Bowers & Wilkins 802 D3 Loudspeakers

by Jason Kennedy | March 29, 2017

The people who design Bowers & Wilkins products do so in a research lab located in the picturesque village of Steyning (the same town in which SME is based), near the south coast in England. They have a well-insulated listening room, which is necessary because when it comes to developing serious loudspeakers, B&W likes to audition at pretty serious volume levels. This much came back to me when Steve Pearce of B&W brought the latest incarnation of the 802 to my listening room and turned up the volume to something distinctly higher than I usually listen, but it sounded very good indeed playing his bass-busting tracks on CD and, as it turned out, with a Rega RP8 turntable. I was quite pleased to be able to reinvigorate Steve’s enthusiasm for vinyl and inspire him to fix one of the three turntables he has gathering dust at home.

For the latest generation of 800-series models, the Bowers & Wilkins research-and-development team, with Steve’s ears at the cutting edge, decided to abandon the evolutionary process that had informed the previous revisions for this range and start afresh. In practice, this meant that B&W replaced everything in the 802 apart from the cable terminals and the diamond dome of the tweeter.

The most obvious change involved turning the cabinet around 180 degrees. In the previous three generations of this and the other 800-series models, the laminated wood wrap was curved at the back and had a flat baffle across the front. Now the curve is at the front and the flat section is covered with an attractive aluminum extrusion on the back. This switch means that the bass drivers have to be mounted on aluminum rings, but it makes the 802 D3 look a lot slimmer than its predecessors. In fact, it is a little slimmer and a bit deeper too, so it is slightly less imposing in the room. This is still a proper loudspeaker, however. You’d have to put it in a big room for it to disappear.

The 802 is the penultimate model in the 800 D3 range, and it shares its Turbine head and 6" Continuum midrange driver with the 800 D3 range topper, but it has a smaller main cabinet with two 8" Aerofoil bass drivers up front, which vent via a reflex port hidden between plinth and cabinet. The tweeter and housing are the same across the range.

What distinguishes the larger 800 series models is that head unit, which houses the midrange drive unit. In the previous incarnation, this was made of synthetic stone called Marlan, a very hard material indeed, but one that, like all materials, has a particular resonance frequency, in that case 2kHz. That isn’t a problem for a kitchen work surface, but for a midrange driver it’s quite inconvenient. This didn’t stop earlier 800s from sounding remarkably revealing, but this time around B&W were keen to eliminate any source of noise from the cabinet, so they started to investigate alternative materials. As a result, the new so-called Turbine head is made of cast aluminum with internal radial fins for extra stiffness and a longer, slimmer form that doesn’t taper as much as its forebear. In order to minimize any chance of ringing, the entire head is damped with thermoplastic polymers. The reason for this change of material is that B&W has started to use measurement technology created for developing drive units to look at the behavior of cabinets as well. This has allowed their engineers to see the weaknesses in the 800-series cabinets and come up with better designs. It is likewise behind the reversal of the wrap on the main body of the 802 D3.

All of the cabinet changes are a big deal, but the most revolutionary element in the new 800 series is the absence of Kevlar. B&W has been using woven Kevlar cones since 1974, to be precise, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they have found something better. The new midrange cone is called Continuum and has itself been around for a bit longer than it appears. According to B&W Head of Research Martial Rousseau, they started testing it in 2007 and it was close to being ready for the last 800-series revision in 2010. But apparently 70 iterations were required to perfect it -- clearly this company is not into rushing things. B&W is keeping quiet about the exact nature of Continuum but has said that it is another woven material like Kevlar but one that has far better characteristics when it comes to producing sound. Whether it’s bulletproof is yet to be established.

The bass drivers have also evolved. No longer made of Rohacell, they consist of carbon-fiber skins over a profiled foam core called Aerofoil. Cut through one of these cones and the section is like that of an airfoil: thin at the edges, with the thickest point in the middle. In practice it puts most of the strength at the points furthest from the center and surround, where most reinforcement is required.

The tweeter retains the diamond dome introduced over the last two generations of the 800 series, but it has a new enclosure called "the solid body." This is machined out of billet aluminum to provide maximum stiffness. The surround that supports the dome has a gel decoupling system designed to isolate it from any energy that does manage to excite the pod. But given that the tweeter body is itself decoupled from the Turbine head by a compliant mounting, that energy can’t be very great.

