Bowers & Wilkins already produces the third generation of the 800 series. This series have always been the showpiece of the manufacturer and that hasn't changed with this third series. The first model with the same design saw the light of life under the name Nautilus 800. From that time we saw the bent housing shape and the headshape with the midrange speaker, which is so typical for this series of Bowers & Wilkins. With the second generation the speaker range moved on under the name 800D series, where the D already stood for Diamond and referred to the vapour deposited diamond tweeters. The third generation and the reason why we write this review completely incorporates this in the name and was named "800 Series Diamond". The manufacturer each time produces three versions of a certain series and then starts again with a blank sheet. So this is the top speaker from the British manufacturer and that demands a test to see how far you can take it.
Bowers & Wilkins
This British speaker manufacturer comes with a complete gamut of speakers. At B&W you will find everything from new media equipment to custom install products to the absolute top in HiFi and home cinema theatre speakers. The company was founded in 1966 by John Bowers who unfortunately died 21 years later. The brand is a part of the B&W Group Ltd now, where we can also find the amplifiers of Rotel and Classé Audio. The brand has a very reliable R&D department, you only have to take a look at the number of high quality designs that already came of the figurative conveyor belt. One of the Bowers & Wilkins faces is John Dibb, whom we interviewed at the ISE exhibition 2012 in Amsterdam. The sixty-year-old is absolutely passionate about music and delivers prominent designs in his function of 'Senior Development Engineer' among which the Silver Signature and Signature 30 series with which Bowers & Wilkins celebrated the 25- and 30- year anniversary of the brand. Dibb also has a lot of influence over the final version of the speakers we discuss in this test: the 800 Series Diamond.
Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamond
The 800 Series Diamond is a complete line of top speakers. The 800 is the top model and is followed by the 802 Diamond. The latter is a more ‘compact' version of the top speaker but also has that typical head shape. The 802 has a slightly different base, less housing volume and somewhat smaller woofers. The 803 Diamond follows the 802. This speaker was the first one with 3 woofers with a combined power of 500 Watt. The smallest floor stand from the series is called 804 Diamond. Besides that there is also the bookshelf speaker: the 805 Diamond. In the 800 series we also find two centre speakers for those who want to create a home theatre solution with this series. The large centre speaker is a full 3-way centre speaker with the name HTM2 Diamond. The HTM4 centre speaker is smaller in size and is a 2-way speaker. In the past there was also the HTM1 which in fact was a horizontal version of the 802 Diamond, but this isn't included in the assortment any longer. To complete your surround set up in this series there is of course also a reference sub woofer: the Bowers & Wilkins DB1.800 Diamond checked out
The 800 Diamond is a full 3-way system with a vapour deposited diamond tweeter. Primeval for all B&W lovers is the Kevlar mid range. The material is supposed to form a very rigid unit so less distortion will occur. The mid range unit is a fairly substantial 15 cm diameter speaker. Of course this unit sits in a separate housing within the full housing of the 800 Diamond. Also the two linked woofers of 25 cm each are placed in a separate part of the housing. Of course these woofers are part of a 3-way bass reflex system. They have a flow port which is nicely concealed in the design and does not stand out. On top, at the head shape, the form of the actual housing, where the head shape rests, slants upward and at the bottom it slants downwards and the speaker rests on 3 metal supports. The bass port is located behind these silver coloured supports.
Typical for the 800 Diamond is the socle, the bottom plate with 4 connection terminals at the back. These Rhodium connector clamps are located on top of the backside of the socle. You can use banana plugs with these clamps but most of you will connect these speakers with spades. The 800 Diamond has a splendidly designed filter, made to bi-wire effectively. Where other speaker manufacturers sometimes use it as a marketing tool, this most certainly is not the case with Bowers & Wilkins. You can let the signal enter here on two clamps of which one goes directly to the woofers, while also the other signal leaves the amplifier via a second cable for the mid and high tones. This ‘makes it easier' for the filter to drive the right parts so you will get a better definition and have more detail. True purists can even go bi-amping: separate power amps for lows and mids/highs. The filter has the trend setting Mundorf Silver/Gold Cap capacitors. These capacitors are hand selected. Only the best is good enough to end up in an 800 Diamond. Of course there are also top capacitors in the ‘lower' models of the 800 series, but in the 800 Diamond, the no-compromise leading light of B&W we will only find top notch. This showpiece of the British speaker manufacturer is a full-range speaker design. This means it can really reproduce everything: pipe organ, piano,... This speaker can set the key-note for everything. The two base units can, combined with the bass port, have an extension up to 16 Hz and that really is a key-note. The better the key-note, the better the structure upward is going to be of course. To prevent that air coming from the bass port is going to swirl, B&W uses many small hollows (like in a golf ball). That way the air is guided away in different directions to prevent swirling.
