composed by James Horner
(Atlantic). The track “Becoming One of ‘The People,’ Becoming One With
Neytiri” has a little something for everyone; driving tympanis,
bombastic horns and various delicate percussion instruments set against
the haunting vocals of a child. It’s a great torture test for any
loudspeaker or system, a torture test the 800 Diamonds passed with
aplomb. I focused a lot of my attention on the 800 Diamond’s bass
performance during this track since I was already fairly convinced,
based on earlier tests, that its midrange and high frequency abilities
were quickly becoming the stuff of legend. Well, the 800 Diamonds are
no one-trick or vocal-only pony for their bass prowess was epic,
plunging deeper and with a greater sense of speed and urgency than my
reference Revel Studio2s. The vigorous tympani strikes were lifelike in
their size and impact and possessed tremendous detail and attack, not
to mention decay following every strike. Bowers & Wilkins has been
wanting to send me their new reference subwoofer (the DB1) to use in
concert with the 800 Diamonds for some time, though I question the
need, for the bass that the 800 Diamonds are capable of churning out is
plenty deep, extremely articulate and above all musical. If one needs
more bass than this, you better make sure your sub is up to the task,
for mating the wrong sub with the 800 Diamonds could do more harm than
good.

Aside from the bass performance the entire track played back through
the 800 Diamonds was larger than life as they managed to pack an entire
orchestra in my living room without it feeling at all confined or
restrained by the speakers themselves or my room.

For something a little more Top 40, I went with Jason Mraz’s We
Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things (Atlantic). Beginning with the track
“The Dynamo of Volition” the 800 Diamonds exhibited tremendous pace and
rhythm that was lively, upbeat and free – three things I don’t normally
associate with Bowers & Wilkins loudspeakers, especially the old
800Ds. Because the 800 Diamonds are just a bit faster, more transparent
and airy than previous incarnations, songs like “Volition” aren’t
robbed in the slightest of their somewhat frenetic pace and mosquito
like reflexes.

As I was skipping through the various tracks contained within the
new Mraz album, I stopped on the bonus track “If It Kills Me.” What
caused me to pause was the sheer presence and uncanny “live” quality of
the entire track. I’ve heard many loudspeakers capable to transporting
oneself to a place reminiscent of the actual recording space or venue
but none that have done it as convincingly as the 800 Diamonds. The
performance was so vividly real that I felt it could’ve stood up to a
blind listening test with the real thing. The presence, articulation,
weight and sheer sense of space presented by the 800 Diamonds was
awe-inspiring.

Switching from music to movies I went ahead and cued up Terminator
Salvation on Blu-ray (Warner Brothers). Since I only had a pair of 800
Diamonds on hand for review, I let my Sony Blu-ray player output a
stereo down-mix from the disc’s DTS-HD track for the purposes of this
demo. What I didn’t expect was how utterly involving the presentation
would be given the lack of a center channel and surrounds. Dialog was
crisp, intelligible and in many ways far more convincing and natural
when played back through a stereo pair of 800 Diamonds versus a
dedicated center speaker, for every line seemed to possess more air,
weight and dimension because they weren’t being confined to a smaller
box. While I wasn’t able to achieve a full surround sound experience
the 800 Diamond’s wide soundstage came darn close to making me believe
there were actually rear channels installed in my system. Now, with
movies I could see the need for a subwoofer or two if you were planning
on using the 800 Diamonds as part of a home theater for there are
notes, beats and sound effects in movies that are tailored specifically
to be played back through a subwoofer – which was evident to a small
degree in my stereo listening tests with Terminator Salvation through
the 800 Diamonds. However, I wouldn’t classify my lack of a subwoofer
during this test as a distraction, for the bass that was present was
extremely involving.

I ended my evaluation of the 800 Diamonds with the action comedy
Date Night (20th Century Fox), starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey on
Blu-ray disc. Again, I viewed the film in stereo via my Sony Blu-ray
player and as with Terminator Salvation, I didn’t necessarily care. The
800 Diamonds on their own were more than enough to get me to suspend
reality for 90 minutes and become immersed in the film. Again, dialog
was clear and focused yet never sounded boxy or restrained. Scenes
involving a lot of atmospheric surround effects, such as in the overly
hyped and crowded restaurant Claw, were presented with lifelike
dimension and space. During some of the film’s more action-oriented
scenes, like the car chase involving a host of police cars and an Audi
R8 driven by Steve Carell, the sound was larger than life, completely
captivating and above all visceral, displaying the appropriate amount
of “edge” for the scene, something previous 800 Series designs were
never quite able to do.