Inside the cabinet, the Matrix arrangement of interlocking MDF sheets that were used to confer rigidity has been replaced with a similar structure in laminated wood that has fewer but stronger elements. It also incorporates metal fixing points for the extrusions that support the drivers, and joins a range of changes that have resulted in lower resonance for the cabinet and the driver surrounds under dynamic conditions. The plinth is also rather different from that of its predecessors; it is now a single aluminum casting rather than a case containing the crossover, which is attached to the aluminum spine on the back. Underneath the plinth are four rollers for ease of movement. This is a 208-pound loudspeaker, after all, with a set of four spikes that screw down from underneath. Magnetic pucks are supplied should you prefer not to have your hardwood floor perforated by that much weight.

I was glad to have some help installing these speakers; they may have been on casters but were still substantial lumps to maneuver. I used them with the spike protectors in place, and in the first instance connected to an ATC P1 power amplifier. At something like an eighth of the price of the speakers, this amp might be considered inadequate, but it’s a 150Wpc design with a lot of grip. It's also the most powerful amp I own. The preamp was a Townshend Allegri passive type, and the source -- at first, anyway -- was a Melco N1Z digital transport allied to a Primare DAC30 DAC. This helped to establish that, with my listening position, the 802 D3s needed to be slightly tilted toward me to get a good balance and that bringing the covered spikes down to take the weight sounded considerably better than leaving the speakers on rollers -- no surprise there.

I only single wire, which meant using the supplied jumpers on the biwire terminals, and it became clear that connecting the positive/red connector to the low-frequency and the negative/black to the high-frequency terminals sounded best. Steve said he gets better results when biwiring, but he seemed reasonably happy with the sound at the aforementioned block-rocking volume. It was only when I put on some vinyl that he breathed a sigh of relief and admitted that the sound on the digital side of things wasn’t up to his expectations. Mind you, he does have an MSB Select DAC in the lab, so maybe it was a case of adjustment. That said, things did improve quite markedly when I switched in a CAD 1543 Mk II digital-to-analog converter for the Primare, as one might hope with a trebling of price.

I lived with the previous 802 for quite a while, and I can say with complete confidence that the D3 is a major upgrade -- and also a very revealing loudspeaker in its own right, one with which you need to eliminate any weaknesses in source and amplification before establishing its capabilities. The slightest shortcomings are laid bare, as happily are all the delights of the music itself. This much was immediately apparent with vinyl. I played Joni Mitchell’s "God Must Be a Boogie Man" (from Mingus [Asylum K 53091]) and reveled in the brilliance of Jaco Pastorius’s bass and Mitchell’s acoustic guitar, the echo being clear and precise while the instruments and voice being remarkably solid in the room.

With a bit more listening it became clear that solidity of imaging was particularly strong with this speaker. And every recording had depth -- not just the audiophile recordings. The most surprising example was Van Morrison’s "The Way Young Lovers Do" (from Astral Weeks [Warner 1768-2]). I have been using this a lot as it trips up many components with the complexity and oft-seeming messiness of the arrangement. But put it through this speaker and you not only have a totally coherent piece of music, where all of the elements fit together in a sonic jigsaw, but you have the space for this to happen. The one wouldn’t happen without the other, but it’s the first time I’ve found so much depth on the digital version of this excellent track.

Pretty much everything I played sounded better than it usually does. Patricia Barber’s voice and the trumpet on "Touch of Trash" (from Modern Cool [Premonition 90761-1]) had a palpable presence, while the imaging on "Let It Rain" was intensely real. If you want to create a perfect facsimile of an intimate jazz club, this speaker is a good place to start.

If there were an area where earlier generations of the speaker could have been immediately improved on it was timing. Although the last 802 was extremely revealing, it didn’t have quite the sense of engagement that you get with the very best loudspeakers. The 802 D3 not only outgunned it in terms of overall resolution, it also killed it when it came to timing. Give it a coherent signal that’s devoid of time smear and you will get a sound that matches in all respects. Timing and transparency are not directly related; you can have a fairly opaque two-way stand-mount that has tremendous immediacy and coherence, and you can have an immensely detailed high-end speaker that fails to deliver the precise nature of the way that a group of musicians interacts. So it’s quite a thrill to find a speaker that does both.

