I felt I was on a ladder higher than the clouds. With a total view over the whole world. A musical world, where every instrument unfolds freely, in a large, airy and three-dimensional room. No, a cosmos. Full of dancing filaments of energy, vibrating and together creating the building blocks of music. In short: the Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 is pure magic, made possible by science.
An icon is born
The iconic 800 series has an important history to cherish, which is why Bowers & Wilkins is not taking any chances when it launches a new and upgraded generation of these speakers. It all started back in 1979, with the company’s first version of the 801. The technology was absurdly modern for the time, including laser measurements of the behaviour of the speaker elements and of how the sound waves travel along the diaphragms. The loudspeaker was designed according to mathematical formulas, rather than trial and error with sound testers. Unheard of at the time!
The loudspeakers didn’t look like others, almost like building blocks stacked on top of each other. John Bowers strongly believed that the sound would be best if the midrange, tweeter and 10-inch woofer were each in their own cabinet, so that they did not affect each other.
He was probably right, because the 801 soon found its way into the legendary Abbey Road Studios in London.
The evolution of a legend
Since that time, the 800 series has undergone many changes and innovations. In the 1990s, the 801 grew enormously, with a 15-inch woofer replacing the original 10-inch. A hefty speaker that would become every hi-fi beginner’s dream to one day afford.
A major revolution occurred during the development of the avant-garde flagship Nautilus. A unique loudspeaker, where each driver is mounted in its own tapered line, absorbing all the energy from the back of the driver. The tunnels are very long, and look almost otherworldly as they extend backwards into the room. To prevent the bass driver’s tunnel that must be several meters long to make it impossible to place the speakers, they are wrapped around themselves like a snail’s shell. Hence the name Nautilus.
The next 800-series that came after this, took lessons from the Nautilus speaker, and also have similar braces, just mounted inside the speaker cabinet. A speaker cabinet that has become increasingly perfected with each generation.
A step along the way, B&W chose diamond for the diaphragm on the tweeters. Super stiff and light, just right for the job. Hence the D in the model name, and today’s D4 series represents the fourth generation of such tweeters..
The cabinets used in today’s D4 series are a further development of the previous generation, the D3, which was then a completely new design, although the principle was the same as before. The D3 was in many ways a revolusjon for B&W, because for this they invested aroudn 15 million Euros in machines alone, to manage to achieve what they wanted. The step up from the D2 series was huge, including much use of robotics in the production line, to perfect the accuracy of the speakers.
See the video above, from LB Tech Review’s factory visit during the manufactuing of the B&W 800 D3-series.
Perfect drop shape
The principle of drop-shaped cabinets for each individual speaker element is the same as before, but it was only for the D3 that B&W had the tools to really make the shape they believe is the optimum. A near perfect drop shape, seen from above, where all sound waves are directed away from each other, and never allowed to collide. A link in creating the purest sound ever in a loudspeaker.
Both the tweeter elements and the crossover, and indeed the whole design, have improved over the years, with new knowledge, better measuring equipment and new machine tools. The goal is always the same: Keep the distortion down!
The 801 D4 is the largest and most expensive speaker in the new series, but instead of looking like any of the 801s since the 1990s, they’ve now taken the 800 D3 as a starting point and improved on it. This one has two 10-inchers instead of a 15-incher, and that makes sense in terms of combining the best possible phase response, impact and bass. But it also removes an important part of what makes the 801 special. Because how many high-end speakers have 15-inch woofer?
At the same time, it is true that when the 800 model was first introduced (Signature 800 came in 2001), it was a better and more correct speaker than the 801. So it’s no wonder that Bowers & Wilkins has kept that concept as its flagship today. It’s just a bit odd that they’ve chosen to call it the 801 D4, instead of the 800 D4. I understand the iconic name, but then maybe it should also have the iconic shape and trim. Much about that.
