Bowers & Wilkins 804 Diamond loudspeaker Page 2
Moving down the spectrum to winds and guitar, the presences, placements, and harmonic balances of those instruments were exquisite. Stefano Grondona's guitar in Francisco Tarrega's Capricho árabe, from Grondona's La Guitarra de Torres (CD, Divox CDX-29701), is intimately recordedthe touch of his fingers on the strings is easily discerned from the rich supporting resonances of the instrument's body. Each repetition of the familiar theme offers another serving of mesmerizing harmonies.
Lower-pitched male voices and cello, however, demanded greater scrutinyspeakers the size of the 804 Diamond often lack the true low bass of bigger speakers. How and where the low end rolls off can pull the rug out from under low voices, robbing them of weight and warmth. I pulled out my Hans Theesink and Leonard Cohen discs, just to confirm that their voices sang out with focus, depth, and grit. More critically, Gavriel Lipkind's 1702 Garani cello spoke in a single voice across its range, from the soprano sweetness of the A string to the baritonal warmth of the C string, in Lipkind's recording of J.S. Bach's Suites for Solo Cello (SACD/CD, Lipkind Productions S04), indicating bass extension entirely sufficient for realistic tonal balance. It was, therefore, no surprise that the plucked lower strings in Boccherini's La Musica Notturna della strade di Madrid, from the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra's Die RohreThe Tube (SACD, Tacet S 074), were rendered with appropriately plosive effect.
At the very bottom, the 804 Diamonds were capable of playing everything creditably, if not imposingly. I noticed this first when playing a 24/96 download of "Malena," my favorite track from Será Una Noche (MA Recordings M052A). It was delightfully atmospheric, as always, but the rhythmic percussion didn't seem to anchor the tempo as solidly as I had expected. The footfalls of the Cosmic Hippo, as depicted by Victor Wooten's bass in the title track of Béla Fleck's Flight of the Cosmic Hippo (CD, Warner Bros. 26562-2), were weighty but less than thudding, and the heartbeats in Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (SACD/CD, Capitol CDP 5 82136 2) were audible but not palpable.
Still, the bass was certainly good. Had I not savored these tracks before through bigger speakerssuch as the 800 DiamondsI probably would not have noticed anything missing. Those who delight in the open soundstage and pinpoint imaging of minimonitors will find that in spades with the 804 Diamonds, whose significantly greater bass extension endowed the sound with a natural balance often sacrificed by the smaller speakers in the pursuit of those other qualities. As a result, the lack of really deep, powerful bass from the 804 Diamonds is, to me, a minor issue overall. I found that, unlike stand-mounted minimonitors, the 804Ds could deliver a full orchestra of appropriate balance and size, as was demonstrated when I played Dmitri Kitayenko and the Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra's recording of Tchaikovsky's monumental Manfred Symphony (SACD/CD, Oehms Classics OC665). And if you demand that the impressive bass-drum whacks also hit you in the chest, or that the organ in the final movement also shake your room . . . get a subwoofer.
I began this review by saying that B&W's 804 models have not gotten as much attention as they deserve. I, too, was guilty of this. When, a decade ago, I transformed my main system from two to 5.1 channels, I chose the B&W 804S for surround duties without ever having heard them as a stereo pairand there they sat in the background ever since, until I pulled them out to compare them with their successors. With the 804Ses ($4000/pair when last available) plonked down next to the 804 Diamonds ($7500/pair), I often found it difficult to distinguish between them by eye or ear, but there were differences. Other than the 804D being three pounds lighter than the 804S, B&W's specifications for the two are identical. Careful study reveals that the 804D sports a silver ring around its now gloss-black tweeter housing, has mushroom-shaped terminal knobs, and replaces the grille's tabs with magnetic attachments.
The two models sound similar, too, though I easily heard the differences in an A/B comparison. There is some improvement of bass definition at the extreme bottom of the audioband, the 804 Diamond offering a somewhat sharper edge to LF transients, particularly noticeable with bass guitar. There was also significantly more detail in the critical upper midrange, around the upper crossover frequency of 4kHz, which is also in the range of the human ear's greatest sensitivity. B&W's use of gold-silver-oil Mundorf capacitors in the HF crossover filter and the Diamond tweeterwhich were used only in the 800 Diamond in the previous generation of modelsis probably paying great dividends here.
Compared with other speakers that have occupied this room, the 804 Diamond sounded like a nimbler version of the 800 Diamond ($24,000/pair), or a compact version of the Aerial Acoustics 7T ($9850/pair). In the first case, a comparison of the specs (and ignoring their differences in size and weight) revealed that the 800 and 804 Diamonds differ in only two performance parameters: low-frequency extension/THD and maximum power handling. So, granting the very real sonic differences at the low end of the audioband, I found that the 804 Diamonds produced a closer, more intimate sound in my 26' by 15' room, perhaps due to the effects of their narrower cabinets on midrange radiation and room interaction. The Aerial 7T's bass capabilities, too, are greater than the 804 Diamond's, with the latter's smaller drivers and enclosure, while the Aerial's midrange is equally detailed and a bit smoother. The treble was a toss-up. Overall, the slightly bigger and more costly 7T differs only slightly from the 804 Diamond, and its advantages would not be substantial in smaller rooms.
In general, I had become so accepting of the generous size and sound of the bigger, pricier speakers I've been using that I was surprised by how satisfying the 804 Diamonds were. I should not have beenfor $7500/pair, one should expect superb performance across the board. B&W has trickled down their unique technologies to the entire 800 Diamond range, and the 804 Diamonds incorporate all the most important ones. In fact, with the 804 Diamonds replacing the 800 Diamonds for the front left and right channelsa third 800 Diamond remaining for the center channel, and 804Ses as surroundsthey gave up little in multichannel performance. And the 804 Diamonds sounded excellent as a stereo pair, leaving me in no rush to relegate them to surround duties. For the money, I don't feel you can do much betterdifferent, maybe, but for making music, not better.