Bowers & Wilkins 805 D3 loudspeaker

I have had a long relationship with Bowers & Wilkins. The first B&W speaker I spent serious time with was the DM-6, the infamous "pregnant kangaroo," which was reviewed by Allen Edelstein in December 1977 and which I borrowed for a while after interviewing the company's founder, John Bowers. Ten years later, when I met the woman who was to become my third wife, she already owned a pair of B&W Matrix 801s, a speaker reviewed by Lewis Lipnick in December 1987.

Both of these models were floorstanders, but the B&W speaker that spent the longest time in my listening room was the stand-mounted John Bowers Silver Signature, which I reviewed in June 1994, subsequently purchased, and used as my reference until the magazine relocated from New Mexico to New York in summer 2000. The Silver Signature was launched in 1991, both to celebrate B&W's 25th anniversary and, as its name also suggests, to pay tribute to John Bowers, who had passed away in 1987.

The Silver Signatures were not as simpatico with my Brooklyn listening room as they had been with my room in Santa Fe, so I stopped using them. However, I've always kept an eye and two ears on the brand. Then, at the beginning of summer 2016, I took a train trip to Boston, both to witness the launch of the Diamond Series 800 D3 loudspeaker from Bowers & Wilkins and to celebrate the British speaker maker's 50th anniversary.

B&W's new flagship, the 800 D3, enters the Diamond line above the 802 D3, which Kal Rubinson reviewed in June 2016, and it did indeed sound superb in Boston. But that trip crystalized my thoughts about which B&W speaker I wanted to review. I asked, not for a pair of 800 D3s, but for a pair of the smallest model in the Diamond Series, the stand-mounted 805 D3s. The 805 D3 costs $6000/pair, plus another $1000 for the matching FS-805 D3 stands. There has been an enormous amount of development in drive-unit technology in the past quarter century—could this elegant two-way be both a descendant of and a replacement for the Silver Signature?

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Description
In his review of the 802 D3, Kal Rubinson discussed the technology introduced with the Diamond Series. Briefly, whereas the midrange drive-units of B&W's speakers since the DM-6 had featured a distinctive yellow cone woven from fibers of DuPont's aromatic polyamide Kevlar, the Diamond Series models feature midrange units made of a material B&W refers to as Continuum. Still a coated, woven material (a technology B&W has been developing since 2007), Continuum performs in a manner similar to Kevlar in reducing the effects of cone breakup, but, according to B&W, to a much higher degree. The cone of the 805 D3's 6.5" woofer is made of Continuum, and the driver is reflex-loaded with a large flared port positioned below it on the front baffle. The port's flare is embossed with small dimples that, like those on a golf ball, are designed to smooth the flow of air.

For the 1" tweeter, Bowers & Wilkins has retained the diamond dome, produced by a vapor-deposition process, that they introduced in 2004, though they say that the motor system has been "improved considerably." As in the 802 D3, the 805 D3's tweeter is loaded with a transmission line, a feature first seen in the company's Nautilus models of 20 years ago, and mounted in an elongated bullet-shaped housing machined from solid aluminum and decoupled from the speaker's enclosure. No details are published for the crossover, though my measurements suggest that it's set at 3.3kHz with low-order filter slopes.

The ellipsoid-profiled cabinet (as seen from above) is fabricated from layers of beech wood, bent into shape under high pressure. Internal bracing, claimed to be an improved version of B&W's Matrix design, stiffens the enclosure. Electrical connection is via two pairs of high-quality binding posts set into the rear panel. The review samples were finished in gloss black. Overall, the elegant-looking 805 D3 gives the impression of careful craftsmanship applied in the service of sound quality.

