B&W Nautilus 801 loudspeaker Page 3

So I finally got to hear masked traffic noise. Big deal. More important, I got to hear how that noise informed the acoustic of the performing space, which is one of those details that makes the hall a specific space, not some generalization of one. For Magnificat Primi Toni, the speakers also clearly presented the singers arrayed in a semicircle, with the basses and baritones at the ends and the sopranos and altos between them, and deeper into the soundstage. The voices sounded meltingly pure, full of warmth and passion as they were supported in the air by the very space within which they were lifted. I love the sound of unaccompanied voice in a large, reverberant space; I'm not sure I've ever heard it rendered more compellingly than by the Nautilus 801s.

But to get that sense of unencumbered purity, I found it necessary to play the speakers fairly loud---not at ear-shattering levels, but louder than seemed strictly realistic. I also noticed that, while never short of air and detail, the speakers tended to present recordings as ever-so-slightly luscious. This probably indicates a mild reticence in the "presence" region (1-3kHz), but I heard no real discontinuity. A major flaw? Absolutely not. Some---maybe even me---might find it eminently forgivable. I've never been sure why some people find "ruthlessly revealing" to be such a recommendation.

Not that the Nautilus 801 wasn't revealing. It was designed to serve as a studio monitor, after all. In prolonged listening sessions where it was necessary to hear everything, this baby really came into its own. Last August, John Atkinson and I went to Salina, Kansas to record a jazz quintet led by bassist Jerome Harris at Chad Kassem's Blue Heaven Studio, and a major portion of my life lately has been given over to scrutinizing every take of those sessions as we prepare the final mix.

I've got to admit that I've never known any piece of music as well as I now know these seven tunes. I've been living with these sessions for months, and have listened to them through headphones, in my car, and on a broad assortment of loudspeakers---and lemme tell ya, if you ever have to listen to unequalized, unedited takes repeatedly, you'll want to use a precision monitor capable of playing loud for long stretches. You'll also want a speaker that can uncover a flea fart at 50 paces. You'll want a pair of Nautilus 801s. Expect them to be ubiquitous in recording studios well beyond the millennium.

But if that were all it took to make a great loudspeaker, we'd all be listening to studio monitors. Where monitors have traditionally fallen short is in the more refined areas of imaging and soundstaging. The N-801s image like a sumbitch. Sorry to be crude, but you just don't expect a big speaker to have the same sort of effortless imaging that a small monitor has. But B&W has gone to a lot of trouble both to reduce, or at least minimize, cabinet resonances and to optimize dispersion, and it has paid off in spades.

The solo acoustic set that opens Bob Dylan's Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (Columbia C2K 65759, recorded in mono with a Nagra analog machine) was frighteningly lifelike through the Nautili. Bobby Z was front and center and solid as a rock---I heard nothing from the speakers themselves. His acoustic guitar sounded as though it was sitting about 8" in front of, and about a foot and a half below, his voice. This was probably the closest I'll ever come to having Dylan in my living room, but it sounded mighty close to being just that. (And the performance is intimate enough to complete the illusion---it's the best live Dylan on record.)

I got similar goosebumps from John Cale's The Island Years (Island 314 524 235-2). The B&Ws spread Cale's band across the front wall of my listening room, and did a beautiful job of putting the piano and drums beyond that wall. The speaker's extraordinary ability to reproduce the dynamics of a real-life rock band were just icing on the cake. "Fear is a man's best friend . . . " Scary---through the Nautilus 801s, at least.

If you prefer the layered delineation of an orchestra in a large hall, the B&Ws did that a treat as well. Of all of the records I spun while chortling over this strength of the 801s, none was more enjoyable than the Speaker's Corner reissue of Decca's great Tebaldi/Bergonzi/HVK Aïda (SXL 2167/8/9 3LP). John Culshaw used not one, but six distinct acoustics, and I've never heard them sound more real in all their front-to-back and hall-to-hall glory. Spectacular.

Many small make a great
So, is the B&W Nautilus 801 the speaker for you? It could be---I've never wanted to keep a review pair more. But, while the speaker is expensive at $11,000/pair, that ain't a patch on matching it to a pair of topnotch stereo amplifiers, or the even greater expense of four high-end monoblocks. You'll also need to mate the speaker to a room that supports huge amounts of deep bass---the N-801 will easily overload small or flimsily built rooms. You'll also have to accept its need to be pushed ever so slightly; the speaker just doesn't come alive at low levels.

But that's about it for shortcomings. The Nautilus 801 is incredibly dynamic, images and soundstages like crazy, and has that special magic that marks it as one of the great loudspeakers.

How great? Well, let's just say that if you're fortunate enough to live with it, you just might forget all about old girlfriends when you remember the best times you've ever had.

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COMMENTS
Mocha6ft3's picture

It's funny how you first see something from a distance and your couriosity takes over for you to move closer. It was the first time i had seen the 801's. I was aware of the 800 and the 802 but i was drooling at the 801. I love bass and seeing that large woofer in that magnificent cabinet made me forget, for a moment, about the 800 and the 802. Their large brother had me hypnotize. I was told about 2 years ago that B&W no longer produces the 801. I'm crying.................

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