As B&W's 800 Series has evolved, Stereophile has reported on its progress. Lewis Lipnick reviewed the Matrix 801 Series 2 in 1987, and Wes Phillips wrote about the Nautilus 801 in 1999. I reviewed the B&W 800 Signature in 2002 and the 802D in 2005. This is getting to be a habit.
Back in the 1970s, I used to hang out at an audio store on Northern Boulevard's Miracle Mile. After business hours—and sometimes during them—a group of us audiophiles would put every new product through the wringer. One of the most anticipated was the original B&W 801, which appeared in 1979. The 801 was simply unflappable. Fed enough power, a pair of them played louder and cleaner than anything we had ever heard, including the mammoth, multimodule Fultons that were the pride of that shop. But—and this was a big but—the 801 lacked immediacy and engagement, and I soon fell back to preferring an earlier B&W model, the DM6, which seemed more coherent and to offer the music out to the listener. The 801 was more objective and detached, but boy, could it knock you over with the right source material.
I once got a fortune cookie that read, "Ask and ye shall receive. This includes trouble." A few years back, shopping for speakers, I inquired about reviewing the B&W Nautilus 802, but it was too soon after Wes Phillips had reviewed the Nautilus 801 for Stereophile. So, other auditioning and reviewing (and buying) other speakers, I asked again, and again was met with deferral. Recently, out of the blue, B&W offered the Nautilus 802—then, in the next breath, asked if I'd rather have the Signature 800s.
At nearly simultaneous press receptions in London and New York on November 17, B&W unveiled its new 800 series loudspeakers, the first complete redesign of this respected and venerable line in more than six years. Wisely, the presentation began with cocktails and a surprisingly entertaining technical description of the innovations. The latter offered many reassurances that, although all aspects of the 800 line were examined, no changes were made simply for the sake of change, and the basic design principles withstood this re-examination. Thus, when we were, at last, treated to the displayed speakers themselves, we were not surprised that they greatly resembled their predecessors, and we focused, instead, on the new features.
Look at the picture and tell me that those don’t look like speakers! They are, of course, but they are not intended to be driven by audio signals directly. What subwoofer manufacturer Bag End was demonstrating is a small, active bass trap, the E-Trap, and they are driven by the bass frequencies in the room. Each of these small boxes contains a driver, two microphones, and some pretty snazzy electronics that let the driver cancel the energy at the frequency (or two) of your room’s major mode. Sure, acoustic treatment is generally best, but that can get awfully cumbersome below 100Hz. Adjustments allow you to select frequencies between 20Hz and 65Hz and adjust the amplitude and shape of the cancellation. For critical success, you need to experiment with placement (although that is almost always at a room boundary) and, at the moment, have access to some nice FFT software. Bag End's James Wischmeyer promises that, eventually, some simpler setup software will be provided. Mebbe, but I asked to try one ASAP.
Continuing with European speakers, on static exhibit at the Klipsch Group complex was one of the most cleanly and beautifully simple speaker designs I've seen in a while. It was Jamo's S60, the largest in a new "S" line that, so far, includes a tiny bookshelf, a small center channel, and a subwoofer. These looked like many European small designs, almost too small to be effective. But the graceful three-way S60 sports a dome tweeter, a vertically arrayed pair of 4" midrange units, and a side-firing 8" woofer. Everything fit and matched, and the materials and textures just screamed quality. I just had to find out the price. It's only $450/pair! For that money and their graceful appearance, this speaker is a bargain even unheard!
The word on Bel Canto's upsampling DAC was already out when I visited their room at the 2000 Consumer Electronics Show looking to get one of the first samples. But despite my protestations, all Bel Canto's Mike McCormick wanted to talk about was their company's new digital amp, the eVo 200.2. Sure, there's a future out there in which all sources will be digital and D/A conversion will occur in the speaker (or later?). But today, I see no practical advantage in a digital amplifier with only an analog input. It may be more efficient and it may be new technology, but the amplifier has got to stand on the same footing as any analog design and justify its existence by the way it sounds. The eVo did make a good case for itself at the demo, so I signed up to get one for review.
I recently had a house guest who is a music lover and amateur pianist but who had never heard of the SACD or DVD-Audio formats. I explained what they were and demonstrated examples of both, to his amazement. He then blew them off, saying that my system always sounds great and that the average person couldn't or wouldn't afford the kind of equipment I have. But when I told him that there were universal players available for less than $200 at retail and that, in fact, the player I was using was based on a transport drawn from a similar mass-market product, his interest was piqued. Of course, I didn't emphasize that one's expectations may not be the same, or that the boys designing the high-end stuff do make it sound different and, usually, much better. Heck, I'll do whatever I can to hook a music lover on these new formats, even if their future is uncertain. Once he's hooked, audiophilia will have him forever.
I've been enthusiastically tracking the development of Bel Canto's class-D amplifiers, from their original TriPath-based models to their more recent designs based on Bang & Olufsen's ICEpower modules. With each step, Bel Canto has improved their amps' sound quality and reliability.
I've been attending the annual Consumer Electronics Show for years, and usually come away with the impression that there are too many "me-too" products. I see a numbing similarity of approach of manufacturers within a chosen discipline: solid-state power amps in black and silver bristling with heatsinks, single-ended triode amps with their glow reflecting from bronze or wood panels, MCPU/DSP-centered devices with sleek, flat cases and intimidating remote controls, etc.