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Setup & Listening
As with the Aerial Acoustics 5Ts, which I also review in this issue, I used 24"-tall Celestion stands with the 805 D3s, the speakers separated from the stands' top plates with small pads of Blu-Tack. The center pillars of the stands, which placed the tweeters 40" above the floor, were filled with a mix of sand and lead shot, and their bottom plates were spiked to the wooden floor beneath the carpet. As always, I experimented with the positions of the speakers in my room to get the best transition between the mid- and upper-bass regions. The speakers were single-wired using their supplied jumpers and toed-in to the listening seat, and I didn't use the grilles.

Once I had the speakers set up to my satisfaction, I played the low-frequency, 1/3-octave warble tones on Editor's Choice (CD, Stereophile STPH016-2). The tones were reproduced at full level from 200Hz down to the 50Hz band, with an emphasis of the 125Hz tone and the 40 and 32Hz tones shelved down but still audible. With the 25 and 20Hz tones, I could hear a slight rattle coming from the right-hand speaker, though the tones themselves were inaudible, which suggests low distortion. The half-step–spaced tonebursts on Editor's Choice spoke more cleanly in the bass than I expect from a ported design and were evenly balanced, other than a touch of reticence in the low treble.

317bw.300.jpgDual-mono pink noise revealed a smooth, even balance, though the low treble was again slightly depressed. This was with my ears level with the tweeters. The balance didn't change significantly as I lowered my head a few inches, and the image of the noise was narrow, and didn't splash to the sides at any frequencies.

Though its stereo imaging wasn't quite up to the holographic standard set by the Aerial 5Ts, the 805 D3s offered astonishing clarity in the midrange and treble. Toward the end of my listening, I purchased Robert Silverman's recent set of 23 of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas as MQA-encoded 24-bit/88.2kHz FLAC files (footnote 1). Though this set appeared to have been recorded in a rather dry hall, what there was of the reverb tails when decoded by the Meridian UltraDAC (review to appear in the May 2017 issue) could be heard through the B&Ws to decay quickly and evenly, and the sound of Silverman's Steinway was both forceful and natural. This clarity was coupled with impressive dynamic capability. In the stabbing chords that punctuate the second movement of Beethoven's Sonata 4, Op.7, the piano's left-hand register was reproduced by the B&Ws in the correct proportion to the instrument's midrange, and with no low-frequency hangover.

As I said in my review of the Magico S5 Mk.II in the February issue, an optimally tuned sealed-box speaker excels at reproducing bass instruments with the necessary control and power. The problem facing a designer who needs to use a ported enclosure to extend the low frequencies is that doing so can sacrifice this control. In the 805 D3, B&W's designers have managed an optimal balance between bass power and control. Charlie Haden's double bass in his superb album with guitarist Jim Hall, Jim Hall/Charlie Haden (CD, Impulse! 002176502), was reproduced with good weight, but also with the leading edges of the notes well defined. (A tip of the hat to Herb Reichert for recommending this 2014 CD, recorded in 1990 at the Montreal International Jazz Festival.) The double bass in "A Taste of Honey," from Patricia Barber's Café Blue (DSD64, Premonition/Acoustic Sounds), sounded palpable.

For a relatively small speaker, the 805 D3 did well with well-recorded drums. The drum solo that ends "Too Rich for My Blood," also from Café Blue, pounded from the B&Ws, the speakers not being fazed by the loudness I craved: 100dB(C) at the listening position (measured with Studio Six Digital's SPL iPhone app set to Fast). And if you want to talk drums, my reference for a live drum recording is "Moby Dick," from Led Zeppelin's How the West Was Won (24/48 ALAC file ripped from DVD-A, Atlantic 83587-9). Eddie Kramer didn't just record the close sounds of John Bonham's kit; he also captured just enough of the auditorium's ambience to place you in the front row of the audience without smearing the impact of each drum's sound: masterful drumming laid bare by equally masterful engineering, as revealed by the B&Ws.