The filtering of the 800 Diamond tweeter is a first-order one: it only has 1 capacitor which protects the tweeter against overload. This makes it very clear that these are top class units that can stand hard wear. First-order filtering is an absolute quality feature and Bowers & Wilkins executes that perfectly in this 800 Diamond. If we figuratively undress the Bowers & Wilkins, the 25 cm woofers immediately impress. They have a new quad-magnet motor system so they can react faster and therefore reproduce more detail. The woofers are tremendously rigid, but at the same time very movable and have therefore a fantastic impulse response. They are super rigid so you can use them at high power without any problem.
The speaker enclosure is build as a matrix housing. Together with the bracing of the panels this makes that the internal vibrations and resonance due to displacement of air is reduced to an absolute minimum. In fact, you can lay your hands on the housing while playing and you will detect almost nothing.
On top of that matrix structure the headshape rests. This ‘ball' in fact mimics a teardrop shape and is made from the composite material Marlan. With the headshape Bowers & Wilkins mimics the Nautilus structure ( like a snail's shell). This shape is very specific to reduce internal resonances to an absolute minimum. In a Nautilus structure a sound wave dies out and that is interesting because all sound waves that stay in the speaker have to be muffled.
The mid-range speaker is mounted in the headshape without a rim. Due to the lack of this rim, there is no extra colouring, distortion that otherwise would occur. By the way, the mid-range speaker is also made of Kevlar and has a phase plug. In contrast to what many people think, this is not an aesthetic thing, but it is to obtain a better spreading of the sound.
The tweeter is produced with vapour deposited diamond. In the past, Bowers & Wilkins mainly worked with metal domes. The most important feature of a tweeter is the break-up frequency. This frequency indicates when the tweeter is going to distort. The higher this break-up frequency is, the cleaner the tweeter sounds in the audible range. Thanks to the vapour deposited diamond this tweeter reaches a break-up frequency of 50,000 Hz, which gives us a more open, transparent and natural sound in the audible range.
This 800 Diamond is a pretty bulky speaker. It is 118 cm high, 54 cm wide and 64.5 cm deep (also due to the size of the filter board). The speakers weigh as much as 102 kilos each and therefore cannot be moved easily. From the third version of the 800 Diamond, the speakers are not only available in cherry wood and rose nut, but also in piano black gloss.
The Bowers & Wilkins 800 Diamond is simply an absolute top speaker. This speaker is for the devotee who wants to crawl 1 on 1 into his recording. It is not meant for someone who is just looking for just any speaker. With this speaker you will be transported into the recording so you can relive everything as if you were actually there. In our opinion that is what Bowers & Wilkins had in mind when developing this speaker: a no-compromise speaker packed with superior technology for the benefit of the music.
The 800 Diamond is a speaker which in our opinion does not belong in rooms under 50 m2. These speakers form a huge sound image behind the speakers and therefore they should be placed at least two and a half meters apart to give them ‘breathing space' to create that sound image. Normally the 800 Diamond speakers are placed on a rollerball base. That way you can move them to the place where you want them to stand. Starting with this series Bowers & Wilkins also delivers 2 sets of metal spikes with the speakers. Due to the point load of the spikes, you fully uncouple the speaker so to say from the foundation, so you will get a tighter low, completed with more dynamics and an increase of resolution. If you want to go even further, you should take a look at the Cerabase feet that are marketed especially for the B&W 800 series by the German manufacturer Finite Elemente. These feet stand on small balls which absorb the energy and really uncouple the speaker from the foundation. The elements that were already improved by the spikes were exponentially improved again after adding these special feet.
