B&W Signature 800 loudspeaker Page 4

Sometimes, on my way to work, the bus stops to let an elderly couple board. He heads immediately for the seat behind the driver, but she always pulls him to the other side, saying, "It's better for you, Morris." Sure enough, her choice of seat has more visibility and legroom, but for some reason Morris is more comfortable in his favorite spot.

I review and analyze audio equipment, so the Signature 800's surgically revealing transparency, huge dynamic range, and lack of tonal character throughout the audible range are probably "better" for me. The Revel Ultima Studio, however, is just that bit warmer, to match what mixing engineers probably expect we listen to at home. So while the S800 is undoubtedly "better," 1) I can't move them when I need to, 2) I need a few more feet of listening distance, and 3) the Ultima Studio ain't chopped liver.

Care and Feeding
The Signature 800 sucks power. I'll leave it to John Atkinson to determine if this is due to simple inefficiency or to impedance vagaries, but don't think seriously about using these speakers with anything less than 200Wpc. Individual 100W channels of Theta Digital's Intrepid were quite inadequate; biamping with two of the Intrepid's five channels could waken the sleeping giants, but the general lack of dynamics meant that this amplifier got little face time with the S800s. However, the more power I gave them, the more hungrily the S800s lapped it up, playing cleanly up through all levels short of something that would have triggered a call to the police.

During the months the S800s lived with me, I tried them with every amp I had on hand—even a pair of Classé CAM-350 monoblocks. Brian Damkroger had gone gaga over these, and knowing a bit of how his listening preferences differ from mine, I figured the CAM-350s would offer a good alternative to my resident power factories. It was a good move.

The Sonic Frontiers Power-3 (225Wpc) and Bel Canto eVo 200.2 ("up to 800W short-term continuous") monoblocks, the McCormack DNA-1 Rev.A (185Wpc), and the Classé CAM-350s (350Wpc) all flexed sufficient muscle to make the power issue irrelevant.

The DNA-1 and Rotel RB-1080 were surprisingly good, but the former seemed to terrace the frequency bands, and the latter's slight HF graininess was not fully worthy of the B&W's smooth treble. The Bel Canto and the Classé each, in its way, did a great job with the S800, but offered contrasts in price, size, and personality.

The CAM-350 was very much a kindred spirit to the S800, sharing its propensities for clarity, presence, and power. The eVo 200.2, however, offered complementary characteristics that tempered the S800's presence and clarity with some warmth. I was more comfortable with the eVo/S800 combination, but found the CAM-350/S800 pairing more enticing and exhilarating. In the end, I preferred the Classé for its pure treble and seemingly unlimited dynamics, both of which played directly to the S800's strengths.

The B&W Signature 800 is a great speaker—perhaps the best I've ever heard at home—and was a continual delight to listen to. With the right supporting cast and under the right conditions, it has a potency, resolution, and transparency, from the lowest through the highest frequencies, that are unsurpassed for a speaker of domestically acceptable size.

Scuttlebutt on the 'Net suggests that the S800 is too bright, but I didn't find it so. What I did hear was an unremitting clarity that laid bare any shortcomings in source material or components. On the one hand, this meant that the S800 let me hear exactly how the engineers mixed and balanced every recording I played. On the other, it served as a constant reminder that most recordings are, intentionally or not, engineered to redress the flaws of less accurate speakers in less than optimal listening rooms. The Signature 800's ability to reveal this is one reason that it, like B&W's Nautilus 801 and 802, is suitable as a studio monitor—which may mean that it's too demanding for any but the most scrupulous home installations.

Can you handle the truth?

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