B&W Matrix 800 loudspeaker Page 3
All bass-alignment filters are not the same. The B&W unit supplied with the speakers is not acceptable, adding an obvious sonic haze while dulling mid- and high-frequency attacks. This filter appears to do the least sonic damage when placed in a preamplifier tape loop, rather than between preamp and power amp. Three manufacturers in the aftermarket domain offer high-quality bass-alignment filters. The first contestant, a dual-mono design from Anodyne Acoustics, does considerably better than the stock filter, but has a tendency to soften transients, producing a more than natural midbass bloom. On the plus side, however, this filter appears to extend soundstage depth, which will no doubt appeal to many listeners. This filter is supplied with both single-ended and balanced connectors, and sounds best between preamp and power amp. The second contestant, the MaughanBox 800 MB-II, is built by ListenUp Systems, and comes in a similar configuration to the one from Anodyne. ListenUp, however, has opted to modify the speaker manufacturer's recommended bass-equalization curve (7dB boost at 20Hz vs the specified 6dB boost at 24Hz), claiming that this will remove some of the bass boom often occurring in many rooms with the 800 at 3060Hz. I'm not going to argue with their premise, other than to say that in our room, with such an equalization, this filter produces a noticeable midbass leanness and dry (vs reverberant) acoustical perspective. Extreme low bass does benefit, but at the expense of pitch definition in the contra octave. Soundstage width and depth are marginally increased, but height is truncated.
The third product offering comes from Krell Industries. I hesitate to go into great detail with this model, simply because I have a prototype sample which may or may not be identical to production units. I'd have to say, after initial listening, that this equalizer holds the best hope, so far, of not screwing up the midrange and highs.
While on the subject of bass response, it might be interesting to note that the addition of a second woofer actually decreases midbass boom. Upon disconnection of the top woofer, bass response becomes less even and tight, and a significant amount of spatial ambience is lost. One might assume that two woofers would exacerbate any room/bass interface problems, but it appears that placement of the second woofer is indeed critical, as Dibb's theory suggests. Perhaps it is for this reason that the 800 works so well in my small room. Of all the speakers I've had in this same listening area over the past eight years, (Quad electrostatics, KEF 105/2s, MartinLogan Monoliths, Infinity RS-1Bs, B&W Matrix 801s and Matrix 802s), none have provided as much bass clarity as the Matrix 800, even though it barely fits into the space. My only caution concerning room placement with this speaker is that physical size of the room is not as important as placement within the room.
About two weeks after first installing the Matrix 800s I noticed a significant deterioration in clarity. Bass became increasingly indistinct, and the midrange slowly turned to mush. Over the course of a week, these magnificent speakers had gone from the musically sublime to the sonically hideous, making me a total nervous wreck. Was I going deaf, or had my whole system turned to rubbish? Regardless of electronics or program material, the sonic murkiness became increasingly worse, to the point that it was almost unlistenable. Finally, during a severe attack of Audiophilia Nervosa Reviewus Interruptus, I phoned B&W in an attempt to get some help. Although they had not heard of this problem previously, they suggested that I inspect the woofer mounting screws, to make sure that all were securely tightened.
All turned out to be very loose; upon tightening, the problem disappeared, with astonishing Jekyll/Hyde results. Dibb guessed that the loose screws allowed the seal around the woofers to open, thus creating an additional acoustical vent, and changing the Q of the bass cabinets. He further postulated that this prevented the tuned reflex port from properly damping woofer excursions, creating the very poor bass quality and transient response. Apparently the combination of high playback levels and climatic changes during overseas shipping had forced the woofer mounting screws to loosen. Since that time, all subsequent woofer mounting screws have been secured with an adhesive, and further plans for improved stability are in the works. I've noticed that, unless the screws on the review pair are tightened monthly, the problem tends to recur.
I have never been a fan of speaker grilles. The 800 grilles, however, are noticeably different, since a radiused convex curve is created at the front edges of the midrange/tweeter enclosure when installed. Dibb maintains that this radius is necessary to optimize diffraction, and he may be correct. But I find that these grilles cause far greater musical obstruction and loss of transparency than is gained by lowering diffraction artifacts. Of course, my opinion is not the only one, and a few other listeners did not support this argument. Andrew Litton, conductor and fellow audiophile (footnote 5), strongly suggested that lateral imaging was superior with grilles installed, and the overall sound was more "coherent," in spite of a "small" loss of transparency. Lynn-Jane agreed with Litton, describing the speakers with grilles as "fuller"- and "sweeter"-sounding. Other fellow musicians, all colleagues of mine from the National Symphony (Bob Kraft, bass trombone; Al Merz and Kenneth Harbison, percussion; Ed Skidmore, double bass) unanimously preferred the speakers sans grilles, claiming much better transparency, ambience, and upper-midrange clarity. Removal of the woofer grilles also seems to make a big difference in clarity and speed of bass attack. The engineers at B&W thought that the grille fabric itself may add a minute but unwelcome resistance to the front-venting reflex port. There is no doubt that the speakers sound dramatically different in each case, and it all boils down to a matter of personal taste.