The speaker has a sensitivity of 90 dB which means it should be able to get along with most amplifiers. According to B&W these speakers are suitable for amplification of 50-1000 watt at 8 ohm. So they are very amplifier friendly and do not make your life harder with this. In contrast with the previous versions, this series is a monitor speaker. In the Abbey Road studios for instance they only use the 800 Diamond speakers. The advantage of this hifi-monitor, because we don't think of it as a studio monitor, is that is will always reproduce everything you connect to it 1 on 1. A studio monitor dissects the music in a non-musical way while this 800 Diamond also dissects the music but in a very musical way. In the end a bad recording will also sound horrible with these speakers while an audiophile recording will produce an enormous amount of potential.
We tested the 800's with among others the full Marantz Legendary set: SC7 pre-amp and 2 MA9 series mono blocks of 300 Watt each. In the end we even had 4 of these mono blocks so we could bi-amp, even though this gave not much of a surplus value apart from a slightly tighter low. The whole setup produces a typical Marantz sound which is warm and full in the lows. In the mid-area this combination gives a large dose of sweetness while the high-area slopes down nicely without ever getting aggressive. The whole sounds in this combination very musical and homogeneous.
We played with the Electrocompaniet AW400 and Nemo AW600 mono blocks, Electrocompaniet pre-amp and the EMC1-UP CD player. With this combination we go more towards the neutral with a small amount of sweetness. The AW400 is a 400 Watt mono block and delivers a lot of current so it controls the speaker pretty well. With this Electrocompaniet set the sound image goes widely past the speakers with a good height and depth. You could describe the sound image as seemingly 4D because it just leaves nothing to the imagination. You will see and hear absolutely everything as if you were present at the recording. It is a fact that you can stretch that sound image even further in a larger room so your orchestra seems to get even bigger. The 800 Series Diamond creates simply real life dimensions and reproduces everything 1 on 1 as recorded. Playing the same combination with the 802, the weight and the dimension of the instruments are just a little more compact. Besides the AW400's we also played with the Electrocompaniet Nemo AW600 mono blocks. We added an MSB Technology UMT drive with separate power supply. This sounds more neutral than the Marantz CD player. We completed this set-up with the Siltech C1 pre-amp. The 600 Watt mono blocks push the 800 Diamond series even further. These power-amps leave almost no room in the lows and go a lot further in resolution than the smaller brothers, the AW400. That is why the sound image and the transparency in the music grows once again.
We also tested the 800 Diamond with a Mark Levinson set and that leaned toward the Electrocompaniet camp. It is fairly neutral, but just a little more musical. Mark Levinson is less bulky. With the Electrocompaniet AW600's you really get some body because these amps really have the weight to deliver such power. So with the 300 Watts of the Mark Levinson amplifiers it is just a little slimmer. That doesn't mean the whole will sound poor, but it is just somewhat less meaty, powerful. A double bass still has the depth of a double bass but is somewhat delineated while with the AW600's you can really notice the case volume of the double bass. With the ML set you can hear more of the finesse of the motion of the string and that is something you have to choose according to your likings. Why we describe all these combinations? Because we want to show that everything can be combined and can perfectly be fine-tuned to your own likings. These speakers have the great quality to immediately reproduce every adjustment to the peripheral equipment.
The next amp we tried with the Bowers & Wilkins 800 Diamond was the NAD Master Series M2: a digital 2x250 watt amplifier. For many audiophilics ‘not done' because of the ‘limited' budget of 6000 euros. To tell you the truth, this was the combination we listened to for the longest time. It seems to be the perfect marriage. As if the amplifier and the speakers were made for each other. The speed, drive and feel for musical details of the NAD M2 fans the 800's to show the best they've got. Result. An enormously open sound image with a lot of resolution. Voices sound lifelike. In the low you will gain more resolution due to the speed, attack and control of the NAD M2. The woofers of the Bowers & Wilkins 800 Diamond are really capable of a lot more compared to the previous series!
