Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 Review – 801 carat sounds
A new 800 series, and a return to the original 801 name, but the 801 D4’s enhancements are more than skin deep
Some six years since the arrival of B&W’s 800 Series Diamond range, and over 40 years after the launch of the company’s original ‘no compromise’ 801 model, here we are with an all-new flagship lineup for the Worthing-based company. The timing’s about right: in the rolling programme of upgrades, we’ve seen the 600 and 700 series replaced since the 800 D3 models broke cover and the company makes no secret of the fact that work started on these new 800s almost as soon as the last generation was released.
Much has changed since the 2015 launch of the 800 D3 range: Bowers & Wilkins was acquired first by Silicon Valley-based Eva Automation, then by Sound United – joining the likes of Denon and Marantz. Meanwhile, the Steyning Research Establishment has been replaced with a much larger facility at Southwater, also in Sussex.
The new 800 lineup – officially called the 800 Series Diamond – comprises seven models: five main stereo speakers and two matching centre-channel designs. The range kicks off with the 805 D4 standmount at a pair and then there are three floorstanders – the 804 D4, the 803 D4 and the 802 D4 – plus the two centres: the HTM82 D4, designed for use with the 803 and 804 models, and the HTM81 D4, for use with the larger speakers. All are available in a new Satin Walnut finish, as well as the Gloss Black, White and Satin Rosenut of the previous series.
The largest of these speakers is what we have here – the 801 D4 flagship, which marks a return to the model designation of the original 800 series flagship, the 801 of 1979. The last series had an 800 model, the 800 D3, as its range-topper, launched a year or so after the rest of the lineup arrived. Bowers & Wilkins isn’t making quite the same claims for this one that it did when launching the 800 D3, when it made clear that just about every component was new aside from the odd nut and bolt. However, even though the new model might look very similar to the 800 D3 it replaces, much has changed.
Now adopted across the board is the company’s ‘reverse wrap’ technology, in which the entire cabinet assembly, front and sides, is made as a single moulding using thin sheets of wood laminated with glue under heat and huge pressure. This wraps round to create a tapered enclosure, terminated with a metal spine at the rear, onto which the crossover components are mounted for stability and heatsinking.
But that was already the case for the larger 800 D3 models, and not new in the 801 D4. What is fresh, though, is a reinforced version of the company’s honeycomb-like Matrix internal bracing, again used across the range.
These compelling speakers draw you into the music and just won t let you go
This now features vertical aluminium sections in addition to the horizontal employed used in the past, affixed with screws and glue rather than the simple pressure-fit of before. Moreover, the entire Matrix frame is now coupled to the front baffle via a substantial 10mm steel plate.
All that’s internal and thus hidden, but look a bit closer and the changes begin to reveal themselves. The top-plate of the main enclosure, on which the midrange ‘Turbine’ and treble housings sit, is now aluminium, rather titan the wood of the old model, and trimmed in Connolly leather. Black is specified for the Black and Satin Rosenut main cabinets, and a fight grey trim for the White and Satin Walnut finishes to match the silver Turbine Head used on those colours. Crucially, this top-plate is now a structural component, further stiffening the construction of the cabinet and the platform for the components above it.
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This metal-to-metal fit allows a superior decoupling of the Turbine Head containing the 15cm Continuum Cone FST ‘floating’ midrange driver, which also gains foam wedges to the rear of its mounting, plus Techsound damping and revised Timed Mass Dampers within. The driver itself now lias a four-point silicone decoupling and a new ‘Double Silver’ motor with silver on the top-plate and pole, further reducing distortion. Perhaps the most radical change is the removal of the concertina-like rear suspension ‘spider’ in favour of a flexible ‘Biomimetic’ skeletal frame with thin legs that connect the cone to the basket.
The 25mm Diamond Dome tweeter atop the Turbine Head now sits in a longer milled-from-aluminium ‘Solid Body Tweeter-on-Top’ tube-loading system, for improved attenuation of rearward energy. There are now two, not three, neodymium magnets in the motor, reducing compression behind the dome, while additional vents in the voice-coil former further enhance this ‘free-breathing’ design. The decoupling between the treble tube and midrange head is also improved with two L-shaped steel mounts covered in silicone rubber.
