B&W Nautilus 805 Loudspeakers Reviewed

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Presuppose for just a second that the cheapest model in a range will always outsell the model above it in logarithmic proportion. Presuppose it all the way up the range, to its flagship edition, and you can only imagine the ratio of sales, a pyramid if you wish, between a speaker selling for, say £200 and a dearest sibling selling for 20 times that. If this is the case - and I believe it to be so with few exceptions - then Johnny Walker Red outsells Blue, the Rolex Air-King's unit sales stomp those of platinum Day-Dates and VW shifts a lot more Polos than Passats. If I'm right, then we must pity B&W's luscious Nautilus 805.

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It's the 'N' word that makes the '805's life so hellish, so unfair. Forget the ludicrous mollusc-shaped construct (however successful it is) which launched the range. It was never a real-world product in the sense that sane individuals would give it house space. It always looked like something you'd expect to find in an imaginary Euro-flat, probably in Berlin, serving as the background for a naff Douwe Egbert or Ferrero Rocher ad. But the arrival of Nautilus 801 changed all that, for here was a speaker benefiting from Nautilus technology, but which didn't scream 'Trendy! Pretentious! Grotesque!'...at 118dB.

Nautilus 801 gave the line so much credibility - rave reviews, floor space at Abbey Road, etc - that B&W has managed to do what most speaker brands dream about yet few achieve: the company juggles models with true high-end worth (and price tags) with speakers firmly in the budget sector. While the '805 ain't exactly cheap, it's very much attainable by 'normal' people. The pity is that it lives in the shadow of a speaker applicable only to a minority. And it deserves so much better.

Never having been known as a B&W fan - I thought the Silver Signature was a headache-inducer surpassing the GBH of those earlier champion teeth-gritters, the Linn Kan and Mission's 770 - I was ready to write off the '805. It was hyped with the intimidating image of a company resting on laurels with leaves that form the message: 'We spent more developing the Nautilus range than most companies turn over in a year!' And, hey, they're right, because just the cost of tooling up for the tweeter module on the top of the cabinet would cause heart failure in most British speaker manufacturers. And that's when you realise that a product with the fit and finish of the '805 could only come from a firm that's either turning over eight figures, or which has a factory in Italy.

So forget that the '805 is to the '801 what Callista Flockheart is to Pamela Anderson. It is, despite high-tech-ery for the next millennium, a two-way loudspeaker designer for stand-mounting, and as such part of the same tradition which put British loudspeakers (Quad aside...) on the map. But the £1400-per-pair '805 is deceptive in that it oozes details light-years away from the simpler, BBC-derived classics which created the format.

For starters, it looks like no other speaker, in defiance of boxy precedents. But other precedents do apply, such as the Sonus Faber Guarneri, which pioneered the concept of loudspeakers tapering to a point at the back. In the case of the '805, the top view is actually closer to that of an egg (rather than a mandolin) which, in the Brobdingnagian manner, has had one end sliced off. The magnetically shielded cabinet contains the Matrix innards which B&W developed to free its enclosures from resonance and unwanted flexing, a network of 'anechoic cells' made up of numerous braces. Wrapped around this is a many-layered casing which provides one of the neatest visuals proffered upon close examination: the sculpted groove into which is fitted the tweeter module reveals the layering, and lets the observer know that the cabinet qualifies as 'fine furniture'. Even Conran would love it.

Weighing 9kg, the '805 measures 415x238x344mm (HWD). Inset into the baffle is a 165mm woven FST Kevlar mid/bass driver crossing over at 3kHz. Below it is the company's patented Flowport, notable for a series of dimples on its surface comparable to the surface of a gold ball. This is said to enhance the linearity of the port's output, while eliminating any traces of 'chuffing' noise often attributable to an active orifice. At the very top is the module looking like the bonnet mascot off a Fifties Buick but housing the Nautilus tweeter. The driver is a 1in metal dome high frequency unit protected by a fine mesh grille and backed by its own mini-enclosure, fitted with vibration isolators and fixed to the cabinet with additional segregation in the form of a flexible mount.

Inset into the back are the multi-way, CE-approved terminals, recognisably WBT but tailored by the German terminators to B&W's needs. The '805 is bi-wireable, and the terminals accept large spades (including the wonderful Kimber/WBT sandwich spades), bare wire or banana plugs. Ye who live in fear of the shitheads in Brussels, worry not: they're spaced far enough apart so as not to tempt kids in Denmark to plug in 19mm spaced AC cables. I used the '805s in bi-wired mode with Harmonix cables, driven by a full Musical Fidelity system: X-Ray CD player, Nu-Vista pre-amp and Nu-Vista 300 power amp. The B&Ws also saw action with Roksan's Caspian package and some old Radford monoblocks.

One contradiction not too shocking to seasoned hi-fi devotees is the disparity between specification and real-world requirements. Although the '805 is stated as needing a 50-200W amplifier, which will face an 8 ohm load (4.6 ohm minimum impedance) with 88dB sensitivity, it simply adored loads of power. Make no mistake: it will 'work' with 50-100W integrateds, but it positively sings with a beast like the Nu-Vista 300 and its seemingly limitless power: 300W into 8 ohms or 600W into 4. The likelihood of a £1400-per-pair speaker finding a home with a £3000-plus amplifier isn't so outlandish anymore, so I didn't feel too foolish making the pairing. What would have been silly would be £10k's worth of Krell, Levinson or ARC.

Anyway, the '805 proved to be - to my horror - instantly likeable. Whether or not this is uncommon isn't the point; over the years, we've all been cautioned that first impressions are dangerous. It's why hi-fi retailers are considered devious scum, because they know how to exploit the five-minute demo. It's only later, after you've lived with your purchase, that you find out it's a great source for listener fatigue, and you'd been seduced by its 'hi-fi'-ness rather than by accuracy or naturalness or musicality. If anything, the '805 erred on the side of politeness, in sharp contrast to the spitty, edgy, nasty aggression (Gee, who does that remind me of?) which I will forever attribute to the Silver Signature.

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