You actually leave the traditional approach behind with the NAD M2. At best you have a source that streams from a harddisk (digital) so you'll get a 1 on 1 copy of your music. There is continuous error correction and buffering when playing a CD. You can also use 24 bit/192 kHz high resolution files when streaming. In the future this might go up to 32 bit 384 kHz because both storage and bandwidth are no longer a problem. With the NAD M2 your digital file enters the amplifier through a digital cable. The rest of the process until just before the speaker cables remains digital and is converted into an analogue signal at the last moment. This keeps the signal path as pure as possible and that is exactly what you hear. And this really endorses and underlines how good the 800 Diamond speakers are. The purer the signal is delivered at the speaker, the easier it is for the speaker to reproduce the original file. That is why you can go even further compared to a traditional analogue set up with the NAD Master Series M2 and possible similar amplifiers.
Once cracking with those HD files, you'll be home. Then it's no longer reproduction, but perception. You are witnessing a ‘live' performance. There is no compression or colouring anymore, but there are correct tone colours, dynamics and nice reconstruction of the original recording scene.
These Bowers & Wilkins speakers have, as mentioned before, no problem with heavy amps, but what is even more fun: this series produce also the best with less heavy amps. This is a really interesting characteristic which is nice for people who want to invest in speakers, but don't have the possibility to spend that amount on peripheral equipment. A combination we would love to have tested during the term of this review was the Classé CP-800 with accompanying 600 Watt mono power amps. Luckily this set will be available soon and then we still can get to work.
Jumper cables or jumper cables?
When we start experimenting with different cables we reveal that the Bowers & Wilkins is really not that cable sensitive. It will definitely not punish you for using ordinary cables. And still it will let you hear the differences between the different cables. So you can tune your system even more to your likings. We mainly tested with three brands of cables: Siltech, Audioquest and Kimber. One of the characteristics of the Siltech cables is that they build a stage behind the speaker. These cables also reproduce the different aspects of the sound image in the recording room itself and that can be in a studio as well as in a concert hall. It's just this typical Siltech characteristic that The 800 Diamond reproduces so well. With Siltech you have the idea you are sitting in row 9 of the 12 rows in the concert hall. With Kimber you are seated a little more to the middle, row 6. Compared to the Siletch this cable is somewhat dryer, you still can hear the recording studio, but less. The closer you are to the stage, the more you will be absorbed by the music. With the Audioquest cables you are seated in the third row. By using electronic screening you will get a pitch black background. Everything sounds lifelike, life size and is projected for you that way. Because the signal is as pure as it gets, you will hear huge dynamic contrasts. You get the feeling that with the Audioquest cables the most dynamics are reproduced and dynamics is something the Bowers & Wilkins 800 Diamond can handle pretty well. With the Kimber cables the dynamics are more neutral and with the Siltech you will have a little more rest. Thanks to the different cables and amplifier setups we tried with the 800 Diamond, we learned to asses it perfectly. The discernment whether it comes from the speaker, the cable or the amp can be heard much faster that way. It really is a hi-fi monitor speaker with a huge, impressing musicality.
Reviewing the music
We have chosen six CD's we want to discuss in detail to throw some light over the whole.
The first one is a SA-CD from Pentatone Classics: Mari Kodama, Beethoven Sonatas number 16, 17 and 18 are on this multi channel SA-CD. Mari Kodama is one of the better performers of the Beethoven Sonatas. They were recorded by many pianists in the past, but despite the fact that Kodama is of Asian (Japanese) descent, she translates the musical intentions of our European Beethoven like no other, and that is pretty remarkable. You need to know that this is just piano, only one lady behind the piano, very intimate. When playing this is very intimate, you and the piano in your room. Why do we call this a reference? This is something I play with every test. Piano is one of the hardest instruments to reproduce: a plucked instrument with strings can bring out the dynamic capacities of the speaker (or not). Even though a piano seems to sound soft, you can play it loud. It's the differences in dynamic contrasts and the capacity of the speaker to perform that, which actually makes the difference on what level of realism the piano is reproduced. With every different key played, another wire is struck. This is a mechanical process which immediately produces a dynamic aspect of the striking, you instantly get a sound. But what's more, the wire will not stop vibrating immediately. De wire vibration fades out and this is very difficult to reproduce, because then the phase purity of the speaker is very important. When a speaker is phase pure, the more transparent and clear, the more correct the timing will be. The better a speaker scores on that level, the more realistic the piano play is reproduced. But how does that show? Mari Kodama plays with two hands, an upper part and a lower part. If you have the qualities, you can hear the two hands separately while it still is a musical whole. You can in fact follow the bass line separately, that is how clear the piano is reproduced.
