High End 2016 • TABlog

by Roy Gregory | May 11, 2016

eally big news at a hi-fi show might be rare, but it isn’t exactly unexpected. Big news breaking just three days before the biggest show of the year? Talk about stealing your own thunder. For the vast majority of B&W staff, going into Munich, the center of their effort and the focus of all their attention would have been on the launch of a new near-flagship speaker, the 800 D3. Then, on the Tuesday before the show opened on the following Thursday, the story broke: B&W, one of the industry’s giants, with 1100 employees and celebrating its fiftieth year, had been sold to a 40-employee Silicon Valley startup named Eva Automation. If anybody still doubts the juggernaut nature of digital convergence, then this more than anything should give pause.

Of course, Eva Automation isn’t just any startup. It’s owned by Gideon Yu, former Facebook CFO, venture capitalist and current co-owner of the San Francisco 49ers. Its website claims that its objective is to make “products that will change how people interact and think about the home.” However, what makes this so shocking to many is that B&W isn’t just any loudspeaker company; it’s a blue-chip brand that’s a key element in many, many major audio stores, a pillar of their sales profile, with a high-tech image and the marketing materials and messaging to support it. Of course, B&W is far from the first major hi-fi brand to tread this path. Cabasse and its acquisition by Canon springs to mind, while the Focal/Naim merger represents an alternative strategy when it comes to facing the realities of a market dominated by computer technology, the computer industry and its market models and tempo, the scale of its investment and production. Bottom line: if you want to compete, you need to be big and you need to be fast -- and you need to be plugged into the very latest digital technology and thinking.

What should we expect from the new B&W? Only time will tell, but don’t expect things to change overnight and don’t assume that those changes will be for the worse. After all, Cabasse, Focal and Naim are all thriving on their revised diet. It’s safe to assume that, at least in the short term, little is going to change at B&W. CEO Joe Atkins stays in place and no staff reductions are expected. The name will remain and so will the product range. It’s what will be added to that range and how it develops that’s going to be fascinating to watch.

Which brings us back to the 800 D3, a somewhat belated top-of-the-line, joining the previously announced D3 models. In many respects, the 800 D3 is simply the same recipe writ large: it employs exactly the same diamond tweeter and Continuum cone midrange driver (with its proprietary woven material), the same machined-from-solid tweeter housing, the same cast and braced, 17-kilo (nearly 40-pound) aluminum turbine midrange head used in the smaller 802 D3 ($22,000/pair). The bass cabinet also uses the same one-piece, curved front/flat aluminum-spine cabinet construction -- just bigger. But it’s a bigger box that houses a pair of new 10” drivers as opposed to the 8” units used in the 802 D3. Those drivers are mated to the curved baffle by precision-machined aluminum collars, while the plinth is now a slab of solid aluminum with its own steel-and-polymer constrained-layer damping. Visually the result is slimmer and narrower, more modern and more “techie," with a choice of high-gloss black or white finishes and only a single "rosenut" veneer.

Beyond the massive mechanical grounding of the midrange and treble drivers, the main story of the 800 D3 is those all-new bass drivers. The new Aerofoil sandwich cone allows B&W to vary the profile and thickness across the cone, maximizing stiffness and maintaining pistonic behavior to far higher frequencies. Add a sandwich-construction dustcap, double suspension and a completely revised motor and the result is a 10dB drop in second-order and a 20dB drop in third-order distortion, not just across the drivers’ bandwidth, but also out of band, leading to a cleaner and far more musically coherent bass-to-mid transition, greater overall transparency and a more even, better integrated range as a whole. If all of that sounds familiar -- from the sandwich cone to the significance of the cleaner out-of-band performance -- that’s because it’s exactly what Focal did to the Scala Utopia V2, changes that transformed that speaker.

In Munich, we were treated to a brief demonstration of the 800 D3, hung on the back of a Classé CP-800 preamp ($6000) and a pair of CA-M600 mono amplifiers ($14,000/pair), a computer providing the bits. In truth, it was hard to make any serious judgment about the speaker’s quality or capabilities. What I can tell you is that the new N800 D3 will cost $30,000/pair, and I doubt that either fans of the brand or its retailers will be disappointed. This was still recognizably a B&W 800-series speaker. Considering the technology it contains, the proprietary drivers and the manufacturing techniques involved, that’s a price that doesn’t just ram home the value that comes from large-scale production but the cost burden of small-scale, artisan manufacturing of the kind so prevalent throughout the audio industry.

Which brings us back to the company’s acquisition by Eva Automation. Obviously the development of the 800 D3 predates that deal -- a deal that apparently took less than thirty days from introduction to consummation -- but it demonstrates just what B&W brings to the party in terms of their price/performance pitch and just what it was that attracted Gideon Yu in the first place.

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