Building the ultimate 800 series

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Building the ultimate 800 series

Something radical has been happening in West Sussex, the Bowers & Wilkins research labs in Steyning has taken the Kevlar drivers out of the company’s range topping 800 series loudspeakers. The yellow Kevlar cones are synonymous with the brand and have featured on every 800 series model since the first 801 was launched in 1987. Since then these speakers have evolved through four iterations, gaining the distinctive nautilus head in 1998 and the diamond tweeter in 2004, the last refinement came in 2010 and throughout that time the yellow midrange or mid/bass drivers have been a constant. With 800 D3 however, this has been usurped with a silver grey driver that Bowers has dubbed Continuum.

But that is not the most obvious change, all it takes is a glance to realise that the whole shape of the 802, 803 and 805 is different. The head for instance is longer and less bulbous (hopefully no less fast, eh Mascara Snake), what’s more it’s now made of aluminium rather than Marlan. What I didn’t spot at first is that the cabinet wrap has been reversed, the curve is now on the front rather than the back, hence the spacers underneath the bass drivers. It turns out that of the 896 parts in an 802 D3 only 28 can be found in the 802 Diamond that preceded it and these are largely to be found in the terminals, crossover and the diamond dome itself, they haven’t found anything that betters that, not yet anyway.

The overall aesthetic effect is to make the speakers look slimmer and deeper, apparently the change in width isn’t very big but the curve on the front does wonders for its figure. The changes underneath the skin are more significant still, Bowers & Wilkins’ engineers were charged with revolutionising the range rather than merely updating and finessing it, the new shape was not merely chosen to make them look less imposing but to anchor the drivers to the stiffest part of the cabinet. To my knowledge this is the first speaker series from anyone where the cabinet has been designed with computer modelling, this enabled B&W to see just where both the woodwork and the Marlan were vibrating under dynamic conditions. It’s extraordinary to think that something as solid as a synthetic rock could vibrate at audio frequencies but the company has very convincing animated footage to reveal the ‘head’s’ weak points, and these were largely around the opening for the midrange driver. The new turbine head as they are calling it is made from cast and machined aluminium, it’s smaller in diameter in order to increase stiffness and wider at the back, with radial fins internally and a central fixing point for the driver chassis. This has also been beefed up and looks completely different thanks to much thicker ‘legs’ and thus a far less open back, presumably rigidity is more important than ease of airflow.

Bowers & Wilkins 804 D3, 803 D3 & 802 D3 in white

The Continuum cone material is not apparently all that different from Kevlar, both are a weave of man made materials but the silver grey cone feels considerably stiffer. They aren’t saying what it’s made of at this point merely that it has better self damping than Kevlar and lower ‘noise’, that is it stops vibrating more quickly after an impulse than its predecessor. The bass drivers have changed too, until now they have had Rohacell cones with a skin of carbon fibre either side of a foam core. The new cone dubbed Aerofoil also has carbon fibre skins but the core is syntactic foam and the shape in section is akin to Anne Elk’s theory on brontosauruses, thick in the middle and thin at either end. It’s quite a radical idea, I know that at least one other company has used syntactic foam but have never seen a cone with this cross section, in fact anything other than a flat sandwich is pretty much unheard off.

The diamond dome remains but everything else about the tweeter has changed, it has a new surround, new motor system and the tube it inhabits is different. This like the turbine head is in milled aluminium and likewise it has had its behaviour analysed at appropriate frequencies, this has led to a shorter body with a straight rather than flared rear tube. Changes that have resulted in the first break up moving from four kilohertz to sixteen, so quite a bit stiffer where it counts. The tweeter grille is no longer designed to be removed, the speakers have been voiced with it in place, which should cut down on the amount of replacement diamond domes required in the field.

Looking around Bowers & Wilkins’ Worthing factory where these models are made we came across a number of construction changes that have been implemented to aid servicing. These include much easier access to the crossover, which is behind an aluminium panel on the back rather than in the base of the new 800s, the base itself has also been stiffened up, and both spikes and rollers permanently fitted to the base. All of which means you no longer have to lay these heavy speakers down to set them up, a real boon to retailers and customers alike. It’s less appealing to those of us that like to suspend our speakers on sprung bases but I’m sure we’ll find a workaround.

All the woodwork and finishing is done in house for this range, the timber ply for the curved cabinet is layered up and glued in huge machines that bend the material around formers prior to machining by multi-access robotic arms. A small army of people are employed to assemble and finish the cabinet work and head parts to an extremely high standard, their number suggesting that the 800 series remains the most successful high end speaker in the business. They have been building the new models since March this year to cope with anticipated demand for the October launch, and even then the daddy of the range, the 800 D3, has yet to go into production.

Bowers & Wilkins 805 D3, 803 D3 & 802 D3

The 803 D3 is the first of its kind to get a ‘head’, this smaller than that on the 802 but represents a radical shift for this model and a £5,000 price rise in the process. But in the opinion of the engineers in Steyning the new 803 is better than the old 802, so you are getting more quality out of a smaller speaker which is quite a claim. Yet when we heard these two speakers back to back it was hard to disagree with this pronouncement, the all round stiffening of the cabinet plus the change to Continuum has made significant improvements in terms of noise floor reduction/overhang removal as well as dynamics and precision. Judgement will be reserved until a full appraisal can be made but we are very much looking forward to hearing these speakers.

Inevitably these changes have had an effect on the price of the entire 800 range, the 802 Diamond was £11,500, the 802 D3 is £16,500, the 800 D3 will be £22,500 when it comes along. In the context of high end speakers that the 800 D3 range should be compared with these aren’t enormous numbers however, think of Magico, Wilson Audio, PMC and KEF and you will see that they all have more expensive models, some of them a lot more. In the past the 800 series have represented the best value in the high end and from what we’ve heard this state of affairs looks set to continue in this distinctly reformed iteration of a classic loudspeaker range.

Jason Kennedy