But there is no personal taste involved when it comes to totally deadpan sonic honesty. In this respect, the Matrix 800 unquestionably redefines the phrase "with garbage in, you get garbage out." Not to say that any of the electronics, interconnects, and speaker cables I have at home fall into the garbage category, unless you consider such names as Krell, Mark Levinson, Theta, Esoteric, Straight Wire, AudioQuest, Kimber, et al to be of such quality.
Unfortunately, this very attribute could turn out to be the Achilles' Heel of the 800. As Ed Skidmore so eloquently noted, "these speakers are analogous to looking at yourself in the Howard Johnson's mens' room mirror on the New Jersey Turnpike at three o'clock in the morning. Those awful yellow-green fluorescent lights show you more than you really want to know." In this sense, the Matrix 800 can best be described as the ideal audio microscope, examining everything it sees, magnifying that image, and delivering the truth, warts and all. Even the slightest system change, such as replacing one pair of interconnects, or a minuscule variation in the AC mains line voltage, has the potential to make or break the sound with these speakers. There are times, late at night, when the sound is absolutely glorious. The next morning, the same setup can sound quite ordinary. Good recordings will sound better than you ever imagined, but give this speaker cold, out-of-the-box electronics or cables, and the results can be unlistenable. This attribute is a double-edged sword, making this speaker the choice only for those listeners willing to invest the time and expense necessary to get the best out of such a high-performance thoroughbred.
Even though the 800 is very efficient, with a 4 ohm impedance and 93dB sensitivity, it loves power. I would recommend a minimum of 200Wpc, and more, if the budget allows. Both the Mark Levinson No.23.5 and Krell KSA-250 are perfect matches for the 800, although it definitely likes the dynamic punch of the latter. Of course, the Krell MDA-300 (with 600W into 4 ohms) is fabulous but it is certainly not necessary for excellent results. I don't know of any other speaker that will give as much sonic excellence with a single amplifier. In that respect, the 800 is a bargain.
From the moment I first heard the Matrix 800s in our home, I knew that there was no way back. It is impossible to adequately describe what these speakers do to the listening experience short of saying that, after this, all others sound lifeless and compressed. "Open," "spacious," "transparent," "dynamically unrestrained," are only a few of the terms that I can conjure up to attempt a sonic description. Not unlike the first time I played in Carnegie Hall: the sense of immediacy with the musical performance became overwhelming.
"Dance of the Seven Veils," from Richard Strauss's Salome (Antal Dorati/RPO, Chesky CD36) was the first piece auditioned after initial setup, and the results were stunning: a huge, wall-to-wall soundstage, high and deep, with dynamic presence approaching the real thing. Every instrumental section of the orchestra was clearly defined in space, almost as if I could jump out of my chair and touch the performers. A totally open sound, without any barriers between listener and musicians. Tight, clean bass transients, without any trace of boominess. But perhaps these super speakers' most impressive aspect was the way in which they reproduced the ambience surrounding each instrument, defining the material density of each instrumental color in a vibrant sonic image.
In recording after recording, the honesty of these speakers came through, making me sit up and take notice. Everything in the source material was revealed with startling clarity. Unfortunately, this uncovered a multitude of sins, both sonic and musical. Unwanted noises such as chairs squeaking on stage during recording sessions, people talking, doors closing, and even traffic outside were suddenly apparent. Overly miked recordings, tolerable before, became unlistenable. In the musical realm, every aspect of the performance was made more obvious. Sloppy ensemble playing and wrong notes were suddenly unveiled. Key noise and breathing from the brass and woodwinds were, for the first time, apparent. As if a layer of fog was lifted from the musical performance, every individual musical line was now clearly delineated.
