Bowers & Wilkins 804 D3 Floorstanding Speakers Reviewed

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Bowers & Wilkins 804 D3 Floorstanding Speakers Reviewed

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BW-804-thumb.pngIn some ways, the 804 D3 (and the rest of the new D3 Series) are the speakers I've long wished that Bowers & Wilkins would make. Previous 800 Series speakers have relied on midrange drivers made with woven Kevlar cones. Most other speaker makers that have flirted with Kevlar seem to have moved on to other (and, to my ears, better) cone materials, and I've long suspected that B&W was sticking with Kevlar because the yellow fabric had become such an iconic part of the company's branding. The 804 D3 and the other models in the D3 Series now use a silver-colored synthetic fabric named Continuum, which according to B&W has better break-up (high-frequency distortion) behavior than Kevlar. I've reviewed at least one speaker from every 800 Series since the original, so I was curious to hear what Continuum sounds like.

Although the 804 D3 resembles past 804s in concept--it's a tower speaker with two 6.5-inch woofers, a five-inch midrange, and a one-inch tweeter--it shares almost no parts with previous 804s. The woofer cone is also made of a new material; B&W swapped out its old Rohacell composite sandwich diaphragm for a new formulation called Aerofoil. The thickness of the Aerofoil material varies in order to reduce resonance and to concentrate stiffness where it's most needed.

The deposited-diamond tweeter diaphragm material from the previous 800 Series speakers remains, but the tweeter is now housed in an enclosure machined from a solid piece of aluminum, which should make it denser and less resonant than the previous enclosure. The enclosure, by the way, is attached to the rest of the speaker using a compliant material that isolates the tweeter from woofer and midrange vibrations; you can actually twist the tweeter enclosure a bit.

The enclosure employs the ultra-heavily braced Matrix concept from previous models, with some major differences. The old MDF bracing has been replaced with high-quality plywood, which B&W says is stiffer, and the front baffle now has a slight curve to enhance its stiffness and eliminate flat-panel resonances. The drivers are mounted on "pods" that stick out slightly from the curved front baffle, which should do a bit to help reduce diffraction off the cabinet edges.

The changes in the enclosure design and the midrange driver material make this by far the nicest-looking 804 ever. I borrowed my review samples for a photo shoot that a luxury-goods magazine asked me to produce for them. Usually art directors and photographers consider speakers little more than bland wooden boxes, but in this case everyone thought the 804s looked as sleek as the high-end designer furniture they'd brought in for the shoot.

The 804 D3 lacks the cool combination of integral casters and spikes found on the more-expensive 802 D3 and 803 D3; they allow you to roll the speaker into position then lower the spikes to secure it. However, at 73 pounds, the 804 D3 is pretty easy to move around. Standard threaded sockets are provided for the included spikes or rubbery feet. Buyers of the 804 D3 can take some solace in the fact that their speakers cost roughly half as much as the step-up model, the 803 D3: $9,000 per pair for the 804 D3 versus $17,000 per pair for the 803 D3.

I expect most 804 D3s will find use in two-channel systems; however, if you want to create an 800 Series home theater, you can add one of two center speakers (the $6,000 HTMI1 D3 or the $4,000 HTM2 D3), plus maybe two or four of the $6,000/pair 805 D5 as surround speakers.

BW-804-top.pngThe Hookup
I used the 804 D3 towers with a Classé Audio CA-2300 amp and CP-800 preamp/DAC, in addition to my Music Hall Ikura turntable and NAD PP-3 phono preamp. Connections were made using Wireworld Eclipse 7 speaker and interconnect cables. For level-matched comparisons with other speakers, I used my Audio by Van Alstine AVA ABX switcher.

The 804 D3 is as easy to set up as a typical inexpensive tower speaker. It's fully assembled right out of the box; all you have to do is add your choice of spikes or rubbery feet and connect the included jumper cables between the two sets of binding posts on each speaker (unless you intend to biwire or biamp then, in which case you don't need the jumpers).

Setup on these speakers isn't fussy at all. The tonal balance seemed just right with the speakers in the position I typically use for tower speakers: pointed straight at my listening chair, spaced about eight feet apart at a distance of 10 feet from my chair. Each speaker's front baffle was 36 inches from the wall behind the speakers.