A word I kept returning to in my auditioning of the Bowers & Wilkinses was brilliance. Though the mid-treble seemed a touch laid-back—something this speaker shares with the Silver Signature—the top two octaves were present in full measure, especially when compared with the KEF LS50 and Aerial 5T. Analog tape hiss in old recordings was a little more audible than I expected—while the 805 D3s were in the system, I was archiving to digital some cassette recordings from the various bands I'd played with in the 1970s—as was the hiss from Jim Hall's guitar amplifier in the right channel of Jim Hall/Charlie Haden. Vocal sibilants were also emphasized to a small degree.

While I'd begun my auditioning with the B&Ws driven by MBL's Corona C15 monoblocks, the high frequencies in the Trondheim Soloists' superb performance of Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis sounded a tad chromium-plated (from Reflections, MQA-encoded 24/352.8 FLAC file, 2L 2L-125). Changing to the Pass Labs XA60.5 monoblocks brought the top octaves into better balance, but this is a speaker that will verge on the edge of excess with unsympathetic ancillary components, or in a room that itself emphasizes the highs. In this respect, the 805 D3 is not dissimilar to my 1978 pair of BBC LS3/5a minimonitors. But it was very noticeable when I set up the KEF LS50s, which at first sounded dull in comparison, with a more colored midrange. However, extended listening convinced me that the KEF's top octaves were more naturally balanced.

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But I kept returning to the B&W's magic, uncolored, transparent midrange. With the Pass Labs amplifiers, the string orchestra in Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia sounded gloriously natural, rich, and detailed, with a solidly gutty foundation provided by the cellos and basses. Patricia Barber's vulnerable contralto in "A Taste of Honey" sent shivers down my spine, as did Robert Plant's tortured tenor in "Since I've Been Loving You," from How the West Was Won. And again, there was that clarity: the Rhodes piano John Paul Jones plays in the verses of "Loving You" before he switches to Hammond for the guitar solo isn't that loud in the mix, but was audible enough through the B&Ws to make musical sense.

Summing Up
I very much enjoyed my time with the Bowers & Wilkins 805 D3. It is a superbly engineered, superb-sounding thoroughbred of a speaker. Its transparency, dynamic-range capability, and combination of low-frequency weight and control are something special. That somewhat elevated high treble will make it fussy when it comes to system and room matching, but in the right circumstances—and especially if piano recordings dominate your playlists—this might be all the speaker you'll need, at a lower price than you might think you have to pay.

To return to the question I posed at the start of this review: Is the 805 D3 the successor to my beloved Silver Signature? For the answer to that question, you'll have to wait for me to retrieve those quarter-century-old speakers from my storage unit and write about the comparison in a Follow-Up. Stay tuned.

Footnote 1: Beethoven Piano Sonatas at La Petite Trianon.

COMPANY INFO
B&W Group Ltd.
US: B&W Group North America
54 Concord Street
North Reading, MA 01864
(978) 664-2870
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
tonykaz's picture

This will fascinating to read.

I just had access to a pair of Pro-Ac Tabletts & a pair of old Magnapan MG2s. I discovered both are still superb and exciting.

How much driver improvement is a darn good question for some brave soul to tackle, I give you full marks for suggesting it. I'll buy a second year's print subscription if you can answer it using your typically engineering based methods. Who else "could" handle this conundrum?

By the way, I was stunned by you calling-out the 21bit DAC design as being obsolete. Once again, I applaud you!

Tony in Michigan

ps. I'm about to go European and embrace all music delivery systems by buying a Linn DS server. I might even invest in a LP12 ( for old time's sake ) which I'll probably display in a sealed, nitrogen filled glass case. I'm hunting for an Ittok and Rosewood Red Koetsu ( not, but maybe a cute red nosed Asak that doesn't have to work ).

mrkaic's picture

I keep reading about discontinuities in John Atkinson's (extremely good) articles. What is shown in Fig. 1 is not a discontinuity, the function appears to be continuous. Rather, the kink at 900 Hz could be a discontinuity in the 1st derivative of the impedance function wrt frequency. It is an important difference.