You can also follow the performance of the upper hand perfectly. This phase purity refers to striking perfectly, to hear the micro dynamics of each note, the rolling of the notes and the fine details which are actually there so you can hear the finger- and key movements. When it reaches so deep into the piano, you know you are working with a quality speaker and that is why the 800 Diamond is so good, because it reproduces all the above mentioned flawlessly. And there are not many speakers that you can say this about. Whether you play The Tempest or The Hunt (nr. 17 or 18), from mellow pieces to dynamic pieces, you have the reflex to keep listening to everything in one go. This speaker really grabs you and lets you hear all musical intentions. You also need to know that all those CD's were recorded from a multi-channel point of view. I don't mean to say that the stereo mix is of poor quality, but Pentatone is mainly a label that engages itself with the placement of the microphones to support multi-channel and that is something to look forward to if we can play with the 800's in surround mode.
The next CD comes from the Naim label. The artist is Antonio Forcione and the title is Tears Of Joy. Forcione is a very skilful guitar player and this album contains ten virtuoso guitar pieces where the same theme is followed. Sometimes it feels like pop and sometimes like jazz. Sometimes he flirts with dynamic surprises and sometimes it is pleasantly intimate and quiet. Where can we hear the qualities of the speaker? There is of course the album track Tears of Joy, but also number 6, 7 and 8 (The Cool Cat, Fragile and Landmark) with a very nice flange on the guitar which really is alive. The speaker is so very fast in the mid tones and mid high tones that the guitar really sizzles. That means that the string setting of the fingers on the guitar is extremely fast which gives it more airiness, frivolousness and that gives something extra to listen to. In this field it also knows how to capture your attention again. Here you can hear the extra qualities of the diamond tweeter. It brings that metal-like glow of the string movement of the guitar and it still isn't too much. You will really hear the natural sound of a string. Another characteristic typical for the 800 Diamond: it sounds very natural and realistic.
The Belgian folklore group Lais, they are three girls singing folk, for this occasion together with Ludo Vandeau. The album is called A La Capella and is recorded in Sint Truiden in the Academiezaal: an acoustic space where small classical shows are being performed. That space has a very interesting acoustic and that is transferred 1 on 1 by the B&W 800 Diamond speakers. One of the top songs on this CD with in total 8 numbers is number 1, Tria Cantica Eucharistica. It is a piece of Latin church singing and it brings emotions. Number four is also really good, that is Belle (Je M'En Vais). What can we learn from these numbers? The quality of the reproduction of the voices: here too we discern the voices that really sound like a normal voice. The bar is raised obviously with the third generation 800 Diamond series. Some speaker systems ‘over project' a voice (picture the human voice larger than normal). You'll get a realistic image, the voices are hanging in the room. You can look at the speakers but you'll never have the feeling that the voices are coming straight from the speakers. The funny part is that the resolution with this album is that great, you can hear that it is a medium-sized hall with a medium reverb time which really is reproduced 1 on 1. That is also because the tracks are recorded in natural surroundings and nothing is added electronically.
CD number four is French work by Michel Jonasz: the double CD named La Fabuleuse Histoire De Mister Swing. I am not really a fan of that singer, but there's a song on CD 2 called: Le Temps Passe. Why is just this number so nice? It is recorded nicely, actually somewhat oversized. In this song is a bass guitar which is recorded over dimensioned and this is reproduced that way by the 800 Diamond. This speaker is a full range model and goes down to 16 Hz so that bass guitar really stands out. In combination with the NAD Master Serie M2 you obtain a speed in the low, an impact, a kick, also due to the improvement of the woofers with the quad magnet system. The woofers became so fast and clean that the bass guitar is jumping there. You can really feel the pressure in your stomach, that is a special experience apart from the fact that the music on this system really is becoming nice. You can hear things in these compositions you didn't hear beforehand, so I dive deeper into this number and deeper into Michel Jonasz and I can say that I appreciate the man more thanks to these incredibly good speakers.
