Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamond Loudspeaker Reviewed

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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 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 d├ęcor 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.

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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