jmsent's picture

There certainly is a discontinuity in the impedance curve, which would normally not have such a "kink" unless there's a resonance somewhere in the system. Are you suggesting it's a measurement artifact? Having been involved in the driver industry for many years, (now retired) I'd lay odds that this kink is due to an edge reflection in the woofer, due to the use of a low loss rubber surround. It's a common occurrence that will often not be easily visible in a frequency response measurement. Given that JA didn't detect any mechanical resonances around that frequency, it's likely that it originates in the driver itself.

mrkaic's picture

Calling that kink at 900 Hz a discontinuity is not proper mathematical terminology. Loosely speaking, a discontinuity means that the curve is cut -- there is a "gap". This clearly is not the case here. But the slope (the 1st derivative) is not continuous -- has different values if you approach the kink point from the left and from the right.

hb72's picture

--> "inflection point"

John Atkinson's picture
mrkaic wrote:
Calling that kink at 900 Hz a discontinuity is not proper mathematical terminology. Loosely speaking, a discontinuity means that the curve is cut -- there is a "gap". This clearly is not the case here.

I think you are being misled by the relatively sparse data points in the impedance graph. If I had taken reading at, say 1Hz, intervals, then you would have seen a clearly defined discontinuity, equivalent to the Hilbert transform of a peak.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

mrkaic's picture

John:

1. First, many thanks for your splendid articles. I buy Stereophile just to see your measurements -- they are the only thing worth reading in this magazine and a splendid antidote to poisonous subjectivist propaganda.

2. A speaker is a linear electric motor with a bunch of circuitry inside (+ the box, of course). Mathematically it is described as a system of coupled second order differential equations. The solutions to such equations are typically continuous -- have no breaks. That is one of the reasons why I'm wondering about the terminology.

3. It would be great if you could show more detailed scans of (all) speakers on the website. (I know it cannot be done in print) I think I am not the only reader who would appreciate that.

Best,

Mico

Richard D. George's picture

Would it have made a difference with the treble issues if the speaker cables were bi-wired?

Would it have made a difference if the amplification was Classe Audio?

arnolf's picture

I am looking forward for the review of the 805 D4...
Seriously I have been an avid reader of Stereophile for many years and I think there is enough diversity on the speaker marker to not review the same speaker forever.

Staxguy's picture

Which stereo can reproduce the sound of the piano? The Fidelity Acoustics RFM-1 Bookshelf Loudspeaker ($4000.00 / pair), a notable speaker employing the ScanSpeak Revelator Ring Radiator Tweeter (same as a Magico M5) tweeter was not able to do so.

Is there even one stereo system which can do the job properly? The Steinway Lyingdorf Model D, by virtue of Steinway heritage may be able to. The Bösendorfer VC 7 may be one as well.

We've listened to quite a number of good loudspeakers. The composing is mind-absorbing.

The Bösendorfer VC7 Loudspeaker ($25,000.00 USD) uses resonant plates ("Acoustic Sound-Boards"), mimicking a piano's sound board. The use of two tweeters is an interesting feature. It's almost proto-Genesis (the speaker, not the band), so to say. Sony uses two tweeters too (surrounding) on it's Sony SA-NA2ES ($5,000.00 USD), and coincident models, although not on their Sony SA-AR-1 and Sony SA-AR-2 ($20,000.00 USD) Loudspeakers, too.

Reproducing the piano is a glorious extremity. The frequencies on the keys themselves (on a non-Bösendorfer Imperial Piano ($200,000.00 USD), which has lower) go from 27.5 Hz (A0) to 4,186.01 Hz (C8), standard (equal temperament) tuning. This is ignoring the over-tones, and the sound of the organ stops. An organ will go lower, to 16 Hz. There is ignoring foot-pedal work, also - the thuds and jumps. Now in terms of latant response, 60 - 100 dB.

There can be reproduction with some over-play.

The Steinway Lyngdorf Model D goes for $208,000.00 USD today (and was introduced for $150,000.00 USD in 2007).