The overall sonic impact of the Matrix 800 is a study in perfection. Products such as the Wilson Audio WAMM and the Infinity IRS V will definitely put more sound into a larger space. But I do not believe that any other speaker, regardless of cost or size, offers the same magical mixture of ultimate clarity, dynamic impact, and musical integrity supplied by the 800. On the top end of the dynamic scale, the Matrix 800 is totally effortless, with never a sense of strain or sonic compression. Of course, some of the other heavy hitters in the speaker world will transmit the same volume of sound, but not with the 800s' speed and control. The leading edge of attack (in other words, what happens immediately before and after a musical transient) is so necessary to the overall sonic impression. A bass tuba transient will move much more air than a bassoon; a double-bass attack will have more sonic weight than a violin. And when a full orchestra is involved, the speaker must be able to reproduce each separate instrumental transient accurately, en masse, or the entire sonic picture will be compressed and dull. This is where the 800's amazing dynamic speed and ease are apparent. Every instrumental and vocal attack is clear, precise, and transparent, with the proper weight and focus, just as in live performance.
The 800 is equally impressive on the other end of the dynamic scale. Even during the loudest climaxes in vocal and orchestral music, this speaker retrieves the finest dynamic nuances, allowing every musical line to be clearly heard. All of the softest "sub-dynamic" attacks heretofore lost in playback are now clearly reproduced, allowing the listener to hear into, rather than at, the performance. So while this speaker will pin you against the back of your chair with a 100dB+ wavefront, it will simultaneously retain the low-level resolution formerly associated with the finest electrostatic designs. It can speak very softly, but carries a big stick.
If you value accurate soundstaging, this is your ideal speaker. Many others give impressive displays of depth, width, and even height. But nothing, so far, equals the natural sense of ambience and musical reconstruction within the soundstage. I use the term musical, since many similar products rely on frequency aberrations to supply dimensionality. The 800 does not, and in fact does something else that I believe is a first: accurate rendition of size within the soundstage. As an example, the Mercury Living Presence reissue CD of British and American Band Classics (Frederick Fennell/Eastman Wind Ensemble, Mercury 432 009-2) features a group of approximately 44 musicians, seated in tight block formation, in five rows. All in all, a very compact ensemble. With every other speaker, it has always come off sounding like a big wind band, spread out on the stage. But the Matrix 800 portrays it accurately: a small group playing on a very large stage. Conversely, the Vienna Philharmonic spreads from wall to wall, and 50' behind the speakers in the CBS recording of Gustav Mahler's Symphony 3 (Lorin Maazel, CBS M2K 42403). The horn section is solidly placed well behind the speakers, and above stage level (the VPO, like most other European orchestras, plays on tiered risers), with the strings appearing far forward, at ground level.
Harmonically, the 800 is dead on. Not only are the harmonic structures of individual instruments and voices amazingly well reproduced, but the pitch of each is also clearly delineated. One might not think that this is important, but pitch clarity allows the listener to pick out individual musical components within complex passages (such as one voice in a choir of a hundred), and hear, for better or worse, each performer's intonation. This is one of the things that I have always been aware of in live performance, but up until now had not been able to retrieve from recorded source material.
Every musician who has heard these speakers has come away in awe. The harmonic accuracy, overall clarity, and realistic rendition of the musical impact is without peer. Andrew Litton, after hearing a playback of his Tchaikovsky Symphonies 1 and 2 with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (Virgin Classics VC 7 91119-2) proclaimed this to be the first time that he had ever heard a performance as it sounded in the hall, in proper perspective, with all of the impact intact. Interestingly enough, one is not aware of the spectacular bass response, the open and clear midrange, or the smooth high end. Nor does one single out the incredibly lifelike soundstage, extending far beyond the speaker and room boundaries. Why? Because listening to this speaker makes you forget you're hearing sounds through a mechanical device. When you hear music through the Matrix 800, you're not hearing hi-fiyou are at the performance. Above all else, this speaker brings the human essence behind the performers to life. And that is what musical reproduction is all about.
There are none.
The B&W Matrix 800 redefines the art of loudspeaker design. To this end, it goes far beyond anything else currently available, regardless of price or size. While I can't imagine anyone not being impressed with the sheer dynamic capabilities and enormous soundstage of this speaker, it is far too demanding of time and ancillary electronics for the casual listener. Musically, it has no peers. The B&W 800 is the ultimate musicians' reference transducer, retrieving every nuance of the recorded performance. In fact, I'm putting my money where my music is, and buying the review pair. So if you want the best, and are searching for that elusive dream of the absolute, there is nothing, short of the real thing, that will bring you closer to live music.
Footnote 5: Andrew is, at present, music director of England's Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and an internationally respected conductor. As a very knowledgeable audiophile and member of our musicians' listening group, his input is invaluable.