A Com­pact That Acts Like a Flag­ship

SoundMag - - Review - Neil Gader – The Ab­so­lute Sound

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term “flag­ship” loud­speaker? Its size, of course. Such speak­ers tend to be im­pres­sive, full-range state­ments— multi-driver plat­forms that cast long shad­ows in the room, their sheer size cow­ing lis­ten­ers into re­spect­ful, wor­ship­ful si­lence. But grandios­ity alone doesn’t make the ar­gu­ment all by it­self. So the ques­tion I’ve been ask­ing my­self ever since I be­gan lis­ten­ing to the B&W 805 D3 is: Can a two-way com­pact, a seg­ment de­fined by mod­esty and yes, lim­i­ta­tions, be con­sid­ered a flag­ship prod­uct? Hold that thought.

The 805 D3 rep­re­sents the sole com­pact in Bow­ers & Wilkins’ new lineup known as the 800 D3 Se­ries. By new, I’m not sug­gest­ing a mere a tweak here or a twist there. The engi­neers at B&W im­ple­mented a top-down re­boot of the ven­er­a­ble se­ries, and in some in­stances vir­tu­ally ev­ery part, screw, and bolt was re­placed. The over­haul was so com­pre­hen­sive it even prompted a fac­tory ren­o­va­tion to the tune of sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars (see my B&W fac­tory tour re­port, Is­sue 257). The 800 D3 se­ries com­prises seven mod­els: four floor­standers, a sin­gle stand­mount, and a pair of home-the­ater cen­ter-chan­nel speak­ers.

In the 805 D3, B&W re­tained the rigid en­clo­sure of its pre­de­ces­sor while re­fresh­ing some of the trim and ac­cents in ac­cor­dance with its new trans­duc­ers’ re­quire­ments. Also re­tained is the dis­tinc­tive FlowPort with its golf-ball-like dim­pling that B&W de­vel­oped to min­i­mize port tur­bu­lence. Vis­ually, it’s a gor­geous piece of in­dus­trial de­sign—all sweep­ing curves and no par­al­lel sur­faces. And com­pared with the cool tech-chic of a CNC alu­minum en­clo­sure, the 805’s smoother or­ganic lines and tra­di­tional wood fin­ishes are softer on the eye. Per­son­ally, I like high-end gear that I can warm up to just a lit­tle bit.

The B&W team also con­cen­trated com­men­su­rate ef­forts on the drivers.

The model 805 was al­ready renowned as the only stand-mounted com­pact with a di­a­mond tweeter, but now its outboard hous­ing, for­merly cast of zinc, is a sin­gle alu­minum bil­let. This cre­ates what is es­sen­tially a mas­sive heatsink for the di­a­mond tweeter mo­tor, and its de­sign is much more in­ert which re­duces ring­ing. The most ob­vi­ous vis­ual dif­fer­ence is the 6.5” mid/bass driver. B&W re­tired its yel­low Kevlar midrange cone ma­te­rial, a B&W main­stay since 1974. The rea­son? While B&W’s front of­fice in­sists that Kevlar re­mains a good performer and mea­sures well in terms of mo­tion and breakup, the engi­neers wanted to take ad­van­tage of to­day’s more ad­vanced com­puter-mod­el­ing tech­niques and test­ing. The re­sult is the Con­tin­uum cone. In de­vel­op­ment for some eight years and seventy it­er­a­tions, the (still patent-pend­ing) tech­nol­ogy is a wo­ven com­pos­ite ma­te­rial based on the con­cept of op­ti­mized and con­trolled breakup. The ma­te­rial markedly im­proves upon Kevlar by pro­vid­ing ul­tra-quick set­tling time and there­fore no ring­ing.