As a part of a home theater, the 800 Diamonds are a tough act to
fault let alone follow, even if I only had a pair on hand for my demo,
for the same passion they have for music is easily felt when watching
your favorite films.

Competition and Comparison
The 800 Diamond loudspeakers no doubt are the stuff of legend, but
unlike in the Highlander films, there isn’t merely one. You cannot
discuss the 800 Diamond without also mentioning Wilson Audio’s wonderful Sasha W/P loudspeaker
for both appeal to the same type of aficionado, both sound terrific and
both are iconic statements that have stood the test of time. Not to
mention they both cost roughly the same. Another cost-no-object
loudspeaker that can be mentioned in the same breath as the 800 Diamond
has to be the Revel Salon2
for it too fills the same niche as the Sasha W/P and the 800 Diamond.
Aside from the obvious high-end associations, the 800 Diamond has
competition from the likes of Paradigm’s Signature Series S8 for the S8’s achieve a large portion of the 800 Diamond’s performance at a fraction of the cost.

Whatever your budget, taste or needs – only you can decide what
floorstanding loudspeaker is ultimately going to be right for you, but
if you’d like to learn more about some of the speakers I’ve just
mentioned or floorstanding speakers in general, check out Home Theater Review’s floorstanding speaker page for more information.

The Downside
As with any large floorstanding speaker, there are some practical
considerations one must contemplate before making any final purchase
decisions. For starters the 800 Diamonds are large speakers. While not
as tall as some, they are quite wide and very deep, meaning you’re
going to have to make sure you have an appropriately sized room that
can accommodate them. One nice thing about the 800 Diamond loudspeakers
(and most Bowers & Wilkins speakers for that matter) is the fact
that they don’t need to be placed as far out into your room as some
high-end speakers do, thus making them a bit easier to integrate into a
wider variety of spaces. If the 800 Diamonds are too large for your
space but you still want the 800 Diamond’s magic, the 802 Diamond or
one of its smaller siblings await you.

The 800 Diamonds are fairly efficient at 90dB; however don’t think
that means you can skimp on power. While they can be frugal, the
quality of your power amplifier will be quickly revealed thanks to
their remarkable speed, accuracy and detail. You can power the 800
Diamonds with as little as 50 Watts per channel but it better be the
best damn 50 Watts you can get your hands on.

Lastly, while I believe the 800 Diamond’s bass performance is both
phenomenal and ample for two channel music playback, those of you
looking to build a home theater or multichannel system around them are
going to want to pair them with a quality subwoofer or two. Choose
wisely, though for mating the wrong sub to the 800 Diamonds will be
more disastrous then not having a sub. I would recommend auditioning
the new Bowers & Wilkins DB1 subwoofer, for it was designed to
complement the 800 Series of loudspeakers.

Conclusion
At $24,000 a pair, the new Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series 800 Diamond
loudspeakers are not going to be for everyone due to their financial
commitment and sheer size. But I promise you the new 800 Diamonds will
be or at least should be on every audiophile’s bucket list. They are a
true reference grade product that compete with and in many ways
outperform everything in their class as well as embarrass loudspeakers
costing twice as much. While there may be little that visually
distinguishes them from their predecessor, the 800D, I assure you the
little changes that have been made internally, together add up for some
big sonic changes.

The new 800 Diamonds are just a little faster, a little more open
and more detailed. They’re more transparent, seem to plunge deeper and
possess greater dynamics, not to mention they image better, cast a
wider, more detailed soundstage and seem more refined visually. On
paper there is little to no difference between the old 800Ds and the
new 800 Diamonds, but where it matters most, the listener’s emotional
connection to their favorite source material, be it music or movies,
the 800 Diamonds are the better speaker.

While I may be able to cross the 800 Diamonds off my bucket list, I
won’t be letting them go anytime soon. Would I highly recommend the 800
Diamonds? No. I recommend, if you have the means, that you simply buy
them.

Additional Resources:

• Read the HomeTheaterReview.com List of the 10 Best Audiophile Speakers including B&W 802D loudspeakers.

• Learn more about the brand Bowers and Wilkins.

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