B&W includes foam plugs that can be used to tune the ports, reducing bass response in situations where it might be overwhelming, such as a small room or when you're forced to place the speakers near a wall. Neither of those situations applied in my case.

The 804 D3s got lots of use during the review period--in part because I simply enjoyed listening to them, and in part because their stay coincided with a five-day visit from my friend Gordon Sauck, founder and proprietor of Innovative Audio, a huge vintage audio store in Vancouver, BC. During Gordon's visit, we spent hours listening to vinyl records we'd picked up at Los Angeles' many used record stores, as well as action movies from my collection of Blu-ray discs.

If I seemed too reverent in my introduction, trust me, I'm not. I have heard a lot of 800 Series speakers and other B&Ws, in many different environments. Many of those experiences have thrilled me, but a few have left me disappointed, so I came into this review with no particular expectations.

By the time I'd finished the setup of the 804 D3s, I knew I'd like them a lot. Right off the bat, they sounded dynamic and engaging. Even with the system cranked up, I could hear no distortion or signs of distress, and nothing that sounded like an obvious tonal coloration. I started throwing on more records and was happy with the result every time; the speakers didn't obscure the flaws in the sub-standard records I played, but they didn't seem to highlight the flaws, either.

I was fortunate to have a pristine, barely played old copy of Stanley Turrentine's 1966 LP Rough 'N' Tumble on loan from a friend when I was doing this review. Just as Turrentine could tell stories in his solos, the first cut, "And Satisfy," nicely tells the story of the 804 D3. Turrentine's tenor sax sounded exceptionally intimate and involving through the 804 D3, somehow more focused and realistic--more "in the room with me"--than I'm used to hearing. Everything in the mix just seemed to be a little more "there." Cymbals stood out very clearly without seeming boosted or bright. Bob Cranshaw's bass had great pitch definition while also exhibiting a fat, satisfying groove.

I bet I've listened to at least one cut from Holly Cole's masterpiece Temptation through every speaker and headphone I've reviewed since the mid-1990s. I loved what the 804 D3 did with "Falling Down," one of the album's most emotional tunes. I enjoy Cole's voice the most when she's singing softly and simply, rather than bending pitches and belting out the money notes at Ethel Merman levels; the 804 D3 captured that lovely intimacy on "Falling Down," and perhaps even burnished it a bit, but without introducing tonal colorations. It did the same for the great harmonica solo in the middle of tune. Many of the other songs on Temptation present deep bass notes that overwhelm woofers, but the 804 D3s tore into every tune with gusto, giving me deep extension with no audible distress.

On the ultra-laid-back version of Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train" from bassist Ray Brown's Soular Energy album, Brown packs into a single tune about four times as many licks as most bass players know. It's a great test of a speaker's bass and lower midrange reproduction, and the 804 D3 got it just about perfect, sounding more like a real double bass than any speakers I've tested in recent (or even not-so-recent) memory. Especially in the bass solo, the sound seemed exceptionally focused in the middle, more like an actual wooden soundboard producing notes and breathing through the F-holes. That big soundboard tends to make the upper frequencies of the double bass sound quite directional; most speakers don't really capture that effect, but the 804 D3 did.

That rock-solid center image served a much more artificial recording, King Crimson's "Matte Kudasai," just as faithfully. Adrian Belew's vocal metamorphosed in front of me, while the ambient sound of his reverberant slide guitar floated around my room. I find that a lot of speakers that center well don't do ambience well (and vice-versa), but the 804 D3 was adept at both tasks. The tweeter and the Continuum-cone midrange brought out the cymbals especially well without enhancing them in any way, which is especially important on this tune because the ride cymbal is doing almost all of the time-keeping.

I'll confess I didn't listen as intently to the 804 D3s when I was playing Blu-ray discs and streams from Amazon; it seems to me that this speaker's talents are a bit wasted on movie soundtracks. Still, I did watch a couple of pretty hard-hitting action movies--Edge of Tomorrow and San Andreas--through the 804 D3s, and in both cases they played quite loud without distortion. They also exhibited no significant coloration on the dialogue. They don't deliver the kind of bass that a big 15-inch subwoofer can, but I'd say for average living rooms a subwoofer is optional with these.

Click over to Page Two for Measurements, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...

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