Son­i­cally the 805 is a fiercely con­fi­dent and bold performer. Its char­ac­ter is quite neu­tral with hints of lower mid/bass warmth, yet it’s open, pre­sent­ing un­clut­tered imag­ing. B&W has long been a crea­ture of the record­ing stu­dio and in true stu­diomon­i­tor fash­ion, you can thrash the 805 D3s with heap­ing gobs of volume (rec­om­mended power is 50–120Wpc) and they never lose their com­po­sure, con­strict, or har­den. Short of putting your ears at risk, vir­tu­ally noth­ing fazes the 805.

Its midrange sig­na­ture was a near-seam­less com­bi­na­tion of speed, wide­band dy­namic con­trast, and dense tonal color. Vo­cals ex­hib­ited a slightly for­ward em­pha­sis, a trait con­sis­tent with B&W’s ex­pe­ri­ence in the pro-stu­dio-mon­i­tor world, yet the 805 was not an ag­gres­sive “in-your-face” loud­speaker ei­ther. And it won’t pretty up a lack­lus­ter record­ing; it will ex­pose it. Its up­per bass and lower mids were sur­pris­ingly vi­tal for the small cabi­net volume, and this gave the dueling cello and acous­tic bass from Ap­palachian Jour­ney a nicely de­fined and richly re­al­ized res­o­nant struc­ture and a strong im­pres­sion of air move­ment that is of­ten AWOL in small com­pacts. How­ever, for the fi­nal deep and sus­tained growl of acous­tic bass un­der Edgar Meyer’s bow you’ll still need a fast sub­woofer.

Read­ers might be won­der­ing whether my own lis­ten­ing room re­sults com­ported with the im­pres­sions I got at B&W’s SRE (Steyning Re­search Es­tab­lish­ment), where I was given the op­por­tu­nity to lis­ten to the 805 D3 next to its pre­de­ces­sor, the Kevlar-driver 805 D. To re­it­er­ate, I found that they had some sonic sim­i­lar­i­ties, but the D3 ver­sion was cleaner, smoother, and a more con­fi­dently de­fined and open performer. The D3 also had more dy­namic snap, and sound­stag­ing was far bet­ter re­al­ized, thus cre­at­ing a more de­tailed sense of space and di­men­sion. If any­thing, the gulf be­tween the new 805 and the old ver­sion turned out to be even wider in my own lis­ten­ing room.

The civ­i­liz­ing in­flu­ence of the 805 D3’s su­perb di­a­mond tweeter can­not be over­stated. Its char­ac­ter was al­most chameleon-like in the way it adopted the char­ac­ter of the source ma­te­rial. Ter­rif­i­cally ex­pres­sive and liq­uid, it could sound bril­liantly il­lu­mi­nated, even dry, or warm and richly shaded—it all de­pended on the record­ing. It im­parted a finely grad­u­ated tex­tu­ral pal­ette that ex­tended from the high-gloss sheen of a pic­colo trum­pet or the del­i­cacy of an or­ches­tral tri­an­gle to the sting­ing grit and rosin from a coun­try fid­dler’s bow. Or, take the exquisitely de­tailed lead­ing-edge at­tack of the trum­pet solo dur­ing The Car­pen­ters’ “Close To You,” and the tun­ing of the mul­ti­ple tom-tom skins for each drum fill. In all, there’s a pu­rity and trans­parency to the D3’s per­for­mance that are as star­tling as if the very air in the lis­ten­ing room had been scrubbed clean with HEPA fil­tra­tion.

Im­ages were rock-sta­ble and fo­cused from dead cen­ter stage to the widest points of the soundspace, and even mono record­ings such as the re­cent MoFi 45rpm reis­sue of Jef­fer­son Air­plane’s Sur­re­al­is­tic Pil­low came across with a stun­ning amount of re­ver­ber­ant depth and, yes, lay­er­ing. For sound­stage and scale, the 805 doesn’t have a big foot­print on the or­der of floor­standers like the Van­der­steen Treo CT or Wil­son Sab­rina but it is very im­pres­sive for such a mod­est size spec. While it can­not im­per­son­ate a big speaker, it still pre­sented large-scale mu­sic such as Dvořák’s “New World” with a rea­son­able im­pres­sion of or­ches­tral weight, at­ti­tude, and sym­phonic di­men­sion. Add a small­ish sub­woofer such as the

REL T7i ($999) to flesh out the half-oc­tave be­low 40 cycles, and much of the or­ches­tral weight is re­stored; still, it’s no floor­stander.

