A Compact That Acts Like a Flagship
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.