Most pianists will prefer the Steinway Model D, which is tuned at 442 Hz, standard, although some will go for a Fazzioli F308.

We'd prefer the Bösendorpher Imperial Grand, in gold leaf, though are settling with two bottles of 311 Helles Lager by Coal Harbour Brewing Company, CHBC, with which to write this review.

There was a Fazzioli, the Brunei, which mimicked the sound of the Bosendorpher IG by presenting a darker sound, though we have not heard it. We would like one, however. Perhaps with less in-lay. :)

How you make your piano is up to you.

Steinway

Allen Fant's picture

I have listened to all of the iterations of this 805 speaker over the years and it never disappoints. A true staple in the B&W catalog. Match it w/ a REL subwoofer and you will be musically rewarded.

Richard D. George's picture

Have you listened to the D3? If so, did you notice the elevated upper treble cited in this review? I did not.

Regarding REL subs, a reviewer of the 805 D3 in a different publication mentioned that it works well with a pair of REL subs. He used a pair of REL T7i's with the 805 D3's with great success.

Allen Fant's picture

Hello Richard,

no- I did not hear any elevated upper treble either.
I will have to search for the other review w/ the REL sub added.

For those whom do not like the REL brand, only Sunfire, would be my second subwoofer choice. Happy Listening!

Richard D. George's picture

Hello Allen:

Reviewer is Neil G. The mention of twin REL T series subs is in the comments section of the online version of this (unnamed) magazine.

I have four S series REL subs in three systems with loss-less Longbow wireless speaker level connections and two other T series REL subs connected speaker level with cables. Happy with all of them. The speaker level connection provides a seamless "feathering" with the main speakers.

hb72's picture

the 805d3 officially reaches down to 42Hz at +/-3dB, while the LS50 officially reaches only to 79Hz +/-3dB, BUT comparing in-room response traces and focussing on frequencies below 80Hz the LS50 seems approx. 2-5dB louder than the 805.
While this might be confirmed by listeners to some extent, perhaps in-room responce curves are not exactly levelled to same percieved volume for all 3 speakers?

Les's picture

Wow, subscribing to Stereophile just for the measurements... That's quite depressingly mind-blowing.

hb72's picture

I have to say I really like how measurements are done by JA, and I usually read them in all detail before I read the critique i.e. subjectivly percieved SQ.

Richard D. George's picture

I went back and compared Fig 3 from the measurements related to the Stereophile review of the 802 D3 to Fig 4 from the measurements related to the review of the Stereophile 805 D3. Not wildly different as both have elevated values in the upper treble.

Yet no mention of elevated / exaggerated treble in Kal's listening comments for the 802 D3. Also no mention of this in other professional reviews of the 805 D3.

Kal used bi-wired cables for the 802 D3 review.

John Atkinson's picture
Richard D. George wrote:
I went back and compared Fig 3 from the measurements related to the Stereophile review of the 802 D3 to Fig 4 from the measurements related to the review of the Stereophile 805 D3. Not wildly different as both have elevated values in the upper treble.

Yet no mention of elevated / exaggerated treble in Kal's listening comments for the 802 D3.

Perception of treble is dependent not just on the tweeter balance but also on the speaker's low-frequency extension and tuning.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Richard D. George's picture

... I sure did not hear it and there are no mentions of this in other professional reviews.

We don't have your golden ears. This might save me money.

Art Vandelay's picture

Since the Nautilus range, all 800 series are a bit hot on axis, but that's partly because the designed listening axis is about 20 degrees off the H axis (and just below tweeter height).

Additionally, when seated 3-4 metres away and in a typical room with drapes, carpet, and a sofa, the treble is brought into balance.

That said, with room correction software and dsp tools etc so commonly used these days I can understand why B&W haven't bothered to include a tweeter level adjustment to compensate for the environment.

DougM's picture

Interesting that except for the narrow 2db peak around 1KHz, the LS3/5a is significantly smoother from 500-20Khz than either the KEF or B&W in JA's room.