A de­ci­sive factor in the 805’s ex­cel­lent per­for­mance was the in­te­gra­tion be­tween its port and its al­readyex­cel­lent in­ter-driver co­her­ence. There’s noth­ing more dis­ap­point­ing in an other­wise promis­ing loud­speaker than hav­ing a pair of trans­duc­ers speed­ing along to the fin­ish line like Triple Crown win­ners and the port bring­ing up the rear like a Bud­weiser Cly­des­dale. But as I lis­tened to the sin­u­ous open­ing vamp from Michael Jack­son’s “Bil­lie Jean” fol­lowed by the dance remix of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”—tracks that will give “slow” re­flex de­signs fits—the vent­ing was in­dis­tin­guish­able as a source. The speaker yielded near-sealed-box speed and con­trol but with the oomph and ex­ten­sion of a ported en­clo­sure. Com­men­da­tion also goes to the

805’s rigid, non-res­o­nant en­clo­sure that never be­trayed its boxy roots, nei­ther soft­en­ing tran­sients nor dulling im­me­di­acy. All in all, port man­age­ment is among the best I’ve heard in a two-way bass re­flex.

I’ve got­ten hooked lis­ten­ing to Tony Ben­nett’s “Small World” from the re­cent Im­pex twin-LP re­lease Ben­nett/Brubeck,

The White House Ses­sions, Live 1962. Be­yond the min­i­mal­ist pro­cess­ing, what makes this live record­ing so sat­is­fy­ing is that you can hear in Ben­nett’s singing the sweat that goes into the per­for­mance, the mo­ment by mo­ment con­cen­tra­tion of the singer per­form­ing out­side of the con­trolled at­mos­phere of the record­ing stu­dio—no safety net, re­takes, or ed­its. In that same vein are In­ter­ven­tion Records’ re­mas­ters of Joe Jack­son’s I’m the Man and Night and Day al­bums that re­flect the record­ing min­i­mal­ism of their era—a pre-auto-tune sim­plic­ity, speed, and im­me­di­acy that lets you hear past the ma­chin­ery and join the mu­si­cians in­side the stu­dio.

It doesn’t hap­pen very of­ten that I sit down to lis­ten to a loud­speaker, notepad and pen at the ready, and sud­denly find that the sty­lus has hit the run-out groove, and my notepad is rest­ing in my lap com­pletely for­got­ten. This has oc­curred with only a hand­ful of loud­speak­ers. I can re­call the TAD CR-1, the Wil­son Sab­rina, the Van­der­steen Treo CT, Elac’s su­perb li’l cheapie De­but B5, the ATC SCM20SL (bought ’em, still have ’em)— dif­fer­ent speak­ers in so many ways yet all had a mu­si­cal charisma that se­duced me into lis­ten­ing for hours at a stretch.

Re­turn­ing to my orig­i­nal premise: the com­pact speaker as flag­ship. If sheer size or dizzy­ing price is the only cri­te­rion, then it’s ob­vi­ously game over for the 805. How­ever, if the stan­dard is pre­mium qual­ity, sonic elo­quence, and un­tram­meled mu­si­cal­ity, then the 805 D3 as­cends to flag­ship-level im­por­tance. I can count on the fin­gers of one hand the times I’ve ever thought of a small, two-way, stand-mounted speaker in this way. Com­pact or not, the 805 D3 is loud­speaker to be reck­oned with, at any price, in any com­pany. My high­est rec­om­men­da­tion.

Bow­ers & Wilkins’ 805 D3 is avail­able now for RRP $8500.

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