L&B video: the B&W 801 D4 is heavy, but fortunately obeys our command…
Into The Matrix
Matrix is the name of B&W’s inner cabinets. The shell on which the exterior is built. In its latest edition, interwoven panels have been used to reinforce the cabinet walls in all directions, thus reducing resonances. The panels are reinforced with aluminium bracing at key stress points. The manufacturer wholeheartedly believes that the Matrix composition of the 801 D4 is their best yet, and I have no reason to doubt it.
The diamond tweeter on top is a further development of the brand new tweeter that came with the D3 series. It sits in its own teardrop-shaped chamber, milled out of a solid block of aluminium. Unlike previous generations, which rang like a bell if you hit the chamber’s metal, this one is as good as completely resonance dead.
Midrange in teardrop-shaped cabinet
The midrange cabinet on top of the main cabinet also has an almost perfect teardrop shape. B&W calls it Turbine Head, for it also draws associations to a jet engine. The cabinet is pure aluminium, with very effective damping and stiffening, and prevents turbulence and standing sound waves both internally and externally.
In the D4 version, the midrange cabinet has even better decoupling from the bass cabinet than before, for even cleaner sound. Together with the resonant Continuum element, suspended in a Biomimetic Suspension that reduces unwanted air pressure differences, Bowers & Wilkins promises “the most realistic midrange reproduction ever”.
Aerodynamic bass diaphragms
The hefty 10-inch woofers feature diaphragms in a composite “sandwich” construction, with carbon fibre on top of a rigid foam material. To achieve as close as possible to a pure piston movement, with minimal break-up along the suspension as the diaphragm moves in and out, the diaphragm is thicker in the middle than at the edges. If you cut a cross section of the diaphragmand see it from profile, the shape will resemble that of an aeroplane wing. B&W therefore calls the bass diaphragm Aerofoil. This first appeared in the 800 D3 series, and has previously impressed us with super clean bass reproduction at all sound pressures.
Finally, the filters have been upgraded since last time, and in the 801 D4 they are even more advanced than in the more space-saving 802 D4. In the largest speaker there are Supreme capacitors from the world’s most famous supplier of filter components, Mundorf.
The speakers are designed to withstand extremely high loads, up to 1000 watts in short bursts. Because this can create a lot of heat in the coils, B&W has equipped the speakers with a solid aluminium backplate, with external cooling fins that conduct heat away from the internal parts. However advanced the rest of the cabinet construction is, the back is the most expensive single component of the whole cabinet.
Back to the room and the music. Firstly, it was a two-man job to get the speakers into our test room, although unpacking actually went pretty easily. The packaging is made up of many collapsed flaps, which can be easily removed, leaving the speaker standing. A wedge in the box snaps on and creates a ramp, from which the speaker can be rolled down.
If you are not particularly fussy with your flooring, the speakers can be rolled into place on the built-in wheels in the base. But beware, they weigh over 100 kilos – each – so they may leave nasty marks in the parquet! Wall-to-wall carpeting and concrete might work, but otherwise you’ll need at least two, preferably three or more people to lift the speakers into place.
Once you’ve found the best placement, the spikes can be screwed into the floor from the top (tools included). And the speakers are firmly in place.
For the occasion, the speakers are connected to the Devialet Expert 250 Pro, which is a truly amazing amplifier. This has built-in filters for quite a few speaker models out there, but not yet the D4 series for B&W. Then you could have gotten even more bass out of them, and corrected for the room mode problems that are inevitable in any passive subfilter. A need I don’t really feel, having heard the speakers in their own naked guise.
Just listen to the song Allthetimeevenwhen by soulfunk band Fieh, played through Roon (the forerunner is Roon Ready). The sound is very reminiscent of Jaga Jazzist, not so nice considering that Lars Horntveth from Jaga has conjured up the sound on the single.
There’s air and warmth from both mellotron, flugelhorn and clarinet, and even the edge beat on the snare drum has plenty of undertones. The voice of Sofie Tollefsbøl is almost magical as it hangs in the air like a ghost. There are so many layers here, and no notes clash with each other.