The 250mm Aerofoil bass drivers look bigger, but this is an optical illusion caused by the use of a new foam anti-resonance plug at the centre of each. Behind the cone, the steel in the motor system has been upgraded for better current handling and lower distortion, while single spiders replace the double units used previously. Finally the bottom of the cabinet has a new aluminium plate to stiffen it around the downward-venting Flowport, and the heftier alloy plinth now has 360° spinning wheels, for easier positioning, and threaded holes that accept long spikes to adjust the forward tilt of the cabinet.
1 150mm Continuum cone midrange driver
2 2x 250mm Aerofoil cone bass drivers
3 Bi-wireable binding posts
4 Alloy plinth lifts cabinet and reflex port dear of the ground. Interchangeable wheels/spikes are included
TYPE 3-way floorstanding loudspeaker
WEIGHT 101 kg
DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 451×1,221x600mm
25mm Diamond Dome tweeter
150mm Continuum cone midrange driver
2x250mm Aerofoil bass drrars
Quoted sensitivity: 90dB/1W/1m (8ohm)
DISTRIBUTOR B&W Group Ltd
Yes, the 801 D4 may look like the 800 D3 it replaces, but it’s almost entirely different – and its performance pays tribute to all the changes made by the B&W R&D team. Set up in our listening room powered by some mighty 350W Classe Delta pre/power amps, served by a Melco N1ZS20 music library, the speaker proves that while it relishes a good clean dose of power, when so driven it is capable of astounding results. Indeed, having positioned the speaker in what was the long-established optimal position for the resident 800 D3s, we later have to pull them out a little further from the walls – easy with that new wheel arrangement – so mighty is the bass. While that doesn’t alter the weight of low-end available, which is consistently phenomenal, it does tighten things up a smidge, making even more of the speaker’s excellent low-end definition.
Also worth noting is that the magnetically attached grilles provided for the bass and midrange units have less impact on the sound than any we have previously encountered. But they do have a twist – quite literally. When attaching them, it’s necessary to rotate them to align the magnets, as otherwise, well, they will just fall off… So, it’s a matter of offering them up, then rotating them slightly until the magnets abruptly ‘grab’.
With the studio heritage of the 801 series – the original was swiftly adopted as a reference by Abbey Road – it seems only right, proper and fitting to commence auditioning with some classical music, in the form of the remarkable Octave Records two-volume set of Zuill Bailey playing the Bach Solo Cello Suites. Instantly there is a marvellous sense of three-dimensionality, of the instrument in space. We are tempted to push up the level a little – the 801 D4 will take a lot of power and play extremely loud with no stress – whereupon the presentation becomes even more ‘real’, from the sound of bow on string and the resonance of the body of the instrument plus, of course, the acoustic around it.
The superb recording is conveyed with remarkable presence and detail but all to the benefit of the music, not as a distraction. This is not in any way a speaker that lends itself to a quick listen: the 801 D4 draws you into the music, and just won’t let go, so compelling is its presentation.
The 801D4 may look similar to the800 D3 that it replaces, but much has changed
The big slam of the opening of Yours Is No Disgrace from The Yes Album just cannons out from the speaker. The complex keyboards and driving, grumbling bassline fuse with the drums to drive the track relentlessly, and those harmonies are wide-open, as are Jon Anderson’s proggy words for good or bad! Yes, the soundscape is huge here, and the low end from those two Aerofoil drivers is both punchy and remarkably controlled. The 801 D4 is a speaker that will go scarify loud with enough amplification driving it, but even so it remains resolutely clean and remarkably clear throughout – a fitting mighty peak to the grandest of Bowers & Wilkins’ latest 800 Series Diamonds
Design build quality range power
- The grilles can be a tricky fit
- The grilles can be a tricky fit