B&W Signature 800 loudspeaker Page 2

Taste is personal, but I can't avoid commenting on the appearance the OTT Signature version, which adds drop-dead-gorgeousness to the already handsome Nautilus cosmetics. The beautifully finished tiger's-eye maple veneer embraces the S800's curved vertical surfaces, and the gleaming, metallic-flecked, charcoal-gray tweeter and midrange modules nestle comfortably into a bed of charcoal, English Connolly leather.

Set up approximately where the Revel Ultima Studios had been and with very little toe-in, the S800s were generally well-balanced from the get-go, except for a little tizziness in the high end. The bass, while okay, was not as extended as I expected from such behemoths. Initially, I stayed with the Bel Canto eVo amps because they're so self-effacing, figuring that I could play the amp-swap game once the S800s had settled in.

Moving the Signature 800s around wasn't easy—my carpet swallowed their tiny casters. Nonetheless, I was able to move them myself, if only a few inches at a time. Guided by the ETF and TacT measurement systems, I made many adjustments; the S800s finally ended up about 11' from the listening position, 5' from the front wall, about 6' apart, and toed in so that the tweeters were aimed directly at me. That toe-in angle was greater than what the B&W crew had originally set, or that I'd used with the Revel Ultimas.

The result? The initial tizziness was replaced by a dead-on clarity and a substantial extension of the bass, with no midbass boost. Although I took great time and effort with this setup, the S800s seemed more room-friendly than any other speakers I'd had in my room—and, indeed, were more than tolerable anywhere I placed them.

Well, how good was it?
At $20,000/pair, the issue is not whether the Signature 800 is a good speaker, but whether it's a great one—and if so, in what ways is it great, in what ways not? Some find fault with the Nautilus range's overall balance. But in contrast to many US designs, the S800 doesn't roll off the highest audible frequencies. Because there is no grain or lack of resolution in the S800's high end to conceal flaws in the signal fed to it, this can result in a perception of brightness with anything less than the best setup, associated hardware, and source material.

But with the best of everything, the S800 delivered clean, natural treble that was almost uncanny. When I played Departe de Casa (MA Recordings M060A), a spectacular recording of Formatta Valea Mare, an itinerant Gypsy wind band, the sheer immediacy was devastating. These guys were aggressively in my face, exactly as they would be had they been playing in my room. The S800 precisely delineated every blat and brrr with an almost physical impact. Even with the whole band going full-tilt, every instrument was distinguishable. I couldn't take more than a few tracks of this recording at a time because it was so overwhelming—just as it would be in person.

I found more evidence of the S800's transparency and soundstaging in its reproduction of Bucky Pizzarelli's Swing Live hybrid SACD (Chesky SACD223). My listening position at home was about as far from the S800s as I'd been from the SoundField mike at the recording session. When I played the disc's CD layer, the talk between the players, quiet as it is, was crowded and obscured by room noise and ambience. Switching to the SACD tracks, I could hear those intimate voices in the same relationship to the music and with the same clarity as I had at the session.

That said, the S800s brought me a little closer to the music than I should have been—despite the 11' from speakers to couch, they conveyed the impression of a nearfield audition. The recording's marvelously deep soundstage simply began nearer to me than it does with other speakers. This tendency to throw the music closer to the listener is, perhaps, the only significant nit I have to pick with the S800, and should easily be cured by increasing the listening distance, if you can. I can't, because that would either have the S800s too close to the front wall, or put my couch in the bend of my L-shaped room, thereby subjecting me to an asymmetric acoustic position. But don't cry for me—I was more than happy with the sound I was getting, and not particularly aware of the problem except in such special situations.

The Signature 800 is a big loudspeaker with very, very deep, powerful bass. From Béla Fleck's lugubriously rolling Cosmic Hippo (CD, Warner Bros. 26562-2) to Thomas Murray's performance of Mendelssohn's Organ Sonata 4 (LP, Sheffield/Town Hall S-13), the S800 was unfazed by any of my torture tests. The bass counterpoint in the last movement of the Mendelssohn was forceful and clear, and I was very pleased to finally reproduce in my listening room the longed-for dynamics and power of Dean Peer's I Think...It's All Good (Turtle 599008), which I'd first heard at an Avalon/Classé demo at a Consumer Electronics Show some years back. I'm sure that a stack of high-end subwoofers could give me even more whack with sound effects, but even with all that bulk and expense, I wouldn't expect any enhancement of the musical experience.

54 Concord Street
North Reading, MA 01864-2699
(978) 664-2870