The dynamics could be the subject of a chapter. Every change in volume is felt, and every time a wind shifts the mouthpiece towards the lips, it is so present that goose bumps appear.
The bass here knows almost no bounds. That on paper it extends down to 15 Hz with good linearity seems no exaggeration. This is insanely deep!
Halsey’s People Disappear grooves so that I almost don’t know where to turn. The mountainous bass, the soft drum beat and the synths that wriggle, everything blends into a unity that makes me unable to think of anything else but the music.
The deeper man’s voice sits like a shard too. Like Sivert Høyem’s beautiful, big crooner voice on Madrugada’s Ecstasy. Surrounded by piano, synths, strings and a low-key bass drum that lurks on the dip. Crystal clear. Insane.
The speakers require a load of 50-1000 watts. A pretty tall order, you ask us. But anything under 100 watts is a pure emergency solution. The Devialet amplifier, rated at 250 watts into 6 ohms and bridgeable to 1 x 1000 watts, actually had a bit of a challenge here, despite the fact that the speakers have a sensitivity of 90 dB (1 W/1 m).
That’s not to say that the speakers can’t play loud enough with the Devialet, but I do miss a bit of grandeur in the mid-bass range. The area that hits the stomach when pounding on with hard rhythms. And which of course comes along well otherwise too.
Rotel Michi X5
Enter the Michi X5. Michi is Rotel’s high-end brand, and the X5 is an integrated powerhouse of 2 x 350 watts into 8 ohms, and at 44 kilos looks like a tank compared to the minimalist Devialet amplifier at under 10 kilos. It sounds like that, too.
Because now, we’re talking! The Michi amp turns the speakers into real beasts, gripping your body and beating it up. The amplifier actually costs only half as much as the Devialet one, but has so much more authority that it really doesn’t sound like that.
When the rhythms set in on Uffie’s remarkable synthpop song Cool, you risk getting nauseous if you don’t watch the sound level! Yet it’s so clever and open that thoughts never turn to PA or party speakers. There’s no party bump in the bass, it’s just naturally hard hitting when it needs to be, and the resolution in the speakers is as absolute as I think I’ve ever heard.
You can’t have a pair of loudspeakers like these visiting without playing classical music. Preferably for hours at a time. For the way the flutes dance in the air, on The Dance of the Hours by Ponichelly is almost unheard of. I like to play quite loud, to have the quietest parts too. And then many loudspeakers become presumptuous when the loudest blasts come. The 801 D4, on the other hand, is so totally relaxed and confident that it takes everything in its stride.
The scene is painted up with both breadth and depth, with each instrument placed painfully accurately. Nothing sticks out when it shouldn’t, there’s room for everything. And it sounds so real that you have to pinch your arm.
35,000 Euros for a pair of speakers is insane, and something just very few people can afford. But there are still other speakers that are much more expensive than these. Raidho’s TD series starts at this price for the smallest floorstanding (TD-2.2), while the largest TD-4.8 costs four times that. Magico M3 is close to that too. And the list goes on. I’m tempted to say that the 801 D4 is better than all of them. At least when talking about true fidelity, where the speaker is 100 percent true in presentation.
The Dynaudio Confidence 60 is in the same price range as the B&W speakers, and even they don’t play as freely and dynamically. The B&Ws also require much more of the amplifier before the musical space opens up, so the total is quickly becoming much more expensive. For as good as the B&Ws sound with a sub 10,000 € amplifier, you won’t get anywhere near the Dynaudios, without approaching twice that price.
The Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 is a unique speaker. It is big and rough, but still watchful in its own ingenious way. And it sounds really fantastic.
It’s not often that we get a wet feeling in our eyes from listening to hi-fi. But with these speakers, the goosebumps wouldn’t budge. The journalist felt he should be working instead. Despite the fact that this is actually what he is employed for. The grandeur, the clout, the air. These are speakers we can die with.
Is the 801 D4 cheap? Of course not. But what you get for the money is some of the closest perfection we’ve heard.