The 802 D3 also dug so far down into the quiet stuff that it was uncanny; low-level resolution didn’t begin to describe it. Clearly the work that has gone into the cabinet and the Continuum cone has paid off in this respect. Put on virtually any recording you like and I guarantee you will be able to tell the musical origin of anything from the recording. Everything transforms from a detail into a note. And crucially, the notes were presented at the right time, with no smearing. They began and ended exactly as they should have. The bass didn’t hang around and muddy the mids, and the highs produced just the right amount of leading-edge definition to reveal the stops and starts without undue emphasis.

I used a few amplifiers with the 802 D3s, but the most successful were also the most expensive -- it is usually thus. The Naim NAP 300 DR worked like a dream. It pulled out previously hidden musical detail on just about everything that was played, from the most refined acoustic recordings to the high-power synth sounds of Deadmau5, whose track "Seeya" (from while(1<2) [Astralwerks 580127-8]) has one of the juiciest kick drums around. This was very effective at testing the air-tightness of the room, but it also offered up finer details and considerable depth of image. Given that it was created "in the box." as they say ("on a computer," as we say), it’s a remarkably subtle recording with a phenomenally powerful bass line. What the Naim amp did best with the 802 D3s, however, was combine detail with musical flow. It made the densest of jazz pieces coherent and stoked them up to cookin’-quality entertainment with little difficulty.

A bigger stack of electronics in the form of Constellation Audio’s Inspiration 1.0 preamp and mono power amps showed that the 802 D3s had even more up their sleeves. In particular, these electronics revealed how good the low-level performance of the 802 D3s was; 800-series models with Kevlar midrange drivers tended to sound a lot better at higher SPLs, but with amplifiers of the Constellations’ abilities, the D3s were addictively engaging at all levels. These 400-watt monoblocks have apparently limitless headroom with speakers as sensitive as the D3s (90dB), and if the recording and source are up to it, you can keep on winding up the volume with no sense of strain or distortion. It’s quite an uncanny (and slightly dangerous) experience, but one heck of a lot of fun.

It’s clear that the latest-generation Bowers & Wilkins 802 is a major step up from its predecessor. More significant, however, is that the 802 D3 competes with speakers at twice its price, and higher. The work that the company’s engineers have done to eliminate resonances in the cabinet and in developing a new midrange material -- pretty well every aspect of the design -- make this an extremely capable loudspeaker that represents remarkable value. It seems odd to think about "value" for a product at this price, but look around the high end and you’ll find that the 802 D3 is nowhere near as spendy as a lot of the competition, much of which has not been created with the benefit of decades of experience.

Bowers & Wilkins celebrated their 50th anniversary last year, and they did so by picking the best-sounding albums from each year. It's a fascinating list, controversial at times but definitely worth a look. It shows that B&W understands: the 802 D3s, these beautiful creations, are meant to serve a purpose -- to get out of the way and let the music flow -- and they do it very well indeed.

Price: $22,000 per pair.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

B&W Group North America
54 Concord Street
North Reading, MA 01864
(978) 664 2870

Associated Equipment

Analog: Rega RP10 and RP8 turntables with RB2000 and RB808 tonearms; Rega Aphelion and Apheta 2, and Transfiguration Proteus cartridges; Tom Evans Audio Designs Microgroove + X Mk II and Rothwell Signature phono stages.

Digital: Lindemann Musicbook:25 DSD network streamer, Melco N1Z digital server/transport, Primare DAC30 and CAD 1543 Mk II digital-to-analog converters.

Preamps: Constellation Audio Inspiration 1.0, Townshend Allegri.

Amplifiers: ATC P1, Constellation Audio Inspiration 1.0, Naim NAP 300 DR.

Speakers: ATC SCM150 ASL, B&W 803 D3, PMC Fact.8.

Interconnects: Townshend Fractal and Chord Sarum Super ARAY.

Speaker cables: Townshend Isolda DCT.

Digital cables: Vertere Pulse-HB USB cable, Chord Sarum Super ARAY network cable.

Power cords: Naim Superline, Russ Andrews and Isotek.

Stands and supports: Townshend Audio Seismic Stand equipment rack, Townshend Audio Seismic Podium speaker bases.