B&W Signature 800 loudspeaker Page 3

Despite this low-frequency excellence, the S800 didn't sound like a big loudspeaker. I attribute this to its complete lack of the midbass ripeness so common in big speakers and pretenders. In my relatively ordinary room, the S800 was fairly flat all the way down to near 25Hz, when the lift due to room gain and other room interactions could finally be seen in the ETF and TacT measurements. For all intents and purposes, unless the music had substantial low-frequency content, the S800 was no more full or "bassy" than a decent small speaker.

Consequently, the naturalness of the S800's midbass was one of its real glories, as revealed by contrabassoonist Susan Nigro's fascinating The Bass Nightingale (CD, GM Recordings GM 2069CD). The contrabassoon spans the entire range of mid- to low bass, and this CD includes contemporary pieces by Schulhoff, Phillips, and Schuller, along with a Stamitz concerto (the last three works are in piano reductions). Nigro's instrument tootles along like a clarinet on steroids, every so often morphing into a deep, shuddering column of air. The S800 reproduced it all smoothly and without added resonance, from the contrabassoon's almost saxophone-like upper treble to its organ-pedal bass. I never doubted that there was one big woodwind right between the speakers.

I'll skip the issue of driver/crossover integration, simply because you couldn't hear inter-driver transitions unless you stood within a foot or two of the speaker. At the usual listening distance, the S800's unique floating-midrange driver blended smoothly with its woofer and tweeter, and sounded as remarkable and satisfying as the midrange on the Revel Ultima Studios. Otherwise, I assessed the Signature 800's midrange performance and integration in two ways, both involving new recordings by Michael Tilson Thomas.

First, the midrange driver is the one responsible for the reproduction of the human voice. On Charles Ives: An American Journey (RCA 63703-2), MTT and the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus are joined by baritone Thomas Hampson for a stimulating tour of Ives' vocal, choral, and orchestral music. Not only is Hampson's voice rich and clear, it has just the requisite fullness—and no more. Moreover, when the accompanying forces joined in, its character and placement changed not a whit.

Second, the midrange conveys all the inner workings of music played by large and complex ensembles, even though the lower end of the midrange is where ambience begins to obscure instrumental voices. MTT and SFS's exciting new SACD of Mahler's Symphony 6 (RCA 821936-0001-2) afforded an ample test, even if I had to listen through only two channels (sigh). Still, the S800s revealed the colorful details of Mahler's scoring as well as my multichannel system does.

What the B&Ws did even better than that lesser system was provide a more consistent and subtle harmonic context. From the resinous bowings of lower strings at the beginning of Mahler 6 to the brass interplay in the last movement, there was power without excess weight, fine detail without highlighting, and no smearing of smaller voices riding on the tidal waves of the larger ones. The S800s delineated the hammer blows, giving appropriate edge and shape to their impact as Mahler and MTT (and B&W!) swept me through the final movement.

Finally, I must tell you about "The House of the Rising Sun," on Opus 3's SACD Sampler (Opus3 CD 19420). Yup, the sax and the bell sounded audiophile-fine, and Cyndee Peters' voice was nakedly clean and just a foot or two back. But I was fascinated by how the S800 revealed the initial transient, spattery spray, and almost infinite decay of the occasionally emphatic cymbal tap. As Goldilocks might say, this one was ju-u-u-u-u-st right.

Against the Studio
When I compared the Signature 800 with the Revel Ultima Studio (something I couldn't do in a quick A/B, due to both speakers' bulk), I found them equally satisfying but different. The S800 was more immediate, with somewhat greater soundstage depth. The Studios' soundstage began at the plane of the speaker baffles and extended nearly as deeply as the B&Ws' into my room. For images between the speaker positions, the S800s' imaging seemed more detailed and stable than the Studios', but the Studios more easily portrayed a wide breadth of stage, beyond their own cabinets. Large dynamic contrasts were handled equally well, although the S800 probably had greater ultimate limits. Fine contrasts, too, seemed equally well-handled. Assuming I hadn't already bought the Revels, which might I have chosen?

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