CD number five is again a SA-CD from the Dutch Channel Classics label. It is the second symphony by Mahler which is performed here by the Budapest Festival Orchestra. The whole is conducted by Ivan Fisher. Especially the Allegro Maestoso is my favourite piece. Mahler doesn't need any introduction, he is a masterful composer. Beethoven was very melodious with his symphonies and simply transparent which makes it captivating. Mahler on the other hand is very complex and then simple again, but you really have to understand it. Here you need empathy for classical music. Of course listening experience too, and some knowledge of certain composers before you can understand, place and appreciate it. For those who enjoy Mahler, and definitely that second symphony, they should play it in combination with the Bowers & Wilkins 800 Diamond speakers. That is pure excitement. There are some dynamic peaks where the orchestra grows towards and this happens two or three times. In the beginning the double basses play certain musical themes and this is repeated regularly. Chapeau for Channel Classics, the label that is known for its pureness. You close your eyes and you can just draw the orchestra on a piece of paper. You can tell: there are the double basses, there the cello's, there the violins, there the first violin, there the viola and there the wind instruments. You could say that there are guidelines for the composition of a classical orchestra. But depending on the composer, the pieces and the period of time there are smaller or larger orchestras, with different parties in orchestras. Some orchestras work with a different placement and sometimes the kettledrums are placed in the middle, sometimes in the back and sometimes left or right. But if you close your eyes, you are just sucked into the orchestra. The purity of the sound of a clarinet, a flute, ... It all seems to be liquid, like a painter brushing on paint onto his canvas, and it really looks like that. There is a nice pitch black background and suddenly something comes into being. A few people from the orchestra produce a musical engagement, and that is pure pleasure. It is a movement that lasts for 21.5 minutes and you really don't want to stop that.
The last one is one by Dhafer Youssef: Malak at Enja records. Youssef Dhafer is of Tunesian origin and thus we have a little Maghreb music and that is very nice. You'll have a number of instruments you are not used to be hearing and that makes it really special. We cannot name the instruments, but as far as song and composition this is very special. What makes this so much fun? The way the voice of the singer is recorded. They succeeded to draw so much contrast between the musical foundation of the song (the musical support with the instruments, which in fact support the voice). They succeeded that well with the mix that it seems like the instruments really form the foundation. The instruments are hanging loose between the speakers with so much view you can distinguish each instrument without getting analytical. What comes across is after all the whole of the music, but with a lot of speed and micro detail. De voice of the singer is really carried on this foundation. Especially with the song Iman (no. 2) it is regarding the dynamics a increasing song where his voice is getting more and more power and his voice also goes up as far as dynamics and tone. This is so impressive to listen to, because the voice in the mix also crawls higher and higher and the dynamics and tone builds up in your room and you just see it happen. It is all performed so excellently by those 800 Diamonds, simply stunning.
What we now can say is that the 800 Diamond series (despite it is the third series already) still is a design icon. As far as technique it still belongs to the absolute top, and let's be fair: it is simply the best speaker money can buy. The performance level lies not in the asking price of 22,000 euros, but much higher. When you place these speakers in the right room and hear the actual capacities you'll be baffled. We have, with the growth of our acoustic interior, really discovered the potential of the 800 Diamond (during 6-8 months). The speaker kept growing and that makes it for us personally the best in market for its budget. You always have to bear the price in mind. We are talking about a serious investment. Let alone if you want a surround solution with these speakers. This really is a speaker for the real music lover, the real audiophile who says: "I am going to save some more money". Then this is an investment for life which is definitely not going to disappoint you. Don't worry.
This is a show piece. Mind you, the entourage has to be at level. We have discussed a lot of amps, but our personal preference goes, of all the models we tested, to the NAD M2 Finishing the whole musically is done with a typical choice of cables. The 800 Diamond is a no-compromise model that needs 50-60 m2 to fully expand. Otherwise you won't utilize the sound image and the ‘extra' capacity of the speaker to its best. Bottom line? The Bowers & Wilkins 800 Diamond is the better speaker and as far as I am concerned the speaker of the year.